One of the things Jesus predicted would occur that does not necessarily point to the time of the end is the persecution of the elect, or those who have believed the Gospel. Persecution and the act of killing believers in Christ have been occurring off and on somewhere in the world since the time of Stephen’s death. According to the Scriptures, immediately after Jesus resurrection and ascension into heaven, the church would experience safety for about 3 ½ years (Revelation 12:13-14). Although the disciples were beaten at least once after Pentecost, 31 AD (Acts 5:40), no one lost his life to persecution until the death of Stephen.
Matthew and Mark introduce persecution of the elect into the scheme of things occurring before the coming of Christ by saying “…they shall deliver you up…” (Matthew 24:9; Mark 13:9). It almost seems that persecution follows after false-christs, wars and natural disasters, but Luke makes a point by saying “Before these things they shall lay hands on you… delivering you up…” (Luke 21:12). In other words, persecution is almost immediate. Persecution and death comes to the church chronologically before the false-christs, wars and natural disasters. And, true to the prophecy, this is exactly what occurred, beginning with the murder of Stephen.
All these things occurred, but they didn’t signal the end. What, then, is supposed to foretell the end of the age and the coming of Christ? Is there any specific event foretold in the Olivet Prophecy that would help us understand the end was near? Luke claims that when the Jews saw Jerusalem surrounded with armies, the end would be near (Luke 21:20), but Matthew tells us that the end wouldn’t come until the Gospel was preached to the civilized world (Matthew 24:14). Only then would the end of the age arrive! Jesus was not referring to the Gospel going out to every nation on earth or every people group in Matthew 24:14, as is believed today. In fact, Paul tells us that the Gospel was preached throughout the world in the 1st century AD (Romans 10:14-18; 15:18-21; 16:25-26; Colossians 1:6, 23). If modern Christians must preach the Gospel to every people group on earth before the Second Coming of Christ, I cannot say. It certainly is a grand idea, but where is it foretold that Jesus will not return to this earth until it is? It certainly is not foretold in the Olivet Prophecy!
In the Olivet Prophecy Jesus spoke of the generation that crucified him. He did not speak about us when he referred to the end of the age. The disciples were to be beaten in the synagogues (Luke 21:20). How many believers are persecuted in Jewish synagogues today? This was done to Jewish believers in the 1st century, as well as everything else that Jesus predicted, so why would we believe it must be fulfilled twice before Jesus returns to this earth? Where do the Scriptures claim these things must be done more than once?
Someone may ask what about the abomination of desolation that Jesus predicted would occur. Don’t we know from Scripture that Jesus must return 3 ½ years after the abomination is set up in the Temple? If this is true, then we can know the year, month and even the day of Jesus’ Second Coming, if we accurately record to time the abomination is set up.
Well, what is the abomination that brings desolation? If we compare what Jesus says to what occurred during the reign of Antiochus Epiphanes, we would find it wasn’t the sacrifice of swine’s flesh that brought the desolation of the Temple. It was the corruption of the priesthood. Few Christians today understand how corrupt the Jewish priesthood was during the 1st century AD. They were all appointed and removed by Gentile kings. The office was bought by the highest bidder and these same authorities made the Temple a market place and a den of thieves. They rejected Jesus as Messiah and pressured Rome to crucify him. They continually tried to do the same with Paul when he was in prison. They were responsible for every persecution of believers in Christ before 70 AD with the possible exception of Nero’s persecution, but Nero was a personal friend of Annas, the high priest, who was responsible for the crucifixion of Jesus. So, did Nero persecute Christians on his own initiative, or was he influenced by Jewish authorities in Jerusalem? It was the corruption of the priesthood and their leading the Jewish nation away from God that brought desolation to Jerusalem and the Temple, just as the same was true in the days of Antiochus Epiphanes.
The corruption of those authorities in charge of the house of God and their leading the nation away from God was the abomination that brought desolation 160-70 years before Christ, and it was the same type of corruption and leadership that brought about the end of the nation and the destruction of the Temple in 70 AD. The abomination was set up at the time of Stephen’s death, as is made clear by the scattering abroad of the Hellenist believers (Acts 8:1; Matthew 24:15-16). They left Judea just as Jesus warned them to do. The Apostles stayed but their time of escape came during the reign of Herod Agrippa in Acts 12. The remaining believers were the ultra conservatives under the leadership of James, the Lord’s brother. They began leaving cir. 60 AD when James was killed, but in mass when Roman armies first surrounded Jerusalem. Each time the persecution of believers intensified one of Annas’ family was the reigning high priest. Was this by coincidence or was it by the design of a very evil and influential authority dwelling in Jerusalem?
To summarize, the persecution of God’s people was not an indicator of the proximity of either the end of the age or the coming of Christ. The fact is, according to Luke it was the first event to occur, and it would continue off and on until the very end did occur. Thus far, in writing about the Olivet Prophecy we cannot point to a single thing that would help us understand the day, hour, month or even the year of Jesus’ Second Coming. On the contrary, it doesn’t seem that the Olivet Prophecy concerns the Second Coming as we have come to understand it. Rather, Jesus was pointing to events that would transpire in the 1st century AD, leading up to the time he would begin to reign from the heavens and commence his judgment of Jerusalem and the Temple.