Jesus declared, definitively, that the “end” will not come until “this gospel of the kingdom of God is proclaimed to all nations.”
When we discuss the future coming of Jesus, quite naturally we ask what “signs” will precede it. Wars, earthquakes, tsunamis, famines, and the like? Spectacular cosmic events in the heavens? The rise of unprecedented evil and chaos? Fortunately, Jesus provided us with a most definitive answer – The completion of the church’s mission.
When he left the Temple for the last time, Jesus predicted its destruction. Because Israel had rejected her Messiah, “all these things will come upon this generation. Behold, your house is left to you desolate… Truly, I am declaring to you that there will not be left one stone upon another that will 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. Second, what will be the “sign” of the coming of the Son of Man and the “consummation of the age”?
Christ’s response began with warnings about coming deceivers who will “deceive many,” charlatans that propagate false information about the “end.” Disciples will hear about wars, earthquakes, international conflicts, and famines, but these things are NOT indicators of the imminence of his return. Disasters must occur but the “end is not yet.” And these “deceivers” will point to such events as “signs” of the end, in the process, raising false expectations about its proximity. Church history attests to the accuracy of his prediction – (Matthew 24:4-8, 2 Thessalonians 2:1-4).
Human and natural catastrophes happen regularly, therefore, disciples must “not be alarmed” when they do 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 destruction of the present world order. And nowhere did Jesus predict that the frequency and intensity of earthquakes, wars, and famines would increase as the end drew near.
To the first question, he answered – within “this generation.” That is, the generation that was contemporary with him. And that fulfillment 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).
As to the timing of his “arrival,” no man knows the day or hour except God alone. Consequently, his disciples must always be prepared 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 13:33, Acts 1:7-9).
As to the requested “sign,” Jesus named one goal that must be achieved before his future arrival in glory – 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.” 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 to judge the nations – (Matthew 24:14).
In the clause, the Greek demonstrative pronoun used for “this gospel” (houtos) is emphatic. It is, “THIS gospel of the Kingdom” that must be proclaimed, presumably, the same one that Jesus preached.
And this is the task that he assigned to his followers – “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” – and it must be completed before the end arrives – (Matthew 28:18-20, Acts 1:6-8).
And how do we know when the task is finished? According to Jesus, when the end arrives! The very fact that the “end” has not arrived is irrefutable proof that the task remains unfinished.
The human desire to know when Jesus will arrive is understandable. The desire for certainty about the future drives our attempts to calculate the date of his return. However, all past attempts to do so have failed, and miserably so. Date-setting always results in disappointment.
His words remain clear to this very day. ONLY God knows the timing of the end, and not even the “Son of Man” has that information. In the interim between now and that day, the Church must remain focused on completing the task assigned to it by Jesus himself.