by Paul George
The Olivet Discourse, delivered shortly before Jesus’ crucifixion, is the most important single passage of prophecy in the entire Bible. It is significant because it came from Jesus Himself immediately after His rejection by His own people and because it provides the master outline of end-time events.
The setting for the Olivet Discourse, at least for Matthew’ s account, is found in preceding events leading up to Matthew 24. Christ had presented Himself to the nation as their Messiah, but they rejected Him. Not only did the people reject Him, but their rulers did as well. Jesus rebukes and exposes their hypocrisy and unbelief in Matthew 22 and 23. This present generation of Jewish leaders is like those from previous generations who killed the prophets (Matthew 23:29-36). Jesus then tells the Jewish leaders, “Truly, I say to you, all these things shall come upon this generation” (Matthew 23:36). What things, the judgment, which will come upon the Jewish people through the Roman army in a.d. 70. All hope for a turning of Israel to God in repentance has gone; the King therefore has no alternative but to reject that nation for the time being with regard to the coming of the promised kingdom.
In spite of the fact that the Jewish people deserved the approaching judgment, like a caring parent about to administer a just punishment, Jesus weeps and reveals what He wanted to do, “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, who kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to her! How often I wanted to gather your children together, the way a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were unwilling” (Matthew 23:37). Jesus wants to gather His people, as He will in 24:31, instead, He will scatter them via the a.d. 70 judgment (Luke 21:24).
Jesus then declares in verse 38, “Behold, your house is being left to you desolate!” To what does the house refer? In the context of this passage, it must be a reference to the Jewish Temple. What Jesus says will be desolate, the Temple, in verse 38, He describes more precisely in Matthew 24:2.
Then Jesus said, “For I say to you, from now on you shall not see Me until you say, ‘Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord'” (v. 39). Not only does this verse predict judgment, but also the promise of hope and blessing upon the Jewish nation. Since Jesus came in the name of the Lord, and since He will not return until Israel says, “Blessed is he that comes in the name of the Lord,” it is clear that the people of Israel will see and recognize that Jesus was and is their true Messiah. The last few verses of Matthew 23 mean that judgment was coming in the near future, but beyond judgment, deliverance and redemption awaits the Jewish nation. Judgment did come in a.d. 70 and Matthew 24 speaks of the still future redemption of Israel.
Matthew 24:1-3, provides us with the setting for which Christ delivers His prophetic sermon. We see that Jesus is making His way from the Temple (v. 1) to the Mount of Olives (v. 3), which would mean that He most likely would travel down the Kidron Valley and on up to Olivet. As He was going from the Temple His disciples point out the temple buildings to Him (v. 1). This statement leads us to believe that they were talking to Jesus about how beautiful the Temple complex was that Herod was still in the process of remodeling and refurbishing. Such an emphasis is borne out in the parallel references in Mark 13:1-2 and Luke 21:5-6 as the disciples speak of the beauty of the Temple buildings. The Lord must have startled and confused His disciples by His response to their gloating over the beauty of the Temple complex when He said, “Do you not see all these things? Truly I say to you, not one stone here shall be left upon another, which will not be torn down” (v. 2).
The scene shifts from the Temple grounds to the Mount of Olives, the disciples came to Him privately, Mark 13:3 tells us that the disciples who came to Him privately were Peter, James, John and Andrew, and that they were sitting on the Mount of Olives looking at the Temple. The disciples coming to Jesus privately fits the practice of Jesus teaching only His believing disciples once the nation rejected Him as their prophesied Messiah in Matthew 12. From Matthew 13 on, Jesus speaks publicly to the rejecting nation only in parables (Matthew 13:10-17). However, many times He would later explain a public parable privately to His disciples. In the Olivet Discourse, we see Christ following this practice. This private explanation, which is the Olivet Discourse, means that Jesus will provide His explanation of future history for the benefit of believers.
While sitting on the Mount of Olives these four disciples ask Jesus the following questions: ” Tell us, when will these things be, and what will be the sign of Your coming, and of the end of the age” (v.3)? Immediately debate rises over whether these are two questions or three. Clearly, the first question relates to the destruction of the Temple, fulfilled in the Roman invasion and destruction of a.d. 70. It is equally clear that the two aspects of the second question have yet to occur in history. It appears that the disciples believed that all three aspects of their two questions would occur around the same event- the coming of Messiah. Why would they have thought this way? It is possible that the prophet Zechariah influenced the disciples thinking involving the departure of the King, the destruction of Jerusalem, and coming of the Messiah. The disciples had good scriptural ground for this since Zechariah 14:1-2 describes the razing of Jerusalem. The same passage goes on to describe the coming of the Lord to destroy the nations that warred against Jerusalem (Zechariah 14:3-8). Following this, the millennial kingdom is established (Zechariah 14:9-11). In other words, the disciples thought that all three events were a single event, the return of the Messiah as taught in Zechariah 14:4.
The questions showed that the disciples had arrived at certain conclusions, Jesus’ prediction of the destruction of the Temple was the destruction predicted by Zechariah that would precede the advent of the Messiah. In Jewish eschatology, two ages were recognized: the first was this present age, the age in which Israel was waiting for the coming of the Messiah; the second was the age to come, the age in which all of Israel’s covenants would be fulfilled and Israel would enter into her promised blessings, the result of the coming of the Messiah. Even though the disciples merged these events, Christ did not merge these events into a single period. In fact, Matthew and Mark do not deal with the destruction of Jerusalem in their accounts of the Olivet Discourse. Their focus is upon the future days of tribulation leading up to the return of Jesus. Only in Luke’s account does Jesus deal with the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple (Luke 21:20-24). However, Luke also deals with future days of tribulation and the second coming of Jesus (Luke 21:25-36). For whatever reason, Matthew and Mark’s entire focus is upon the last question that speaks of “the sign of Your coming, and of the end of the age.”
The first question by the disciples is “Tell us, when will these things be” (Matthew 24:3)? Since Jesus had been speaking about the Temple and a time when “not one stone shall be left upon another, which will not be torn down” (Matthew 24:2), it is clear that Jesus predicted the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem by the Romans in a.d. 70. Jesus had predicted the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple earlier in His ministry (Matthew 23:38). Luke records another prediction of judgment upon Israel, as in Matthew 23:37-39, proceeded by Jesus weeping over the city of Jerusalem (Luke 19:41). This prediction occurred at the time of Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem based upon Israel rejection of Jesus as their Messiah (Luke 19:42). Jesus prophesied in Luke 19:43-44 as follows: ” For the days shall come upon you when your enemies will throw up a bank before you, and surround you, and hem you in on every side, and will level you to the ground and your children within you, and they will not leave in you one stone upon another, because you did not recognize the time of your visitation.”
We learn a number of things from this prediction; first, “your enemies” undoubtedly refers to the Romans who destroyed the city in a.d. 70. Second, “will throw up a bank before you, and surround you, and hem you in on every side,” is a clear description of the Roman siege used to defeat Jerusalem. Third, the Roman siege resulted in a total destruction of the city and of life within the city. Usually in a wartime situation, if anyone is spared it will be the children, but even most of them were killed. Fourth, the very words of Jesus from Matthew 24:2 were used by Him earlier in this passage when He said, ” they will not leave in you one stone upon another.” Fifth, the reason for the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans will be that “you did not recognize the time of your visitation.”
Since Luke’s version of the Olivet Discourse, deals with the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple turn to Luke 21:20-24, since it records the prophecy about the first question of the disciples. The passage reads as follows, “But when you see Jerusalem surrounded by armies, and then recognize that her desolation is at hand. Then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains, and let those who are in the midst of the city depart, and let not those who are in the country enter the city; because these are days of vengeance, in order that all things which are written may be fulfilled. Woe to those who are with child and to those who nurse babes in those days; for there will be great distress upon the land, and wrath to this people, and they will fall by the edge of the sword, and will be led captive into all the nations, and Jerusalem will be trampled underfoot by the Gentiles until the times of the Gentiles be fulfilled” (Luke 21:20-24)
It is clear that Luke 21:20-24 refers to the first-century Roman invasion of Jerusalem. The entire passage speaks repeatedly of judgment and wrath upon the Jewish people and their city, just as Jesus predicted in Matthew 24:2. Yet, when one searches the perditions of Matthew 24 and Mark 13 this language is missing. Instead of “great distress upon the land, and wrath to this people,” Matthew 24 speaks of rescuing the Jewish people who are under great distress (Matthew 24:29-31).
In the Olivet Discourse Jesus speaks of a single event connected with the Temple, its desecration by an abomination which was predicted by the Prophet Daniel (Matthew 24:15; Mark 13:14), what Temple is Jesus speaking of here? Was the Temple that was to be desecrated the same Temple as the one predicted to be destroyed; there are a number of contrasts within this text that indicate that Jesus was talking about two different Temples:
The Temple described in Matthew 24:15 is not said to be destroyed, only desecrated (see Revelation 11:2). By contrast, the Temple in Jesus’ day was to be completely leveled: “not one stone would be left standing on another” (Matthew 24:2; Mark 13:2; Luke 19:44). The Temple’s desecration would be a signal for Jews to escape destruction (Matthew 24:16-18), “be saved” (Matthew 24:22) and experience the promised “redemption” (Luke 21:28). By contrast the destruction of the Temple in Matthew 24:2 was a judgment “because you did not recognize the time of your visitation, Messiah’s first advent” (Luke 19:44b) and resulted in the Temple being leveled to the ground and “your children [the Jews] within you” (Luke 19:44a).
The generation of Jews that are alive at the time that the Temple is desecrated will expect Messiah’s coming “immediately after” (Matthew 24:29), and are predicted to not pass away until they have experienced it (Matthew 24:34). By contrast, the generation of Jews who saw the Temple destroyed would pass away and would pass away without redemption.
The text Jesus cited concerning the Temple’s desecration, Daniel 9:27, predicts that the one who desecrates this Temple will himself be destroyed. By contrast, those who destroyed the Temple in a.d. 70, in fulfillment of Jesus’ prediction, the Roman emperor Vespasian and his son Titus, were not destroyed but returned to Rome in triumph carrying vessels from the destroyed Temple.
The time “immediately after” (Matthew 24:29) the time of the Temple’s desecration would see Israel’s repentance (Matthew 24:30), followed by, as Matthew 23:29 implies, a restoration of the Temple. By contrast, the time following the destruction of the Temple only saw a “hardening” happen “to Israel,” which is to last “until the fullness of the Gentiles has come in” (Romans 11:25). The time for the desecration of the Temple is during a worldwide tribulation “coming upon the world” (Luke 21:26; compare Matthew 24:21- 22; Mark 13:19- 20), a global regathering of the Jewish people “from one end of the sky to the other” (Matthew 24:31; Mark 13:27), and a universal revelation of the Messiah at Israel’ s rescue (Matthew 24:30- 31; Mark 13:26; Luke 21:26- 27), when “all nations of the earth will be gathered against it” (Zechariah 12:3). By contrast, the a.d. 70 assault on Jerusalem predicted in Luke 21:20 is by the armies of one empire, Rome. Therefore, if there are two different attacks on Jerusalem, separated by more than 2,000 years, then two distinct Temples are considered in Matthew 24:1- 2 and Matthew 24:15.
Luke 21:24 ends by saying that Jerusalem will be under Gentile domination “until the times of the Gentiles be fulfilled.” The little word “until” clearly denotes that there will be a time when the current domination of Jerusalem by the Gentiles will come to an end. The end of verse 24 serves as a transitional period between the prophecy that refers to the past a.d. 70 event (Luke 21:20-24) and the prophecy that looks to a future fulfillment at Jesus’ second coming (Luke 21:25-28). We now live in the “times of the Gentiles.”
A clear connection is established between Luke 21:24 which speaks of the current era of “the times of the Gentiles” being fulfilled and coming to an end and Romans 11:25 which speaks of “the fullness of the Gentiles “having come in.” Both passages speak of Israel’s redemption (Luke 21:28; Romans 11:26- 27). When we consider that the Old Testament pattern which says that Israel will pass through the tribulation, repent toward the end when they recognize Jesus as the Messiah, experience conversion, and then the second coming will occur to rescue them from their enemies, it follows that ” all Israel will be saved” (Romans 11:26) in connection with the tribulation. This is in harmony with Luke 21:25- 28.
The focus of Luke 21:25- 28 reveals a distinct shift from the first century description of 21:20- 24. The differences include the local focus of Jerusalem in the first century judgment verses the global perspective of the future tribulation. The tribulation will involve heavenly and global events that did not literally occur in a.d. 70. The emphasis of Luke 21:25-28 is the opposite of God’s judgment upon Israel as stated in Luke 21:20-24. Instead, verse 28 tells Israel that, “your redemption is drawing near.”
When one examines the entire Olivet Discourse as recorded in Matthew 24 and Mark 13, there is no reference to wrath or judgment upon the nation of Israel. Instead, Israel is delivered from its invader as noted in Matthew 24:31, “And He will send forth His angels with a great trumpet and they will gather together His elect from the four winds, from one end of the sky to the other” (see also Mark 13:27). The question arises, ” When was Israel rescued in a.d. 70?” They were not! The events of Matthew 24 and Mark 13 (also Luke 21:25-28) will all be fulfilled in the tribulation, which will take place in the future.
So the first question of the disciples to Christ in the Olivet Discourse relates to the destruction of Jerusalem in a.d. 70. The record of its fulfillment recorded only in Luke 21, Matthew 24- 25 and Mark 13 deal only with the last question, which are a prophecy of events that are still future. Since Matthew 24 is a future, end-time prophecy, the next issue to tackle is when will verses 4 through 14 come to pass?