Our Lord’s Olivet Discourse

“And all the people answered, ‘His blood be on us and on our children!’” (Mt. 27:25)

Introduction

Perhaps one of the most misinterpreted teachings of our Lord today can be found in Matthew 24, known as the Olivet Discourse. It is here where many Christians find what they believe to be still-future prophecies regarding the end of the world – wars, earthquakes, persecution, false prophets, the ‘abomination of desolation’, signs in the sky, and more terrifying things before the return of Christ.

In fact, when preparing for this position paper we experienced an earthquake in Idaho and then a few weeks later fear of COVID-19 swept our nation. Both of these events, along with locusts in Africa, have been referred to by John Piper as “pointers” reminding us of Christ’s return.[1] But what if this is a misapplication of Jesus’ lesson to His disciples on the Mount of Olive? What if in this particular passage he was primarily referring to an event that has already taken place? 

In this short look at Matthew 24, I will seek to show that Jesus’ prophecy in the Olivet Discourse has already been fulfilled—specifically at the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70. I too once believed that Jesus’ prophecy was yet to be fulfilled and turned to Matthew 24 in order to understand the “end times.” But I now believe that if we pay proper attention to the context, audience, and the way in which Jesus’ prophecy was fulfilled after His ascension, we can see that the events described in the Olivet Discourse have indeed taken place.

Context

There are three immediate things to take note of regarding the context of Chapter 24 to the rest of Matthew’s Gospel. First, in Matthew 21, we find Jesus cleansing the temple, which had become “a den of robbers” (Mt. 21:13). The Gospel of John records Jesus cleansing the temple early in his ministry, while the Synoptic Gospels record it toward the end of his ministry. One simple explanation for the different timing is that there were two indeed two cleansings. This would follow the process of the High Priest visiting an unclean house in Canaan (Lev. 14:33-53). First, the owner of the house alerts a priest to the presence of corruption in the home (in the case of the temple, this is the “Father’s house”). The priest empties the house and examines it, and if corruption is found, shuts the house up for a week (14:35–38). The priest then returns, and if the corruption has spread, the offending stones and plaster are replaced (14:40–43). When the priest returns for a third inspection, if the house remains unclean, it is torn apart and destroyed (14:43–45). So we see Jesus, the great High Priest, declaring His Father’s house unclean for a second time in Matthew 21—leaving an anticipated third and final visit if the temple remains unclean. 

The second thing to highlight are the seven woes to the scribes and Pharisees that Jesus declares in Matthew 23 while in the temple complex. These woes resemble the covenant curses for disobedience found in Deuteronomy 28:15–68, escalating to destruction of the unrepentant.[2] The last of the ‘woes’ is for the hypocritical honoring of prophets their fathers slaughtered, as if they would not do the same today (Mt. 23:29–33). Jesus then says he will send them new prophets for them to persecute, in order to demonstrate their guilt and so that “on you may come all the righteous bleed shed on earth…” (23:35). Jesus finishes his declaration of curses promising that all of these things will come upon this generation, and then laments the coming destruction of city, 

“O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing! See, your house is left to you desolate…” (23:37–38).

Thus we can see the trajectory of Matthew’s Gospel, and the events that lead up to Jesus’ teaching regarding the end of the age in Matthew 24. 

One last contextual item to note is the disciples’ question that prompts Jesus to deliver his Olivet Discourse. Immediately following Jesus’ condemnation of the scribes and Pharisees and his lament over Jerusalem, he leaves the temple complex and heads east toward the Mount of Olives. On the way his disciples audibly marvel at the beautiful buildings surrounding them. Jesus’ reply must have been astonishing to his Jewish students – “You see all these, do you not? Truly, I say to you, there will not be left here one stone upon another that will not be thrown down” (Mt. 24:2). The glorious temple was going to be destroyed.

After mulling the words of their teacher during the hike up the mountain, the disciples then ask Jesus, “When will these things be, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?” (Mt. 24:3). In their question, the disciples correlate the destruction of the temple with the sign of Jesus’ coming and the end of the age. This is important to take notice of for two reasons. First, Jesus does not correct their correlation, so we can assume that they were right to speak this way. Second, this means that the destruction of the temple and Jerusalem is the context in which we should read the rest of Jesus’ discourse.

Audience

The next factor to consider when interpreting Matthew 24 is the audience of Jesus’ prophecy. As we have noted, the immediate audience is Jesus’ disciples, whose question prompts this teaching from their Lord. Specifically, Jesus’ warnings of what is to come are directly to his disciples—“See that no one leads you astray…” (24:4), “And you will hear…” (24:6), “See that you are not alarmed…” (24:6), “Then they will deliver you up to tribulation…” (24:9) and the list continues (24:15, 20, 23, 25, 26, 32–34, 42, 44, 47). These warnings are for Jesus’ disciples and the church in Jerusalem to heed leading up to the destruction of Jerusalem.

In Chapter 23 Jesus told the hypocritical scribes and Pharisees that all of these judgments “will come upon this generation” (23:36). In the Parable of the Fig Tree Jesus again says his words are for this generation, “Truly, I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all these things take place” (Mt. 24:34). This “evil and adulterous generation” that Jesus is speaking to is unique in their wickedness because they have seen and heard their Messiah—and rejected him (Mt. 12:39). They demand a sign from Jesus, but the only one he will give is the “sign of the prophet Jonah” (12:39). And because they do not heed this sign, the men of Nineveh will be in position to judge them, for they repented when confronted by Jonah, and someone greater than him is now in their midst (12:41). 

All of Israel’s covenant unfaithfulness climaxes in this generations, a generation of absolute corruption—the ones that deny their own Messiah. Therefore, the great High Priest will visit their house again a third time, and utterly destroy it in his righteous judgment. 

Prophecy

The third interpretive consideration is whether the specifics of Jesus’ prophecy were indeed fulfilled between his ascension and the destruction of the temple in AD 70. Jesus’ response to the disciples question of “when” does not contain an exact time or date, but instead he lists signs for his disciples to observe – false messiahs,[3] wars,[4] famines,[5]earthquakes,[6] persecution,[7] apostasy,[8] and lawlessness[9] (24:3–12). It would take a book in itself to fully document the way in which all of these occurred, but brief references for each are footnoted.

One reason why many Christians today still appeal to these signs in Matthew 24 is because they are somewhat common human experiences—many people have claimed to be the Messiah, wars break out every year, the earth quakes from time to time, etc. Yet as we pointed out in the previous section, Jesus is not telling all Christians across time to look for these signs, but the disciples in front of him. 

So did these all occur leading up to the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70? Yes. As one can see from both biblical and historical evidence, the tenor and experience of the time leading up to the destruction of AD 70 easily fulfills Jesus’ description.

Difficult Passages

This understanding of the first-century fulfillment of the Olivet Discourse is not without its challenges, otherwise there would be less debate regarding the passage. Therefore, we will briefly look at two “problem passages” and how one could understand them in this framework.

In Matthew 24:14 we read that “the gospel of the kingdom will be proclaimed throughout the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come.” The objection is obvious—how can we claim this occurred by AD 70 when there are still unreached people groups today? And this objection is correct in one sense, the gospel did not reach the whole world by AD 70. But we can’t simply write this part of Jesus’ prophecy off as still future, for a little later he says, “This generation will not pass away until all these things take place” (Mt. 24:34). 

The word for “world” in this passage is οἰκουμένη (oikoumenē) and means “inhabited earth” or “known world.” It can be used to refer to a political boundary, such as the Roman Empire.[10] The same word is found in Luke’s Gospel when Caesar Augustus decreed to take a census of “all the inhabited earth” (Lk. 2:1). St Paul speaks the same way, writing that the gospel is bearing fruit “in the whole world” (Col. 1:6) and “your faith is proclaimed in all the world” (Rom. 1:8). Therefore, we can read Matthew 24:14 as saying the gospel has been proclaimed throughout the Roman Empire, and to “every nation” in the sense that “every nation under heaven” was gathered in Jerusalem at Pentecost (Acts 2:5).

The next difficult passage we will look at is the signs in the heavens found in Matthew 24:29–31—“the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will fall from heaven…” Many people will say that if we want to read the Bible ‘literally,’ then clearly these events have not occurred yet. We should be concerned with reading the Bible literally, which means recognizing literary genre and figurative language. The cosmic events described in this passage echo how the prophets spoke of judgment coming upon a nation and the end of an age (Isa. 13:10, 34:4, Ezk. 32:7, Joel 2:10, Amos 8:9). This imagery makes perfect sense in light of the coming destruction of Jerusalem, the end of the age. 

Conclusion

The destruction of the temple and Jerusalem in AD 70 was indeed the “end of the age” that Jesus prophesied. The apostles repeatedly referred to their time as the “last days,” as the anticipated judgment on Israel was fast approaching (Heb. 1:1–2, 1 Pet. 1:20, 4:7, 1 Cor. 10:11). When reading Matthew 24 in context, with attention paid to Jesus’ audience and specific prophecy, one can begin to see that our Lord was vindicated as a true prophet—all that He declared came to pass upon “this generation.”

Because of the finished work of Christ on behalf of His people and the New Covenant established in His blood (Lk. 22:20), the signs and shadows in the Old Covenant sacrificial system were no longer required. As Hebrews 8:13 says, “In speaking of a new covenant, he makes the first one obsolete. And what is becoming obsolete and growing old is ready to vanish away.” Jesus is now and forever the “Lamb of God” (Jn. 1:29). Jesus is now and forever the temple (Jn. 2:13–22), and Jesus is now and forever the “perfect High Priest” (Heb. 2:17).

Once this understanding of the Olivet Discourse settles in a discerning Bible reader’s mind, he is now ready to picture a very different future than the ‘doom and gloom’ anticipated by many Christians. A future in which Christ conquers the nations by the power of the gospel. A future in which “the kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ” (Rev. 11:15). And may He reign forevermore.


[1] See John Piper. Coronavirus and Christ (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books), 74 and this interview with Ed Stetzer where Piper says, “The earthquakes in Idaho, the locusts in Africa and the coronavirus. Jesus called them the beginning of the birth pangs. God is being merciful to wake us up to the second coming if we have ears to listen.”

[2] “The Book that Grieved Josiah”. Ligonier Ministries. https://www.ligonier.org/learn/devotionals/book-grieved-josiah/

[3] English churchman and rabbinical scholar John Lightfoot: “False Christs broke out, and appeared in public with their witchcrafts, so much the frequenter and more impudent, as the city and people drew nearer to its ruin…”[3] (John Lightfoot, A Commentary on the New Testament from the Talmud and Hebraica: Matthew–1 Corinthians, 4 vols. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1859), 2:318.

[4] Tacitus describes the time between AD 14 – AD 68 as “rich in disasters, frightful in its wars, torn by civil strife, and even in peace full of horrors…” He also mentions “disturbances in Germany,” “commotions” in Africa and Thrace, “insurrections in Gaul,” “intrigues among the Parthians,” and “war” in Britain and Armenia (Gary DeMar, Wars and Rumors of Wars, 50).

[5] Agabus prophesied that there would be a great famine, and Luke records that “this took place in the days of Claudius” (Acts 11:27–28).

[6] Jesus’ crucifixion (Mt. 27:54), resurrection (Mt. 28:2), while Paul and Silas were in prison (Acts 16:26), and during the first siege of Jerusalem (Rev. 11:13). Josephus also records a strong storm and earthquake, which were according to him an “indication that some destruction was coming upon men…” (Josephus, Wars of the Jews, 4.5.5.)

[7] Acts 4:3, 4:17, 5:40, 7:54–60, 8:1–3, 2 Cor. 11:24–27, 1 Pet. 4:12.

[8] Acts 8:9–24, Gal. 1:6–10, and Heb. 5:11–6:20.

[9] The Jewish leaders were “full of hypocrisy and lawlessness” (Mt. 23:28) and there was immorality among the church, such as in Corinth (1 Cor. 5:1–2).

[10] Gary DeMar, Wars and Rumors of Wars (Power Springs, GA: American Vision Press), 77.

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