Tell us, when will these things be? And what will be the sign of Your coming, and of the end of the age?” With these words, Jesus’ disciples urged Him to tell them what events or conditions would mark the time of His return (Matthew 24:3 Matthew 24:3And as he sat on the mount of Olives, the disciples came to him privately, saying, Tell us, when shall these things be? and what shall be the sign of your coming, and of the end of the world?
American King James Version×).
Jesus explained that some signs that His return was imminent would be unmistakable. He noted that, just as a fig tree leafing out is a sure sign of the coming summer, “so you also, when you see all these things, know that [My return] is near—at the doors!” (Matthew 24:32-33 Matthew 24:32-33 32 Now learn a parable of the fig tree; When his branch is yet tender, and puts forth leaves, you know that summer is near:
33 So likewise you, when you shall see all these things, know that it is near, even at the doors.
American King James Version×).
God in His Word gives us a broad outline and sequence of prophetic events. Some details are still beyond our view at this point in history. However, among the many prophecies of events leading up to Christ’s return are major events and conditions that can be confirmed and identified historically.
First condition: man’s ability to annihilate life
The first of these certain prophecies deals with a specific condition that would be present only as the end time draws near. Christ said to His disciples that the end time “will be a time of great distress; such as there has never been before since the beginning of the world, and will never be again. If that time of troubles were not cut short, no living thing could survive; but for the sake of God’s chosen it will be cut short” (Matthew 24:21-22 Matthew 24:21-22 21 For then shall be great tribulation, such as was not since the beginning of the world to this time, no, nor ever shall be.
22 And except those days should be shortened, there should no flesh be saved: but for the elect’s sake those days shall be shortened.
American King James Version×, Revised English Bible, emphasis added throughout).
Jesus warned that a time would come when the destructive capacity of mankind would be so awesome that all life could be obliterated from earth. This is why the time of “great distress” is so terrifying, unequaled in history.
Mankind has warred since the dawn of history but never before had the ability—with rocks and clubs, bows and arrows, cannon and automatic weapons—to wipe out humanity and fulfill this prophecy. This situation changed in 1945 with the detonation of the first nuclear weapons. With thousands of nuclear warheads at its disposal, mankind has the frightening ability to destroy human life from the planet many times over.
This circumstance never existed in history until the latter half of the 20th century. Never before could mankind utterly destroy itself. Christ predicted that, left unchecked, mankind would do exactly that. This is one of the reasons He must intervene to save mankind.
Second condition: modern Israel
The second condition that will exist before Jesus Christ’s return concerns the existence of the nation of modern Israel.
Prophecies in the books of Joel, Zechariah and elsewhere in the Bible indicate an organized, significant Jewish presence in Jerusalem before Christ’s second coming. Daniel 12:11 Daniel 12:11And from the time that the daily sacrifice shall be taken away, and the abomination that makes desolate set up, there shall be a thousand two hundred and ninety days.
American King James Version×implies that sacrificial rituals will be renewed and then disrupted before Christ’s return. Jesus Himself warned, “Therefore when you see the ‘abomination of desolation,’ spoken of by Daniel the prophet, standing in the holy place . . . let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains” (Matthew 24:15-16 Matthew 24:15-16 15 When you therefore shall see the abomination of desolation, spoken of by Daniel the prophet, stand in the holy place, (whoever reads, let him understand:) 16 Then let them which be in Judaea flee into the mountains:
American King James Version×).
The abomination of desolation, described several times in Daniel 8-12, deals with the defiling of the sacrifices and the holy place in Jerusalem. For such prophecies to be fulfilled, at least an altar in a “holy place” is needed if a temple is not actually built.
In Ezra 3 we see that, after the destruction of their first temple, returning Jews offered sacrifices in the appropriate location decades before the second temple was constructed. A modern revival of the sacrificial system would, therefore, be possible without requiring that a temple be constructed.
Before the 20th century these seemed like impossibilities. The Jewish people had been scattered for almost 2,000 years, and the Ottoman Empire was in control of the land. Jews did not have the military power, unity or backing to return to their former land. Yet it happened. Once the fledgling nation formed in 1948, it still appeared the Jews would never control all of Jerusalem. Yet, in the 1967 Six Day War, Israel took possession of the divided city.
It was impossible for Christ’s prophecy to be fulfilled while the Arabs and Turks held dominion over the city. Israel’s regaining of control over Jerusalem in 1967 helped set the stage for this prophecy, too, to come to pass.
Some of the circumstances necessary for fulfilling Christ’s prophecy are not yet in place. The Israeli government, to defuse further religious tensions, decided that the Temple Mount—the area where the temple had stood and animal sacrifices were offered—should remain under the control of Muslim authorities. Since 1989, however, organized efforts have begun to prepare for the building of a temple. Several Jewish groups have publicly organized to carry out this plan.
At this point in history only a relatively small minority of Jews believe it is their responsibility to rebuild the temple apart from direct divine intervention. Modern Israel is largely secular; it would take a dramatic increase in religious fervor to arouse enough support for restoration of the temple or renewal of sacrifices to begin.
That is how matters stand at the moment. Of course, these conditions could change rapidly in the volatile political climate of the Middle East.
Third condition: a new power on the world stage
The third condition deals with the latter revival of the Roman Empire, prophesied extensively in the books of Daniel and Revelation.
The prophet Daniel, interpreting Nebuchadnezzar’s dream of a colossal human image, spoke of a series of “kingdoms” to arise on the world scene. The first of these kingdoms was the Babylonian Empire under Nebuchadnezzar himself (Daniel 2:28-38 Daniel 2:28-38 28 But there is a God in heaven that reveals secrets, and makes known to the king Nebuchadnezzar what shall be in the latter days. Your dream, and the visions of your head on your bed, are these;
29 As for you, O king, your thoughts came into your mind on your bed, what should come to pass hereafter: and he that reveals secrets makes known to you what shall come to pass.
30 But as for me, this secret is not revealed to me for any wisdom that I have more than any living, but for their sakes that shall make known the interpretation to the king, and that you might know the thoughts of your heart.
31 You, O king, saw, and behold a great image. This great image, whose brightness was excellent, stood before you; and the form thereof was terrible.
32 This image’s head was of fine gold, his breast and his arms of silver, his belly and his thighs of brass,
33 His legs of iron, his feet part of iron and part of clay.
34 You saw till that a stone was cut out without hands, which smote the image on his feet that were of iron and clay, and broke them to pieces.
35 Then was the iron, the clay, the brass, the silver, and the gold, broken to pieces together, and became like the chaff of the summer threshing floors; and the wind carried them away, that no place was found for them: and the stone that smote the image became a great mountain, and filled the whole earth.
36 This is the dream; and we will tell the interpretation thereof before the king.
37 You, O king, are a king of kings: for the God of heaven has given you a kingdom, power, and strength, and glory.
38 And wherever the children of men dwell, the beasts of the field and the fowls of the heaven has he given into your hand, and has made you ruler over them all. You are this head of gold.
American King James Version×). It was to be followed by three other kingdoms (Daniel 2:39-40 Daniel 2:39-40 39 And after you shall arise another kingdom inferior to you, and another third kingdom of brass, which shall bear rule over all the earth. 40 And the fourth kingdom shall be strong as iron: for as much as iron breaks in pieces and subdues all things: and as iron that breaks all these, shall it break in pieces and bruise.
American King James Version×). These four kingdoms were, in order, the Babylonian, Medo-Persian, Greco-Macedonian and Roman empires.
Speaking of the fourth and final kingdom, Daniel said that it would be “strong as iron, inasmuch as iron breaks in pieces and shatters everything; and like iron that crushes, that kingdom will break in pieces and crush all the others” (Daniel 2:40 Daniel 2:40And the fourth kingdom shall be strong as iron: for as much as iron breaks in pieces and subdues all things: and as iron that breaks all these, shall it break in pieces and bruise.
American King James Version×). Rome indeed proved to be more domineering than its predecessors, swallowing up its remnants in a reign that lasted for centuries.
However, Daniel revealed other fascinating prophetic details about this kingdom. The part of the image in Nebuchadnezzar’s dream representing the Roman Empire, the feet and toes, was composed “partly of potter’s clay and partly of iron.” This indicated that “the strength of the iron shall be in it,” but also that it would be “partly strong and partly fragile.” Also, “just as iron does not mix with clay,” the components of this kingdom would not adhere firmly together for long (Daniel 2:41-43 Daniel 2:41-43 41 And whereas you saw the feet and toes, part of potters’ clay, and part of iron, the kingdom shall be divided; but there shall be in it of the strength of the iron, for as much as you saw the iron mixed with miry clay.
42 And as the toes of the feet were part of iron, and part of clay, so the kingdom shall be partly strong, and partly broken.
43 And whereas you saw iron mixed with miry clay, they shall mingle themselves with the seed of men: but they shall not join one to another, even as iron is not mixed with clay.
American King James Version×).
Then, says Daniel, “in the days of these kings the God of heaven will set up a kingdom which shall never be destroyed . . .; it shall break in pieces and consume all these kingdoms, and it shall stand forever” (Daniel 2:44 Daniel 2:44And in the days of these kings shall the God of heaven set up a kingdom, which shall never be destroyed: and the kingdom shall not be left to other people, but it shall break in pieces and consume all these kingdoms, and it shall stand for ever.
American King James Version×). This is clearly a prophecy of the Kingdom of God, brought into reality on the earth by Jesus Christ at His return.
But is something wrong with this sequence of events? Surely the Kingdom of God wasn’t established in the days of the ancient Roman Empire. Jesus Christ is not enthroned as the supreme ruler of the world (1 John 5:19 1 John 5:19And we know that we are of God, and the whole world lies in wickedness.
American King James Version×). Was Daniel wrong about the timing of these events?
Understanding Daniel’s prophecy
The answer is to be found when we examine other prophecies that speak of this fourth kingdom. We learn that the Roman Empire, far from being forever gone and forgotten, is destined to rise again!
The apostle John was given a vision of events that would take place during the remainder of human history. Like Daniel, God inspired John to write of the events leading up to Christ’s second coming. Revelation 19 describes His glorious return to earth, culminating in the overthrow and destruction of “the kings of the earth, and their armies,” a great false religious leader, and something called “the beast” (Revelation 19:19-20 Revelation 19:19-20 19 And I saw the beast, and the kings of the earth, and their armies, gathered together to make war against him that sat on the horse, and against his army.
20 And the beast was taken, and with him the false prophet that worked miracles before him, with which he deceived them that had received the mark of the beast, and them that worshipped his image. These both were cast alive into a lake of fire burning with brimstone.
American King James Version×).
This “beast” corresponds to the fourth kingdom, the Roman Empire, seen in symbol by Nebuchadnezzar and interpreted by Daniel. Both the beast seen by John and the image explained by Daniel will exist and be destroyed by Jesus Christ at His return. Prophecy thus indicates that the beast and the Roman Empire are one and the same.
An empire to rise again
Revelation 17 gives us additional details to help us understand the nature of this empire and how it could exist both anciently and at Christ’s return. This chapter describes a “scarlet beast . . . having seven heads and ten horns” (Revelation 17:3 Revelation 17:3So he carried me away in the spirit into the wilderness: and I saw a woman sit on a scarlet colored beast, full of names of blasphemy, having seven heads and ten horns.
American King James Version×). It is described as existing, then not existing, then existing again (Revelation 17:8-11 Revelation 17:8-11 8 The beast that you saw was, and is not; and shall ascend out of the bottomless pit, and go into perdition: and they that dwell on the earth shall wonder, whose names were not written in the book of life from the foundation of the world, when they behold the beast that was, and is not, and yet is. 9 And here is the mind which has wisdom. The seven heads are seven mountains, on which the woman sits. 10 And there are seven kings: five are fallen, and one is, and the other is not yet come; and when he comes, he must continue a short space. 11 And the beast that was, and is not, even he is the eighth, and is of the seven, and goes into perdition.
American King James Version×). This gives us the key to understanding these sometimes-puzzling prophecies. The Roman Empire existed in the past, it does not exist now, but it will rise to exist again.
The image interpreted by Daniel had feet and toes of iron mixed with clay. In Revelation 17 we see what the 10 toes of mixed iron and clay represent. The 10 toes correspond with the 10 horns of the beast seen by John. “The ten horns . . . are ten kings who have received no kingdom as yet, but they receive authority for one hour as kings with the beast. These are of one mind, and they will give their power and authority to the beast. These will make war with the Lamb, and the Lamb will overcome them, for He is Lord of lords and King of kings . . .” (Revelation 17:12-14 Revelation 17:12-14 12 And the ten horns which you saw are ten kings, which have received no kingdom as yet; but receive power as kings one hour with the beast.
13 These have one mind, and shall give their power and strength to the beast.
14 These shall make war with the Lamb, and the Lamb shall overcome them: for he is Lord of lords, and King of kings: and they that are with him are called, and chosen, and faithful.
American King James Version×).
Now the picture becomes clearer. Just before Christ’s return 10 “kings”-the original Greek indicates rulers, not specifically kings-will unite in a political, economic and military alliance. Some will be stronger than others, just as iron is stronger than clay. Because they represent various nationalities and cultures, they will be divided in ways other than in their allegiance to the beast. The power and authority that come from their confederation will last only a short time before they make the fatal mistake of resisting Christ at His return, at which time they will be crushed and destroyed.
Some question whether the current moves to unify European countries are in any way related to this prophesied power. It is interesting to let history show the roots of the movement. Michael Elliot of Newsweek recently reported: “In January 1957, six nations signed a treaty on the site of the ancient Roman Capitol, and brought into being the European Economic Community . . . An aide to Paul-Henri Spaak, the then Belgian foreign minister, remembers that his boss said, ‘Do you think that we have laid the first stone of a new Roman Empire?’ Recalls the aide, ‘We felt very strongly we were Romans that day’ ” (“Don’t Spoil a Success,” Newsweek , international edition, Jan. 29, 1996, p. 40).
At the least, the idea of beginning a new Roman Empire was on the minds of the founders of this organization of nations. It has continued to prosper as barriers to integration tumble one by one and greater cooperation in economic and military affairs comes about. Time will tell where these trends will lead-and how quickly.
Where does this leave us? With mankind possessing the capacity to destroy life in several ways, with Israel in control of Jerusalem and a desire among a few Israelis to restore the temple and sacrifices, and with determined efforts afoot to unify the nations of Europe, we would do well to heed the warnings of biblical prophecy and not ignore its connection with world conditions.
The scenarios we have described appear to be the most likely way various prophecies of Daniel and Revelation could be fulfilled in light of current conditions. However, whether they occur in this way or not, the Bible remains the inspired Word of God. These prophecies will come to pass regardless of whether we understand all the details.