There are many things about the end times that the Bible does not speak of, or maybe only alludes to. But how to know when the Return of Christ is near is not one of them. Jesus describes the events leading up to His return in some detail. It would seem reasonable to use Jesus' description as the basis for everything we believe about the Second Coming. Further detail should fit within the structure He lays out. Consider these passages from chapter 24 of Matthew.
Matthew 24:3 (NKJV)3 Now as He sat on the Mount of Olives, the disciples came to Him privately, saying, “Tell us, when will these things be? And what will be the sign of Your coming, and of the end of the age?”The disciples where marveling the magnificence of the Temple when Jesus declared that every stone of it would be thrown down. They take his statement both literally and seriously and ask very naturally, when? But they don't ask for dates or times. They ask for the signs, that will reveal that Jesus is coming back, and the end of the age is here.
Matthew 24:4–8 (NKJV)4 And Jesus answered and said to them: “Take heed that no one deceives you. 5 For many will come in My name, saying, ‘I am the Christ,’ and will deceive many. 6 And you will hear of wars and rumors of wars. See that you are not troubled; for all these things must come to pass, but the end is not yet. 7 For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. And there will be famines, pestilences, and earthquakes in various places. 8 All these are the beginning of sorrows.
He begins by warning the disciples against deception. Of course, every few years someone comes along and convinces a bunch of people he is a messiah, and convinces them to drink poison or some other awful thing. Knowing the Word of God is a fool proof protection from these things.
Then he talks about war, famine, disease, natural disasters, which are again, all too common. But these things do not indicate the end is here. In fact, such things are indicators that it is not yet the end.
Jesus describes them as "the beginning of sorrows", the start of labor pains. The beginning of labor pains does not mean that the baby will be born immediately, but its a sure sign that the baby is coming! Even so, when people today see wars and disease and disaster, it doesn't mean that its the end of the world, but it should serve as a reminder that the end of the world is coming.
Matthew 24:9–14 (NKJV)
9 “Then they will deliver you up to tribulation and kill you, and you will be hated by all nations for My name’s sake. 10 And then many will be offended, will betray one another, and will hate one another. 11 Then many false prophets will rise up and deceive many. 12 And because lawlessness will abound, the love of many will grow cold. 13 But he who endures to the end shall be saved. 14 And this gospel of the kingdom will be preached in all the world as a witness to all the nations, and then the end will come.
Then Jesus describes a time of tribulation. There are some things to take note of here. The first, lends itself to a discussion of who Jesus is addressing in this passage, the disciples as the church, or the disciples as Jews? That question will become weightier later on. But here He is telling them they will be troubled and killed and hated by all people for His name's sake. Because of Jesus' name they will be hated. The book of Mark even says they will be beaten in the synagogue indicating that the Jews are responsible for at least some of the persecution.
This will give way to a lot of people stumbling in their faith, betraying each other, hating each other, falling under the teachings of false prophets, and stopping loving others. It is here that Jesus promises deliverance to those who endure "to the end". Of course, "the end" is exactly what the disciples were asking about, so Jesus' reference to "the end" is directed exactly to the point. He then says that this gospel will be preached to all peoples, and then "the end" will come.
Matthew 24:15 (NKJV)All of the signs Jesus has named so far are only signs in their degree. Persecution, false prophets, lawlessness, and lack of love have existed in all ages, but it is the increase of these things that make them signs.
15 “Therefore when you see the ‘abomination of desolation,’ spoken of by Daniel the prophet, standing in the holy place” (whoever reads, let him understand),
The first concrete "sign" is the revelation of the man called the Antichrist. Jesus refers to Daniel's prophesy of one who would "confirm a covenant with many for one week" and in the middle of the week "bring an end to sacrifice and offering". This can be identified with the "man of sin" from 2 Thessalonians 2:4 - "who opposes and exalts himself above all that is called God or that is worshiped, so that he sits as God in the temple of God, showing himself that he is God."
Jesus is saying to them, keep your eyes open for this! This is what Jesus told his disciples when they asked when they asked when and what the signs are of the destruction of Jerusalem, His coming, and the end of the world.
And it is the revelation of the abomination of desolation that brings on the Great Tribulation. This period is worse time that has ever existed on earth. It is so bad that if it were to continue, it would kill everyone. But it won't go on. The days are cut short for the elect. There are a few Old Testament passages in which Israel is described as "the elect." In the New Testament, the title is used almost exclusively of believers.
Matthew 24:16–26 (NKJV)
16 “then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains. 17 Let him who is on the housetop not go down to take anything out of his house. 18 And let him who is in the field not go back to get his clothes. 19 But woe to those who are pregnant and to those who are nursing babies in those days! 20 And pray that your flight may not be in winter or on the Sabbath. 21 For then there will be great tribulation, such as has not been since the beginning of the world until this time, no, nor ever shall be. 22 And unless those days were shortened, no flesh would be saved; but for the elect’s sake those days will be shortened.
23 “Then if anyone says to you, ‘Look, here is the Christ!’ or ‘There!’ do not believe it. 24 For false christs and false prophets will rise and show great signs and wonders to deceive, if possible, even the elect. 25 See, I have told you beforehand.
26 “Therefore if they say to you, ‘Look, He is in the desert!’ do not go out; or ‘Look, He is in the inner rooms!’ do not believe it.
What group is in reference here? Perhaps a clue can be found in the later statement that the works of false christs and false prophets will be so great that they might "deceive, if possible, even the elect." To be deceived, means to be made to believe a lie. Israel, as a nation, has been deceived since Jesus spoke these words. Its not only possible, its an observable reality. But Jesus is referring to a group that are not deceived, and ought not be deceived. Given the New Testament's consistent use of the elect, and Jesus' statement indication an undeceived status, the elect here fits as being believers.
It is after this Great Tribulation that signs occur with regard to the Sun, Moon, and stars, and Jesus appears, returning in the clouds. He gathers his elect, which given the close context should mean the same thing it meant when he spoke of the days being shortened and the persuasiveness of the false prophets.
Matthew 24:27–31 (NKJV)
27 For as the lightning comes from the east and flashes to the west, so also will the coming of the Son of Man be. 28 For wherever the carcass is, there the eagles will be gathered together.
29 “Immediately after the tribulation of those days the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light; the stars will fall from heaven, and the powers of the heavens will be shaken. 30 Then the sign of the Son of Man will appear in heaven, and then all the tribes of the earth will mourn, and they will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory. 31 And He will send His angels with a great sound of a trumpet, and they will gather together His elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other.
Understanding The Signs
Matthew 24:32–35 (NKJV)Jesus has answered their question in rather plain terms. "when will these things be? And what will be the sign of Your coming, and of the end of the age?”
32 “Now learn this parable from the fig tree: When its branch has already become tender and puts forth leaves, you know that summer is near. 33 So you also, when you see all these things, know that it is near—at the doors! 34 Assuredly, I say to you, this generation will by no means pass away till all these things take place. 35 Heaven and earth will pass away, but My words will by no means pass away.
There will be deceptive teachings, false messiahs, war, disease, famine, natural disaster. These do not indicate the end is present, but that it is coming.
Then the days of trouble will come in which believers are persecuted. Many will stumble in the faith. Believers will betray each other. They will hate each other. They will abandon lawful behavior and love will become a rare thing. Of course, the very mark of Jesus' disciples is that they love each other.
Then the Anti-Christ is revealed, giving a hard and fast fixed event that is not a matter of degree, but a single happening. This marks the beginning of the worse period of time ever on earth.
Then the Lord comes. He comes in power and glory, and rescues those who are His.
How were the disciples supposed to interpret these signs. That is what Jesus tells them next. They were to use them as indicators, but not as calendars. Just as a budding fig tree indicates that summer is near, without specifying exactly when it will arrive, so these signs tell when these things are near, without telling exactly when.