Jesus Christ's disciples admired the enormous and intricate design of the temple buildings in Jerusalem. Some of the foundation stones of the temple complex were massive, weighing many tons. Others were ornately carved in beautiful patterns. The sunlight sparkled on the polished stones and intricate gold ornamentation of the temple.
The disciples wanted to know if their teacher was as impressed as they were. Matthew 24:1-2 describes the setting: "Then Jesus went out and departed from the temple, and His disciples came to Him to show Him the buildings of the temple. And Jesus said to them, 'Do you not see all these things? Assuredly, I say to you, not one stone shall be left here upon another, that shall not be thrown down.'"
Jesus' statement (referring prophetically to the destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70) must have astonished His disciples. They were greatly troubled by His statement that the beautiful temple buildings would be destroyed. Later Christ's disciples came to Him privately, their minds still fixed on His shocking comments. "Tell us," they asked, "when will these things be? And what will be the sign of your coming, and of the end of the age?" (Matthew 24:3).
Searching for understanding
Some 2,000 years later, Christians are still asking what events will signal the end of the age and the return of Jesus Christ. He answered this important question. The problem most people face with His answer has to do with interpretation. We want our answers clean and neat, like a precise solution to a math problem.
Instead, the meaning of Christ's answer involves an understanding of the periodic repetition of trends and devastating events that have transpired over the last 2,000 years, as well as a perception of the increased intensity and magnitude of similar occurrences as we near the end.
But we should remember that Jesus made it clear that no one could know the exact time of His return: "… Of that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, but My Father only" (Matthew 24:36). Only the Father knows the precise time of His Son's return. Yet we can understand important prophecies and prophetic principles that give clear indication His return is imminent.
Jesus gave His disciples signs that require a broad perspective of understanding. Some prophetic trends would recur over time but intensify before Christ's second coming. Other conditions will be unique to that one point in history. Some of the crucial prophecies that will usher in Christ's return are not fully apparent; many of the correlating signs we find in the lengthy end-time prophecy He gave and the writings of other biblical prophets are still unfolding.
We will discuss these biblical signs, the keys that unlock future events in the light of Bible prophecy. But first let's examine how the Bible uses the term time of the end.
What exactly is the time of the end? When will it come? Are we living in the end time? Is there a way to know?
The subject of the time of the end spans the Bible from Genesis to Revelation. It is one of the major themes of Scripture. It is important to understand what the end time is. Misunderstanding it can cause great confusion, uncertainty and mental turmoil. But a good biblical grasp of the subject can bring comfort and confidence. So let's go to the Bible to see what it reveals about the end time.
The meaning of "the time of the end"
One brief overview of the time of the end is found in the book of Daniel. Starting in Daniel 11:40, God reveals to Daniel several major events to take place "at the time of the end."
In chapter 12 God tells Daniel: "At that time Michael shall stand up, the great prince who stands watch over the sons of your people; and there shall be a time of trouble, such as never was since there was a nation, even to that time. And at that time your people shall be delivered, every one who is found written in the book.
"And many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, some to shame and everlasting contempt … But you, Daniel, shut up the words, and seal the book until the time of the end; many shall run to and fro, and knowledge shall increase" (Daniel 12:1-4).
Here the end time is described as culminating in "a time of trouble, such as never was since there was a nation." It is also a time of increased travel and communication and an explosion of knowledge, as seen from the description that "many shall run to and fro and knowledge shall increase."
Several centuries after Daniel's time, Jesus' disciples asked Him about the end time. His response echoed Daniel's words: "For then there will be great tribulation, such as has not been since the beginning of the world until this time, no, nor ever shall be" (Matthew 24:21).
Later God revealed to Daniel more information about the end. "And one said to the man clothed in linen, who was above the waters of the river, 'How long shall the fulfillment of these wonders be?' Then I heard the man clothed in linen [say] … that it shall be for a time, times, and half a time; and when the power of the holy people has been completely shattered, all these things shall be finished.
"Although I heard, I did not understand. Then I said, 'My lord, what shall be the end of these things?' And he said, 'Go your way, Daniel, for the words are closed up and sealed till the time of the end'" (Daniel 12:6-9).
This scripture indicates that the time of the end will be discernible to God's people. This time is the period leading up to and including unparalleled world trouble lasting 3 1⁄2 years (in biblical language, "a time [a year], times [two years] and half a time [half a year]"), which will conclude with the establishment of God's Kingdom on earth.
A word of caution
Although Scripture reveals certain conditions will deteriorate as the end of the age draws near, we should not confuse the conditions we see around us with the specific final period prophesied in the Bible. Global conditions could degenerate over a considerable amount of time before they lead to the concluding events of the last days. The final days of this era will be marked by specific prophetic events.
Jesus Christ cautioned His disciples to be careful if they thought they were witnessing the signs of the end of the age. "And he said, Take heed that ye be not deceived: for many shall come in my name, saying, I am Christ; and the time draweth near: go ye not therefore after them" (Luke 21:8, King James Version).
Consequently, He warned, many would come in His name, claiming to represent Him. Some would interpret such developments and conditions as certain signs of the end time. But they would be wrong and lead many people astray. Thus the mere presence of charismatic religious leaders, wars or global disasters is not enough to confirm the arrival of the end time.
Specific events to unfold
To avoid confusing general world troubles with actual end-time events, the Bible describes specific events and conditions that will occur in the final days.
One unmistakable end-time event will be the coming domination of Jerusalem by gentiles (non-Israelites). Jesus Christ prophesied that "Jerusalem will be trampled by Gentiles until the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled" (Luke 21:24).
In Revelation 11:1-2 an angel reveals to the apostle John how long gentiles will control the city: "And they will tread the holy city underfoot for forty-two months"—the equivalent of 3 1⁄2 years.
It will also be a time of intense persecution of God's people. Jesus warned of troubling trends that He called "the beginning of sorrows" (Matthew 24:8). Then, He said, "they will deliver you up to tribulation and kill you, and you will be hated by all nations for My name's sake. And then many will be offended, will betray one another, and will hate one another. Then many false prophets will rise up and deceive many. And because lawlessness will abound, the love of many will grow cold. But he who endures to the end shall be saved" (Matthew 24:9-13).
In the book of Revelation, John sees a vision in which some of God's people, depicted as a woman, are sheltered from Satan's persecution and "nourished for a time and times and half a time"—for 3 1⁄2 years (Revelation 12:14). Furious at being unable to attack these people, Satan will "make war with the rest of her offspring, who keep the commandments of God and have the testimony of Jesus Christ" (Matthew 24:17).
Thus we see in three prophecies of the end time that the focus is on a culminating 3 1⁄2 year period of worldwide distress so terrifying and threatening to human survival that God will never allow such to occur again. Such prophecies help us understand the conditions and events that will mark the beginning of this crucial period.