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The Olivet Discourse (Pt. 1)
Coming at last to the Olivet Discourse in Matthew 24-25, although the main descriptive section comes in Matthew 24 with an addendum at the end of Matthew 25, before which are two parables.
Matthew 24:1-2 belong on their own. They provide the setting for the discourse that follows in that they refer to the glories of Herod’s temple.1 Jesus does not even acknowledge the great work, which by His time was famous throughout the Empire. Instead, He predicts its devastation, which came upon it in A.D. 70.
In the verses that come next some are tempted to keep within the first century setting of the opening two verses, but I think this is plainly mistaken. Verse 3 is critical to what will follow:
Now as He sat on the Mount of Olives, the disciples came to Him privately, saying, “Tell us, when will these things be? And what will be the sign of Your coming, and of the end of the age?” (Matthew 24:3)
They have arrived at the Mount of Olives outside Jerusalem. The disciples, moved to further inquiry by Jesus’ prophecy of the destruction of the temple, come to Him with more questions. Two questions are put to Jesus; the first refers to the overthrow of the temple that Jesus had just spoken of. The second question concerned Christ’s coming (which He had spoken about: Mk. 8:38; Lk. 12:40; 17:242; 18:8; cf. Matt. 16:28; 19:28). This coming was understood to take place at the time of “the end of the age.” If one pays close attention to the words recorded by the Evangelist, it quickly becomes clear that the first question does not receive an answer (at least none is reported). Matthew’s focus is upon the answer to the second question; the one about Christ’s return and the end of the age.
This can be decided by noticing the phenomena of men claiming to be Christ (Matt. 24:5, 24), false prophets abounding (Matt. 24:11, 24), the setting up of Daniel’s “abomination of desolation” (Matt. 24:15), greatly intensified tribulation reminiscent of Daniel 12 (Matt. 24:21-22), and the signs of the second coming itself (Matt. 24:29-31), with its depiction of Christ’s judging the nations to determine who goes into life and who faces punishment (Matt. 25:31-46). These particulars are not to be swept away with the magic word “apocalyptic.” They direct our attention away from the first century and onto events just prior to and including the second advent. This conclusion is reinforced by the repetition of the term “the end” in the first half of the chapter (Matt. 24:3, 6, 13, 14). This corresponds to the employment of “the end” in Matthew 10:22; 13:39-40, 49, cf. 28:20.
The Sign of Christ’s Coming and of the End of the Age
Since, as we have seen, Jesus’ remarks concern the second question of the disciples, which is to say their question about Christ’s coming and the end of the age, it is vital we get the setting of these remarks right. First, “the beginning of sorrows” (Matt. 24:8) include what appears to be world upheaval, both societal and natural (Matt. 24:6-7). Of course, there have always been “wars and rumors of wars.” Hence, the only way to make sense of this is in terms of an undeniable explosion of war and mayhem. This concentration of wars is combined with false prophesying and “many” people falsely claiming to be Christ. (Matt. 24:4-5).3 We must look for wars, widespread civil unrest, natural calamities, disease, and false Messiahs and false prophets occurring together. People will be alarmed and fall prey to deceptions. This will precede the end, but “the end is not yet” (Matt. 24:6); meaning, I believe, that before Christ’s second coming, the world (or at the very least the Middle East)4 will be thrown into confusion and chaos.
In this time period the saints will be persecuted (I take the “you” here as anticipatory, referring to Christ’s followers at that time). The general alarm will be exploited by false prophets (Matt. 24:9-12) who will encourage the persecution. It is within this context that we must fit “he who endures to the end shall be saved” (Matt. 24:13).
What does the saying mean? I think the very first question to be asked is ‘Does the phrase “the end” in verse 13 mean the same as it does in verses 3, 6, and 14? Or does it mean something like “the end of one’s life”? or “the end of one’s trial”? I see no reason to believe that this second answer is correct. The end should mean “the end of the age” as it does in the rest of its usages in the discourse. If this is correct, we may paraphrase verse 13 as “he who makes it through to the return of Christ.” To bring in Matthew 25:41-46, it would mean that those saints who survive the persecution will be ushered into the Kingdom.
But doesn’t this create a tautology? Am I simply stating that the ones who make it through the final torrid days of this age are the ones who escape death? Of course, the question of what the verb “saved” means in this verse is critical. If it means the salvation of the soul then the problem of tautology vanishes, but the possible problem of works raises its head. Does one have to endure (viz. put in effort) to be saved? If so, how is this connected to the matter of justification? If however “saved” equates to survival the tautology reappears. Or does it? What if we paraphrase things a bit? What if it means “the believer who gets through the Tribulation will be rescued, and will enter the peaceable Kingdom”? Glasscock writes,
Contextually, the salvation being discussed here was not eternal redemption but deliverance from the persecutions and wretchedness of the world.5
The Gospel of the Kingdom and the End of the Age
I have said that it is essential to interpret the Olivet Discourse in light of the way Jesus answered the second question that He was asked in Matthew 24:3.6 So far we have tried to show that the whole direction of the discourse points to the end times and not to the first century A. D. This impression only deepens as the chapter proceeds. In the next verse Jesus remarks,
And this gospel of the kingdom will be preached in all the world as a witness to all the nations, and then the end will come. (Matthew 24:14)
This statement is immediately followed by the warning about seeing “the abomination of desolation spoken of by Daniel the prophet” (Matt. 24:15). That verse, as well as what has gone before, places the preaching of “the gospel of the kingdom” at the time of the end. As hard to take as it may be for many, the plain fact is that the Gospel of Matthew does not know anything about the good news involving Christ’s substitutionary atonement and His resurrection for our justification (cf. Rom. 4:25; 1 Cor. 15:1-4). The “gospel” of Matthew’s narrative is “the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matt. 3:2; 4:17; 10:7), and when Matthew 4:23 and 9:35 speak of “the gospel of the kingdom” it appears that this is the message (i.e., the message of the soon arrival of the kingdom) that is being spoken of. As a matter of fact, although Jesus does mention His forthcoming death and resurrection in Matthew 16:21; 17:23; and 26:31-32 it was not done openly, and the disciples are not described as fully comprehending His meaning. One may fairly ask then, aside from the discomfort which these facts may produce, is it not true that the gospel of the kingdom as presented in Matthew is different than the gospel in Paul’s letters?7 The blunt answer is Yes!
What then are we to do with this prediction by Christ about the gospel of the kingdom being preached for a “witness” before the end comes? One thing we must say is that this text has nothing to do with present world missions, laudable as they are. A point that follows hard on the heels of this is that the gospel of the kingdom, viz., “the kingdom of heaven is at hand,” which made sense at the first coming before Christ’s rejection, begins to make sense again, only in light of Christ’s imminent second coming. This is just what we see in Matthew.
1 Herod’s temple was essentially a rebuilding of the temple built under Zerubbabel. Hence, both edifices are usually referred to as the second temple.
2 Jesus appears to have used the analogy of a lightning flash to speak of His second coming before Matthew 24.
3 Not many men in history have made this claim. The most famous was Simon Bar-Kohkba, who was overthrown by Rome in A.D. 135. Rabbi Akiba believed he was the Christ.
4 It is unclear whether these end time predictions of Jesus have the entire world in view or just the area covered in His time by the Roman Empire, West and East.
5 Ed Glasscock, Matthew, 466-467.
6 Most scholars believe that the destruction of the temple in A. D. 70 is addressed by Jesus in Luke 21:12-24. As can be seen from my comments on that passage, I respectfully disagree.
7 One must face the fact that the word euangelion (“gospel” or “good news”) does not possess a technical meaning in the four Gospels like it does in the later NT.
Paul Martin Henebury is a native of Manchester, England and a graduate of London Theological Seminary and Tyndale Theological Seminary (MDiv, PhD). He has been a Church-planter, pastor and a professor of Systematic Theology and Apologetics. He was also editor of the Conservative Theological Journal (suggesting its new name, Journal of Dispensational Theology, prior to leaving that post). He is now the President of Telos School of Theology.