Introduction to the Olivet Discourse
Topic: Expository Passage: Matthew 24:1-3
Over the next 8-10 weeks we are going to dip our toes into the Olivet Discourse. Since many of you may not be familiar with it, I’d like to begin by reading the prophetic and more challenging section of the OD, Matthew 24:1–44.
What we just read is by far the most significant, preserved prophetic material out of the mouth of Jesus, which is why portions of it are recorded Matthew, Mark, and Luke. And Matthew’s version follows with a couple of Jesus’ trademark parables and a powerful picture of the judgment. Together, this sermon gives an important window into what is to come and challenges us, as you can see on the screen, to be ready for the day when we give account of ourselves to the Lord.
But unearthing the treasures of the Olivet Discourse is not always easy. This is one of the hardest sections of the NT to interpret. But it is absolutely worth the effort, because we ought to hunger to understand our Savior’s words, and his words here are so important that 3 Gospel writers preserved them.
Today, I want to walk through Matthew 24:1–3, which provide the historical context for the OD, and then we will spend the rest of our time laying a foundation for interpreting Jesus’ words. I’ll warn you that we’re going to push through an unusually large amount of complex material today, and I’m expecting you to apply yourself to understand what our Savior is saying. And then I’ll conclude with 3 major applications we can take from the OD. Let’s begin by walking through vv. 1–3, which provide…
I. The Historical Context (24:1–3)
These verses pick up on Tuesday of the Passion Week. Jesus made his Triumphal entry 2 days earlier on Palm Sunday, but he quickly had the religious elite planning his execution. On Monday, he made quite a scene when he drove the moneychangers and vendors out of the temple.
He created another stir on Tuesday. Among other things, Jesus gave a scathing rebuke of the Pharisees in Matthew 23. Notice some of his strong language (23:15, 25, 27, 31–33). It was a tense scene.
Then Jesus closed his final public comments with an interesting mix of lament, judgment, and promise (23:37–39). Jesus says he is abandoning the temple and that the glory of Christ would not return until his second coming. When you read these words in light of Ezekiel’s vision of how the glory of God departed from the first temple just before the Babylonian destruction, it’s a somber picture. God’s glory and grace were departing, and judgment would soon fall.
The Disciples’ Pride (v. 1): Then 24:1 says that Jesus, his disciples, and a crowd of people headed out of town for the night. Once they had gone far enough away to view the entire complex, the disciples pointed out the beauty of the temple.
This temple was the pride and joy of the Jews. Herod the Great began work on it some 50 years earlier in 20 B.C., and it wasn’t completed until AD 64. It was a massive and impressive Archaeologists have uncovered one stone that was 45’ long, weighed 500 tons, and had been lifted 30’ above the bedrock. Grant Osborne states, “The top was adorned by pure white marble, with gold plates on the façade so numerous that people were almost blinded when the sun shone on it.” Even the mighty Romans considered it to be one of the most beautiful, impressive marvels of the ancient world.
And so after a couple of days of heated controversy, it’s like the disciples are saying, “Jesus, look at how blessed we are. There’s no way things can be as bad as you say.”
Jesus’ Crushing Prophecy (v. 2): But Jesus responds with a devastating prediction… Folks, this was unthinkable at the time. Israel was prospering and peaceful. But Jesus proved to be absolutely right.
In AD 66, Israel rebelled against Rome and killed the entire the Roman garrison in Jerusalem. The Romans were furious, and they responded with force. Ultimately, in the spring of AD 70, the Roman Emperor Titus put Jerusalem under siege. By September, Titus broke onto the Temple Mount. The Romans burned the temple and slaughtered many Jews. Josephus estimated that they killed 1 million people throughout the conflict.
After the slaughter, Titus ordered that Jerusalem’s walls and temple be utterly destroyed. Josephus states, “it was so thoroughly laid even with the ground by those that dug it up to the foundation, that there was left nothing to make those that came thither believe it [Jerusalem] had ever been inhabited.” Jesus was right. All that remains of that once mighty structure is the Western Wall, which was nothing more than a retaining wall.
The Disciples’ Heartbroken Questions (v. 3): But the disciples were devastated, so v. 3 says that the disciples approached Jesus after the crowd left while they sat on the of Olives overlooking Jerusalem.
They ask 2 questions. First, “When will these things be?” Second, “What will be…?” Notice that the disciples assumed that the destruction of the temple and the return of Christ would happen at the same time. After all Jesus just said in 23:39, “You shall…” As they thought about Messiah’s return and the violence that surely would surround the destruction of the temple, they probably remembered an important prophecy about the return of Messiah to the of Olives, where they sat (Zech 14:1–9).
This passage describes a mighty victory by Messiah’s to establish Israel’s kingdom. Therefore, the disciples are not merely asking when their temple will be destroyed; they are asking when the final Day of the Lord will occur. Jesus answers with the Olivet Discourse. As I said earlier, this prophecy is challenging to interpret. As a result, there are 3 major categories of interpretation for 24:4–44.
II. 3 Views of the Olivet Discourse
Preterism: Preterism teaches that that most if not all NT prophesies of tribulation were fulfilled in the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70. Therefore, the OD almost exclusively describes the events of AD 70. As a result, the “abomination of desolation” (v. 15) is the Roman armies, “the Great Tribulation” (v. 21) is the suffering that ensued, and “the coming of the Son of Man” (v. 27) is God’s judgment through Rome. FWIW, many preterists also claim that the prophecies in Revelation 6–19 also happened in AD 70, or they are happening right now in the church age.
Preterism leans heavily on NT language indicating prophetic events are “near” or “soon.” In the OD, they especially lean on 24:34. In their minds, this verse clearly says that everything Jesus has predicted must happen in disciples’ lifetimes. He can’t be describing events 2,000+ years later.
But even more significant is the fact that preterism helps explain amillennial eschatology, which you can see in the chart. They have a very simple eschatology. Everything about Tribulation and the Kingdom is happening right now in the church age. Eventually, Jesus will come, judge the wicked, and we will enter the eternal state. The second major interpretation is…
Partial Preterism: The Olivet Discourse predicts the fall of Jerusalem with a view toward the return of Christ. There are 2 broad types of partial preterism. Some would say that 4–28 exclusively describe the fall of Jerusalem; however, vv. 29–31 describe the second coming of Christ.
Others believe that vv. 4–28 describing the destruction of Jerusalem with an eye toward a final Tribulation before Christ’s return. They would see both a near and a far Like the preterists they would lean heavily on v. 34, and they also claim that anyone living in the first century would immediately associate Jesus prophecy with A.D. 70.
Again, their broader theology certainly affects how they arrive this reading. Some partial preterists would be amillennial; however, the majority would call themselves historical premillennialists (chart). They believe that there will be a literal millennial kingdom on the earth before the eternal state; however, in general, they don’t see Israel as playing the central role in eschatology that dispensationalists do.
Some believe a Great Tribulation will precede the return of Christ. Others believe the Tribulation is happening right now. None of them would argue for a secret rapture of the church before the Tribulation. They would all be post-tribulational, if they even believe in a Tribulation. The 3rd category is…
Futurism: The Olivet Discourse describes a future 7-year Tribulation and the return of Christ. Therefore, 4–14 describe general signs that Christ is coming during the first 3.5 years of the Tribulation, or alternatively, they describe tribulations during the church age that climax in the Tribulation.
Then 15–28 describe conditions during the “Great Tribulation” or the latter 3.5 years of the Tribulation. Verses 29–44 describe the second coming of Christ and the judgment that immediately follows.
Most dispensationalists, including me affirm this interpretation, and it fits well in a dispensational eschatology (chart). In this scheme God will literally fulfill the promises he made to Israel, such as the one we read in Zechariah, and establish a millennial kingdom centered in Jerusalem.
The kingdom is preceded by the return of Christ, and before that by a 7-year Tribulation in which the first 3.5 years are bad but relatively peaceful. However, at the midpoint of the Tribulation, antichrist will break his treaty with Israel and set up an idol to himself in the Jerusalem temple. He will then turn on the Jews, and the final 3.5 years are violent and extremely deadly. And most dispensationalists would add that Christ will rapture the church before the Tribulation begins. So the question is why should we accept the futurist reading.
III. Arguments for the Futurist Position
I’d like to present four arguments for the futurist reading. First…
Jesus is building off the prophecy of Daniel 9:24–27. Remember that Babylon destroyed Jerusalem in 586 B.C. However, God promised through Isaiah and Jeremiah that after 70 years Cyrus would decree the reconstruction of Jerusalem in 445 BC. It’s in this context that God tells Daniel what is next for Israel (read).
Verse 24 says that beginning in 445 B.C., God had 70 weeks, or periods of 7 years “determined” for Israel. These weeks are divided into 3 sections. Verse 25 mentions a period of 7 weeks (49 years), which clearly covers the ministry of Nehemiah and the final prophets. Then there is a second period of 62 weeks for a total of 483 years.
And notice in 25 that this 69-week period will cover the time from the command to rebuild Jerusalem until the time of Messiah. Specifically, v. 26 adds that after the 69 weeks “Messiah shall be cut off, but not for Himself.” That’s an obvious reference to his death for our sin.
Remarkably, the 483 years comes out to AD 30, which is exactly when Jesus was crucified. If that’s not a very specific, fulfilled prophecy that proves the inspiration of Scripture, I don’t know what is.
Then 26 adds that following Messiah’s death, “the people of the prince…shall destroy the city and the sanctuary,” which is what happened some 40 years later in AD 70. Notice that this is not part of the 70th week, and there is no indication that the 70th week immediately follows the 69th week. There will be an indefinite time gap. This is where the mystery of the church fits perfectly into the prophecy.
And then v. 27 says that Israel’s 70th week will begin when the prince (i.e., antichrist) confirms a covenant with Israel for one week, or seven years. Specifically, he will make a peace treaty with Israel.
This will begin the final 7-year period. And notice that “in the middle of the week (3.5 years in), he will “end sacrifice” in Israel’s temple and set up the “abomination of desolation,” which will stand in the temple “until the consummation.” Daniel 12:11 also mentions the “abomination of desolation” and adds that there will be 1,290 days (or 3.5 years) after it is set up until Christ comes on the 1,335 days after the abomination is set up.
I’ve gone through this very slowly because it’s very significant to understanding Jesus’ point. Notice what he says in 15. Folks, any thinking Jew is going to understand Jesus as describing some kind of idol set up in a future temple at the mid point of a 7-year period. Jesus has to be talking about the Tribulation. Now the preterist will argue that this was fulfilled in AD 70, but…
2 Thessalonians 2:3–4 prophesies that Antichrist will “sit as God in the temple of God.” Paul is talking about Christ’s second coming, and he says it can’t happen until these events (read). Notice as well how vv. 9–10 describe this “man of sin.” Folks, that’s not Titus, the Roman Emperor. This has to be antichrist. And v. 4 say will “sit as God in the temple of God.”
So when Jesus mentions the “abomination of desolation” he is drawing on a rich, prophetic tradition that just can’t be squeezed into AD 70. As well…
Revelation (which was written after AD 70) looks forward to the same Tribulation. We could cite evidence after evidence that Revelation builds off a literal interpretation of Daniel 9 and of the Olivet Discourse. Revelation 11:2 says, “The Gentiles…will tread the holy city (i.e., Jerusalem) underfoot for 42 months (i.e., 3.5 years, referring to the 2nd half of the Tribulation).” And Revelation 12:6 says that during this time Israel, “fled into the wildernesss…(for) 1,260 days (3.5 years).” All of Israel’s pain will be because of the evils of antichrist, who is mentioned over and over.
In sum, when you look at the OD in light of the entire biblical framework, the most natural way to understand Jesus’ words is in reference to a future 7-year Tribulation, which will grow especially bad after antichrist sets himself up as god in the middle of the Tribulation. Fourth…
Jesus offers numerous details that have not occurred. Notice how Jesus describes the time after Israel sees the abomination of desolation in 21–22. Jesus says this will be the worst tribulation in world history.
This week I listened to a preacher try to argue that AD 70 could fit this description, but really? In terms of world history AD 70 hardly makes it onto the radar, and it didn’t bring anywhere near the suffering of the Holocaust or Stalin’s genocides. This has to look forward to something greater.
And the same goes for 29–31. You’ve got to do some serious hermeneutical gymnastics to claim that the invasion of Titus qualifies as “the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory” and that he will “gather together His elect…” Rather, the only natural way to read Jesus words is as a reference to his future second coming. To be fair, the futurist position also faces some challenges, but I believe they are not nearly as insurmountable as the preterist and partial preterist positions.
IV. Challenges for Futurism
Where does Jesus address the disciples’ question about the temple? This is a fair question considering the fact that Jesus’ prophecy about the temple prompted the disciples’ question. In response, many futurists believe that Luke’s version of the OD includes Jesus’ answer regarding the current temple. I haven’t had time to personally investigate this, but it makes sense.
But regardless, Jesus isn’t obligated to say anything more about AD 70. He already said it’s coming in v. 2, and the disciples shifted the focus to eschatology with their questions in v. 3. Jesus knew that something far more important than Titus’s invasion was coming.
How do you reconcile Matthew 24:34 with a Futurist position? I’ll admit this verse presents a difficult challenge for my position. Jesus seems to be saying that vv. 4–33 will happen in the time of one generation.
However, based on all the biblical arguments we’ve covered today, I believe the preterist and the partial preterist face far greater challenges. I don’t see how you can throw out everything we’ve discussed based on v. 34.
Therefore, I believe that v. 34 is talking about the generation that will be alive during the Tribulation. Jesus is saying that awful things will happen, but God will not allow them to continue too long. They will be over within one generation’s time.
Where is the church and the Rapture? Some people see the Rapture of the church prior to the Tribulation in vv. 36–44, but I don’t think that fits in context. As a result, the OD is commonly used to argue for a post-tribulational Rapture.
But I would just say that there is nothing in the OD that denies a pre-trib Rapture. The disciples asked Jesus about God’s plans for Israel, so he tells them what’s coming for Israel. To be fair, 3 Gospel writers thought the church needed to know what Jesus said, but I would say that there is still plenty of application here for the church even with a dispensational reading. This brings me to the…
V. Pastoral Themes
Hard times are coming. We live in hard times, and we tend to get up in arms about how bad our world is. We like to hope that ease is right around the corner. But Jesus says, “Look, the world is bad, it’s always been bad, and it’s only going to get worse.” Therefore, if your hope is that circumstance are going to improve, then get over it, and buckle in. Our hope is with Christ, not with this world, so keep your focus there.
Judgment and reward are coming. The atrocities of the Tribulation are hard to stomach. But that’s not because God is mean; it’s because we don’t appreciate how evil sin really is and the judgment it deserves. When we see how God will judge, it should drive us to hate sin and pursue righteousness.
And we should do so knowing that Christ is coming with his reward. It’s incredible to think that we will ride in with Christ when he comes “with power and great glory.” And the final 2 sections of the OD richly describe how he will reward our faithful service. As such the 3rd pastoral theme is…
Live ready for the return of Christ. Since Jesus is coming again, the 2nd half of the OD urges us to “be alert” and to live ready for the return of Christ. Don’t procrastinate; serve Christ today, because you never know when your opportunities will be over.
Are you ready for the return of Christ? Do you know that Christ is your Savior? Are you serving him faithfully and obediently? Live ready for the return of Christ.