We sometimes want to have our cake and eat it too. On the one hand, we want to proclaim that Jesus could come again at any moment. On the other hand, we like to point to predictions/prophecy that must be fulfilled before Jesus can return. So, which is it?
The place to begin is the Olivet Discourse (Mark 13:5-13). Having left the temple after a combative exchange with the religious leaders, Jesus looked back on the temple mount in all its glory and said to his disciples, “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left upon another—all will be thrown down” (Mark 13:2; CSB).
The disciples’ response to Jesus’ prediction of the temple’s destruction was itself predictable: “Tell us, when will these things happen? And what will be the sign when all these things are about to be accomplished?” The text is very clear what the disciples are asking. They want to know when the temple will be torn down?
We know from historical record that the Romans destroyed that temple in A.D. 70 in response to the First Jewish Revolt against Rome (A.D. 66-70). That would mean that, if Jesus’ predictions are correct, there should be a fulfillment of each of them prior to A.D. 70.? Jesus provided five signs.
1. False messiahs (13:5-6)—We know that many false messiahs emerged in the period before and immediately after Jesus’ ministry. Acts 5:35-38 mentions a certain Theudas and Judas the Galilean specifically.
2. Political upheaval (13:7-8a)—We tend to think that threats of war are a modern phenomenon, but life for Jews in the first century was lived with the constant threat of revolt against Rome. In fact, the temple was destroyed in A.D. 70 in response to a war initiated by Jews in Galilee against Roman rule.
3. Natural disasters (13:8b)—It seems any time there’s an earthquake somewhere in the world, it is used to show Jesus’ words are just now being fulfilled. The truth is, a massive earthquake destroyed Colossae and Laodicea around A.D. 60 and another devastated Pompeii in A.D. 62. The Book of Acts records a famine in Jerusalem so great that the church at Antioch sent Saul and Barnabas to deliver aid. This famine occurred around A.D. 47.
4. Persecution of Christians (13:9)—The persecution of Christians today continues to expand around the world in places like Egypt, Iraq, Syria, Malaysia, China, India, Nigeria, etc. Once again, however, this is not a new occurrence. Just over 50 days after Jesus spoke these words on the Mount of Olives, Peter and John were arrested for healing a paralyzed man and preaching in the name of Jesus. They were repeatedly dragged before the Sanhedrin and beaten (Acts 3-5).
5. The Gospel must be preached to all nations (13:10)—Most interpreters immediately assume this “sign” could not yet be fulfilled because we are still trying to reach the nations. In fact, it is sometimes used as a motivation to do missions in order that Jesus can come again. However, it is possible to find a fulfillment of this “sign” prior to A.D. 70. Paul said in Col. 1:5-6, “You have already heard about this hope in the word of truth, the Gospel that has come to you. It is bearing fruit and growing all over the world.” And again, in 1:23, “This Gospel has been proclaimed in all creation under heaven, and I, Paul, have become a servant of it” (see also Rom. 10:18; 1 Tim. 3:16). Each of these passages were written prior to A.D. 62. It sounds like Paul affirmed that the Gospel had already, in some sense, been preached to the nations prior to A.D. 70 and the destruction of the temple.
Conclusion: Each of these five signs were sufficiently fulfilled prior to the destruction of the temple to open the way for Jesus’ return at any moment. In the meantime, we will no doubt continue to see false messiahs, political upheaval, natural disasters, and persecution of believers. We should also be about taking the Gospel to the nations until that day when Jesus appears in the clouds. Even so, come Lord Jesus!