SYNOPSIS: Jesus declared, definitively, that the “end” will not come until “this gospel of the kingdom of God is proclaimed to all nations.”
Whenever the subject of the Second Coming is raised, the inevitable question of what “sign” or “signs” will precede it is asked. Popular preaching invariably points to wars, earthquakes, tsunamis, famines, and similar catastrophes as harbingers of the end. But Jesus gave a most definitive answer: The completion of the mission of the Church.
After his final visit to Herod’s Temple, Jesus predicted the destruction of the Temple complex and the city of Jerusalem. 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 asked two questions; first, when will the predicted destruction of the Temple occur, and, second, what will be the “sign” of the coming of the Son of Man and the consummation of the age?
The immediate response of Jesus was a dire warning: Beware of false messiahs and false prophets that will deceive many. Disciples will hear of wars, earthquakes, international conflicts, and famines, but such events are not indicators of the end. Disasters must occur but the “end is not yet.” If anything, it is deceivers that will point to these things to raise false expectations about the nearness of the end (Matthew 24:4-8, 2 Thessalonians 2:1-4).
Human and natural catastrophes occur regularly in the world; earthquakes, wars, famines, and plagues occur regularly throughout human history; therefore, followers of Jesus must “not be alarmed” when they occur. Such events are not chronological markers by which one can calculate the end. At most, they are a “beginning of birth-pains,” harbingers of the inevitable end. And nowhere did Jesus predict that the frequency and intensity of earthquakes and wars would increase as the end draws near.
To the first question, Jesus answered, Within “this generation.” That is, the generation contemporary with him. This occurred when a Roman army destroyed the Temple and Jerusalem in A.D. 70, exactly as predicted by Christ (Matthew 3:7, 11:16, 12:34-45, 16:4, 17:17, 23:33-36, 24:34).
Regarding the timing of his arrival, Jesus declared that no man knows the day or hour of his coming, except God alone. Disciples must, therefore, always be ready for its unexpected arrival. Knowledge of the “times and seasons” belongs only to the Father. Those who claim such knowledge arrogate to themselves the knowledge that even the Son of Man does not possess (Matthew 24:36, Mark 13:32-24, Acts 1:7-9).
As to the requested “sign,” Jesus gave one explicit goal that must be achieved before his arrival. This would be the “proclamation of this gospel of the kingdom in the entire world for a testimony to all nations.” Only “then will the end come.” The message of the kingdom is good news to all who hear and obey it. But it must be witnessed by all nations before the Son of Man arrives in judgment (Matthew 24:14).
The Greek demonstrative pronoun in the clause, “this gospel” (houtos), is emphatic. It is, “THIS gospel of the Kingdom” that must be proclaimed; presumably, the same one preached by Jesus. More is required then simply naming the name “Jesus” on every continent or disseminating a watered-down version of the faith on the territory of each nation.
This is the task assigned to the Church by the Son of God. His 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.” The Church must complete this mission before the end arrives. This linkage of this mission to the return of Jesus occurs elsewhere in the New Testament (Matthew 28:18-20).
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.” The present age must continue, “Until the full number of the Gentiles comes in; in this manner, all Israel will be saved” (Acts 1:6-8, Luke 24:46-49, Romans 11:25-26, Luke 21:24, Revelation 6:9-11, 7:9).
And how does one know when the task is done? According to Jesus, When the end arrives!
The fact that the End has not arrived is irrefutable proof that the task remains unfinished. No one can ascertain the progress of this mission; God alone knows that and only He will determine when the full complement of the elect has been gathered. Christ’s “logic” is circular; however, deliberately so.
The declaration by Jesus about when the end will come is as much an exhortation as it is a prophecy, an admonishment to the church to engage tirelessly in gospel proclamation until he arrives in glory. The completion of the mission is the “sign” of the end but one that cannot be used to calculate its nearness.
The human desire to know when Jesus will arrive is understandable. The desire for certainty about the future drives attempts to discern the “times and seasons,” and to calculate the date of Christ’s return. However, all past attempts to do so have failed; date-setting always results in disappointment and failure.
The explanation words of Jesus are clear. His Father alone knows the timing of the end. Not even the Son of Man has that information. In the interim, the Church must remain busy completing the task he assigned it.
It is high time for believers to accept the clear teachings of Jesus on this, to get over the fact that we do not and cannot calculate the timing of the end, and to get on with the task at hand. What matters is to be found busy about his business on the day Jesus arrives in power and glory.