It is very common today among certain groups of Christians to hear it said that we, or the church, should discern the will of God by “reading the signs of the times.” There is good reason for that because it is taken directly from the words of Jesus. But it is a phrase that we must use correctly.
The phrase is from Matthew 16:3 and has a long history as a description of a type of prophecy. Its use in the Gospel makes it the common property of many traditions and many currents in the church, but today is most popular among those in the Pentecostal-Charismatic movement, among Catholics and among those everywhere who would like to promote certain changes in the church. The connection of the phrase with prophecy is natural and understandable, but it can only be viewed as prophetic if it is a matter of God speaking to the church, or to members of the church, or perhaps occasionally to the broader society. Sadly, today its use is often inverted, and becomes a means of the world speaking to the church. I will address the improper use of the phrase first, and then point to what we learn from the Gospel.
In order to illustrate how the phrase can be inverted, I will briefly describe some of the ways it has appeared in Catholic circles in the past fifty years. Similar stories could be told of other churches or groups. The use and misuse of the phrase is quite ecumenical.
Through its use in Vatican Council II, most notably in the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, Gaudium et spes, the phrase has become ubiquitous in the Catholic world. As Pope Paul VI commented “An expression of the Council has entered our habits: that of scrutinizing ‘the signs of the times’,” and he points out that it was used by Pope John XXIII “in the Apostolic Constitution with which he convened the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council, when, after observing the sad spiritual conditions of the contemporary world, he wished to rekindle the hope of the Church, writing: ‘We like to place staunch confidence in the divine Saviour … who exhorts us to recognize the signs of the times’, so that ‘we see amid obscure darkness numerous indications that seem to announce better times for the Church and for mankind’2
Gaudium et spes itself says this:
To carry out such a task, the Church has always had the duty of scrutinizing the signs of the times and of interpreting them in the light of the Gospel. Thus, in language intelligible to each generation, she can respond to the perennial questions which men ask about this present life and the life to come, and about the relationship of the one to the other. We must therefore recognize and understand the world in which we live, its explanations, its longings, and its often dramatic characteristics.3
As we can see in this paragraph, Gaudium et spes itself does not connect the phrase with prophecy, but rather with the perennial task of the church to interpret what is happening in the world in the light of the gospel so that it can better proclaim the Gospel “to each generation.” The Gospel itself does not connect the phrase with prophecy.
And the Pharisees and Sadducees came, and to test him they asked him to show them a sign from heaven. He answered them, “When it is evening, you say, ‘It will be fair weather; for the sky is red.’ And in the morning, ‘It will be stormy today, for the sky is red and threatening.’ You know how to interpret the appearance of the sky, but you cannot interpret the signs of the times. An evil and adulterous generation seeks for a sign, but no sign shall be given to it except the sign of Jonah.” So he left them and departed.Matthew 16:1-4
Here Jesus responds to a disingenuous question from the Pharisees and Sadducees by telling them that they should not need and will not be given a sign. In effect he tells them that they do not need a “prophetic” sign because they ought already to be able to understand what they see. This is very much what we see in the passage from Gaudium et spes just cited: the church ought to be able to “scrutinize the signs of the times” and interpret them “in the light of the gospel.” God’s revelation has been given to us to equip us to “interpret the signs of the times.”
On the other hand, later in Gaudium et spes we find this.
The People of God believes that it is led by the Lord’s Spirit, Who fills the earth. Motivated by this faith, it labors to decipher authentic signs of God’s presence and purpose in the happenings, needs and desires in which this People has a part along with other men of our age. For faith throws a new light on everything, manifests God’s design for man’s total vocation, and thus directs the mind to solutions which are fully human.4
This is rather different, and while not using the gospel expression “signs of the times” clearly alludes to it, but this time says that the People of God ought to be able “in the light of faith” to “decipher” God’s presence and purpose in what is happening in the world.
For whatever reason, this phrase has, to paraphrase Paul VI, “has entered our habits” of speaking about prophecy. Often those who employ the phrase give no explanation of what count as “signs of the times” or how one knows what the correct “reading” of them may be. It is at times used as a way of saying, or implying, that what is now dominant in the surrounding culture is what God is saying. (And it is almost always used by those in Western culture, who apparently do not regard what happens in any other culture as important). In effect, the expression used in the Gospel is inverted, and we are asked to interpret the gospel in the light of current culture. We see this for example in the words of the late Catholic theologian Avery Dulles.
“Scrutinizing the signs of the times, Christianity must reinterpret its own doctrine and goals in relation to the world of today. To effect this transposition without loss of substance is a task calling for prophetic insight.”5
Whereas Gaudium et spes urges a scrutiny of the signs of the times in the light of the gospel, Dulles tells us it is the doctrine and goals of Christianity that need scrutiny. Very likely Dulles himself took seriously his comment about avoiding a “loss of substance,” but many others do not. Too often the phrase is used as a Trojan Horse to introduce current cultural norms under the cloak of prophecy.
Yves Congar, a contemporary of Dulles, says rather that what the prophets who read the signs of the times say is “essentially, the judgment of God on things; to [measure] things against the absolute of God…. To declare their truth in the light of the plan of God for the world, his design, his purpose. The prophets read the ‘signs of the times’, they bring out the significance of events with regard to the eschatological consummation.”6 That certainly is much closer to Jesus’ use of the expression in Matthew 16, and Congar ties it also to the eschatological pronouncement of Christ in Matthew 24:32-33:
“From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near. So also, when you see all these things, you know that he is near, at the very gates.”Matthew 24:32-33
In the Pentecostal-Charismatic world the phrase also appears in connection with prophecy, often with prophecy that is supposedly about the “end times.” That makes some sense when read in connection with Matthew 16 and Matthew 24, but Christ in Matthew 16 is telling the disciples they do not need a special sign, or prophecy. They should already be able to see what is happening spiritually.
In the “charismatic” world the phrase is sometimes used in connection with 1 Chronicles 12:32: “Of Issachar men who had understanding of the times, to know what Israel ought to do, two hundred chiefs, and all their kinsmen under their command.” This use of the verse doesn’t make sense when cited as a manifestation of prophecy, since there is no reason from the passage to attribute the understanding of the times to prophecy. It is much more reasonably read as a matter of wisdom or prudence, perhaps as having the good judgment to align themselves with David rather than Saul.
Nevertheless there is something natural about reading Matthew 16:1-4 and 24:32-33 in connection with prophecy, and there is a proper place for reading the signs of the times prophetically. To do so is to bring to bear, as Congar says “the judgment of God on things.” It is most fundamentally Scripture, God’s revelation in Christ, that allows us to interpret the signs of the times.
 L’Osservatore Romano, weekly Edition in English, 24 April 1969, page 1.
 A.A.S 1962, p.6.
 Gaudium et Spes, 4. www.vatican.va/archive/hist_councils/ii_vatican_council/documents/vat-ii_cons_19651207_gaudium-et-spes_en.html.
 Ibid., 11.
 Dulles, “Succession of Prophets,” p. 31
 Vraie et Fausse, 183.
Top photo credit: photo of a sunset over Saint Joan Letni chapel near Pchelina dam, Bulgaria, from Bigstock.com, © by lanselot, stock photo ID: 23676407. Used with permission.
Bruce Yocum (1948 – 2022) was involved in leadership and teaching for many years in the Catholic Charismatic Renewal and the Covenant Communities Movement which began in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and in the Sword of the Spirit. He travelled widely throughout the Sword of the Spirit communities to equip and train community leaders in North America, Europe and the Middle East, Latin America and the South Pacific. Bruce Yocum was a life-long member of the Servants of the Word, an international ecumenical brotherhood of men living single for the Lord. He served as Presiding Elder of the Servants of the Word for thirteen years (1989-2003).