The Olivet Discourse
Matthew 24, 25; Mark 13; Luke 21
Matthew 24 is a crucial passage for understanding the second coming of the Lord Jesus Christ; however, it is one of the most difficult in the whole of Scripture and has been an exegetical battleground with no absolute consensus even among those who take the Bible seriously as God’s Word.
Matthew 24 is in the context of the scathing denunciation of Matthew 23, which ends with these words: “Look, your house is left to you desolate. 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 23:38, 39).
Jesus’ words prompt his disciples to point out the beautiful Temple buildings to him (24:1). He responds: “Do you see all these things?” he asked. “I tell you the truth, not one stone here will be left on another; every one will be thrown down.”
This in turn leads his disciples to ask three questions in verse 3:
(1) “Tell us,” they said, “when will this happen,
(2) and what will be the sign of your coming
(3) and of the end of the age?”
We must not ignore these three questions nor should we fuse them as if they were all one.
Jesus begins to answer these three questions by laying out
signposts of his kingdom, the kinds of things that point to the future judgment
of God, but do not give us any clear or necessary indication of the time of that
event. Such things as the coming of false Christs, false prophets, wars and
rumors of wars occur in every age. But there is an implication that such things
will experience an intensification near the end: “All these are the beginning of
birth pains” (24:8). Even so, they do not enable us absolutely to predict what
will happen next and give us no instructions for a specific action to be taken.
That all changes with what follows in verse 15: “So when you see standing in the holy place ‘the abomination that causes desolation,’ spoken of through the prophet Daniel—let the reader understand—then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains.” Here a specific sign is given that calls for specific action: the abomination of desolation that calls for Christians to flee from Jerusalem. Matthew and Mark both refer to this as the abomination of desolation, but add the words “let the reader understand.” Luke simply paraphrases our Lord’s words: “When you see Jerusalem being surrounded by armies, you will know that its desolation is near” (Luke 21:20). In other words, this abomination of desolation refers to Jerusalem’s being surrounded by pagan armies. Jesus indicated that this would occur within the time frame of the generation of those with whom he spoke (Matthew 23:36; 24:34).
According to the sycophantic propagandist for the Roman Flavians, the defeated Jewish general, Josephus, who witnessed the city's destruction in A.D. 70, Jerusalem was surrounded by Roman armies in A.D. 66, who then inexplicably withdrew:
It then happened that Cestius was not conscious either how the besieged despaired of success, nor, how courageous the people were for him; and so he recalled his soldiers from the place, and by despairing of any expectation of taking it, without having received any disgrace, he retired from the city, without any reason in the world [Flavius Josephus. The Wars of the Jews; or The History of the Destruction of Jerusalem. trans. William Whiston. (In Josephus Complete Works) (Grand Rapids: Kregel Publications, 1970), p. 496 (II, xix, 5)].
According to the historian of the Ancient Church, Eusebius, it was then that the believers remembered the warning of our Lord and fled the city:
Moreover, the people of the church at Jerusalem, in accordance with a certain oracle that was vouchsafed by way of revelation to the approved men there, had been commanded to depart from the city before the war, and to inhabit a certain city of Peraea. They called it Pella. And when those who believed in Christ had removed from Jerusalem, as if holy men had utterly deserted both the royal metropolis of the Jews itself and the whole land of Judaea, the Justice of God then visited upon them all their acts of violence to Christ and his apostles, by destroying that generation of wicked persons root and branch from among men [Eusebius. History III, 5. 3. (In J. Stevenson. A New Eusebius, Documents Illustrative of the History of the Church to A.D. 337. (London: S. P. C. K., 1968), pp. 6, 7].
This event, which was future for Jesus’ audience, is not
future for us; it was fulfilled in real time and space over 1937 years ago. It
is not the second coming of Christ, but is typologically related to it.
What follows this appearance of the abomination of desolation may be described as the Jewish dark ages. Luke puts it this way: “There will be great distress in the land and wrath against this people. They will fall by the sword and will be taken as prisoners to all the nations. Jerusalem will be trampled on by the Gentiles until the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled” (Luke 21: 23, 24). For over 1900 years this occurred. The Jewish people were exiled from their homeland and lived in fear of pogroms, with darkness and despair hanging over them.
Biblical language sometimes uses a particular genre to describe such an eclipse of a civilization:
There will be signs in the sun, moon and stars. On the earth, nations will be in anguish and perplexity at the roaring and tossing of the sea. Men will faint from terror, apprehensive of what is coming on the world, for the heavenly bodies will be shaken (Luke 21:25, 26).
Immediately after the distress of those days the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light; the stars will fall from the sky, and the heavenly bodies will be shaken (Matthew 24:29).
This apocalyptic language is apt to be misread by people who are not familiar with its parallels in the Old Testament. There, for example, we read of the fall of the city of Babylon to the Medo-Persian Empire in 539 B.C. in similar terms:
See, the day of the LORD is coming—a cruel day, with wrath and fierce anger—to make the land desolate and destroy the sinners within it. The stars of heaven and their constellations will not show their light. The rising sun will be darkened and the moon will not give its light. Therefore I will make the heavens tremble; and the earth will shake from its place at the wrath of the LORD Almighty, in the day of his burning anger (Isaiah 13:9, 10, 13).
Yet, this is not the second coming of Christ, nor were any of these signs literally fulfilled in 539; this is simply an apocalyptic way of referring to the eclipse of Babylonian power by the Medes and Persians:
See, I will stir up against them the Medes, who do not care for silver and have no delight in gold. Their bows will strike down the young men; they will have no mercy on infants nor will they look with compassion on children. Babylon, the jewel of kingdoms, the glory of the Babylonians' pride, will be overthrown by God like Sodom and Gomorrah (Isaiah 13:17-19).
We must not confuse apocalypticism with mere non literalism. These events are connected to the second coming of Christ and the judgments that surround it. Every tragedy in history is a signpost of the judgment of God that serves as a warning for people to repent and come to Christ. That history is replete with such days of the Lord does not rule out a final and ultimate day of the Lord, to which all such events point. Our Lord's sovereignly permitting the wicked Flavians to destroy Jerusalem is like the judgment that will one day come on planet earth, but it is not one and the same.
Christians were able to escape the great tribulation that came on the Jews around A.D. 70. But they had to take specific action and leave the city. They were not to go back into their homes to rescue their earthly treasures: such action could have cost them their lives (Matthew 24:17 ff.). But such action is not necessary at the time of Christ’s second coming:
. . . That is how it will be at the coming of the Son of Man. Two men will be in the field; one will be taken and the other left. Two women will be grinding with a hand mill; one will be taken and the other left (Matthew 24:39-41).
In the event of Matthew 24:17 ff., the destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70, people could do something. In the event of Matthew 24:36 ff., the action is done to them. They are raptured off the earth and caught up to be with the Lord. Obviously, we are looking at two separate things, separate but similar, because they are both manifestations of divine intervention in mercy and judgment. The event in A.D. 70 is penultimate and has already taken place. The second coming of Christ is ultimate and still future for us.
The most difficult section of the Olivet Discourse is found in
24:30-35 -- what I will call the transition section, where our Lord shifts
himself from answering the disciples’ first question, about the destruction of
the Temple, to his dealing with their second and third questions, his second
coming and the end of the age. What precedes and what follows this section are
both fairly clear: the first part referring to the destruction of the Jewish
political and religious institutions and the second part referring to the return
Matthew 24:30-35 is somewhat cloudy for several reasons: firstly, because it is a transition passage it deals both with what precedes and what follows. Secondly, our Lord himself plainly tells us that not even he knew the time of his return, only the Father. Thirdly, I believe our Lord deliberately keeps from a sharp delineation between the two events because of a theological truth, the kind of thing that one sometimes encounters in biblical typology: Jesus is the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world, but he was not incarnate in the form of Pascal lambs. The dramatic turn of events in A. D. 70, like the judgments on specific nations in the Old Testament, was a manifestation of the day of the Lord, but it did not exhaustively fulfill prophecy regarding the final day of the Lord which is still future for us.
I think that the following footnote in loc. in The Jerusalem Bible states this rather well:
Let me digress on the second reason for a moment. The Lord Jesus Christ, who is both fully divine and fully human, in his human nature, was ignorant of certain things and specifically mentions the time of his second coming as one of those things. That means that in his perfect, yet finite human understanding, even if he thought that his second coming would be at a particular time, he did not know that with certainty.
Their fusion in this way is a theological expression of truth: though separated in time, these two are inseparable in the sense that the first is the inevitable forerunner and prefiguration of the second. The destruction of Jerusalem marks the end of the Old Covenant—Christ has thus manifestly returned to inaugurate his kingly rule. Such a decisive intervention in the history of salvation will not occur again until the end of time when God will judge the whole human race . . . No other intervention of God in history so involves the whole cosmos or prophesies its end as this one does, and the actual end of the world will be no more than the climax of all this.
One of the motifs in our song of hope is the imminence of the
second coming of Christ. His coming was at hand for the believers living before
A.D. 70; it was at hand for the Reformers; and it is at hand for us. The Apostle
Peter addresses this issue when he says, “But do not forget this one thing, dear
friends: With the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are
like a day. The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand
slowness. He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to
come to repentance. But the day of the Lord will come like a thief. The heavens
will disappear with a roar; the elements will be destroyed by fire, and the
earth and everything in it will be laid bare” (2 Peter 3:8-10). God’s delay is
rooted in his love for humankind: “not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to
come to repentance.” And from the perspective of eternity—God’s always, and one
day ours—all the dreadful sufferings of this life are but, “slight momentary
affliction,” and it “is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all
comparison” (2 Corinthians 4:17).
Imminence is not the only motif in our song of hope; we also have the intensifying fugue of a great world-wide revival sounded against the rise of dreadful evil, climaxing in the manifestation of the future man of sin. This future man of sin has had his typological predecessors such as the first century Roman rulers, Caligula, Nero, and Domitian, and their second century B.C., Seleucid predecessor, Antiochus Epiphanes, the antichrist who was opposed by the Maccabees.
We must not allow any of these motifs to drown out the others, or we will become eschatologically imbalanced, thereby failing to challenge God’s people to live as they ought in this present world. Nor must we allow our human need to remove tensions and neatly box up our theology in a logically consistent box to press the doctrine of the imminence of Christ’s return to mean that he had to return in the life time of his first disciples.
Having said that, let us now look specifically at our Lord’s words in Matthew 24:30-35:
At that time the sign of the Son of Man will appear in the sky, and all the nations of the earth will mourn. They will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of the sky, with power and great glory. And he will send his angels with a loud trumpet call, and they will gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of the heavens to the other (24:30, 31).
While I believe that this passage could be understood in light
of apocalyptic genre of Christ’s agent, Titus, destroying Jewish civilization
and the global spread of the gospel that followed in the succeeding centuries of
Christianity (gathering his elect from the four winds), I think that it is more
natural to read it as referring to Christ’s second coming, namely, that the next
major event following the Jews being plunged into the darkness of their exile in
unbelief would be our Lord’s (to us still future) return. The gathering of the
elect, according to my understanding of the text, would be the rapture of the
Church. This fits in well with what Paul teaches in 1 Thessalonians 4:13 ff.
The next verses are more difficult for the occidental mind:
Now learn this lesson from the fig tree: As soon as its twigs get tender and its leaves come out, you know that summer is near. Even so, when you see all these things, you know that it is near, right at the door (24:32, 33).
There are some irresolvable ambiguities in verses 32 through
35. For example, should the third person, singular, present, active, indicative
form of the verb to be, be translated as “it is,” or “he is?” If, as I think, it
is best translated as “it is,” then it is referring to the destruction of
Jerusalem in A.D. 70. On the other hand, grammatically speaking, it could just
as easily be translated as “he is;” in which case it would refer to Christ’s
In my understanding of the text, our Lord, whose style is not reflective of what we in the West assume is proper, contrasts these two events. Having mentioned his second coming, he now points his disciples once again to the destruction of Jerusalem. Unlike his second coming, which has no definite warning in terms of a specific, predictable time, the destruction of Jerusalem does. Hence “the lesson from the fig tree” from which the disciples were to learn and follow.
Taking 24:32, 33 to refer to the destruction of Jerusalem, the next two verses are very clear:
I tell you the truth, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away (24:34, 35).
Our Lord’s words were literally fulfilled. The Greek word
translated “generation” may be translated by “race, kind,” but also refers to
“the sum total of those born at the same time, expanded to include all those
living at a given time and freq. defined in terms of specific characteristics,
generation, contemporaries” [Danker, Frederick, Walter Bauer, W. F. Arndt and F.
W. Gingrich, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early
Christian Literature, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000), p. 191].
If it is translated by race or nation, then our Lord is saying that the Jewish
people would never be fully destroyed. If it is translated by generation, in the
sense of Jesus’ contemporaries, then the Lord is saying that some of the people
who were listening to him would be alive when the Temple was destroyed, when
“not one stone here will be left on another; every one will be thrown down.”
From Matthew 24:36 through 25:46, the passage is relatively unambiguous and clearly refers to our Lord’s answer to the disciples’ questions regarding his second coming. Certain things stand out. The theme throughout the parables of this section is that, unlike the destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70, there will be no warning sign, which believers can observe and then act upon. The time of the second coming will be utterly unexpected:
24:36 No one knows about that day or hour, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.
24:39 . . .they knew nothing about what would happen until the flood came and took them all away. That is how it will be at the coming of the Son of Man.
24:42 Therefore keep watch, because you do not know on what day your Lord will come.
24:44 So you also must be ready, because the Son of Man will come at an hour when you do not expect him.
24:50 The master of that servant will come on a day when he does not expect him and at an hour he is not aware of.
25:13 Therefore keep watch, because you do not know the day or the hour.
Again, unlike the predicted destruction of Jerusalem within forty years (a generation, Matthew 23:36; 24:34), the Lord Jesus teaches the possibility that his second coming may be much further off than we might imagine. This is obvious in three of his parables in the discourse, as is seen from the following verses:
24:48 But suppose that servant is wicked and says to himself, ‘My master is staying away a long time.’
25:5 The bridegroom was a long time in coming, and they all became drowsy and fell asleep.
25:14, 19 Again, it will be like a man going on a journey, who called his servants and entrusted his property to them. After a long time the master of those servants returned and settled accounts with them.