When Shall These Things Be? Understanding the Olivet Discourse (Matthew 24-25)
Note: This essay is an excerpt from my book on eschatology, called The High King of Heaven: Discovering the Master Keys to the Great End Time Debate. My primary purpose in the book is to defend the classic Reformation view of our Blessed Hope: Christ will return once, at the end of the present evil age, to raise the dead, judge the world in righteousness, and create new heavens and a new earth, the eternal home of the redeemed. I hope you enjoy the essay . . . and maybe the book as well!
Shortly before his passion, the Lord Jesus sat with his disciples on the Mount of Olives and taught them about the Consummation. All agree that his lengthy discourse, recounted by three of the four Gospel writers, is the single most important dominical teaching on this subject. It is also the most difficult and controversial. However, if our grasp of biblical eschatology is firm, and our understanding of prophetic diction clear, the difficulties are actually quite surmountable and the controversies fairly easily laid to rest.
My approach in this essay will be as follows. First, we will look closely at The Disciple’s Question, a question that both elicited the Lord’s reply and determined the prophetic principles by which he would give it. Secondly, we will briefly survey the Discourse itself, using those principles to help us interpret his meaning. Thirdly, we will address some of the more difficult questions involved, even as we interact with different interpretations of controversial passages. And finally, we will summarize our findings, showing how richly they favor the amillennial view of the Consummation.
The Disciple’s Question (24:1-3)
In his final confrontation with the scribes and Pharisees, the Lord Jesus has just predicted—and lamented over—the coming destruction of Jerusalem: the desolation of the house of Israel (23:37-39). Now, as he leaves the temple area, his disciples comment on the grandeur of the buildings. Discerning their spiritual blindness to the times they live in, he urges a second look, telling them that here not one stone will be left upon another. Having often heard their Master teach about his coming both to judge and finally redeem, and now learning that the judgment includes the destruction of the temple and the city, they quickly surround him on the Mount of Olives, eagerly desiring to know, “When will these things be, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the close of the age” (Matthew 1-3)?
The Olivet Discourse is Jesus’ answer to this question. But in asking it the disciples have one thing in mind, while in answering it Jesus has another. The disciples are thinking of a single coming in the near future, when Jesus, acting in God’s power, will bring the present evil age to a close in judgment and usher in the Kingdom.
However, with the benefit of biblical hindsight, we know better. We know that Jesus is thinking of two comings, separated by at least two millennia; two distinct comings, yet united by one common character and purpose. The first coming is providential, at the hand of the Roman general Titus, a coming that will destroy Jerusalem and seal the abolition of the Jewish theocracy (Mark 11:12-14). The second is a supernatural coming at the hand of the glorified Christ, a coming that will destroy the present world system and bring in the age to come.
Knowing all this, Jesus sees that he must frame his reply in such a way as to meet the needs of all his disciples; the needs of all who will look for his glorious coming and the signs that herald it. In other words, he knows he must speak to the needs of the generation that will live through the destruction of Jerusalem, the needs of subsequent generations that will experience the various tribulations of the Gospel era, and the very special needs of the last generation that will pass through a great tribulation destined to occur immediately prior to his Parousia.
He did so. The result was yet another Kingdom prophecy characterized by prophetic perspective (or blending; foreshortening). We have spoken of this earlier. Prophetic perspective appears when the Holy Spirit refers to two or even three historical events, widely separated in time, yet blended into a single prophecy, since the events in view share a common character. As we saw, this pattern is especially prominent in certain OT prophecies of the Day of the LORD, where the prophets spoke not only of an imminent local judgment (whether on Israel or the nations), but also of a final global judgment (Isaiah 2:5-22, 13:1ff; Joel 2:1-20; Zephaniah 1:1ff).
Such is the case here. In the Olivet Discourse, the Lord blends predictions of an imminent (and providential) coming of Christ in 70 AD with predictions of an eschatological (and supernatural) coming of Christ at the end of the age; he blends predictions of a local judgment of Jerusalem with predictions of a universal judgment of the whole world. Therefore, speaking of the Olivet Discourse, C. E. B. Cranfield well concludes, “Neither an exclusively historical nor an exclusively eschatological interpretation is satisfactory. We must allow for a double reference, for a mingling of historical and eschatological” (p. 160, KR).
Bearing this principle in mind, and applying it freely, let us now survey the remainder of the Discourse. I will comment on Matthew’s version, which is the most extensive, but also refer to Mark’s and Luke’s where appropriate.
The Signs of His (Two-fold) Coming (24:4-28)
Verses 4-28 give us the signs of the Lord’s twofold Coming. Here, a notable progression is evident. Verses 4-8 tell of “the beginning of the birth pains.” All throughout the Church era, the world will experience false Christs (5), wars, rumors of war (6), famines, earthquakes (7), and pestilence (Luke 21:11). These are indeed signs of the final judgment to come, and also of the new world that is sure to be born after it. They are not, however, signs that the end—or the birth—is imminent, “right at the door.” To the contrary, they are signs that the end and the birth have not yet come (Mark 13:7). Therefore, when the saints see them, they are not be deceived, overly excited, or discouraged; rather, they are to stay busy!
In verses 9-14, the eschatological labor pains intensify. Yes, in most cases the signs mentioned here were fulfilled among first century Christians living in Palestine. However, in this section the accent begins to fall on the middle and later portions of the Church era. They include persecution, martyrdom (9), apostasy (10), more—and more deceptive—false prophets (11), increasing lawlessness, corresponding lukewarmness (12), and—on a happier note—the universal proclamation of the Gospel, after which the end (i.e., the Consummation) will come (14). Happy is the man who endures to that end (13).
In verses 15-28 we reach transition. Now the labor is most intense. Now there is great tribulation. Now the Coming, the end, and the birth are indeed at the door. By and large, these predictions again have a double fulfillment. The near-term fulfillment, emphasized by Luke (Luke 21:20-24), is at the coming of Titus and the judgment of the Israelite nation, epitomized in the destruction of their city and their temple. The far-term fulfillment, emphasized by Matthew and Mark, is in the Parousia and the Judgment of the whole world-system; the destruction of the City of Man and its “temple” (i.e., its man-made, man-centered religion). As one commentator aptly writes, “The destruction of Jerusalem was a foretaste of the Last Judgment, and so is a sign of the coming wrath” (RSB, p. 1401). Importantly, all three versions of the Discourse refer or allude to both comings and both judgments; contrary to our preterist brethren, none of them confines the coming of Christ to 70 AD.
The prophetic particulars in this section are challenging to interpret, but the overall picture is quite clear. The Lord begins by instructing his disciples to watch for “the Abomination of Desolation, standing in the holy place” (15). He is referring to Titus’ desecration of the temple in 70 AD, but also to the rise of the Antichrist, who will attempt to usurp the worship properly belonging to God (2 Thessalonians 2:1ff). Next, he warns the disciples quickly to flee at the sight of these things (16-17). The early Jewish Christians obeyed implicitly, many of them escaping to Pella; perhaps, at the rise of the Antichrist, many latter-day Christians will be led to do similarly. In verses 19-20, Jesus pronounces a woe upon women who are pregnant or nursing in those days, also urging his own followers to pray that their flight may not be in winter or on the Sabbath. These verses seem largely to apply to the siege of Jerusalem, though one can readily imagine analogues suitable for the dark days of the Last Battle. However, in the remainder of this section (vv. 21-28), the accent definitely falls upon events destined to occur at the end of the age.
In verses 21-22, the Lord now warns of a great tribulation, more severe than any the world has ever known, or ever will. The siege of Jerusalem, dire as it was, only pictures it. Here, then, Jesus primarily has in mind the manifold judgments that will fall upon nature and society in the last of the last days; judgments designed to warn the whole world of the divine wrath shortly to come. However, the Lord has already hinted that he also has in mind the severe persecution that will befall the Church during the Last Battle (9). Happily, because of his love for the elect, God will cut those dark days short (22).
With this great tribulation especially in view, the Lord now issues solemn warnings to all his followers (23-26). Do not be taken in by false Christs or false prophets, even if they can perform miracles (24-25). If anyone claims that the Christ is already upon the earth, do not believe it (23, 26). Always remember that the true Christ will descend from heaven, illuminating earth and sky like a lightning bolt on a stormy night (27-28). On that day, do not be found as vultures gathered upon a dead carcass; that is, do not be found feasting on the religious rot of the Antichrist and his false prophets (28). Instead, be found looking up to heaven, always watching, always waiting—for Me (Luke 21:28)!
The Parousia (24:29-31)
These three verses are the pinnacle of the Olivet Discourse. Everything prior leads up to them, everything after flows from them. Since they do not reference the Judgment and its aftermath (25:31-40), they do not give us the Consummation as a whole; nevertheless, they do give us the Agent of the Judgment, and the Agent of the Consummation as whole: Christ at his Parousia.
With great intentionality, our Lord here represents the Parousia as cosmic in its scope and climactic in its impact on man and nature. It is the absolute end of the former world, and the absolute beginning the new. Accordingly, just prior to his appearing, the break-up of the old cosmos begins: There are signs in the sun, moon, and stars; upon the earth there is dismay among nations, and great perplexity at the roaring of the sea and waves; men’s hearts fail them for fear and for the expectation of things now coming upon the earth (Luke 21:26f). Finally, God sets the stage: The luminaries are completely extinguished, and darkest night falls on the cosmos. All is in readiness for the glorious appearing of the true Light of the World (29).
How exactly does our Lord depict the (unfolding of the) Parousia? It may not be possible to say with certitude. Nevertheless, honoring these verses as his seminal teaching on this subject, and supplementing them with further NT revelation found in parallel passages, I would offer the following as a likely scenario.
First, “the sign of the Son of Man” appears in the sky: Unless this is the brightness of the glory clouds that attend him, its exact nature remains undisclosed (30). Next, Christ himself appears, proceeding steadily towards the earth upon “clouds” (i.e., visible manifestations) of the Father’s power and glory, with all the holy angels at his side (25:31, 30; Revelation 14:14f). As he draws nearer still, there is a cry of command, the voice of an archangel, and the sound of a great trumpet (31; 1 Thessalonians 4:16). At this, all who have ever lived hear his voice, rise from the dead, and come forth from the graves (John 5:28-29; 1 Thessalonians 4:13-17; Revelation 20:13). Also, the Lord himself transforms and glorifies the bodies of the living saints (1 Corinthians 15:50-54; 1 Thessalonians 4:17). Henceforth, every eye is beholding him: The saints of all ages who marvel and rejoice, and the hostile and unbelieving who mourn and recoil in terror (30; Matthew 26:64; 2 Thessalonians 1:10; Revelation 1:7, 6:16). As all watch, the holy angels now fly earthward to their appointed task of harvesting the earth. First, they gather in God’s elect, catching them up into the air and bringing them to safety at Christ’s right hand (31; Matthew 24:40-41; 1 Thessalonians 4:13-17; Revelation 11:12; but see also Matthew 13:30, 41). Then they gather the wicked, possibly casting them immediately into the (newly created) Lake of Fire, but probably bringing them first to the Judgment Seat of Christ (Matthew 13:41-42; Revelation 14:14-20). The earth and its works below are now being consumed with fire (2 Peter 3:8-13; Revelation 20:11). Christ is enthroned in glory at the center of the universe (25:31:ff; Revelation 20:11-15). All men and all angels are assembled before him (2 Corinthians 5:10). The Judgment of the Great Day has begun (Jude 1:6).
The Lesson of the Fig Tree (32-35)
In a moment, the Lord will conclude his Discourse by describing the Judgment itself (25:31ff). However, in light of the unspeakable weightiness of these matters, he must first issue a number of exhortations. He begins by pressing upon his disciples the importance of carefully watching for the signs of his Coming. To this end, he bids them learn a lesson from the fig tree: When they see it put out its leaves, they know summer is near. Likewise, when they see “all these things” that he has just spoken of, they are to know that the Parousia is near, even at the door (32-33). In other words, when there is a confluence of all the signs, including those that specially belong to the end of the age (15-28), they are to understand that their full redemption—the manifestation of the Kingdom in its full and final form—has drawn nigh (Luke 21:28, 31).
Bringing his parable to a close, the Lord solemnly pledges: “I tell you the truth: This generation will by no means pass away till all these things have taken place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away (34)” This verse is quite difficult and has therefore generated a host of different interpretations. I will briefly share my own.
Our text raises two basic questions.
First, what does the Lord mean by “all these things?” In light of verse 33, it is certainly possible that he has in mind the various signs he has previously mentioned, but not his (twofold) coming itself. Here, however, the word “all” seems quite comprehensive, and may therefore include his (twofold) coming as well; in light of the solemnity and finality of verse 35, I am inclined to think it does. If so, “all these things” will refer to the signs preceding the destruction of Jerusalem, the destruction of Jerusalem itself, the beginning of birth pains that are set to occur throughout the Era of Proclamation, the historically unique signs that will occur during the Greatest Tribulation, the supernatural Parousia of Christ, and the Consummation of all things at the end of the age (1 Peter 4:7).
This brings us to our second question: What does the Lord mean by “this generation”? In the NT the word genea typically refers to a group of historical contemporaries (Matt. 1:17; 12:39; 17:17; Luke 1:48; Heb. 3:10) or to the time frame in which they live (Acts 14:16; Eph. 3:5; Col. 1:26). Here, however, the Lord’s use of the word appears to be controlled by the disciples’ twofold question, and also by the twofold response it has generated so far: a response that blends the local with the global, and the historical with the eschatological.
Thus, in speaking as he did, the Lord was certainly referring to the generation of people—both saints and sinners—living in and around the time of his earthly ministry: the generation of mid-first-century Jews. And these did indeed see “all these things” occur: the signs (in one form or another) and the providential coming of the Lord in AD 70. However, he also was referring to the generation of saints and sinners living throughout the remainder of Salvation History, and especially toward its end. These too have seen, or will see, “all these things” occur: the signs (in one form or another) and the supernatural coming of the Lord at his Parousia—for all men are appointed to rise from the dead and see him as he is (1 John 3:2; Rev. 1:7).
To my mind this interpretation of verse 34 leads most naturally to the solemn declaration of verse 35. I would therefore paraphrase the latter as follows: “I have answered your questions. I have told you about the future of Jerusalem, and also about the future of the heavens and the earth. Now you know that both will surely pass away. But mark this: My words to you on this subject will never pass away. Amidst your many forthcoming trials you can stand squarely upon them. And as you do, you will take heart.”
A Day Unknown and Unexpected (36-44; Luke 17:26-27)
Here, the exhortations begin. In essence, they come to this: stay awake (24:36-25:13) and stay busy (25:14-30). In this section, the emphasis is on staying awake. Why must the disciples always keep alert? Jesus gives two main reasons. First, no one—not even the Son himself (at least in the state of his humiliation)—knows the day or hour of his Parousia (36). By God’s good decree, the saints do not know the exact time of his coming, in order that they may be ready at all times for his coming. Secondly, as it was prior to the Flood, so it will be prior to the Parousia: People will be spiritually asleep, conducting business as usual, unaware of the disaster that looms (37-42). In such an environment, it will be all too easy for believers to fall asleep as well (Luke 18:8). Ominously, the Lord warns that if certain people had known the hour of his coming, they would have prepared themselves, so disastrous were the results of that visitation. Let no saint be among them; let every saint stay awake (43-44).
Three Parables of the Judgment (24:45-25:30)
Jesus’ exhortations continue in the form of three parables focusing on the Last Judgment: The Parable of the Servants (24:45-51; Luke 12:42-46), the Parable of the Ten Virgins (25:1-12), and the Parable of the Talents (25:14-30; Luke 19:12-27). Very importantly, all three clearly reveal his underlying assumptions about the structure of the Kingdom and the Consummation. Soon, via Calvary, the Master, Bridegroom, and King of his people will journey to the far country of heaven (25:14; Luke 19:12, 20:9). Once there, he will be delayed for a long time (24:48, 25:5,19). Though necessary, the delay is dangerous, exposing his followers on earth to various temptations. Therefore, let them always remember: In the end, he will return to settle accounts with his own. When he does, he will richly reward the watchful, faithful, and diligent, welcoming them into his eternal Kingdom (25:34); but the foolish, wicked, and lazy he will judge, appointing them their proper portion in hell with the hypocrites and unbelievers (24:51, 25:41; Luke 12:46). Thus, in all three of these parables, Jesus shows that he presupposes a simple two-staged Kingdom, separated by a single Consummation at his Parousia. He also shows how much he desires his disciples to remain alert and faithful, so that at his coming—when the Resurrection and the Judgment occur at last—they may fully and finally enter into the joy of the their Lord (25:21, 23).
The Last Judgment (25:31ff)
Having issued both promises and warnings, the Lord now completes what he began in his description of the Parousia, bringing the Discourse to a close with his most extensive teaching on the Judgment. It will occur at his coming, when he arrives in the skies above the earth with all his holy angels (31). It will be universal in scope: Having raised the dead, all nations of all people of all time will be gathered before him (32; John 5:28-29; Acts 24:15; 1 Corinthians 15:23; 2 Corinthians 5:10; Revelation 20:13). It will involve a final separation (32-33): Those who loved and served his brethren, he will welcome into the Kingdom prepared for them before the foundation of the world (34-40); those who did not, he will turn into Gehenna, the eternal (lake of) fire prepared for the devil and his angels (who are judged at this time as well) (41-42). Contrary to the teaching of some, Jesus’ brethren are not the (tribulation) Jews. As he himself taught, they are loyal believers in him, whether Jew or Gentile (Matthew 10:42, 12:48-49). Those who received these brethren received the Christ whom they served and the Gospel that they proclaimed, and so became Christians themselves (Matthew 10:40-42). Finally, the Judgment will send all men to their eternal destiny: The wicked will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life (46). Clearly, this is not a partial or preliminary judgment, ushering in a temporary earthly millennium. No, it is the one final, universal judgment that ushers in the eternal Kingdom of God.
Questions and Answers
The Olivet Discourse raises a number of questions that have troubled modern Christians, in some cases opening the door to unorthodox views of the Consummation. Let us take a moment to examine three of the most important.
1. What exactly did Jesus have in mind when he spoke of “a great tribulation” (24:21)?
Above, I suggested that he had in mind a brief season just prior to his Coming at end of the age; a season characterized by unprecedented judgments upon the world and unprecedented persecution of the Church; a season pictured by the fall of Jerusalem, but not fulfilled in it. Here, I wish to stress the fact that our Lord did not tell us how long this tribulation will be; only that God has cut it short for the sake of the elect. This is the biblical pattern. There is not a single biblical text telling us the duration of the Great Tribulation. For over 150 years, Dispensationalists have taught us it will last three and a half years. We have seen, however, that they base their assertion on a faulty exegesis of Daniel 9. Also, we have seen that in the Revelation there is nothing whatsoever to justify this notion; that “the Great Tribulation” of Revelation 7:14 is the present evil age as a whole, out of which God has taken his suffering but faithful elect—both Old Testament and New—, so that they might dwell with him in the World to Come; and that the permutations of three and a half, found throughout the Revelation, all refer symbolically to the Era of Proclamation as a season of tribulation and sustenance for Christ’s pilgrim Church. If then, we wish to speak of “the Great Tribulation,” we shall have to be very careful about defining our terms!
2. Does Jesus really teach that his Parousia is “imminent,” in the sense that it could come “at any moment?”
We have seen that in the Olivet Discourse the Lord told his disciples that no one except the Father knows the day or hour of his coming (24:36); that he will come at a time when neither the world (24:38-39) nor the saints (24:40-43) expect him; and that his coming will indeed catch certain professing believers unawares (24:45-25:13). From texts like these, some have concluded that true watchfulness requires the saints to believe that Christ could indeed return at any moment. However, this is not at all what the Lord had in mind; indeed, he had in mind quite the opposite. As Matthew 24:23-28 makes clear, Jesus understood that faith in an “any moment return” sets the saints up for all kinds of “winds” of prophetic doctrine, one of which powerfully blew through the church in Thessalonica (2 Thessalonians 2:1-3). Therefore, his point here—and Paul’s in 2 Thessalonians 2—is to insist that he will not return until certain definite signs appear on the historical horizon. When the saints see these, they will still not know the day or the hour of his coming; but they will know—or very strongly suspect—that the day and hour have drawn nigh. So then, Christians are indeed to watch: for the signs, signs that could quite suddenly appear on the stage of world history, with the return of their Lord following right behind (24:32-33; Mark 13:37).
3. If, at the end, the world is going through a great tribulation, how can the Parousia spring as a trap on people going about business as usual?1
The Olivet Discourse predicts both these developments: unprecedented upheavals in nature and society, and people eating, drinking, working, and marrying as usual, apparently oblivious to the Judgment looming overhead. How can we reconcile these seemingly contradictory phenomena? The best answer, I think, is to recall that Jesus spoke of the latter day tribulation in terms of birth pains (24:28). Birth pains come in waves, with each one more intense than its predecessor. It seems reasonable, then, to conclude that as the end approaches, the birth pains will intensify, yet still be marked by ebb and flow. Immediately prior to the end, they will ebb. Then, when the world says, “Peace and safety!” (presumably because of the ascendancy of the Antichrist) sudden destruction will come upon them as (transitional) labor pains come upon a pregnant woman, and they will not escape (1 Thessalonians 5:3).
Because of its great importance and difficulty, I have lingered long over the Olivet Discourse. In a few words, what have we learned? Simply this: When we understand that Jesus was answering the Disciple’s Question in prophetic perspective, and when we closely examine how he answered it, we immediately see yet again his underlying assumptions about the structure of the Kingdom and the Consummation. To be specific: He sees the Kingdom as coming in two simple stages, separated by a single Consummation at his Parousia. The first, which is coextensive with his heavenly reign, is a lengthy but finite season of mission, evangelism, testing, judgments, signs, persecutions, and Kingdom growth. The second is an eternal season, whether of reward in the World to Come, or retribution in the fires of Gehenna. Fittingly enough, the two stages are separated by a single Consummation that is cosmic in scope and climactic in its impact on man and nature. It will include the appearance of the glorified Son of Man in the darkened skies above the earth, a general resurrection of the dead, the transformation of the living saints, the gathering of all men and angels before the throne of Christ, the last Judgment, and the inauguration of the eternal Age to Come.
This is the premise of the Olivet Discourse; this is the teaching of the Olivet Discourse; this is the premise and teaching of all NT eschatology; and this is the premise, teaching, and heart of our blessed Reformation faith.
- Dispensationalists make much of the idea of the “imminence” of the Lord’s return. The return they have in mind, however, is not the Parousia (spoken of in Matthew 24-25), but the Rapture (set to occur seven years prior, and allegedly spoken of in 1 Thessalonians 4). The Rapture, they insist, is altogether imminent: It could occur at any moment, since God has not given us any signs by which to know it is near. In this way, Dispensationalists completely overthrow the Lord’s purpose in the Olivet Discourse, and Paul’s in 2 Thessalonians 2, which was to steel and steady the saints against precisely the kind of prophetic frenzies that have repeatedly troubled the Church over the last few decades.
- RSB stands for the Reformation Study Bible. It is published by Ligonier Ministries; general editor, R. C. Sproul.