Matthew 24 and the Olivet Discourse - Part I
Aside from the book of Revelation, there is hardly a more important section of Scripture on the subject of biblical eschatology than Matthew 24, the famous Olivet Discourse delivered by Jesus to his disciples shortly before his betrayal by Judas. Many Christians simply assume that Jesus is describing the end of human history and his second advent. But could it be that Jesus was actually describing, in response to his disciples’ question, the fall of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Temple in 70 a.d.' Or perhaps Jesus was describing both the events of 70 a.d. and the end of human history. I will argue in this study for the former, but with an openness to the possibility that Jesus envisioned the events of 70 a.d. as a microcosmic foreshadowing of the macrocosmic events associated with his second advent. A close examination of this passage is essential. It will be done in three parts.
An Overview of Mt. 24:1-31
1. We must first observe the theological context. Jesus has repeatedly predicted that a time is coming when God will punish national Israel for her sin and rebellious rejection of the Messiah - Mt. 21:33-36 (esp. v. 43); Mt. 22:1-14 (esp. v. 7); Mt. 23:29-36 (esp. vv. 35-36); Mt. 23:37-39 (esp. v. 38). All this would be visibly and gruesomely consummated in the destruction of Jerusalem and its Temple in 70 a.d.
2. These predictions, especially the one in Mt. 23:38 pertaining to the Temple, provoke a response of concerned inquiry by the disciples - Mt. 24:1; Mark 13:1.
3. Jesus shocks the disciples yet again by confirming his prediction of the destruction of the Temple in even more explicit terms - Mt. 24:2; Mark 13:2.
4. The disciples are dumbfounded as well as curious, asking him: "When will all this happen and what will be the sign of your coming at the end of the age?" - Mt. 24:3; Mark 13:3.
5. Jesus responds with two crucial answers: First, he tells them when the Temple will be destroyed, but, second, he also tells them that, contrary to their expectations, his second coming and the end of the age are not to occur at that time (i.e., not at the same time as the destruction of the Temple). In other words, the destruction of the Temple can be dated by signs, but the second coming of Christ cannot. [However, see the discussion below on 24:3 for an alternative understanding of “the end of the age”.]
6. Matthew 24:4-28 thus contain a description of events prior to and inclusive of the destruction of the Temple.
1) vv. 4-14 = refer to events that are to characterize the entire period from 33-70 a.d., none of which, in themselves, are signs that the end of the city and its Temple are immediately at hand.
2) vv. 15-28 = refer to the one sign that indicates the prophesied destruction is about to occur. Whereas the events of vv. 4-14 are characteristic of the time, and signal only the beginning of birth pains, v. 15 provides a sign (the "abomination of desolation") that unmistakably confirms the consummation of God's judgment against Israel has come.
The debate surfaces with the interpretation of vv. 29-31. Three views contend for our allegiance: (1) Vv. 29-31 describe the second coming at the end of history. (2) V. 29 describes the present inter-advent age, while vv. 30-31 portray the second coming. (3) Vv. 29-31 have nothing to say about the second coming of Christ. Rather, they are a symbolic description of the fall of Jerusalem in 70 a.d. and the inauguration of the church age in which the gospel is proclaimed and the elect of God are saved.
7. This period of unprecedented tribulation (66-70 a.d.) inaugurates or introduces a time of undetermined length, during which tribulation will be prominent, during which also we are alertly to look for the second coming of Christ. This is the present age in which we live, called by Luke "the times of the Gentiles" (Lk. 21:24; cf. Rom. 11:25).
It should be noted that some argue that “the times of the Gentiles” (Luke 21:24) was the very short span of time between the beginning of the siege of Jerusalem and the city’s final destruction. In other words, “the times of the Gentiles” does not refer to the present age but to that period 66-70 a.d. during which the Gentiles (in particular, the Romans) “trampled under foot” Jerusalem and destroyed her temple. If so, “the ‘trampling’ then refers to the physical acts involved in laying waste the city” (Walker, Jesus and the Holy City, 101, n. 167).
8. Thus, "the tribulation of those days" (v. 29) refers to all that occurred from 33 to 70 a.d., with special reference to the events relating to the siege and sack of Jerusalem in 66-70 a.d. (called the "great tribulation" in v. 21).
9. The generation to whom Jesus was speaking would live to see "all these things" occur, "these things" being a reference to the events leading up to and including the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple - Mt. 24:34-35.
10. Although there will be signs and events indicating when the Temple will fall, the second coming of Jesus at the end of the age will be unannounced: so be prepared (vv. 36-51). "That day and hour" (v. 36) refers to the day of Christ's coming described in vv. 37-51.
Although this entire present age intervening between the first and second comings of Christ is one of tribulation, trial and distress, the so-called Great Tribulation mentioned in v. 21 (and described in vv. 15-28; and perhaps also in vv. 29-31) has already come and gone. It is to be identified with the siege on Jerusalem during the years 66-70 a.d., which culminated in the destruction of the city and its Temple by the armies of Rome (the latter being the "abomination of desolation" referred to in v. 15). Thus "The Great Tribulation" of Mt. 24:21 (called "days of vengeance" in Lk. 21:22 and "days of affliction" in Mk. 13:19) is not a future event but an established fact of past history.
There are several initial reasons why I understand the passage in this way:
First, the context pertains to the predictions of God's wrath against the current generation of Israel, especially Mt. 23:35,36,38. This leads to the expectation of fulfillment at that historical moment.
Second, the question posed by the disciples pertained to the temple then standing in Jerusalem, out of which they had just departed, at which they were then looking, and about whose prophesied destruction they were wondering.
Third, Jesus' answer pertains to the then-standing temple, not some future temple (cf. v. 2).
Fourth, the circumstances described in vv. 15-22 are geographically, historically, and culturally limited to conditions relevant in the first century.
Fifth, the entire section is couched in terms of what his actual (original) hearers are to see, hear, and experience. One cannot easily dismiss the repeated use of the second person in Jesus’ warnings and instructions (e.g., “you will be hearing” [24:6], “see that you are not frightened” [24:6], “they will deliver you to tribulation, and will kill you, and you will be hated” [24:9], “therefore when you see the abomination of desolation” [24:15], “if anyone says to you” [24:23], “I have told you in advance” [24:25], “even so you too, when you see all these things” [24:33]).
Sixth, and most important of all, Jesus says that this prophetic scenario applies to "this generation" (v. 34). Some try to evade this point by arguing that the word translated "generation" actually means "race" and that Jesus, therefore, was simply saying that the "Jewish race" would not die out until all these things took place. But:
a. this would require the Greek word genos, whereas the word here is genea;
b. the word genea occurs 27x in the gospels and neveronce means "race" (Mt. 1:17; 11:16; 12:39,41,42,45; 16:4; 17:17; 23:36; 24:34; Mk. 8:12,38; 9:19; 13:30; Lk. 1:48,50; 7:31; 9:41; 11:29,30,31,32,50,51; 16:8; 17:25; 21:32);
c. the word “generation” is used elsewhere in Matthew (and the other gospels) of those living in Christ’s day (see Mt. 12:38-39; 16:4; 17:17).
d. every time the words "this generation" occur in the gospels they mean Jesus' contemporaries, i.e., the sum total of those living at the same time he did. Read Mt. 11:16; 12:41,42,45; and esp. 23:36;
e. the adjective "this" points to the contemporary nature of the generation Jesus had in mind; if he had in mind a future generation he would more likely have chosen the adjective "that".
In sum: “Surely Jesus does not denounce the first-century temple in which He is standing (24:1) by declaring it ‘desolate’ (23:38), prophesying its total destruction (24:2), then answering the question ‘when shall these things be?’ (v. 3), and warning about the temple’s ‘abomination of desolation’ (v. 15) only to speak about the destruction of a totally different temple some two thousand years (or more) later!” (Gentry, The Great Tribulation, p. 24).
Their "house," i.e., the temple, is being left desolate. This speaks as much of God's departure from the temple as it does of the physical destruction yet to come. See Ezek. 10:18-19; 11:22-23. Its physical destruction "is only the outward completion of God's repudiation of it, which will be symbolized in 24:1 when Jesus leaves it, never to return" (R. T. France, 332).
N.B. Observe the emphasis on it being "your house" which is being left to "you". It is just that: your house, no longer God's.
Jesus and his disciples leave the temple, not only geographically and physically but spiritually and symbolically. The glory of God's presence has departed. They cross over the Kidron Valley and climb up the western slope of the Mt. of Olives. There, as they look back over the valley at the magnificence of the temple in full view, the disciples approach Jesus with a question. See also Mk. 13:1; Lk. 21:5-6. Undoubtedly their question arises from the confusion and consternation caused by Jesus' words in 23:38.
Micah (3:12) and Jeremiah (7:12-14) had dared to make similar predictions of Solomon's temple in the 6th c. b.c., both of which were fulfilled in 587 b.c. By the time of Jesus, however, it was generally believed among the Jews that the temple was indestructible.
From their question it appears the disciples believed that the destruction of the temple and Christ's second coming were to occur simultaneously. They believed the temple was as permanent as the world itself. Only the end of the latter, therefore, could bring the end of the former. Jesus says No. The two events are not simultaneous. The temple will fall in the lifetime of "this generation" but there will then follow a lengthy delay before the second coming of Christ.
Some interpreters contend that the three questions asked in v. 3 have a single focus. The disciples were asking about the time when Jesus would “come” in judgment to destroy the temple and bring the Jewish “age” to an end. These interpreters, among whom N. T. Wright is the most articulate, point out that “within the mainline Jewish writings of this period, covering a wide range of styles, genres, political persuasions and theological perspectives, there is virtually no evidence the Jews were expecting the end of the space-time universe. . . . What, then, did they believe was going to happen? They believed that the present world order would come to an end – the world order in which pagans held power, and Jews, the covenant people of the creator God, did not” (Wright, The New Testament and the People of God, 333).
The disciples, then, were “looking for the fulfillment of Israel’s hopes, for the story told so often in Israel’s scriptures to reach its appointed climax. And the ‘close of the age’ for which they longed was not the end of the space-time order, but the end of the present evil age . . ., and the introduction of the (still very much this-worldly) age to come . . . – in other words, the end of Israel’s period of mourning and exile and the beginning of her freedom and vindication. Matthew 24.3, therefore, is most naturally read, in its first-century Jewish context, not as a question about (what scholars have come to call, in technical language) the ‘parousia’, but as a question about Jesus’ ‘coming’ or ‘arriving’ [parousia] in the sense of his actual enthronement as king, consequent upon the dethronement of the present powers that were occupying the holy city. . . .The question . . . seen from within the story the disciples have in their minds, must be read to mean: When will you come in your kingdom? When will the evil age, symbolized by the present Jerusalem regime, be over?” (Jesus and the Victory of God, 345-46).
These verses are designed to prevent premature excitement and speculation about when the events of v. 3 would occur. "Don't jump to any hasty conclusions," says Jesus. The main point is that these are not signs of the impending destruction of Jerusalem nor are they signs of Christ's second advent. These events are only the beginning of birth pains. They serve no purpose at all in telling us when or how soon Jesus is coming back. They are events which will characterize the period 33 to 70 a.d.
1. Religious impostors and Messianic pretenders (v. 5)
See Acts 5:36-37; 8:9-10; 13:6; 21:38. Josephus reports that during the reign of Nero deceivers and false prophets were arrested on a daily basis. In his Ecclesiastical History, Eusebius refers to the prevalence of false messiahs in this period.
2. Increased military conflict (v. 6)
The period 33-70 a.d. witnessed countless military disturbances. An uprising in Caesarea took 20,000 Jewish lives; at Scythopolis 13,000 Jews were killed; in Alexandria 50,000 were slain; 10,000 were killed in Damascus. Josephus reports that when the Emperor Caligula ordered his statue to be erected in the temple at Jerusalem (40 a.d.), the Jews refused. As a result, they lived in a state of fearful anxiety over imminent war with Rome and were in such distress that they even neglected to till the land.
The Annals of Tacitus, which describes events from a.d. 14 to a.d. 68 describes the turmoil of this period with phrases such as "disturbances in Germany," "commotions in Africa," "commotions in Thrace," "insurrections in Gaul," "intrigues among the Parthians," "the war in Britain," and "the war in Armenia" (cf. DeMar, 62).
The "end" (v. 6) refers to the end or termination of Jewish national existence; the end of the city; the end of the temple.
3. Political upheaval and turmoil (v. 7a)
The incredible extent to which political and military revolution were in the air in Palestine alone during the first half of the first century has been documented at length by N. T. Wright in chp. 6 of his book, The New Testament and the People of God (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1992).
4. Natural disasters (v. 7b)
The famine described in Acts 11:28 occurred in 44 a.d. It resulted in the disciples at Antioch mounting a huge relief effort to ease the burden of the Christians in Judea (Acts 11:29). Three other famines occurred during the reign of Claudius. The Roman historians Tacitus and Seutonius both mention the prevalence of famines in this period of history (in particular the widespread famine in Rome in a.d. 51).
Earthquakes were also common. See Acts 16:26. There were recorded earthquakes in Crete, Smyrna, Miletus, Chios, Samos, Apamea, Campania, and Rome. The cities of Laodicea, Hierapolis, and Colossae were devastated by a quake in 60 a.d. In 58 a.d. Seneca wrote:
"How often have the cities of Asia and Achaea fallen with one fatal shock! How many cities have been swallowed up in Syria! How many in Macedonia! How often has Paphos become a ruin. News has often been brought to us of the demolition of whole cities at once."
(In Luke 21:11 we read about "terrors and great signs from heaven," which when taken in the immediate context of famines and earthquakes probably refers to natural phenomena. In particular, we know that a comet appeared around 60 a.d. during Nero’s reign, leading to public speculation that some change in the political scene was imminent. Then Halley's Comet appeared in 66 a.d. Not long after this, Nero committed suicide. Josephus wrote in The War of the Jews that “there was a star resembling a sword, which stood over the city, and a comet, that continued a whole year” [6:5:3,742].)
(As v. 8 makes clear, none of these "sorrows" were meant at any time to mislead Christians into thinking that either his second coming was imminent or that God's judgments against Jerusalem were about to begin.)
5. Persecution and Martyrdom (vv. 9-10)
Mark’s version reads as follows: "But be on your guard; for they will deliver you to the courts and you will be flogged in the synagogues, and you will stand before governors and kings for My sake, as a testimony to them" (13:9). The reference to "courts/councils/synagogues" indicates that Jesus has in mind first-century fulfillment. After 70 a.d., when the Jewish religious and political systems ceased to exist, there were no councils or synagogues. We see fulfillment of this word in Acts 4:1-18; 5:17-40 (synagogues); 12:1; 23:24; 24:27 (governors and kings). See also Acts 8:1.
The reality of v. 10 is caused by the pressures and pains of v. 9 (cf. 1 Jn. 2:19; 2 Tim. 1:15 [“all those in Asia have turned away from me”]; 4:10 [“Demas has forsaken me, having loved this present world”], 16 [“at my first defense no one stood with me, but all forsook me”).
6. False prophets (v. 11)
One need only remember that much of what we read in Galatians, Colossians, 2 Corinthians, 2 Timothy, 2 Peter, 1 John, and Jude was written to counter the activity and influence of false prophets in the early church. See especially Paul’s warning in Acts 20:29-30; Rom. 16:17-18; 2 Cor. 11:13; Gal. 2:4; and Peter’s in 2 Pt. 4:1; and John’s in 1 John 4:1.
7. Religious insurrection and indifference (v. 12)
(Perseverance, according to v. 13, is the proof of eternal life. The "end" may mean, "right through, all the way, perhaps to the end of one's life".)
8. Worldwide preaching of the gospel (v. 14)
How could this possibly have occurred in the period 33-70 a.d.' It may at first seem strange, but “fundamental principles of interpretation lead us to bear in mind contextual clues: the time indicator (‘this generation’), the audience (the disciples who ask about the temple), the specific concern (the destruction of the temple), and the harmony of the preceding signs with the first-century experience. All of these should dispose us to seek a first-century fulfillment of this verse” (Gentry, The Great Tribulation, 44). Note two important facts:
a. The words "whole world" (NASB) are a translation of the term oikoumene, which literally means an inhabited area, a standard term at that time for the Greek world, then for the Roman empire, and subsequently for the then known world. The same Greek word is used in Luke 2:1 – “Now it came about in those days that a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that a census be taken of all the inhabited earth” (oikoumene). In Acts 11:28 we read that “one of them, named Agabus, stood up and showed by the Spirit that there was going to be a great famine throughout all the world, which also happened in the days of Claudius Caesar.” Again, in Acts 24:5, “For we have found this man (Paul) a plague, a creator of dissension among all the Jews throughout the world, and a ringleader of the sect of the Nazarenes.” As Gentry notes, “a surface reading of these texts suggests global events. Yet we know these ‘world’ events happen within the Roman empire of the first century” (44). The reference to the "nations" also indicates that the point is not that every geographical area on the globe must be covered but that all the nations, i.e., Gentiles, must be reached. Did this occur? This leads to the second point.
b. Writing before the fall of Jerusalem in 70 a.d., Paul says to the Colossians:
" . . . the word of truth, the gospel, which has come to you, just as in all the world also it is constantly bearing fruit and increasing, even as it has been doing in you also since the day you heard of it and understood the grace of God in truth" (1:5b-6).
Again, Paul refers to the gospel
" . . . that you have heard, which was proclaimed in all creation under heaven, and of which I, Paul, was made a minister" (1:23).
"First, I thank my God through Jesus Christ for you all, because your faith is being proclaimed throughout the whole world" (Romans 1:8; cf. 10:18).
Thus, prior to 70 a.d. the inhabited earth had indeed heard the gospel, precisely in fulfillment of Jesus’ prophecy in Matthew 24.
To be continued . . .