In the previous article I showed the backdrop against which the ‘Olivet Discourse’ (Matt. 24, 25; Mark 13; Luke 21) was presented by Matthew, and that the question the disciples asked Jesus had to do only with the destruction of the Jewish nation and Temple which he had predicted. The disciples rightly understood that this destruction would indicate the end of that ‘Old Testament’ age and the coming of Christ in his kingdom. The writer of Hebrews explained the symbolism of the first covenant with its regulations for worship and its earthly sanctuary. There was an ‘outer tabernacle’ and an ‘inner tabernacle’. The ‘inner tabernacle’ represented the true ‘Holy of Holies’ in heaven, where Christ has now entered into the presence of God. The ‘outer tabernacle’ represented the whole ‘earthly’ system of rituals involved with the Temple and the Aaronic priesthood. Hebrews comments: “By this the Holy Spirit indicates that the way into the sanctuary [inner tabernacle] is not yet opened as long as the outer tent [tabernacle] is still standing” (9:8). This ‘outer tabernacle’ had to be fully taken down before the ‘inner tabernacle’ could be fully open for access by the people of God. During the interim between Jesus’ resurrection and the ‘end of the age’ when the Old Covenant would be completely dismantled, it was said (1 John 2:8): “The darkness is passing away and the true light is already shining”. The disciples knew, though, from Jesus’ ‘Olivet’ predictions that “The end of all things is at hand” (1 Peter 4:7).
So let’s begin to look at Jesus’ response to the disciples’ question. “Take heed that no one leads you astray. For many will come in my name, saying, ‘I am the Christ’, and they will lead many astray…” (Matt. 24:4, 5). This was very personal for those disciples Jesus was addressing. They would personally experience the things Jesus was talking about, so they personally needed to be on their guard. Jesus wasn’t just entertaining them with intriguing stories of what would take place way out in the future, which had no personal relevance to them. There would be wars, rumors of wars, earthquakes and famines in various places; and false christs and false prophets would arise to promise deliverance; but they shouldn’t be deceived by all of this. All of these things must take place, and there would be no deliverance; in fact these wars and natural catastrophes would be just the “beginning of birthpangs”. That word “birthpangs” is a word of hope, though, as it implies that the agonies would result in a ‘new child’ born into the world. The true ‘kingdom of God’ would indeed arrive, and the way into the ‘Holiest of all’ would be fully opened.
The wars and rumors of wars, earthquakes and famines Jesus spoke of as ‘the beginning of birthpangs’, as well as the more intense ‘tribulation’ which came upon the Jewish people (of which Jesus spoke in the following verses) are presented in vivid detail in the writings of Josephus. Quotes from Josephus’ history may be found in Phillip Mauro’s The Seventy Weeks and the Great Tribulation, particularly chapter 15. While Mr. Mauro made the mistake of thinking Jesus was talking about two distinguishable events in this Olivet Discourse, his comments on verses 1-28 of Matt. 24 are excellent. Two other books in which you can find quotations from Josephus’ history, as well as interesting exposition of Biblical prophecy, are: J. Marcellus Kik’s An Eschatology of Victory (available at Amazon.com); and J. Stuart Russell’s The Parousia: A Study of the New Testament Doctrine of Our Lord’s Second Coming (also available at Amazon.com, though you may be able to find a lower price here). In Acts 11:27-30 there is a reference to a great famine ‘over all the world’, but which apparently particularly affected Judea. Some prophets had come from Jerusalem to Antioch, where Barnabas and Paul were then residing. One of those prophets, named Agabus, predicted the famine, and the believers in Antioch decided to take up a collection to send to the believers in Judea for their relief. Other references to collections for the Judean believers as a result of this famine may be found in Acts 24:17; Romans 15:26, 27; 1 Corinthians 16:1-3; 2 Corinthians 8:1-15; and Galatians 2:10. The Emperor Claudius, during whose reign this famine took place, was the step father of the infamous Nero.
Next, in verse 9 of Matt. 24, Jesus said: “Then they will deliver you up to tribulation, and put you to death; and you will be hated by all nations for my name’s sake”. Remember that Jesus had said to the Pharisees and scribes (Matt. 23:34): “Therefore I send you prophets and wise men and scribes, some of whom you will kill and crucify, and some you will scourge in your synagogues and persecute from town to town”? These disciples whose question Jesus is answering were to be among those “prophets and wise men and scribes” whom ‘this generation’ would mistreat and kill. The book of Acts contains a history of the opposition of the Jews to the Christian disciples. The ‘deacon’ Stephen was killed in Acts 7; James the brother of John was killed in Acts 12:2. According to this account in Acts, Saul of Tarsus, who later became the ‘apostle’ Paul, was “breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord” (Acts 9:1). Acts 8:1 speaks of the “great persecution [which] arose against the church in Jerusalem” following the death of Stephen. And Paul himself became the object of the hatred of the non-Christian Jews following his conversion. The apostle Paul makes this interesting observation in 1 Thessalonians 2:14-16 – “For you, brethren, became imitators of the churches of God in Christ Jesus which are in Judea; for you suffered the same things of your countrymen [“hated of all nations”] as they did from the Jews, who killed both the Lord Jesus and the prophets, and drove us out, and displease God and oppose all men by hindering us from speaking to the Gentiles that they may be saved – so as always to fill up the measure of their sins [see Jesus’ statement in Matt. 23:32]. But God’s wrath has come upon them at last [literally ‘to the end’ – completely]”. [“Truly I say to you, all this will come upon this generation“ – Matt. 23:36]. History certainly records the atrocities of the Emperor Nero toward Christians – and it was under Nero in fact that the ‘Jewish war’ began.
Verses 10-13 speak of people falling away from the faith as a result of these persecutions, false prophets arising and deceiving many, and the love of many growing cold. The apostle John certainly tells us about the fulfillment of this in his lifetime. “Children, it is the last hour; and as you have heard that antichrist is coming, so now many antichrists have come; therefore we know that it is the last hour. They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us; but they went out, that it might be plain that they all are not of us” (1 John 2:18, 19). “Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are of God; for many false prophets have gone out into the world” (1 John 4:1). “For many deceivers have gone out into the world, men who will not acknowledge the coming of Jesus Christ in the flesh; such a one is a deceiver and the antichrist” (2 John 6). Paul spoke of some of these men who “by rejecting conscience have made shipwreck of the faith, among them Hymenaeus and Alexander, whom I have delivered to Satan that they may learn not to blaspheme” (1 Timothy 1:19, 20). The letter of Hebrews contains several warnings against the very present danger of falling away from the faith of Christ – for instance chapter 10:26-39. The writer warns about the judgment which will come on people who “sin deliberately after receiving the knowledge of the truth”; reminds them of “the former days when, after you were enlightened, you endured a hard struggle with sufferings, sometimes being publicly exposed to abuse and affliction, and sometimes being partners with those so treated”; and exhorts “do not throw away your confidence, which has a great reward. For you have need of endurance, so that you may do the will of God and receive what is promised”. [Compare this to Jesus’ statement in Matt. 24:12, 13 – “And because wickedness is multiplied, most men’s love will grow cold. But he who endures to the end will be saved”.] Then the writer of Hebrews expresses this confidence: “But we are not of those who shrink back and are destroyed, but of those who have faith and keep their souls.” Did Jesus say in verse 12 that “because wickedness is multiplied, most men’s love will grow cold”? Notice how John told us that this was fulfilled in his own time, in the letter to the church at Ephesus in Revelation 2:4 – “But I have this against you, that you have abandoned the love you had at first.” The promise that the one who endures to the end will be saved is echoed by John in those letters to the 7 churches in Revelation, when he says that the overcomer will receive the promised reward.
In verse 14 of Matt. 24, Jesus said: “And this gospel of the kingdom will be preached throughout the whole world, as a testimony to all nations; and then the end will come.” To many, this is conclusive that ‘the end’ has not yet come, and Jesus must have had something else in mind here than the outpouring of God’s ‘wrath’ on Jerusalem and the destruction of the Temple in 70 A.D. Isn’t it obvious that the Christian gospel has not yet been preached throughout the whole world? Well it wasn’t obvious to the apostle Paul, who wrote to the Colossian Christians: “All over the world this gospel is bearing fruit and growing…” (1:6, NIV). And in verse 23 of chapter 1, he said: “This is the gospel that you have heard and that has been proclaimed to every creature under heaven...” Or consider Paul’s statement to the Roman Christians (1:8): “First, I thank my God through Jesus Christ for you all, that your faith is spoken of throughout the whole world.” And in 16:26 Paul spoke of the mystery of God which had been previously kept secret, “but now has been made manifest, and by the prophetic scriptures has been made known to all nations“. Jesus said the gospel must be preached throughout the world as a witness, and Paul confirmed that it had been preached throughout the world, to every creature under heaven. That of course is just one of the reasons Paul could confidently expect that he and his readers might well be among those still living at the coming of his Lord. (If someone says that Paul was only talking about the Roman world, I ask: what makes you think Jesus had some other ‘world’ in mind than the Roman world? There is no reason at all to believe that Jesus and Paul were operating under different definitions of ‘the world’). No, Jesus did not inexplicably leap from answering the question of the disciples about Jerusalem and its Temple, to a ‘second coming’ several thousand years in the future. “The end” he had in mind was that very judgment on Jerusalem and the Temple which he had declared was forsaken and desolate – which would come upon that very generation.
Thus far, then, there is no reason to believe that Jesus is leaping from one topic to another, in a confusing way mixing up the destruction of Jerusalem with a totally unrelated ‘second coming’ which has not even yet occurred. I’ll have to take up the following verses about the ‘abomination of desolation’, those in Judea fleeing to the mountains, etc. in my next article.