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What Should We Watch to Discern the Times

What key trends should we expect to see when we compare the state of the world with prophesies in the Bible?

by Darris McNeely

What trends should we expect on the world scene over the next few years?
With the approach of a new millennium, an increasing number of people vaguely expect that Jesus Christ will return in the near future. Should we expect Him to return soon?
The Good News is committed to spreading the announcement that Jesus Christ will return to establish the Kingdom of God (Matthew 24:14). The word gospel means "good news," and it is from this message that The Good News draws its name.
But the Bible states that certain conditions must exist and specific events must come to pass before Jesus will return. Jesus Himself was clear about this, giving a detailed prophecy of end-time settings and events in the Olivet prophecy recorded in Matthew 24, Mark 13 and Luke 21. (To better understand His predictions, be sure to request your free copy of You Can Understand Bible Prophecy.)
What are some of these trends and conditions? Can we recognize them as they come into play?
At one point in His ministry Jesus's enemies challenged Him to provide a sign that He was indeed who He said He was. Notice His response: "Hypocrites! You know how to discern the face of the sky, but you cannot discern the signs of the times" (Matthew 16:3).
He warned His challengers they should have been able to recognize that certain biblical prophecies were being fulfilled before their eyes. Dozens of long-standing prophecies were fulfilled in His birth, life and ministry, and many more would be accomplished in events surrounding His death and resurrection. But these people remained blind and undiscerning, unable to recognize what was taking place.
What about us? Can we discern the signs of our times?What events should we watch in our world that will help us discern and understand the times?
Let's consider three trends beginning to shape our future on a world scale. They are globalization, religious ecumenism and global power shifts.

Increasing globalization
New York Times foreign-affairs columnist Thomas Friedman writes: ". . . If you want to understand the postñCold War world you have to start by understanding that a new international system has succeeded it--globalization. That is 'The One Big Thing' people should focus on. Globalization is not the only thing influencing events in the world today, but to the extent that there is a North Star and a worldwide shaping force, it is this system" (The Lexus and the Olive Tree, 1999, p. xviii).
You will not understand the reports of unrest in Indonesia, problems of the Russian economy or astronomical pricing of Internet stocks without a grasp of globalization.
Mr. Friedman elaborates: ". . . The globalization system [is] a dynamic ongoing process: globalization involves the inexorable integration of markets, nation-states and technologies to a degree never witnessed before--in a way that is enabling individuals, corporations and nation-states to reach around the world farther, faster, deeper and cheaper than ever before, and in a way that is also producing a powerful backlash from those brutalized or left behind by this new system.
"The driving idea behind globalization is free-market capitalism--the more you let market forces rule and the more you open your economy to free trade and competition, the more efficient and flourishing your economy will be. Globalization means the spread of free market capitalism to virtually every country in the world. Globalization also has its own set of economic rules--rules that revolve around opening, deregulating and privatizing your economy" (Friedman, p. 8).
He adds that globalization shapes "the domestic politics and foreign relations of virtually every country" (p. 7).
He lists six interconnected areas that make up this trend: financial markets, politics, culture, national security, technology and the environment. None of these considered alone could give a complete picture of what is taking place. But viewed together they add definition to the progress of the developed world toward a highly integrated network of relationships.
But the world is not just high tech, finance or politics. Important as these are to the health and welfare of nations, deeper rivers feed into the ocean of humanity. One of these is religion.

Growing ecumenism
Religion has done more than any other institution to shape nations and influence people's lives. Religion is a defining force for good and bad. Christ told His disciples to watch for religion under the guise of His name or authority as an end-time trend. The result would be deception (Matthew 24:4-5).
For all the faith that religions have generated in history, they have fueled untold division and schisms. The Christian world alone has been divided since 1054--nearly a millennium--into Western and Eastern segments. Since the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century, thousands of denominations have developed--along with a bewildering variety of religious ideas and beliefs.
The movement to unite the faiths is ecumenism. The movement to promote a worldwide religious unity and cooperation centers on the calls and efforts of the current pope, John Paul II. His vision of uniting the factions of Christianity has resulted in gatherings of leaders from many faiths to pray and focus on common tenets.
The influence of the papal office across denominational lines is evidenced in a recent paper produced by a joint Anglican-Catholic commission that stated "only the Pope has the moral authority to unite the various Christian denominations" (Oliver Poole, Electronic Telegraph, No. 1448, May 13).
Slowly and incrementally various denominations are moving along the path of religious unity. We must understand that progress comes step by step. Lutherans and Catholics recently resolved their 500-year-old rift over the doctrine of justification. It took 30 years of talks to reach the accord, but it represents a significant development considering that Martin Luther himself challenged this tenet.
More recently nearly eight million American Lutherans and Episcopalians ironed out many differences and agreed they could share clergy and outreach programs and combine congregations where needed.
Revelation 17 describes a powerful and influential end-time religious, political and economic system symbolized by a woman sitting on a scarlet beast with a name on her forehead, "Mystery, Babylon the Great, the Mother of Harlots and of the Abominations of the Earth." She is depicted as holding in her hand a cup of abominations (a corrupt mixture of religious dogma) and is drunk with the blood of God's faithful martyred saints (Revelation 17:3-6).
To wield the kind of influence this prophecy describes presupposes a high degree of cooperation between, or control of, many groups and denominations. The movement toward religious unity will be but one power shift to occur in the coming years.

Global power shifts
The 10 years since the Cold War have seen dramatic changes. The Soviet Union broke apart in 1991, leaving a vacuum in Europe. The former Iron Curtain countries of Eastern Europe find themselves in varying stages of development.
Some, like Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic, are now part of NATO, the alliance formed as a Western bulwark against the old Soviet Union. Germany has reunited and plays a major political and economic role in the European Union and among the Western democracies. Yet, as we have seen in the Balkans, some nations have not handled the freedom from external control without resorting to age-old hostilities that have resulted in atrocities and bloodshed.
The introduction of the euro, the monetary unit adopted by most member countries of the European Union, has yet to impact the world economy. This does not mean it will not do so in future years. The launch of the unit last January is a milestone in itself. The transition to a single currency among the members of the EU may yet trigger other social and economic reforms that will have far-reaching consequences.
Though the value of the euro has fallen compared with other currencies, we should not underestimate its long-term impact. A recent Wall Street Journal article pointed out that in 1985 the mighty British pound sterling had fallen to $1.03. Today, at over $1.80, it is considered a strong currency within a vibrant economy.
It takes years, not weeks, to sort out the factors that ultimately determine the success of a new currency unit. If anything has been learned in the last 50 years of European history, it is that far-reaching change and progress toward any goal takes a long and circuitous route before achieving completion.

Russia-China alliance?
It is also important that we watch and understand events in Asia. Relations between China and the United States are going through their worst period in years. Revelations of Chinese spying and the theft of sensitive information from U.S. nuclear-weapons laboratories have shocked those who understand what is at stake. Coupling the stolen secrets with the purchase of advanced American computer, missile and satellite technology in the past three years, China can develop, arm and launch weapons targeted at military and population centers in the United States.
A recent forecast by the Stratfor Agency projects: "Russia and China will be moving into a closer, primarily anti-American alliance in 1999. That process is the most important global trend today. It is well under way and is also intensifying" (Stratfor's Third Quarter Forecast, June 27).
Two significant items need to be resolved between these nuclear powers. The first is the status of Central Asian republics, which are experiencing ethnic and religious unrest from Muslim groups within their midst. This is spilling over into Chinese provinces, causing problems for the Chinese leadership.
The Russian leadership is reluctant to get involved with these sticky disputes, but pressure is coming from elements in the Russian military and government to exert control as a show of strength, with hopes of reviving some of the lost glory of empire. In the wake of Russian involvement in the Kosovo and Iranian crises of the past year, Western nations have cause for concern.
The second item is the desire to create a workable Russian-Chinese alliance that could provide a credible counterweight to American influence in Asia, the Middle East and Europe. Peripheral nations such as Turkey, Iraq, Iran, India and Pakistan, all of which have had recent conflicts, continue to be courted by China and Russia. A strategic alliance of these huge Asian nations would dramatically impact the interests of America and other Western powers.
The irony is that neither Russia nor China wants to seriously disrupt relations with America. Both need U.S. financial and technological assistance. America's wealth and technology is a major plus for her continued influence and dominance on the world stage. You might say the power created by this wealth is a shield that protects the cherished freedoms of the United States.
Yet Bible prophecy indicates a shift that will alter the balance of power among all nations. Several dominant world powers are described in prophecies of the end time, but no power recognizable as the United States is among them. America's preeminence will come to an end. When this happens the stage could be set for the rise of an end-time economic and political system called "the beast" that the book of Revelation shows will dominate the world.

From Babel to Babylon
All three of these trends can be linked into one overarching theme that runs through the Bible from Genesis to Revelation. Mankind has sought to build a global system operating against the will and purpose of the Creator God. In Genesis 11 we read of men's attempt to create a city with a tower to reach into the heavens. Their goal was to make a name for themselves to prevent their dispersion throughout the earth.
There is strength in numbers and uniformity, and here was mankind's first attempt at globalization. Understanding that nothing would lie beyond the grasp of man, God thwarted this effort by confusing people's languages, which brought their scattering over the face of the earth (Genesis 11:1-9).
Babel was an attempt to weld human society into one system. No doubt there were practical or seemingly benevolent reasons for doing so. But God knew that any such universal human culture built apart from His guidance and would lead to tyranny.
Empires and systems of government have risen and fallen through the generations. Most have attempted to dominate the world or at least the known world of the time, from Alexander the Great in Greece to Adolf Hitler in this century.
The book of Revelation shows that at the end of this age humanity will make one final effort to revive the system that had its roots back in ancient Babylon. The Bible calls it Babylon the great. Revelation 18:3 shows it will be a planet-dominating system. "For all the nations have drunk of the wine of the wrath of her fornication, the kings of the earth have committed fornication with her, and the merchants of the earth have become rich through the abundance of her luxury."
To His people God, who foresees the future, warns, "Come out of her . . . lest you share in her sins, and lest you receive of her plagues" (Revelation 18:4).
Jesus warned we should discern the times and understand the course of events. The Good News will continue to keep you informed on the major trends shaping today's world.

©2002 United Church of God, an International Association
Used with permission.

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