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, the disciples urged Jesus Christ to tell them what events or conditions would mark the time of His return and the replacing of human rule with His divine rule in the Kingdom of God (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×).
Although He explicitly told His followers that they would not know the exact time of His return (verses 36, 44), He did say 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!” (verses 32-33).
Christ warned that prophecy is a subject to be handled with care (verses 23-26), lest we be deceived (verses 4-5, 11). Unfortunately, many sad events have occurred from His time onward when sincere but gullible people, led by wrong interpretations of prophecy, took paths leading to ridicule or self-destruction. It seems that every year we see and hear such tragic stories reported.
Sad legacy of shattered hopes
This is nothing new. Back in the first century two such cases were recorded in Acts 5. Gamaliel, a rabbi, mentioned two false prophets who arose and led people to believe they were guided by God. He said: “For some time ago Theudas rose up, claiming to be somebody. A number of men, about four hundred, joined him. He was slain, and all who obeyed him were scattered and came to nothing. After this man, Judas of Galilee rose up in the days of the census, and drew away many people after him. He also perished, and all who obeyed him were dispersed” (Acts 5:36-37 Acts 5:36-37 36 For before these days rose up Theudas, boasting himself to be somebody; to whom a number of men, about four hundred, joined themselves: who was slain; and all, as many as obeyed him, were scattered, and brought to nothing.
37 After this man rose up Judas of Galilee in the days of the taxing, and drew away much people after him: he also perished; and all, even as many as obeyed him, were dispersed.
American King James Version×).
In the last 2,000 years numerous men and women have claimed to be prophets, messiahs or holy teachers and have deceived many. So it is natural for some to become suspicious about prophecies and avoid them. Yet this can easily lead to falling into the opposite ditch, where many disregard or ignore prophecy.
Make no mistake about it: Prophecy does have an important purpose in the Bible. But we are to avoid the pitfalls of becoming so engrossed in prophecy that we interpret every newsworthy event as an end-time signal and the opposite extreme of dismissing virtually every occurrence on the world scene as inconsequential.
Proper view of prophecy
Referring to Christ’s first coming, Peter mentioned that fulfilled prophecy should serve to strengthen our hope and faith in prophecies that are as yet unfulfilled. “And so we have the prophetic word confirmed, which you do well to heed as a light that shines in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts …” (2 Peter 1:19 2 Peter 1:19We have also a more sure word of prophecy; whereunto you do well that you take heed, as to a light that shines in a dark place, until the day dawn, and the day star arise in your hearts:
American King James Version×).
Here Peter compares Bible prophecies to a light that provides visibility until the final coming of God’s Kingdom, brought by Jesus Christ to earth. When this occurs every eye will see His glory as a great light (Matthew 24:27 Matthew 24:27For as the lightning comes out of the east, and shines even to the west; so shall also the coming of the Son of man be.
American King James Version×, 30; Revelation 1:7 Revelation 1:7Behold, he comes with clouds; and every eye shall see him, and they also which pierced him: and all kindreds of the earth shall wail because of him. Even so, Amen.
American King James Version×).
God in His Word gives us a broad outline and sequence of prophetic events, but many specifics are unclear. Some things can be seen clearly, but others are still beyond our view at this point in history.
In other words, there is a framework of prophecy that is reliable, but it can be counterproductive to try to interpret every detail.
So what is this framework of prophecy? Among the many prophecies of events leading up to Christ’s return are various major prophetic conditions that can be confirmed and identified historically. As Peter said, we “do well to heed” them.
First condition: Man’s ability to annihilate life
The first of these certain prophecies deals with a specific condition described by Christ that would be present only as the end time draws near. He said to His disciples: “It will be a time of great distress; there has never been such a time from the beginning of the world until now, 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×, New 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 erased from earth. This is what makes the time of “great distress” so terrifying, unequaled in human history.
Mankind has been fighting wars since the dawn of history but never before had the ability—with rocks and clubs, bows and arrows, cannons and automatic weapons—to wipe out all of humanity and fulfill this prophecy. This changed in 1945 with the detonation of the first atomic bombs and with the subsequent development of hydrogen bombs. With thousands of nuclear weapons at its disposal, mankind now has the frightening ability to destroy life from the planet many times over.
This situation never existed in history until the latter half of this century. Man has never been a great caretaker of the earth, but never before did he have the capacity to utterly destroy all living things. But Christ predicted that, left unchecked, mankind would do exactly that, and this is one of the reasons He must intervene to save mankind.
Of the last days the Bible says: “The nations were angry, and Your wrath has come, and the time of the dead, that they should be judged, and that You should reward Your servants the prophets and the saints, and those who fear Your name, small and great, and should destroy those who destroy the earth” (Revelation 11:18 Revelation 11:18And the nations were angry, and your wrath is come, and the time of the dead, that they should be judged, and that you should give reward to your servants the prophets, and to the saints, and them that fear your name, small and great; and should destroy them which destroy the earth.
American King James Version×). Only in recent decades has humanity had the fearful capacity to “destroy the earth”!
Second condition: Modern Israel
The second condition that must exist before Christ’s return concerns the existence of the nation of modern Israel.
The survival of the religion and culture of this ancient people, which witnessed the rise and decline of such great civilizations as Egypt, Babylon, Persia, Greece and Rome, goes against the odds. A secular Jewish historian of the 19th century, Heinrich Graetz, stated that “a nation which has witnessed the rise and decay of the most ancient empires, and which still continues to hold its place in the present day, deserves the closest attention.”
Max Dimont, a Jewish historian, relates an anecdote about Napoleon, the French emperor in the 1800s. He once passed near a synagogue and heard weeping inside. He asked, “What is this crying?” He was told it was the Jews weeping over the destruction of their temple. Impressed, Napoleon said, “A people that longs so much for its city and its Temple are bound to restore them one day!” (Thomas Ice and Randall Price, Ready to Rebuild , Harvest House, Eugene, Oregon, 1992, pp. 23-24).
That prediction has partially come to pass. Now the Jews—descendants of the ancient kingdom of Judah—are in possession of Jerusalem, and their “weeping” takes place on the western side of the Temple Mount, at the retaining wall of the vast platform Herod the Great constructed to support the rebuilt temple. There, at the Western Wall, many Jews still cry and bemoan the loss of their temple and pray for its restoration. Thus the place is also sometimes aptly called the Wailing Wall.
Sacrifices offered and ended
Prophecies in the books of Joel, Zechariah and elsewhere in the Bible imply an organized, significant Jewish presence in and around Jerusalem before the second coming of Jesus Christ. 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×seems to indicate that Jewish sacrificial rituals will be renewed and then disrupted before Christ’s return. Jesus Christ Himself warned, “Therefore when you see the ‘abomination of desolation,’ spoken of by Daniel the prophet, standing in the holy place (whoever reads, let him understand), then 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 to 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.
Before the 20th century this seemed like an impossibility. 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 of most of the world to return to their former land. Many books were written about the overwhelming odds against Zionism, the attempt to reestablish a Jewish homeland.
Yet it happened. Once the fledgling nation formed in 1948, it still appeared the Jews would never control all of Jerusalem, and the more-populous Arab nations surrounding Israel determined they would never allow it. Yet, in the 1967 Six Day War, Israel took possession of the divided city.
The Israeli government, however, to defuse further religious tension, 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.
Attempts to rebuild a temple
One of the little-known facets of this story has been the Jews’ many attempts in the last 2,000 years to rebuild their temple, which was destroyed by the Romans in A.D. 70, and reinstitute sacrifices.
After its first-century destruction, Jews began to settle Jerusalem again. Seven synagogues were built at the foot of the Temple Mount. In 117 the Roman emperor Hadrian granted permission to rebuild the temple. Yet, two years later, the emperor reversed his edict and ordered that Jerusalem be rebuilt as a Roman colony.
In 132 a revolt broke out among the Jews under the leadership of Simeon bar Kokhba, who was accepted by many as the Messiah. The uprising lasted for three years. Here again an attempt was made to rebuild the temple, but Hadrian’s victory dashed hopes at that time.
The next attempt to rebuild the temple was in 363, when the Roman emperor Julian gave the Jews permission to begin construction of a temple. He even provided funds and building materials. Incredibly, according to historians at that time, just as they were about to begin, a powerful earthquake struck and destroyed the whole project.
One author explains: “The stones were piled and ready. Costly wood had been purchased. The necessary metal was at hand. The Jews of Jerusalem were rejoicing. Tomorrow—May 20, 363 A.D.—the rebuilding of the Temple would begin! … Suddenly, and without warning … , the streets of Jerusalem trembled and buckled, crushing two hundred years of hope in a pile of dust. No longer would there be any possibility of rebuilding the Temple” (Philip C. Hammond, “New Light on the Nabateans,” Biblical Archaeology Review , March-April 1981, p. 23).
The next chance to rebuild came in 614, when the Persians captured Jerusalem from the Byzantines. Since the Jews helped them in their undertaking, the Persians granted the Jews permission to rebuild the temple. Yet work soon came to a halt when the shah changed his mind and rescinded his edict.
Then, in 638, Arabs under the banner of Islam conquered the city, and, with the exception of a few years, Arabs or Turks governed Jerusalem from that time forward. After the defeat of the Turks (who were allied with Germany) in World War I, Britain governed the area under mandates from the League of Nations, and then the United Nations, until the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948.
For those many centuries the Temple Mount was a bastion of the Islamic faith, and Jews were banned from worshiping in that area. An Islamic shrine was constructed on the spot upon which many authorities believe the sacrifices once took place. It now stands as one of Islam’s holy places.
It was impossible for Christ’s prophecy to be fulfilled while the Arabs and Turks held dominion over the city. But Israel’s regaining of control over Jerusalem in 1967 helped set the stage for this prophecy, too, to come to pass.
Preparations under way
What has happened since then? One book on the subject states: “Whether the Temple is viewed only as a national symbol, a rallying point for Jews in Israel and the Diaspora, or seen as a prophetic hope essential to the fulfillment of the mission of Judaism, since the liberation of Jerusalem and the Temple Mount, the possibility of rebuilding has existed. While some attempts were made after 1967 to organize rebuilding discussions, it was not until … the Palestinian uprising [in 1987] that Temple rebuilding movements began to visibly organize … [One source stated that] ‘all Jewish history as far as we’re concerned is one big parenthesis until the Temple is returned. Life without the Temple is not really living’ ” (Ice and Price, p. 99).
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.
Today Muslim religious authorities control the Temple Mount, the “holy place” that Christ referred to in His prophecy. Some of the conditions necessary for fulfilling that prophecy are not yet in place.
Since 1989, however, organized efforts have begun to prepare for the building of a temple. Several Jewish groups have been publicly organized to carry out this plan. One is called The Society for the Preparation of the Temple, which publishes a bimonthly journal on the subject.
Another group, which focuses on producing priestly garments and utensils for the temple service, is the Temple Institute. So far 53 of the 103 necessary instruments have been built. There are also architects and engineers who have prepared blueprints for the temple. Displays have been established in the United States to promote these ideas.
Another widely publicized group is the Temple Mount Faithful. Led by Gershon Salomon, a professor of oriental studies at Hebrew University, its goal is to take the Temple Mount from the Arabs and rebuild the temple there. It would be, in his words, “a Temple that will be again a center of religious, national, spiritual and moral life for Israel.”
From 1990 on members of this group have tried to place the first stone of the temple on the Temple Mount, but to no avail. Israeli police and Muslim authorities have prohibited their attempts.
However, 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 that we do well to heed 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, said Daniel, 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 (verses 39-40). Comparing history with other Bible prophecies, we can understand that these four kingdoms were, in order, the Babylonian, Medo-Persian, Greco-Macedonian and Roman empires.
Speaking of the fourth and final kingdom, the Roman Empire, 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” (verse 40). Rome indeed proved to be more dominant and enduring than its predecessors, swallowing up their remnants in a reign that lasted for centuries.
However, Daniel also revealed some fascinating prophetic details about this kingdom. He said that the legs and feet of the image in Nebuchadnezzar’s dream represented this kingdom, later shown to be the Roman Empire. The image had feet and toes 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 “the kingdom shall be divided” and “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 (verses 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” (verse 44).
This is clearly a prophecy of the Kingdom of God, brought into reality on the earth by Jesus Christ at His return. It is only then that “the kingdoms of this world [will] become the kingdoms of our Lord and of His Christ, and He shall reign forever and ever!” (Revelation 11:15 Revelation 11:15And the seventh angel sounded; and there were great voices in heaven, saying, The kingdoms of this world are become the kingdoms of our Lord, and of his Christ; and he shall reign for ever and ever.
American King James Version×).
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 (See “Why Will Christ Return?,” p. 8). 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 yet again!
The apostle John, nearing the end of his life, was given an astounding vision by Jesus Christ (Revelation 1:1 Revelation 1:1The Revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave to him, to show to his servants things which must shortly come to pass; and he sent and signified it by his angel to his servant John:
American King James Version×) of what would happen during the remainder of human history. Like Daniel, John was inspired 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 power 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” (verse 3). It is described as existing at one point in time, then not existing, then existing again (verses 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.
Verse 10 helps us understand that the seven heads of the beast represent “seven kings” who rule over a span of time. A study of European history shows that, beginning with Justinian in 554, various kings, emperors, dictators and other rulers have, with varying degrees of success, periodically revived the grandeur and might of the Roman Empire since the original empire’s fall in 476. These prophecies of Daniel and Revelation indicate that the empire will rise 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 to 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 …” (verses 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 (see “Armageddon: The End of the World? “).
It is likely, then, that a group of 10 leaders, through alliances or other arrangements, will give rise to a union that will fulfill these end-time events. Daniel’s prophecy indicates that these leaders will preserve their cultures and languages, so it will not be one totally integrated group of states, such as the United States, but 10 individual political and cultural entities politically and militarily united for a common purpose.
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 Magazine , international edition, January 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 and unity in economic and military affairs come about. Time will tell where these trends will lead—and how quickly.
Where are we now in prophecy?
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 some Israelis to restore the temple and sacrifices, and with strong and 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. Of course, these are by no means the only prophecies to watch, but they provide a framework within which to view the future.
The Bible is full of God’s precious truths for a distracted and unbelieving world. These truths include biblical prophecy. Jesus Christ predicted His Church would be faithfully proclaiming the true gospel—or good news—of His coming Kingdom as a witness to all nations until it would be fully accomplished. After this, He said, “the end will come” (Matthew 24:14 Matthew 24:14And this gospel of the kingdom shall be preached in all the world for a witness to all nations; and then shall the end come.
American King James Version×). GN