Jesus predicted the destruction of the Temple and of the city of Jerusalem after his final visit to Herod’s Temple. Because Israel had rejected her Messiah, “All these things shall come upon this generation. Behold, your house is left to you desolate. Truly I declare to you, there shall not be left one stone upon another that shall not be thrown down” (Matthew 23:34-39; 24:1-2).
In response, the disciples of Jesus asked him two questions: when will the predicted destruction of the Temple occur, and what will be the “sign” of the coming and the consummation of the age? He responded with a dire warning: beware of false messiahs and false prophets that point to wars, reports of wars, earthquakes, international conflicts, and famines as indicators of the proximity of the end. Deceivers would raise false expectations about “signs” and the nearness of the end (Matthew 24:4-8; 2 Thessalonians 2:1-4).
Human and natural catastrophes occur regularly around the world; earthquakes, wars, famines, and plagues characterize this entire era. But the followers of Jesus must “not be alarmed.” Such events are not “signs” of an imminent end, “the end is not yet“; they are not chronological markers by which one can calculate its approach. At most, they constitute the “beginning of birth pains,” harbingers of the inevitable end of the present age. Nor did Jesus predict that the frequency or intensity of earthquakes, wars, and famines would increase as the end drew near.
To the first question, Jesus answered, within “this generation”; that is, the one contemporary with him (Matthew 3:7; 11:16; 12:34, 39, 41, 42, 45; 16:4; 17:17; 23:33; 23:36; 24:34). This occurred when a Roman army destroyed the Temple and the city of Jerusalem in 70 A.D.
Regarding the timing of his arrival, Jesus stated unequivocally that no man knows the day or hour of his coming, except God alone (Matthew 24:36). Disciples must, therefore, always be ready for its unexpected arrival (Mark 13:33). Knowledge of the “times and seasons” belongs only to the Father (Acts 1:7-9). Those who claim such knowledge arrogate to themselves what is His prerogative alone.
As to the requested “sign,” Jesus gave one explicit task to be accomplished before his arrival, the “proclamation of this gospel of the kingdom in the whole habitable earth for a testimony to all nations.” Only “then will the end come” (Matthew 24:14). The message of the kingdom is good news to all who hear and obey it. No national or ethnic group can lay claim to it. It is for all nations.
The Greek demonstrative pronoun rendered “this” (houtos), is emphatic; “THIS gospel of the Kingdom,” presumably, the same one preached by Jesus. More is required then simply naming the name “Jesus” on every continent or disseminating a watered-down or incomplete version of the faith.
This, in fact, is the main task assigned to the Church by its founder and Lord, Jesus Christ. Disciples must “go and teach all nations to observe all things whatsoever I commanded you; behold, I am with you even unto the end of the age” (Matthew 28:18-20). The Church must continue this mission until the end arrives. Only its completion will bring this evil age to its conclusion.
This linkage of the mission to Christ’s return occurs elsewhere in the New Testament. Just prior to his ascension, the disciples asked Jesus when he would restore the kingdom to Israel? He responded: “It is not for you to know times or seasons, which the Father has put in his own authority.” Instead, the disciples were to tarry in Jerusalem until they received the Holy Spirit, then they would become “my witnesses in Jerusalem, all Judea, and Samaria, even unto the uttermost parts of the earth” (Acts 1:6-8; Luke 24:46-49).
The present age must continue “until the full number of the Gentiles comes in; in this manner, all Israel will be saved” (Romans 11:25-26; Luke 21:24; Revelation 6:9-11, 7:9).
And how does one know when this task is completed? According to Jesus, when the end arrives! The fact that the End has not arrived demonstrates the task remains unfinished. No one can ascertain the progress of this mission; God alone knows that; only He will determine when the full complement of the elect has been gathered. Christ’s “logic” is circular but deliberately so.
This saying of Jesus is as much exhortation as it is prophecy, an admonishment to the church to engage tirelessly in gospel proclamation. The mission’s completion is the “sign” of the End, but a “sign” that cannot be used to calculate its date or even its nearness. “The Father alone” has that information.
The human desire to know when Jesus will arrive is understandable. The desire for certainty about the future drives attempts to discern “times and seasons,” to calculate end-time chronologies and the date of Christ’s return. But all past attempts to ascertain this information have failed; date-setting always produces disappointment and failure.
Christ’s explanation is clear. His Father alone knows the timing of the End. In the interim, his Church is to remain busy completing the task assigned to it; that of gospel proclamation to all nations.
It is high time for believers to accept the clear teachings of Jesus on this matter, get over the fact that we do not and cannot calculate the timing of the end, and get on with the task at hand. What matters is to be found busy about his business on the day when he arrives in power and glory. Those Christians who have squandered their lives on seeking their fortunes, political activism, careers, power, and fame, may be sorely disappointed.
In the meantime, if this understanding of Christ’s words is correct, his logic may explain the “delay” of over two thousand years in his return. Is the date of the coming of the Son of Man set in stone or is God waiting on the church to do its job?