The Olivet Discourse -- signs of the end
A controversial (and often misunderstood) part of the New Testament is Matthew's account of Jesus' Olivet Discourse (found in Matthew chapters 24 and 25). This post offers an exegesis of that discourse that, hopefully, will bring clarity where often there is confusion and misplaced speculation.
|Painting by Simonet (public domain via Wikimedia Commons)|
Introduction: the great transition
At the end of Matthew chapter 23, Jesus mourns the coming destruction of Jerusalem (Mat 23:37-38). He sees this terrible event as signaling a great transition from the present age into a new one. The new age, elsewhere called the "last days" (Acts 2:17; 2Pet 3:3; 2Tim 3:1), will culminate in what the Jews of the time called "the end of the age" (see Mat 24:3). To Jesus, the destruction of Jerusalem is part of the outworking of an even more monumental, age-changing event; his coming death (Mat 23:39a) followed by his resurrection and ascension. The new age beyond the cross and empty tomb, will eventually conclude with Jesus’ promised return in glory (Mat 23:39b). In Matthew chapters 24 and 25, Jesus elaborates on these themes.
The interpretive approach presented here is based on the understanding that Jesus, now only hours from his crucifixion and resurrection, is focused on the meaning of those great events, which will usher in a a new era in human history.
In Mat 24:3, Jesus’ disciples think that what Jesus is talking about is the end of the age. But Jesus realizes that this new age (the last days) will not end immediately. Rather, they will last for an indeterminately long stretch of time. That age begins with Jesus' death, resurrection and ascension, and is then followed (fairly shortly) by the destruction of Jerusalem (which occurred in AD 70). Then will come a very long period of time, which will conclude with Jesus’ coming (Gk=parousia, which means appearing) in glory.
During this age (the last days), Jesus, who remains fully human (though now glorified), will be in heaven. Nevertheless, he (through the Holy Spirit and his body on earth, the church) will be present and actively at work on earth fulfilling his Father’s mission to the world. Eventually (at a time that no one will be able to pinpoint in advance), Jesus will come (appear, parousia) bodily (and thus visibly). This parousia in glory will be climactic, ushering in the final end of the age (the Greek word for end means consummation), with the resurrection of the dead and the establishment of the new heaven and new earth--the fulness of the kingdom of God.
Thus, in this lengthy discourse, Jesus paints a picture that covers a lot of territory. His concern is the who and what of these last days, not the when. To paint this picture, Jesus uses apocalyptic imagery (popular at the time, and featured prominently in the book of Daniel and elsewhere in the Old Testament). He also uses parables (a common rabbinic teaching tool). Both are highly symbolic and both need careful interpretation.
Part one: the destruction of Jerusalem
I tell you the truth, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened.
The “these things” to which Jesus here refers is all he has described in Mat 24:4-33. He here indicates that all of the events he describes there will happen before this generation (the one he is talking with) has passed away. Then in Mat 24:36 through the end of Matthew 25, Jesus talks about the rest of the last days that will come following Jerusalem’s destruction. What Jesus is indicating is that his soon coming death, resurrection, ascension and sending of the Holy Spirit is the great transition of human history: Everything changes; a new age dawns. And that age progresses in a certain sequence, concerning which Jesus now elaborates.
1. The disciple’s question (Mat 24:1-3)
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. "I tell you the truth, not one stone here will be left on another; every one will be thrown down."
The temple buildings, recently rebuilt by Herod, were considered among the great wonders of the ancient world. Thus Jesus’ pronouncement is all the more shocking. What he predicts for the temple came true in AD 70 when the Roman army destroyed Jerusalem, including the temple. Hearing this prediction of coming judgment, the disciples understandably seek the details:
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?"
In mentioning that Jesus left the temple (Mat 24:1) and went to the Mount of Olives (Mat 24:3), Matthew likely wants his readers to see a parallel to Ezekiel’s vision where God’s Shekinah glory left the doomed temple and rested on the Mount of Olives (Ezek 10:18–19; 11:22–23). Something monumental is unfolding. A new era in salvation history is beginning!
The disciples assume that this judgment on Jerusalem will be accompanied by the Messiah’s coming in power to conquer, which means the end of the age. Jesus corrects their understanding with a long discourse spanning the rest of this chapter and the next. As noted above, he speaks first (in Mat 24:3-34) about the events that will occur immediately, in the lifetime of these disciples that he is now addressing.
Then in Mat 24:36 through the end of chapter 25, Jesus speaks of the time that will follow 70 AD—a time that will stretch all the way to his appearing (parousia) in glory at the end of the age that is now dawning. This age will be tumultuous, as the salvation that Jesus is about to secure is worked out on earth through continuing cycles of life and death. But these cycles are not endless, nor are they pointless—for in Jesus, new life comes out of death and destruction (his own, and ours). The cycles will conclude when Jesus appears bodily and thus visibly in all his glory. At that time, the dead will rise in the general resurrection, and a new heaven and new earth will be ushered in.
In the meantime, these last days will be ones of both grace and grace-based judgment. Why? Because the crucified, resurrected and ascended Jesus is present, in the Holy Spirit, working through his body the church to make his Father and the Father’s kingdom known. Thus our work with Jesus has great meaning. And for humanity, no matter how terrible things get (and they will be very terrible at times), there is great hope.
This is Jesus’ message, which he wants to give to prepare his original disciples for what is immediately to happen. Matthew picks up this message and includes it in his gospel because he wants some dispirited first century Jewish-Christian churches to hear it, lest they give up hope. And certainly, it’s a good message for us to hear in the church of our day as we face difficulties of our own.
2. Be ready for the long haul (Mat 24:4-14)
4 Jesus answered: "Watch out that no one deceives you. 5 For many will come in my name, claiming, 'I am the Christ,' and will deceive many. 6 You will hear of wars and rumors of wars, but see to it that you are not alarmed. Such things must happen, but the end is still to come. 7 Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be famines and earthquakes in various places. 8 All these are the beginning of birth pains. 9 Then you will be handed over to be persecuted and put to death, and you will be hated by all nations because of me. 10 At that time many will turn away from the faith and will betray and hate each other, 11 and many false prophets will appear and deceive many people. 12 Because of the increase of wickedness, the love of most will grow cold, 13 but he who stands firm to the end will be saved. 14 And this gospel of the kingdom will be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come.”
In this part of his discourse on the end times, Jesus is talking about how things will be for his disciples in the lead up Jerusalem’s destruction, which occurred in AD 70. During that time (lasting about 40 years), many nationalist rebels set themselves up as leaders ("Christs"="Messiahs") of the Jews (Mat 24:4–5), thus usurping Jesus’ place as the true Messiah ("in my name"). Similarly (Mat 24:6–8), during that time (as is true in many periods of human history) there were devastating wars and cataclysmic natural disasters. But as Jesus notes, these are only the beginning of birth-pangs—they are not signs that the end of the age has arrived. During this period, the disciples must expect to be persecuted, as Jesus already mentioned in Mat 10:17–23; but whereas in chapter 10 the focus was on Jewish persecution, now the focus is wider—these disciples will be persecuted in all nations. Indeed, that is what happened to several of them as they travelled to far-flung parts of the world to preach the gospel in obedience to the commission Jesus gave them (Mat 28:16-20).
Mat 24:10–14 paints a disturbing picture of crisis among the people of God (in the early years of the church) as well as chaos on the outside. What is being called for here is not calculation of dates but for faithfulness! Jesus' disciples must not allow adverse conditions to affect their love (Mat 24:12), their endurance (Mat 24:13), or their faithful preaching of this gospel of the kingdom (Mat 24:14). Note that v14 does not specify which of the two aspects of the disciples’ question (in Mat 24:3) the end of the age is meant to refer to. In the period before AD 70, the gospel was in fact preached around much of the Mediterranean area (which is what they would have understood to be the whole world at that time). Before the temple was destroyed, the early Christian church had already become international. Jesus’ message to this first generation of disciples is clear (and the same message applies to all generations): be faithful, patient and willing to persevere despite suffering (even martyrdom). Keep clearly before you the Lord’s calling to declare his gospel throughout the world! We must be ready for the long haul!
3. Don’t be deceived--be ready to flee Judea (Mat 24:15-28)
15 "So when you see standing in the holy place 'the abomination that causes desolation,' spoken of through the prophet Daniel-- let the reader understand-- 16 then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains. 17 Let no one on the roof of his house go down to take anything out of the house. 18 Let no one in the field go back to get his cloak. 19 How dreadful it will be in those days for pregnant women and nursing mothers! 20 Pray that your flight will not take place in winter or on the Sabbath. 21 For then there will be great distress, unequaled from the beginning of the world until now-- and never to be equaled again. 22 If those days had not been cut short, no one would survive, but for the sake of the elect those days will be shortened. 23 At that time if anyone says to you, 'Look, here is the Christ!' or, 'There he is!' do not believe it. 24 For false Christs and false prophets will appear and perform great signs and miracles to deceive even the elect-- if that were possible. 25 See, I have told you ahead of time. 26 So if anyone tells you, 'There he is, out in the desert,' do not go out; or, 'Here he is, in the inner rooms,' do not believe it. 27 For as lightning that comes from the east is visible even in the west, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. 28 Wherever there is a carcass, there the vultures will gather.”
In Mat 24:15-22, Jesus continues to discuss the lead-up to the destruction of Jerusalem which occurred in AD 70. Then in Mat 24:23–28 he warns against assuming that these events, as terrible as they will be, will mark his promised appearing/coming (parousia). They won’t.
The abomination that causes desolation (Mat 24:15) is an expression found in Daniel 11:31; 12:11 (and see Daniel 9:27) for the pagan statue that Antiochus Epiphanes set up in the Jerusalem temple when he deliberately desecrated it in 167 BC. Jesus is predicting a similar act of sacrilege as the precursor to the temple’s destruction. This will be a signal to God’s people to flee from Jerusalem (and all Judea) while they can. What form this sacrilege will take is left deliberately unclear ("let the reader understand"). Suggestions made with hindsight include desecration of the temple by the Zealots in the winter of 67-8, of which Josephus speaks, or the arrival of the (idolatrous) Roman standards in the temple in 70. Luke 21:20 speaks instead of Jerusalem being surrounded by armies. The Roman siege marked the beginning of the desecration of the holy place. In the light of Josephus’ gruesome account of the horrors of the siege in 66–70, the words of Mat 24:21 (echoing Daniel 12:1) are not much of an exaggeration. But even so, God was not absent, but cut short those days for the sake of the elect, to enable his people to escape and thus survive.
This time of chaos will afford renewed opportunity for the sort of impostors predicted in Mat 24:5. The fact that they support their false claims with signs and miracles is a warning against drawing hasty conclusions from such things (see Mat 7:22–23). Similarly, Jesus’ followers should beware of claims that he himself has returned secretly (in the desert or in the inner rooms). His parousia, when it comes, will not be secret at all. Rather it will be as obvious as a flash of lightning. It is clear, therefore, that in this part of his discourse, Jesus is NOT talking about his parousia at the end of the age. Just as the presence of vultures indicates clearly where there is a carcass, so there will be nothing secret about the eventual parousia of the Son of Man.
4. It will shake your world (Mat 24:29-31)
29 "Immediately after the distress of those days 'the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light; the stars will fall from the sky, and the heavenly bodies will be shaken.' 30 At that time the sign of the Son of Man will appear in the sky, and all the nations of the earth will mourn. They will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of the sky, with power and great glory. 31 And he will send his angels with a loud trumpet call, and they will gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of the heavens to the other."
These verses are often misunderstood as referring to Jesus’ parousia in glory at the end of the age, and thus as moving to the second part of the disciples’ question in Mat 24:3, (“What will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?”). But that is not the case. "Immediately after" (in Mat 24:29) does not leave room for a long delay, nor does the explicit time-scale reference to "this generation" given in Mat 24:34. Note also that the word parousia does not occur in this section, but is prominently reintroduced in the new paragraph which begins at Mat 24:36 with an unknown time frame. We are thus led to conclude that this section is in direct continuity with what has gone before it, namely the account of the siege of Jerusalem in AD 70, though now this account reaches its climax.
|Siege of Jerusalem by Roberts (public domain via Wikimedia Commons)|
5. Don't miss the lesson (Mat 24:32-35)
32 "Now learn this lesson from the fig tree: As soon as its twigs get tender and its leaves come out, you know that summer is near. 33 Even so, when you see all these things, you know that it is near, right at the door. 34 I tell you the truth, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened. 35 Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away."
Here, Jesus draws a ‘bottom line’ to the first section of his Olivet Discourse. In doing so, he makes clear that the events he has just described are not about the time of his parousia in glory at the end of the age. Rather he is speaking about the huge transition from the old order to the new, culminating in the destruction of Jerusalem and its temple in AD 70. This terrible destruction points back to and highlights what happened nearly 40 years earlier in the death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus, followed by the forming of the church at Pentecost. Through these events, Jesus enters his kingship and the new people of God are formed.
Jesus’ point is that once the preliminary signs (which he summarizes in Mat 24:15–21) have occurred, just as summer comes quickly once the leaves appear on the fig-tree, so too the prophesied destruction of Jerusalem will occur within this (i.e. present) generation. And, of course, that is precisely what happened. Within 40 years of Jesus’ death and resurrection, the Jewish nation was essentially destroyed, the temple razed, and the new people of God (the church) formed. Many of those living in Palestine fled, a great deal of evangelism ensued, and thus the church, by AD 70, had become a worldwide movement. Matthew makes much of this transition, because he writes to Jewish Christian churches that remain confused about this transition. Note how he emphasizes it again in the story of the temple’s curtain being ripped in two at Jesus’ death (Mat 27:51).
Part two: the end of the age (at the parousia)
We now move to the second part of Jesus' Olivet Discourse in which he addresses his parousia (coming/appearing) in glory, which will not occur until the end of the present age. This part of the discourse spans Mat 24:36--25:46, in which Jesus addresses the parousia using parables focused on the salvation and judgment that result his presence, culminating in his bodily appearing.
1. Be ready: the parable of the faithful servant and the bad servant (Mat 24:36-51)
36 "No one knows about that day or hour, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. 37 As it was in the days of Noah, so it will be at the coming of the Son of Man. 38 For in the days before the flood, people were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, up to the day Noah entered the ark; 39 and they knew nothing about what would happen until the flood came and took them all away. That is how it will be at the coming of the Son of Man. 40 Two men will be in the field; one will be taken and the other left. 41 Two women will be grinding with a hand mill; one will be taken and the other left.
42 "Therefore keep watch, because you do not know on what day your Lord will come. 43 But understand this: If the owner of the house had known at what time of night the thief was coming, he would have kept watch and would not have let his house be broken into. 44 So you also must be ready, because the Son of Man will come at an hour when you do not expect him.
45 "Who then is the faithful and wise servant, whom the master has put in charge of the servants in his household to give them their food at the proper time? 46 It will be good for that servant whose master finds him doing so when he returns. 47 I tell you the truth, he will put him in charge of all his possessions. 48 But suppose that servant is wicked and says to himself, 'My master is staying away a long time,' 49 and he then begins to beat his fellow servants and to eat and drink with drunkards. 50 The master of that servant will come on a day when he does not expect him and at an hour he is not aware of. 51 He will cut him to pieces and assign him a place with the hypocrites, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”
2. Watch: the parable of the wise and foolish virgins (Mat 25:1-13)
1 "At that time the kingdom of heaven will be like ten virgins who took their lamps and went out to meet the bridegroom. 2 Five of them were foolish and five were wise. 3 The foolish ones took their lamps but did not take any oil with them. 4 The wise, however, took oil in jars along with their lamps. 5 The bridegroom was a long time in coming, and they all became drowsy and fell asleep.
6 "At midnight the cry rang out: 'Here's the bridegroom! Come out to meet him!' 7 Then all the virgins woke up and trimmed their lamps. 8 The foolish ones said to the wise, 'Give us some of your oil; our lamps are going out.' 9 'No,' they replied, 'there may not be enough for both us and you. Instead, go to those who sell oil and buy some for yourselves.'
10 "But while they were on their way to buy the oil, the bridegroom arrived. The virgins who were ready went in with him to the wedding banquet. And the door was shut. 11 Later the others also came. 'Sir! Sir!' they said. 'Open the door for us!' 12 But he replied, 'I tell you the truth, I don't know you.' 13 Therefore keep watch, because you do not know the day or the hour.”
3. Serve: the parable of the talents (25:14-30)
14 "Again, it will be like a man going on a journey, who called his servants and entrusted his property to them. 15 To one he gave five talents of money, to another two talents, and to another one talent, each according to his ability. Then he went on his journey.
16 “The man who had received the five talents went at once and put his money to work and gained five more. 17 So also, the one with the two talents gained two more. 18 But the man who had received the one talent went off, dug a hole in the ground and hid his master's money.
19 "After a long time the master of those servants returned and settled accounts with them. 20 The man who had received the five talents brought the other five. 'Master,' he said, 'you entrusted me with five talents. See, I have gained five more.' 21 His master replied, 'Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master's happiness!' 22 "The man with the two talents also came. 'Master,' he said, 'you entrusted me with two talents; see, I have gained two more.' 23 His master replied, 'Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master's happiness!'
24 "Then the man who had received the one talent came. 'Master,' he said, 'I knew that you are a hard man, harvesting where you have not sown and gathering where you have not scattered seed. 25 So I was afraid and went out and hid your talent in the ground. See, here is what belongs to you.' 26 His master replied, 'You wicked, lazy servant! So you knew that I harvest where I have not sown and gather where I have not scattered seed? 27 Well then, you should have put my money on deposit with the bankers, so that when I returned I would have received it back with interest. 28 Take the talent from him and give it to the one who has the ten talents. 29 For everyone who has will be given more, and he will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what he has will be taken from him. 30 And throw that worthless servant outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.'”
4. Choose: the parable of the sheep and the goats (Mat 25:31-46)
31 "When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his throne in heavenly glory. 32 All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. 33 He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.
34 "Then the King will say to those on his right, 'Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. 35 For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, 36 I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.'
37 "Then the righteous will answer him, 'Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? 38 When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? 39 When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?' 40 The King will reply, 'I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.'
41 "Then he will say to those on his left, 'Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. 42 For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43 I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.' 44 They also will answer, 'Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?' 45 He will reply, 'I tell you the truth, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.' 46 Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.'"
|Jesus' appearing/ judgment (public domain via Wikimedia Commons)|
Conclusion: how do we respond?
Note: this post draws on the following sources: Kingdom, Grace, Judgment by Robert Capon; New Bible Commentary article by RT France; and Bible Knowledge Commentary article by Louis Barbieri.