Although there are many things that will occur before Jesus returns, there are at least three that must occur.
By Dick Lentz
(All Scriptures cited come from the NIV2011 version of the Bible)
In a previous post titled “Jesus’ return will be visible to everyone,” I discussed my understanding of Matthew 24:1-30 and Luke 21:5-28 and the reason for my conclusion that Jesus’ return – His second coming – will be visible to everyone – that “all will mourn when they see Him coming on the clouds” (Matthew 24:30). In a subsequent post titled, “Those ‘taken’ when Jesus returns may not be Christians,” I pointed out how my understanding of Matthew 24:36 — 25:46 has led me to conclude that what follows Jesus’ return will result in immediate, dire, and permanent consequences for those unprepared, that those “taken” (or as translated in Luke 17:26-27, those “destroyed”) when Jesus returns will be unbelievers (those who have not put their trust in Christ), and that those “left” or “left behind” will be Christians.
There has been lots of speculation over the years about what signs will indicate that the return of Jesus is imminent and that the final set of end time events are about to occur. Although Scripture does tell us some things that will occur before Jesus returns (for example, “You will hear of wars and rumors of wars … nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be famines and earthquakes in various places” (Matthew 24:6-7), as I see it today, there are only three things that Scripture says must occur before Jesus returns :
- The Jews must acknowledge that Jesus is Lord (Matthew 23:37-39).
- The Gospel must be preached to all the nations (Matthew 24:14).
- The man of lawlessness must be revealed (2 Thessalonians 2:3).
In the sections below, I will provide my understanding of the passages above and how I think the prophecies in them will be fulfilled.
The Jews must acknowledge that Jesus is Lord
After Jesus made His triumphal entry into Jerusalem at the beginning of the week He was to be crucified, He spent some time talking on the Temple Mount to those who had gathered there to celebrate Passover. Some of Jesus’ harshest words while there were reserved for teachers of the law and Pharisees who were hostile towards Him (Matthew 23:1-36). Jesus called them hypocrites, blind guides, white-washed tombs, and snakes – a “brood of vipers” who killed or flogged the “prophets and sages and teachers” sent to them (vs. 33-34). Jesus then said this:
37 “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were not willing. 38 Look, your house is left to you desolate. 39 “For I tell you, you will not see me again until you say, ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord’” (Matthew 23:37-39).
Because of their rejection of Him and the prophets that preceded Him, Jesus said that their house would be left desolate.
Then, after leaving the temple area, Jesus told His disciples that the temple was going to be destroyed – that not one stone would be left upon another (Matthew 24:1-2). The temple was destroyed by the Romans in 70 A.D., and I believe it was this event that Jesus was referring to when He said that their house would be left desolate and not one stone would be left upon another. Furthermore, since the account of Jesus’ second coming in Matthew 24:30 and the verses that follow seem to be referring to the only time Jesus returns, then what Jesus said would happen at that time was not going to occur until they, the Jews, acknowledge that He is Lord.
But does Scripture tell us what events might trigger the Jews’ acknowledgement that Jesus is Lord and what happens when they do? I believe that it does – in the prophecies recorded in the book of Zechariah.
Zechariah prophesied beginning around 520 B.C. during the time when the temple was being rebuilt by the Jews following its destruction by the Babylonians in 586 B.C. One of God’s goals when He spoke to the Jews through Zechariah was to encourage them to keep on with the task of rebuilding God’s house – His temple – in spite of the difficulties they encountered in doing so. God also told them about a time when He was going to provide a means for their spiritual redemption – a time when someone called “The Branch” would “remove the sin of this land in a single day” (Zechariah 3:8-9), a prophecy that I believe was fulfilled when Jesus was crucified.
Zechariah 12 provides a glimpse of what was going to happen to the Jews in what was in their future at that time and undoubtedly still is in ours. Here are the first five verses:
1 The Lord, who stretches out the heavens, who lays the foundation of the earth, and who forms the human spirit within a person, declares: 2 “I am going to make Jerusalem a cup that sends all the surrounding peoples reeling. Judah will be besieged as well as Jerusalem. 3 On that day, when all the nations of the earth are gathered against her, I will make Jerusalem an immovable rock for all the nations. All who try to move it will injure themselves. 4 On that day I will strike every horse with panic and its rider with madness,” declares the Lord. “I will keep a watchful eye over Judah, but I will blind all the horses of the nations. 5 Then the clans of Judah will say in their hearts, ‘The people of Jerusalem are strong, because the Lord Almighty is their God’” (Zechariah 12:1-5).
This passage seems to be describing a time when the Jews will be surrounded by enemies that are bent on their destruction. The Jews’ enemies will be unable to destroy them however but will end up harming themselves when they attempt to. As a consequence of this, the Jews will recognize that they are being protected – that they are strong – “because the Lord Almighty is their God” (vs. 5).
Zechariah 12 continues by describing more of what will happen on that day:
6 “On that day I will make the clans of Judah like a firepot in a woodpile, like a flaming torch among sheaves. They will consume all the surrounding peoples right and left, but Jerusalem will remain intact in her place.
7 “The Lord will save the dwellings of Judah first, so that the honor of the house of David and of Jerusalem’s inhabitants may not be greater than that of Judah. 8 On that day the Lord will shield those who live in Jerusalem, so that the feeblest among them will be like David, and the house of David will be like God, like the angel of the Lord going before them. 9 On that day I will set out to destroy all the nations that attack Jerusalem” (Zechariah 12:6-9).
These verses seem to be indicating that God will not just protect the Jews from their enemies; there will come a time when God will give the Jews the ability to defeat their enemies – a time when He sets out to “destroy all the nations that attack Jerusalem” (vs. 9).
Zechariah 12 then describes how the Jews will respond when God defeats their enemies:
10 “And I will pour out on the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem a spirit of grace and supplication. They will look me, the one they have pierced, and they will mourn for him as one mourns for an only child, and grieve bitterly for him as one grieves for a firstborn son. 11 On that day the weeping in Jerusalem will be as great as the weeping of Hadad Rimmon in the plain of Megiddo. 12 The land will mourn, each clan by itself, with their wives by themselves: the clan of the house of David and their wives, the clan of the house of Nathan and their wives, 13 the clan of the house of Levi and their wives, the clan of Shimei and their wives, 14 and all the rest of the clans and their wives” (Zechariah 12:10-14).
These verses seem to be describing a spiritual awakening that takes place among the Jews after they are physically saved by God from those who are attempting to destroy them. It’s at this point that they realize that by demanding that Jesus be crucified centuries earlier that they pierced their messiah, the One who by grace is now saving them. It’s at this point that they perhaps say, “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord,” a conclusion that seems to be confirmed in these verses:
9 … I will refine them like silver
and test them like gold.
They will call on my name
and I will answer them;
I will say, ‘They are my people,’
and they will say, ‘The Lord is our God’” (Zechariah 13:9).
It’s interesting to note the emphasis in Zechariah 12:10-14 on the grieving, weeping, and mourning that takes place when the Jews see Jesus coming to rescue them. This could be part of the cacophony of mourning that takes place when “all the peoples of the earth … mourn when they see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven” (Matthew 24:30). John seems to be making this same conclusion in the opening verses of his revelation regarding the end-times when he recorded this:
7 “Look, he is coming with the clouds,”
and “every eye will see him,
even those who pierced him”;
and all peoples on earth “will mourn because of him.”
So shall it be! Amen” (Revelation 1:7).
All will mourn when they see Jesus coming in the clouds. I believe this will include those who have made a commitment to Christ and those who have not, Jews and non-Jews alike. The cause of the Jews’ mourning when Jesus returns could be their grief when they recognize the part they played in the death of their messiah. Christians may mourn when they recognize that there will be no more opportunities for them to bring friends or family into a saving relationship with Jesus. Nonbelievers may mourn when they realize that it’s too late for them to make a different choice regarding Jesus and that for them, what follows will be immediate, dire, and permanent.
The Gospel must be preached to all the nations
In response to His disciples’ question about what signs would precede His return (Matthew 24:3), Jesus said this:
14 And this gospel of the kingdom will be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come (Matthew 24:14).
Jesus said that He would not return until everyone has an opportunity to hear the Gospel message. Some believe that this prophecy will be fulfilled when the Bible, or at least the New Testament, is translated into every language on earth. Others believe is will be fulfilled when the technical means for communicating the Gospel at a single moment is available everywhere. But note that both these understandings of this prophecy conclude that its fulfillment will come through human efforts.
There is another possibility about who is doing the preaching of the Gospel in this passage that does not require human efforts for its fulfillment. Note what is prophesied in this passage:
6 Then I saw another angel flying in midair, and he had the eternal gospel to proclaim to those who live on the earth—to every nation, tribe, language and people. 7 He said in a loud voice, “Fear God and give him glory, because the hour of his judgment has come. Worship him who made the heavens, the earth, the sea and the springs of water” (Revelation 14:6-7).
The proclamation of the Gospel in this passage is done an angel, not by humans, and it occurs immediately before “the hour of judgment” (vs. 7). What’s interesting is what follows after the proclamation of the Gospel by this angel:
14 I looked, and there before me was a white cloud, and seated on the cloud was one like a son of man with a crown of gold on his head and a sharp sickle in his hand. 15 Then another angel came out of the temple and called in a loud voice to him who was sitting on the cloud, “Take your sickle and reap, because the time to reap has come, for the harvest of the earth is ripe.” 16 So he who was seated on the cloud swung his sickle over the earth, and the earth was harvested.
17 Another angel came out of the temple in heaven, and he too had a sharp sickle. 18 Still another angel, who had charge of the fire, came from the altar and called in a loud voice to him who had the sharp sickle, “Take your sharp sickle and gather the clusters of grapes from the earth’s vine, because its grapes are ripe.” 19 The angel swung his sickle on the earth, gathered its grapes and threw them into the great winepress of God’s wrath. 20 They were trampled in the winepress outside the city, and blood flowed out of the press, rising as high as the horses’ bridles for a distance of 1,600 stadia (Revelation 14:14-20).
Note the image in this passage of “one like the son of man” seated on “a white cloud.” I believe that this is describing the same event prophesied in Matthew 24:30, a time when “all the peoples of the earth … see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven.” I also believe that the reaping and harvesting described in this passage is the same event prophesied Matthew 24:31 when the elect are gathered “from the four winds, from one end of the heavens to the other.” And I believe that the judgment that this passage describes as “the great winepress of God’s wrath” is the same judgment described in the parables in Matthew 24:26 — 25:46 culminating in the separation of sheep from goats, a time when “they [the unrighteous] will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life” (Matthew 25:46).
Because of the similarity between the images found in Revelation 14:14-20 and the ones in Matthew 24:30-31 and the verses that follow, I believe that they are describing the same event – the one and only second-coming of Jesus. But if this is so, then why are these images of Jesus’ return in the middle of Revelation rather than at the end? The answer to that question is that that chapters 4 thru 19 of Revelation may not be providing us with a chronological time-line of end-time events. Instead, what these chapters could be providing us with are at least three different narratives of those events each ending with a different representation of what happens when Jesus returns. The first narrative could be chapters 4-11; the second chapters 12-14; the third chapters 15-19. I will elaborate on these divisions in the book of Revelation in a subsequent post. My conclusion regarding this may make more sense once I start discussing how finding the same symbols in different passages can be a clue about which ones may be describing the same events.
By the way, even though it could be an angel and not humans who fulfill the prophecy that the Gospel will be preached to all the nations before Jesus returns, I have no objection to those who feel called to take the Gospel to all nations and who are working hard to do so. That is a commendable and worthwhile pursuit even if the actual fulfillment of Matthew 24:14 will be accomplished through the voices of an angel and not by the hands men.
The man of lawlessness must be revealed
1 Concerning the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our being gathered to him, we ask you, brothers and sisters, 2 not to become easily unsettled or alarmed by the teaching allegedly from us—whether by a prophecy or by word of mouth or by letter—asserting that the day of the Lord has already come. 3 Don’t let anyone deceive you in any way, for that day will not come until the rebellion occurs and the man of lawlessness is revealed, the man doomed to destruction. 4 He will oppose and will exalt himself over everything that is called God or is worshiped, so that he sets himself up in God’s temple, proclaiming himself to be God.
5 Don’t you remember that when I was with you I used to tell you these things? 6 And now you know what is holding him back, so that he may be revealed at the proper time. 7 For the secret power of lawlessness is already at work; but the one who now holds it back will continue to do so till he is taken out of the way. 8 And then the lawless one will be revealed, whom the Lord Jesus will overthrow with the breath of his mouth and destroy by the splendor of his coming. 9 The coming of the lawless one will be in accordance with how Satan works. He will use all sorts of displays of power through signs and wonders that serve the lie, 10 and all the ways that wickedness deceives those who are perishing. They perish because they refused to love the truth and so be saved. 11 For this reason God sends them a powerful delusion so that they will believe the lie 12 and so that all will be condemned who have not believed the truth but have delighted in wickedness (2 Thessalonians 2:1-12).
It seems that there were some Christians Paul was ministering to that thought that Jesus had already returned and that they had been left behind. Paul responded by telling them that the end would not come – the Lord would not return – “until the rebellion occurs and the man of lawlessness is revealed” (vs. 3). Paul then said that when the lawless one is revealed that “the Lord Jesus will overthrow [him] with the breath of his mouth and destroy [him] by the splendor of his coming” (vs. 8).
I find this passage difficult to dissect. It’s not clear who the man of lawlessness is, only that his works will “be in accordance with how Satan works” (vs. 9). The passage does say that he will pretend to be God (vs. 4), and that many will buy into this deception (vs. 10). It also indicates that God will send “a powerful delusion” so that the ones who delight in wickedness “will believe the lie” (vs. 11).
There are many beliefs that have cropped up over the years that fit the deception described in these verses. It seems that every generation has been confronted by one or more who claim to be God. Although I don’t know how these lies will be exposed, it does appear that just before Jesus returns that everyone will have a clear understanding who is behind them. Once this is apparent, Jesus will defeat this enemy “with the breath of his mouth.”
Why it matters
4 Jesus answered: “Watch out that no one deceives you. 5 For many will come in my name, claiming, ‘I am the Messiah,’ and will deceive many. 6 You will hear of wars and rumors of wars, but see to it that you are not alarmed. Such things must happen, but the end is still to come. 7 Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be famines and earthquakes in various places. 8 All these are the beginning of birth pains.
9 “Then you will be handed over to be persecuted and put to death, and you will be hated by all nations because of me. 10 At that time many will turn away from the faith and will betray and hate each other, 11 and many false prophets will appear and deceive many people. 12 Because of the increase of wickedness, the love of most will grow cold, 13 but the one who stands firm to the end will be saved. 14 And this gospel of the kingdom will be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come (Matthew 24:4-13).
There are many things that Jesus says will occur before He returns. The above passages records some of them.There will be “wars and rumors of wars”; there will be “famines and earthquakes in various places”; many “false prophets will appear and deceive many people”; many will “turn away from the faith.” None of these things should alarm us however. They have happened, are happening, and will continue to happen. Having an inordinate concern about them may draw our attention away from what matters more.
It seems to me that there are only three events that must occur before Jesus returns. And none of them will be preceded by signs that they are about to occur. We don’t know what conditions will result in the Jews as a whole turning their hearts to Jesus; we don’t know what circumstances will precede the proclamation of the Gospel to every nation by an angel; we don’t know what will lead to the nature of the man of lawlessness being revealed. And since we don’t know how or when these events will take place, speculation regarding them will for the most part be unprofitable.
Perhaps it’s best in this regard to heed Jesus’ advice. He said, “Therefore keep watch, because you do not know on what day your Lord will come” (Matthew 24:42). He also said, “This calls for patient endurance on the part of the people of God who keep his commands and remain faithful to Jesus” (Revelation 14:12). One can perhaps best prepare for the return of Jesus not by fruitless speculation about how the events preceding it will unfold but instead by understanding the need for patience, endurance, obedience, perseverance, and faithfulness as we wait for that day.
That is how I see it today.