Much attention is being given these days to what is known as The Olivet Discourse, found in three of the four gospel accounts: Matthew 24, Mark 13, and Luke 21. Jesus delivered this famous address from the Mount of Olives just days before His crucifixion. Many today are linking this narrative to current events, such as recent large earthquakes and tsunamis in Japan, Haiti, New Zealand, and Indonesia. They believe these are sure signs pointing to the end of the world.
Is this how Jesus intended for us to view this prophecy? When He said, “This generation will certainly not pass away until all these things take place” (Matt. 24:34, Mark 13:30, Luke 21:32), was He speaking of a generation 2000 years into the future? Or was He speaking of His own generation, and events which were to take place in their time? When He said “this generation,” did He really mean “that generation” (one that was distant to His first century audience)? This is what we will be looking at in the four posts which will make up this series. We will examine all three accounts of this prophecy side-by-side, as I believe this will be helpful in seeing what Jesus was saying and how He intended to be understood.
In this first post, we will take a close look at the initial remarks made by Jesus’ disciples, His shocking response, and their resulting question(s) which led to His discourse. Here is that text, from the accounts of Matthew, Mark, and Luke.
|1 Jesus left the temple and was walking away when his disciples came up to him to call his attention to its buildings. 2 “Do you see all these things?” he asked. “Truly I tell you, not one stone here will be left on another; every one will be thrown down.”3 As Jesus was sitting on the Mount of Olives, the disciples came to him privately. “Tell us,” they said, “when will this happen, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?”||1As Jesus was leaving the temple, one of his disciples said to him, “Look, Teacher! What massive stones! What magnificent buildings!”2 “Do you see all these great buildings?” replied Jesus. “Not one stone here will be left on another; every one will be thrown down.”3 As Jesus was sitting on the Mount of Olives opposite the temple, Peter, James, John and Andrew asked him privately, 4 “Tell us, when will these things happen, and what will be the sign that they are all about to be fulfilled?”||
5 Some of his disciples were remarking about how the temple was adorned with beautiful stones and with gifts dedicated to God. But Jesus said, 6 “As for what you see here, the time will come when not one stone will be left on another; every one of them will be thrown down.”
7 “Teacher,” they asked, “when will these things happen, and what will be the sign that they are about to take place?”
In all three accounts we see one or more of the disciples admiring the beautiful, massive stones which made up the Second Temple. According to some Jews who encountered Jesus early in His ministry (John 2:18-22), Herod’s massive expansion project had already been going on for 46 years. Indeed, history tells us that it began in 19 BC, and that the renovations continued until 65 AD, a mere five years before the temple was destroyed by the Romans. Tacitus (56-117 AD), the Roman historian and Senator, said that the temple “was famous beyond all other works of men.”
Jesus’ response to His disciples’ remarks must have been shocking, in light of the breathtaking sight before their eyes: “Not one stone here will be left on another; every one will be thrown down.” Of course, Jesus had said this before. His ominous prophecy, though, is what prompts their next question. Or is it questions (plural)? There is only one specific question asked in all three accounts. In the accounts of Mark and Luke, at least, there should be no doubt that it’s this question which Jesus spends the next 25 or 26 verses answering: “…when will these things happen, and what will be the sign that they are about to be fulfilled?” The only thing Jesus had said would happen at this point was that all the temple’s stones would be thrown down.
Do we know from history that this temple, the same temple the disciples observed, was destroyed? Yes, we do. Josephus, the Jewish historian, for example, records in astounding detail how Jerusalem and the temple were destroyed in 70 AD after a horrendous 5-month siege (see here, here, and here to learn more about what happened). According to both Mark and Luke, the signs that Jesus gave in the next 25 verses (in Luke’s case) and the next 26 verses (in Mark’s case) were to precede the downfall of the temple. In the next couple of posts, we will look at those prophesied signs, which include earthquakes and other calamities. Many today are saying that these same prophesied signs are happening in our own day, and that this means we are only now about to see Jesus’ prophecies fulfilled. How can this be, though, if they were to happen before a prophesied event which we know took place 1,941 years ago?
Only in Matthew’s account do the disciples perhaps appear to ask two additional questions:  about Jesus’ coming and  about “the end of the age.” For those who believe that Matthew 24 has yet to be fulfilled, it’s often these questions which are said to indicate a required future fulfillment, despite the fact that they don’t even appear in Mark’s and Luke’s parallel accounts. It’s common these days to see a division of questions, as if the disciples asked about the near future as well as the very distant future, but as this study continues we’ll see that it wasn’t so common in earlier church history. Thomas Newton, a well-known English cleric, scholar, and author, said the following in 1754 about this passage:
‘The coming of Christ,’ and ‘the conclusion of the age,’ being therefore only different expressions to denote the same period with the destruction of Jerusalem, the purpose of the question plainly is, when shall the destruction of Jerusalem be, and what shall be the signs of it?
Background to Jesus’ Promised Coming: Matthew 10:23 and 16:27-28
What prompted the disciples to ask about Jesus’ coming, especially in the context of what He said about the temple’s impending destruction? Where had Jesus previously spoken of His coming, and what had He said about this event? Jesus had in fact spoken of His coming twice already in Matthew’s account. In Matthew 10:23, Jesus made this very interesting statement: “When they persecute you in one town, flee to the next, for truly, I say to you, you will not have gone through all the towns of Israel before the Son of Man comes.”[i] During the next couple of decades after Jesus said this, we can see numerous examples of Jesus and His followers doing this very thing (e.g. Matthew 12:14-15, Acts 8:1, Acts 9:23-25, Acts 9:29-30, Acts 14:5-6, Acts 17:4-10, Acts 17:13-14).
In Matthew 16:27-28, He was even more descriptive about what His coming would accomplish, and within what timeframe it would take place: “For the Son of Man is going to come with His angels in the glory of His Father, and then He will repay each person for what he has done. Truly, I say to you, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see the Son of Man coming in His kingdom.”
If this statement was fulfilled in His transfiguration six days later, as some contend, in what sense did Jesus “come with His angels” then and repay each person according to what he had done (a clear picture of judgment)? We know this didn’t happen on that occasion. We also know that none of His disciples died within those six days, but some were indeed martyred before 70 AD when Jerusalem and the temple were destroyed. To believe that Jesus hasn’t yet (in the year 2011) come back as He promised in this passage is to believe either that [a] He lied or [b] there are 2000 year old men still walking around on this planet.[ii] Let’s look at four aspects of this promised coming, as this should help us to know what was in the minds of Jesus’ disciples when they asked Him about His coming in Matthew 24:3.
1. IN HIS KINGDOM: From this text, we know that one purpose for His coming, which He promised would take place before all of His disciples had died, was to establish His kingdom. This fits perfectly with the following prophecy given to Daniel: “And in the days of those kings* the God of heaven will set up a kingdom that shall never be destroyed, nor shall the kingdom be left to another people” (Daniel 2:44). [*Biblical scholars hold a virtual consensus that the four kingdoms in Daniel’s vision were Babylon, Medo-Persia, Greece, and Rome. Since Rome was destroyed in 476 AD, we know that, for this prophecy to be true, the kingdom was set up before that time.] A first century fulfillment fits; a 21st century fulfillment doesn’t. Furthermore, the kingdom was to be given to the saints (Daniel 7:18, 22, 27). This is reminiscent of Jesus’ words in the Parable of the Tenants that the kingdom of God would soon be taken away from the Jewish leaders and their nation and given instead “to a people producing its fruits” (Matthew 21:43) – a clear description of the body of Christ. This was to happen even as the stone was to crush those who would fall (verse 44) – 1.1 million Jews killed in August/September 70 AD by the Romans would seem to qualify as a fulfillment of this prediction.
2. TO REPAY EACH PERSON: The context of Jesus’ promise to come “to repay each person” for what they had done was His foretelling of His own death and suffering at the hands of the Jewish leaders (Matt. 16:21-23), and also of the suffering that His own disciples could expect (verses 24-26). In other words, it would be for vindication. This is similar in nature to what Paul promised to the Thessalonian believers when he told them that they could expect relief “when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with His mighty angels in flaming fire, inflicting vengeance” (II Thessalonians 1:7), with the purpose being “to repay with affliction those who afflict you” (verse 6). This was imminent in their day, for Paul said that the wrath of God had already come upon the Jewish persecutors (I Thess. 2:14-16). He knew this to be true because Jesus had declared in no uncertain terms (Matthew 23:35-36) that the blood of all the prophets would be required of His own (first century) generation in Israel.
3. WITH HIS ANGELS: Just like Paul’s prophecy to the Thessalonians, Jesus’ promise to come while some of His disciples were still alive (Matt. 16:28) was also to involve His angels (“The Son of Man is going to come with His angels…”). As my good friend, Mark Church, has pointed out, all throughout the book of Revelation we see His angels pouring out judgment upon “the great city” where the Lord was crucified (Revelation 11:8) – that is, Jerusalem, the same city which was marked as a harlot because of its shedding of the blood of the saints and martyrs (Rev. 17:1-6), apostles, and prophets (Rev. 18:20-24). [For those who believe that Revelation remains unfulfilled, is there any modern nation or entity which is responsible for the martyrdom of the apostles?]
4. IN THE GLORY OF HIS FATHER: Jesus also promised to come “in the glory of His Father” (Matt. 16:27). As Don Preston well points out, this can be understood to mean that just as the Father had come in the past, Jesus would also come in the same manner. Don gives as an example Isaiah 64:1-3, where the writer declares that God had “come down” numerous times in the past:
“Oh, that You would rend the heavens and come down, that the mountains might quake at Your presence – as when fire kindles brushwood, and the fire causes water to boil – to make Your name known to Your adversaries, and that the nations might tremble at Your presence! When You did awesome things that we did not look for, You came down, the mountains quaked at Your presence.”
Just as the Father’s comings in times past had not been bodily, visible, or physical in nature, neither would the coming of Jesus in judgment be bodily, visible, or physical. We will discuss this in more depth when we come to Jesus’ predicted coming in the clouds in Matt. 24:30/Mark 13:26/Luke 21:27. We will see that there are numerous examples in the Old Testament where God is said to have come in the clouds in judgment upon various nations and enemies of His people, even examples where the language is remarkably similar to the language used in The Olivet Discourse.
So we can see from these two passages (Matt. 10:23 and 16:27-28) why Jesus’ disciples expected Him to come again in their own lifetimes. We’re also beginning to see why, in Matthew 24:3, they linked this coming to His dark prediction about the temple’s future. Other strong clues also exist in the previous two chapters (Matthew 22-23).[iii] Kevin Daly, from the South African ministry “Messianic Good News,” has this to say:
It is Jesus’ confirmation that the Temple’s fate is sealed that leads to the disciples’ question: ‘When will this happen, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?’
Some argue this to be three separate questions – so that Jesus’ answer in the subsequent verses must be unraveled and applied to three different events, namely (i) the temple’s destruction, (ii) his coming and (iii) the end of the age. But this is not supported by the parallel accounts in Mark’s and Luke’s gospels. These render the disciples’ question as follows:
‘Tell us, when will these things happen? And what will be the sign that they are all about to be fulfilled?’ (Mark 13:4)
‘Teacher,’ they asked, ‘when will these things happen? And what will be the sign that they are about to take place?’ (Luke 21:7)
In Matthew’s wording of the disciples’ question, what Jesus prophesied against the Temple would, by implication, happen at our Lord’s coming in judgment and would also, by further implication, bring about the end of that age.
Matthew phrases the question in the prophetic language of the Old Testament, which was familiar to the Jewish audience for which his gospel was written. In this language, the execution of Divine judgment was commonly spoken of as a visitation of the LORD, as either His coming or His coming in the cloud. [Consider] Micah’s prophecy against the ‘high places’ of Judah - being localities of false worship, which the Temple in Jerusalem had now become:
‘For behold, the LORD comes forth from His place, and will come down, and tread upon the high places of the earth. And the mountains shall be melted under Him, and the valleys shall be cleft, as wax before the fire, and as the waters that are poured down a steep place. For the transgression of Jacob is all this, and for the sins of the house of Israel … What are the high places of Judah? Are they not Jerusalem?’ (Micah 1:3-5).
Source: Kevin Daly, When Will These Things Happen – Matthew 24 and the Vindication of Messiah. 2009.
Micah’s prophecy was fulfilled in 586 BC when Jerusalem fell to the Babylonian armies. We know that God didn’t physically and bodily come down at that time, but He did still “come down” in judgment in fulfillment of this prophecy. It’s this same apocalyptic language that Matthew uses to speak of another and more final judgment which was about to come once again upon Jerusalem. History tells us that it did come. Some readers may be surprised to know that Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758), who preached the famous sermon “Sinners in the Hands of An Angry God,” once made this statement in his work titled “Miscellany #1199”:
“Tis evident that when Christ speaks of his coming; his being revealed; his coming in his Kingdom; or his Kingdom’s coming; He has respect to his appearing in those great works of his Power Justice and Grace, which should be in the Destruction of Jerusalem and other extraordinary Providences which should attend it [So in Luke 17:20 – 18:8].”
The way that the Olivet Discourse is popularly approached today has Jesus effectively saying this to His disciples: “You guys have asked a very interesting question about when this temple will be destroyed, but let Me ignore your question and tell you instead about some events which will begin and end about 2000 years in the future.” Rather than being about us, and our generation, Jesus addressed the concerns of His disciples regarding their own generation.
THE END OF THE AGE
Having now given considerable space to the question of Christ’s coming, we’ll give only brief space here to the disciples’ question about the end of the age. The King James Version used the expression “the end of the world” in Matthew 24:3, but most newer translations use the expression “the end of the age.” Clearly, Jesus tied the end of the age that they were speaking of to the time of His coming, which we have seen was promised to occur in their own generation.
Therefore, the disciples weren’t asking about the final days of this planet. Their question was about the end of the Old Covenant age. That age came to an end along with the destruction of the temple in 70 AD. This “end” was spoken of by Daniel and other Old Testament prophets. The book of Hebrews even speaks of the Old Covenant “becoming obsolete and growing old…ready to vanish away” (Hebrews 8:13). It vanished along with the temple. We are now in what the New Testament frequently called “the age to come.” A great transition took place a long time ago, and we are privileged to live in the New Covenant age. The heavenly Jerusalem is a present reality for God’s people (Hebrews 12:22-24). Regarding “the end” spoken of in both Matthew and Daniel, Kevin Daly provides this helpful chart:
you will hear of wars and rumours of wars … but the end is not yet
war will continue until the end
and there will be famines and pestilences and earthquakes in different places
and desolations have been decreed
then the end will come
the end will come like a flood:
“The end” spoken of in Daniel’s prophecy was clearly to be the destruction of “the city and the sanctuary” (Daniel 9:26). We know as an indisputable fact of history that Jerusalem and the temple were destroyed in 70 AD. That brought about the end of an age, the Old Covenant age. It is popularly taught today that we are living in what the Bible calls “the last days,” and that these last days began on the Day of Pentecost because of Peter’s reference to Joel’s prophecy about an outpouring in “the last days.” However, this cannot be true, because Hebrews 1:1-3, Hebrews 9:26, and I Peter 1:18-20 tell us explicitly that Jesus’ incarnational ministry took place in the last days. Therefore, Jesus appeared and ministered in the last days of an age that had clearly begun quite some time before He appeared. That age still had not ended when Paul wrote his epistle to the Corinthian church, but it was drawing even closer to the end, for he told his readers that they were those “on whom the end of the ages has come” (I Corinthians 10:11).
Rather than open this up further, or to try to defend this premise in greater depth here, I’d like to point to an earlier post on this subject which I believe you’ll find to be a good explanation of these things (HERE). You’ll see that the New Testament placed Jesus’ ministry, death, etc. in “the last days” and at “the end of the age,” and that after Jesus’ ascension the apostles still spoke of their time in the same terms. Jerry William Bowers Jr. has also compiled a very informative article, based on David Green’s 101 Time Statements showing that John the Baptist, Jesus, and the early church were not only consistent, but also correct, when they repeatedly stated that certain events were near, at hand, about to take place, etc. That article can be seen (HERE).
In the next post, we will look at the beginning of Jesus’ reply to the disciples’ question about the signs which would lead to the destruction of the temple, His coming, and the end of the age. We will examine Matthew 24:4-14, Mark 13:5-13, and Luke 21:8-18 side-by-side.
A THOUGHT: Do you find it interesting that John, in his gospel account, omits the Olivet Discourse entirely, even though he was no doubt present when Jesus spoke these things? One likely reason for this curious fact is that the book of Revelation, which he authored, actually functions as his exposition of the Olivet Discourse, though in much greater detail. Therefore, he felt no need to include the Olivet Discourse passage in his gospel account, especially if the book of John was written after the book of Revelation.
QUOTES TO NOTE
Eusebius (314 AD): “If any one compares the words of our Saviour with the other accounts of the historian (Josephus) concerning the whole war, how can one fail to wonder, and to admit that the foreknowledge and the prophecy of our Saviour were truly divine and marvelously strange” (Proof of the Gospel, Book III, Ch. VII).
John Wesley (1703-1791): “Josephus’ History of the Jewish War is the best commentary on this chapter (Matt. 24). It is a wonderful instance of God’s providence, that he, an eyewitness, and one who lived and died a Jew, should, especially in so extraordinary a manner, be preserved, to transmit to us a collection of important facts, which so exactly illustrate this glorious prophecy, in almost every circumstance” (Explanatory Notes Upon the New Testament, 1754).
[i] John Wesley (1703-1791) is one of many in church history who taught that Jesus was referring in Matt. 10:23 to a judgment coming in 70 AD in which He would “destroy their temple and nation” (John Wesley, Explanatory Notes Upon the New Testament, 1754).
[ii] John Wesley, again, is one of many in church history who taught a 70 AD fulfillment of Matthew 16:27-28, saying, “For there is no way to escape the righteous judgment of God. And, as an emblem of this, there are some here who shall live to see the Messiah coming to set up His mediatorial kingdom with great power and glory, by the destruction of the temple, city, and polity of the Jews” (John Wesley, Explanatory Notes Upon the New Testament, 1754). Some believe this is also identical to the prophecy Jesus gave in Revelation 22:12, revealing why John’s 1st century audience was to understand that He was about to come: “Behold, I am coming soon, bringing My recompense with Me, to repay everyone for what he has done.”
[iii] In Matthew 22:1-14 we read the Parable of the Wedding Feast. In this parable, speaking of the kingdom of heaven (vs. 2), a king (God) was to prepare a wedding feast for his son (Jesus), but those who were originally invited (the Jewish nation) refused to come (vss. 3-5) and even killed the king’s servants who had invited them (v. 6). Therefore, these murderers were destroyed (cf. Matthew 23:29-38; Rev. 16:4-7, 17:6, 18:20, 18:24), and their city was burned (cf. Rev. 18:8-10, 18; 19:3). This is precisely what we see having happened in Jerusalem’s destruction and burning in 70 AD. The invitation then goes out to others (Gentiles as well as Jews; vss. 9-10), but only those with proper wedding garments were allowed to remain (vss. 10-14; cf. Rev. 19:8). Those who lacked these garments remained in outer darkness and were not part of the chosen people of God (vss. 13-14; cf. Matt. 8:11-12).
In Matthew 23:29-38, we see that in the 7th woe pronounced upon the Scribes and Pharisees, Jesus charges them with shedding the blood of all the prophets (vss. 29-31). He even says that they will kill, crucify, flog, and persecute others from town to town (verse 34). As a result, He says, they would be held responsible for all the shed blood from generations past up until their own generation. He concludes, “Truly, I say to you, all these things will come upon this generation” (verse 36). He then lifts up a lament for Jerusalem, whose house, He said, was left to them desolate. This would naturally remind His listeners of Daniel 9:26, where it was said that “the city and the sanctuary” would be destroyed, with desolations decreed. The expected timeframe for this judgment was “this generation” (Jesus’ first century audience).