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).
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).
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, 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 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).
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). It was to be followed by three other kingdoms (Daniel 2:39-40). 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). 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).
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). 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). 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).
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). It is described as existing, then not existing, then existing again (Revelation 17:8-11). 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).
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.