One of the most difficult to interpret passages in the New Testament is Jesus’ “mini-apocalypse” in Matthew 24, also as known as the Olivet Discourse. In the passage, Jesus seems to speak of the impending destruction of the temple in Jerusalem in 70AD but also of the event surrounding his second coming. As with most difficult passages, there are a few different interpretations of the passage.
Various Views on the Olivet Discourse
- Preterist: The preterist view contends that the events Jesus’ describes in the passage were all fulfilled in the destruction of the temple in 70AD.
- Historicist: The historicist view sees the passage as a prophecy of the events that will happen in church history culminating in the second coming.
- Futurist: The futurist view argues that Jesus speaks almost exclusively of end times event.
- Idealist: The idealist view contends that Jesus speaks of the ongoing struggle of good vs. evil in the present age and does not intend to give precise predictions about the future.
- Consistent Futurist: The consistent futurist view believes that Jesus speaks of both the events concerning the destruction of the temple in 70AD and his second coming.
Exposition of the Olivet Discourse
In my opinion, the consistent futurist view makes the best sense of the text. In some places, Jesus is talking to his disciples concerning the destruction of the temple, while in others, he speaks of future history and his second coming. What makes the text so difficult to interpret is the fact that these two perspectives often get blended together and sorting out which is which is difficult. With that in mind, the context of the passage are Jesus’ words that the temple in Jerusalem (which they just had come out of) would be destroyed:
Jesus came out from the temple and was going away when His disciples came up to point out the temple buildings to Him. 2 And He said to them, “Do you not see all these things? Truly I say to you, not one stone here will be left upon another, which will not be torn down” (24:1-2)
Jesus predicts the destruction of the temple in 70AD, and history testifies to the fact that the Romans came in and destroyed the temple. Fire burned the temple and the gold of the temple melted down, slipping in between the various stones and into the drainage system. The Roman soldiers were eager to get the gold and so not one stone was “left upon another.”
Jesus’ words would have obviously piqued the disciples’ interest because the Jerusalem temple was the center point of the Jewish religion. As N.T. Wright has pointed out, the temple was one of the primary symbols of the Jewish faith. Therefore, its destruction would have been a cataclysmic event for those living in Israel, and even for Jesus’ disciples since they had yet to come to understand that Jesus was the true temple after all. So naturally, the disciples are curious and ask, “Tell us, when will these things happen, and what will be the sign of Your coming, and of the end of the age?” (24:3). The disciples initially believe that the destruction of the temple will coincide with Jesus’ coming at the end of the age. I mean, how could they not? For them, the destruction of the temple would naturally seem to be an indicator that the end had come.
Jesus essentially brushes off their question and instead warns them of coming deception: “And Jesus answered and said to them, “See to it that no one misleads you. 5 For many will come in My name, saying, ‘I am the Christ,’ and will mislead many.” (24:4-5). In the aftermath of the destruction of the temple, it would be easy to fail prey to people claiming to be the Messiah. It would be easy to believe that with the destruction of the temple, the world was ending. But it’s not.
In fact, the world will be characterized by war and natural disasters for a very long time: “You will be hearing of wars and rumors of wars. See that you are not frightened, for those things must take place, but that is not yet the end. 7 For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom, and in various places there will be famines and earthquakes. 8 But all these things are merely the beginning of birth pangs” (24:6-8). Jesus is saying essentially, “Look. There’s going to be a lot of tumult for a long time. There’s going to be wars, natural disasters. But those things do not mean the end is necessarily upon you.”
Furthermore, Jesus says that two twin realities are going to co-exist: the suffering of the church and the triumph of the gospel. After the destruction of the temple, believers will suffer but the gospel will also go forth: “Then they will deliver you to tribulation, and will kill you, and you will be hated by all nations because of My name. 10 At that time many will fall away and will betray one another and hate one another. 11 Many false prophets will arise and will mislead many. 12 Because lawlessness is increased, most people’s love will grow cold. 13 But the one who endures to the end, he will be saved. 14 This gospel of the kingdom shall be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all the nations, and then the end will come” (24:9-14).
If there is one specific “sign” which would herald the end it would that the gospel has been preached to the whole world, for Jesus seems to indicate that only after world evangelization will the end come (24:14). Exactly when the “whole world” is evangelized is hard to discern however. The “whole world” could mean the whole inhabitable world of Jesus’ day. It could mean every “people group.” Or it could literally mean every single person. The ambiguity may be intentional. It’s possible that the Lord is not telling his disciples to try to figure out exactly when the mission will be complete, but to get going on getting the gospel out to the world!
While Jesus spends some time speaking of the “church age” in 24:4-14, he then makes a significant shift in his presentation, moving back into the present time of the disciples. The word “therefore” is signifiant because it links 24:1-14 to 15-28. What Jesus seems to be saying is that because of the general pattern of deception, persecution, and increasing gospel witness that is coming, therefore, now in the present, be aware of the coming deception and persecution in aftermath of the destruction of the temple:
“Therefore when you see the abomination of desolation which was spoken of through Daniel the prophet, standing in the holy place (let the reader understand), 16 then those who are in Judea must flee to the mountains. 17 Whoever is on the housetop must not go down to get the things out that are in his house. 18 Whoever is in the field must not turn back to get his cloak. 19 But woe to those who are pregnant and to those who are nursing babies in those days! 20 But pray that your flight will not be in the winter, or on a Sabbath.
Jesus is interpreting Daniel’s vision of seventy weeks and a further vision of Daniel 12 (Daniel 9:24-27; 12:11). Jesus interprets the “abomination of desolation” in the holy place to be the destruction of the temple in 70AD. Therefore, who are in the direct vicinity of the temple should flee to the mountains. They must make haste to get out of Jerusalem while they still can because the horrors will be great.
Now, some scholars believe that the language Jesus uses can only describe a time of future tribulation because it seems so drastic: “For then there will be a great tribulation, such as has not occurred since the beginning of the world until now, nor ever will. 22 Unless those days had been cut short, no life would have been saved; but for the sake of the elect those days will be cut short” (24:21-22). But Jesus is operating in Hebrew prophet mode in this passage, and the Hebrew prophets regularly spoke in hyperbolic language to describe the horrors of suffering.
Jesus then speaks of the coming of messianic deception. In the aftermath of the destruction of the temple, many will attempt to claim to be the Messiah or gain a following. Don’t believe them Jesus says: “Then if anyone says to you, ‘Behold, here is the Christ,’ or ‘There He is,’ do not believe him. 24 For false Christs and false prophets will arise and will show great signs and wonders, so as to mislead, if possible, even the elect. 25 Behold, I have told you in advance. 26 So if they say to you, ‘Behold, He is in the wilderness,’ do not go out, or, ‘Behold, He is in the inner rooms,’ do not believe them.” (24:23-26).
Jesus then makes it clear that the destruction of the temple would not be linked to his second coming, like the disciples assumed back in 24:3. Jesus tells them that while he has predicting the destruction of the temple and is giving them a heads up about it, there will be no warning when he comes again: “For just as the lightning comes from the east and flashes even to the west, so will the coming of the Son of Man be. 28 Wherever the corpse is, there the vultures will gather” (24:27-28). Jesus’ coming will be sudden, like a lightening strike, but also impossible to miss, like lightening in a darkened sky. No one will able to deceive believers about the return of Jesus because it will be obvious.
Jesus then moves from speaking of the destruction of the temple and its aftermath in 24:15-28 back to speaking about his second coming again:
“But immediately after the tribulation of those days the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will fall from the sky, and the powers of the heavens will be shaken. 30 And then the sign of the Son of Man will appear in the sky, and then all the tribes of the earth will mourn, and they will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of the sky with power and great glory. 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.
Verse 29 is difficult to interpret because it makes it seems that Jesus’ return will occur directly after the destruction of the temple in 70AD. So the key question is what does “the tribulation of those days” refer to? Is it the tribulation of the destruction of the temple, or the general period of tribulation throughout the church’s history? The key point is Jesus’ quote from Isaiah 13:9-11. In the passage, Isaiah figuratively depicts God’s judgment upon the whole world. Since Jesus quotes from this section, it seems best to conclude that “those days” refer to the suffering of the church age. Furthermore, Jesus explicitly tells his disciples that no one knows when he will return (24:26). So it seems best to de-couple his return from the destruction of the temple. Otherwise, the disciples could have known when his return was, right after the temple’s destruction. But no one knows when Jesus will return.
After the church has suffered, and after the gospel has been preached to all nations, then Christ will return and it will be visible to all. At that time, there will be mourning by the wicked (24:30) but vindication for the people of God (24:31).
Jesus then moves to instruct his disciples in how to live in light of the destruction of the temple and his coming:
“Now learn the parable from the fig tree: when its branch has already become tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near; 33 so, you too, when you see all these things, recognize that He is near, right at the door. 34 Truly I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all these things take place. 35 Heaven and earth will pass away, but My words will not pass away. (24:32-35).
When the disciples see the destruction of the temple, they should know that Jesus’ return is soon (24:33). “This generation” in the Gospels always refers to the generation of Jesus’ day. So Jesus is saying that the generation that rejected him will also see the destruction of the temple. The destruction of the temple will validate Jesus’ words as those which will never pass away. It also speaks to the necessity for vigilance in following the Lord.
While disciples will be able to discern the impending destruction of the temple, just like someone can know the season by observing fig leaves, no one knows when Christ will return: “But of that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father alone” (24:36). The reason why no one knows of Christ’s return is because it will come at an unsuspecting time:
“The coming of the Son of Man will be just like the days of Noah. 38 For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day that Noah entered the ark, 39 and they did not understand until the flood came and took them all away; so will the coming of the Son of Man be. 40 Then there will be two men in the field; one will be taken and one will be left. 41 Two women will be grinding at the mill; one will be taken and one will be left” (24:37-41).
The world was sleepwalking through the warnings that Noah was giving them. Everything seemed fine and life continued “as usual.” The flood eventually took the unbelievers away just like the Son of Man will take them away into judgment. Ironically, contra to our dispensational friends, those left behind are believers (24:40-41)!
Jesus instructs his disciples to stay alert since his coming cannot be predicted:
“Therefore be on the alert, for you do not know which day your Lord is coming. 43 But be sure of this, that if the head of the house had known at what time of the night the thief was coming, he would have been on the alert and would not have allowed his house to be broken into. 44 For this reason you also must be ready; for the Son of Man is coming at an hour when you do not think He will” (24:42-44).
The alertness that Jesus speaks of here is most certainly a moral alertness. It is not necessarily the ability to read “signs.” For the signs of his coming after all are wars, rumors of wars, natural disasters, and deceptions. All of these things will be present up to the end. Instead, the disciples are supposed to be doing what Jesus tells them to be doing: following his words and sharing the good news with others. Jesus vividly illustrates the importance of being faithful while we wait for his coming through a series of parables. Jesus teaches the parable of the unfaithful servant (24:45-51), the ten virgins (25:1-13), and the talents (25:14-30). The point of all three parable is essentially the same: believers must be diligent to use the gifts the Lord has given while they wait for his coming, while those who have given themselves over to sin will be caught off guard by his return and punished.
Jesus ends his mini-apocalypse with a preview of the end where there will be a sorting of “the sheep from the goats” (25:31-33). Those who follow Christ will receive an entrance into the eternal kingdom while the unbelieving and religious imposters will be brought into eternal punishment (25:34-46).
In the Olivet Discourse, Jesus speaks of both the destruction of the temple in 70AD and his second coming. In 24:1-14, Jesus speaks of the instability, distress, and persecution of the church age. In 24:15-28, Jesus explains that the disciples should be on the lookout for the destruction of the temple and flee when it begins. Jesus’ words in 24:15-28 were fulfilled in the destruction of the temple in 70AD. The destruction of the temple is much like a preview of the kind of tribulation that the church will face throughout its history. After the time of distress and persecution for the church, Jesus will return (24:29-31). The disciples should be prepared for suffering because as they see the events of 70AD unfolding, it will remind them of the pattern of suffering the church must undergo (24:32-35).
But while timing of the destruction of the temple will be generally able to be discerned, the timing of Christ’s coming will not be discernible. He will come at only an hour the Father knows (24:36-41). Therefore, the disciples must live with alertness, which means diligently following Christ while they wait for him (24:42-25:30). When Jesus comes again, it will involve punishment for the wicked and vindication for the righteous (25:31-45).