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 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! Nevertheless, 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 first century AD (Romans 10:14-18; 15:18-21; 16:25-26; Colossians 1:6, 23). While it may be a grand idea to preach the Gospel to every people group throughout the world, Jesus did not say this would be true before his coming. It simply is not foretold in the Olivet Prophecy!
Instead, Jesus spoke of the generation that crucified him. He did not speak about us when he referred to the end of the age. Rather, he spoke of the Jews and the end of the Old Covenant. 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 first century AD. In fact, everything Jesus predicted in the Olivet Prophecy occurred between his crucifixion and 70 AD, so why would we believe those things must be fulfilled twice before Jesus returns to this earth? Where do the Scriptures claim these things must be done more than once, and if they need to occur only once, shouldn’t we look for Jesus’ Second Coming in the first century AD?
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 were true, then we or folks in the first century AD could know the year, month and even the day of Jesus’ Second Coming. All we would need would be an accurate record to time the abomination is set up. Yet, the angels in heaven knew not only accurate chronology, but also when the abomination was set up. Nevertheless, this knowledge didn’t help them (Matthew 24:36).
Well, what is the abomination that brought 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. The high priests or leaders of the priesthood and the nation were all appointed and removed by gentile rulers. 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. The hight priests, especially the family of Annas, 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 high 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 in 66 AD. 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 the end of the age, i.e. 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 looking at the Olivet Prophecy, it seems that our modern understanding of Jesus coming in our day, 2000 years removed from Jesus’ crucifixion, wasn’t predicted by Jesus. Instead, he spoke only of that generation of his own day (Matthew 24:34), leading me to believe the so called Second Coming occurred cir. 66-70 AD, and the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple is the sign of his coming, exposing our modern doctrine of “delay” as a wicked and evil matter (cf. Matthew 24:48).