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Life of Christ (2007-2009)

Olivet - The Early View

Matthew 24:1-44

Lesson audio

It is almost impossible to give a coherent picture of the many different ways this section of prophecy is interpreted. I leave that as an exercise to the student. We can, however, find the plain sense of the passage in many ways, and will endeavor to do just that.

Mat 24:1-44 NIV

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." (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?" (4) Jesus answered: "Watch out that no one deceives you. (5) For many will come in my name, claiming, 'I am the Christ,[1]' 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. (15) "So when you see standing in the holy place 'the abomination that causes desolation,'[2] 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. (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.'[3] (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. (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[4]is near, right at the door. (34) I tell you the truth, this generation[5] 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.

(36) "No one knows about that day or hour, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son,[6] 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.

Sack of Jerusalem

It was the universal opinion of the church for its first 1500 years that this section concerns itself first with the sack of Jerusalem in AD 70. The idea that there could be a second such event was beyond the vision of the early church fathers. We shall examine it, therefore, from their point of view. This does not mean that the other point of view is wrong; prophecy is difficult to deal with, especially where it concerns the future. And it’s none too easy concerning the past, either.

One, Two, Three

Look at verse three. Tell me: are the disciples asking one question, two questions or three questions? It’s clear that the answer to that question determines a great deal about how you interpret this passage.

  • The modern (pre-millennialist) view says it’s all one question – and therefore the entire passage concerns the future only.
  • The parallel passages in Mark and Luke quote this as two questions, however. This would imply a short term and long term view.
  • Jerome (and others) saw this as three questions.

We’ll follow Mark and Luke; we shall treat this as having a long and short term fultillment.

Short view

In the short view the early sections are fulfilled by the sack of Jerusalem and destruction of the Temple in AD 70. This is confirmed by the parallel passage in Luke, to wit:

Luk 21:24 NIV They will fall by the sword and will be taken as prisoners to all the nations. Jerusalem will be trampled on by the Gentiles until the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled.

In certain prophetic schemes the “times of the Gentiles” are very specifically computed (usually to end in 1947, when the Jews returned to the land). This sack of Jerusalem included a form of the “abomination of desolation” as the Romans set up their worship in the Temple before destroying it. It was a time of great distress (tribulation) as well. Church history records that the apostles were warned ahead of time so that they could leave early.


The early Christians were given some signs to look for:

  • They were warned of false prophets and false Christs.
  • They were also told of earthquakes, etc. and war – but that these were simply the beginnings of things. There is no real significance to this or that war.

But there are other signs that apply to the main event.

End of the Age

After the “birth pangs” come the signs of our Lord’s return. See if any look familiar:

  • Persecution – and severe at that. Some hold this to be the Diocletian persecution (AD 303-313); others think it yet to come.
  • Turning away from the faith – including betrayal of other Christians and hatred for them. (Hmm – getting warmer, huh?)
  • False prophets. There’s been at least one – Mohammed.
  • An increase in wickedness - which causes many Christians’ love to grow cold. (Does that ever sound familiar!)
  • Finally, that the Gospel would be preached to all nations. (That could be interpreted as just the Roman Empire as well as the entire planet.)

Now we have the warm up exercises completed; we can look at the signs specific to Christ’s return.

Christ’s return

There are several theories of prophecy that hold that two things will happen due to the prophecies in this paragraph:

  • One is the Great Tribulation – usually cited as a three and a half year period, the second half of the 7 years of Daniel’s last week.
  • The other is that the Temple will be rebuilt – according to the instructions given in the book of Ezekiel.

These two may be right; other interpretations hold this not to be the case.

But there are two signs we can look for: false prophets and false miracles. There does not seem to be a shortage of people calling themselves prophets; and one does have one’s suspicions about all those miraculous cures on television. But when will Christ really come?

We will be told that Christ has returned here or there – but just the fact that we have to be told means that it’s false. He tells us here:

  • His return will be highly visible – obvious to all.
  • The location of the return is generally held to be the Mount of Olives. Other passages indicate that his return will happen when the valley between Jerusalem and that place will be filled with bodies.
  • Mysteriously, we should expect “signs in the sky.” For most of Christian history this has been taken figuratively (meaning huge political changes – remember Joseph’s dream of the stars?), but it now is more commonly taken to mean physical changes.
This generation

How do we get so many interpretations? One reason is found in verse 34. The word “generation” can be interpreted in several ways, such as these:

  • It could mean the generation standing in front of Christ when he said this. If so, fulfillment was made in AD 70.
  • It could be the generation which (theoretically) will see the “millennial Temple” described by Ezekiel.
  • The word (genea in the Greek) can also be translated “race.” This would mean that the Jews as a race would still be in existence when He returns. Which, so far, is true.

Seven Last Things

Let’s be clear: we have signs of his return, but it is clearly stated that not even Christ himself knows the date and time of his return – only God the Father knows that. It seems highly unlikely that anyone will be able to figure it out, therefore. This has not prevented people from trying; the Seventh Day Adventists, for example, were founded on precisely such an attempt.

We do know one thing about the time: life will be “business as usual” at his return. It’s when we’re not expecting it.

Luke gives us one other cryptic sign:

Luk 21:29-30 NIV He told them this parable: "Look at the fig tree and all the trees. (30) When they sprout leaves, you can see for yourselves and know that summer is near.

It’s difficult to tell if this is just a general instruction to “watch for the signs” or if it is to be interpreted as the nation of Israel coming into being. The fig tree is often used as a metaphor for Israel. You pick.

But isn’t there something that we really do know will happen?

Seven Last Things

Indeed. Over the course of the last two millennia, seven things have emerged as being “last things” – those things associated with the time of the end. Some may have happened; others clearly have not. Here, in some order (but not certain) they are:

  • Tribulation – held by some to have been fulfilled, or at least in part fulfilled, it means that the church will be persecuted intensely for a limited time.
  • Armageddon – there will be a final military battle between the forces of evil and the forces of God. It will happen at Har Meggido, and will result in the decisive defeat of Satan.
  • Rapture – also called the resurrection of the dead. The number of separate resurrections, and which group of people comes in what order, is still debated. (Lindsay, for example, posits six resurrections).
  • Second Coming – all views agree: the Lord will return in the flesh.
  • Millennium – which will happen before or after the return of our Lord, or might be happening now. This is a major classification point of prophetic theories.
  • Judgment – generally held to be after the resurrection, all will be judged. The Christians to be given reward; all others on the deeds in their lives.
  • New Heaven, New Earth – somehow (don’t ask the physicist) the universe changes to one in which death no longer exists, and God lives among men.

These things I believe. So do most Christians of most times.

Our Part

OK – nice problem. But just what should we be doing about it?

  • Keep watch. Look for the signs of the times. Trust Jesus in this; these things will happen, so be on the lookout.
  • Be careful. Why? Consider the parallel passage in Luke:

Luk 21:34 NIV "Be careful, or your hearts will be weighed down with dissipation, drunkenness and the anxieties of life, and that day will close on you unexpectedly like a trap.

  • Watch and pray – that you may escape!

Luk 21:36 NIV Be always on the watch, and pray that you may be able to escape all that is about to happen, and that you may be able to stand before the Son of Man."

  • Be ready!

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