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Matthew 24:3-22

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The Olivet Discourse - pt. 2

 

1Jesus 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.”

3As 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?”

4Jesus answered: “Watch out that no one deceives you. 5For many will come in my name, claiming, ‘I am the Christ,’ and will deceive many. 6You 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. 7Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be famines and earthquakes in various places. 8All 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. 10At that time many will turn away from the faith and will betray and hate each other, 11and many false prophets will appear and deceive many people. 12Because of the increase of wickedness, the love of most will grow cold, 13but he who stands firm to the end will be saved. 14And 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,’ spoken of through the prophet Daniel— let the reader understand— 16then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains. 17Let no one on the roof of his house go down to take anything out of the house. 18Let no one in the field go back to get his cloak. 19How dreadful it will be in those days for pregnant women and nursing mothers! 20Pray that your flight will not take place in winter or on the Sabbath.

21For then there will be great distress, unequaled from the beginning of the world until now— and never to be equaled again. 22If those days had not been cut short, no one would survive, but for the sake of the elect those days will be shortened.

 

The disciples responded to Jesus’ prophecy that the Jerusalem Temple would be destroyed (see vs. 2), by asking:  “‘Tell us,’ they said, ‘when will this happen, and what will be the sign of Your coming and of the end of the age?’” (vs. 3).  As we discussed in the previous issue, it seems that the disciples thought that the destruction of the temple would occur at or near the time that Jesus returned, and at or near the “end of the age”.  Jesus’ answer to their question contains prophecies about all three events, without clearly distinguishing between them, and without giving a time-line concerning when they will occur. 

In fact, much of Jesus’ response contains general directions to the disciples about distressing events that would occur in the future.  “It is observable, that what Christ here says to His disciples tends more to engage their caution, than to satisfy their curiosity; more to prepare them for the events that should happen, than to give them a distinct idea of the events themselves” [Henry].  Jesus begins:  “Watch out that no one deceives you.  For many will come in my name, claiming, ‘I am the Christ,’ and will deceive many.  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.  Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom.  There will be famines and earthquakes in various places.  All these are the beginning of birth pains” (vss. 4–8).  Here Jesus gives a general warning to His disciples that they be not deceived by false Messiahs.  There will come times of distress—“wars and rumors of wars”, “famines and earthquakes”—but Jesus’ disciples are not to be “alarmed” by these things.  Also, Jesus warns of false Messiahs during such times of political and environmental upheaval.  “One of the greatest temptations in times of difficulty is to follow blindly any self-proclaimed savior who promises help” [Carson, 497]. 

Indeed, Jesus in these verses prepares His disciples in all ages, not just those who lived near the time of the destruction of the temple, and not just those who will live near the time of the end of the age.  Sadly, at all times in history, there are “wars and rumors of war”, and there are also great natural disasters, such as “famines and earthquakes”.  In the past year, we have seen all of these things, as well as great storms and floods, tsunamis and pestilences.  Jesus’ message to us, His disciples, as we hear of such things, is: Do not be alarmed; He is in control; do not seek after other ‘Christs’; He is the Lord forever.  “We have one thing going for us that the general public has not:  we know that God is over all and that His purpose will in the end be worked out” [Morris, 598].

“All these are the beginning of birth pains” (vs. 8).  The wars and rumors of war, the turbulence in the world, are evidences of a fallen world, a world that has, for the most part, rejected Christ, and the salvation He offers.  These are “birth pains”, leading up to the eventual new heaven and new earth, which will come about at the end of the age.  “Since the disciples confused the [destruction of the Temple with the end of the world], as though the Temple could not be put down without the ruin of the whole earth, Christ replies to the question put to Him with the caution that a long and sad epic of woes was upon them, that they must not hasten to seize the prize before they had gone through many contests and troubles” [Calvin, 83].

Along with these political and environmental upheavals, as Jesus warns His followers, there will be persecution of believers:  “Then you will be handed over to be persecuted and put to death, and you will be hated by all nations because of me” (vs. 9).  “He wanted to warn the disciples that the teaching of the Gospel (whose witnesses and heralds they were to be) would never win them the world’s favor and applause” [Calvin, 80].  “It is one of the things that puzzle Christians in every age that, although they are doing their best to love God and their neighbor and to put love into practice by ministering to whatever needs they discern in those they encounter on their way through life, they are so often the butt of ridicule and the objects of hatred” [Morris, 599].

Jesus continues:  “At that time many will turn away from the faith and will betray and hate each other, and many false prophets will appear and deceive many people.  Because of the increase of wickedness, the love of most will grow cold, but he who stands firm to the end will be saved.  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” (vss. 9–14).  Here is verse 9, and also in verse 30, Jesus uses the phrase “At that time…”  In verse 30, Jesus is clearly referring to the end of the age, and here in these verses, I believe Jesus is also referring to the times just before the end of the age.  Jesus speaks in general terms about the spiritual conditions at that time:  “many will turn away from the faith”, “many false prophets will appear and deceive”, “the love of most will grow cold”.  In order to assure His disciples that the Christian religion is not a passing fad, Jesus assures them that, before the end of the age, “this gospel of the kingdom will be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all nations” (vs. 14).  Despite the impediments described previously—the wars, the earthquakes, the persecution, etc.—the gospel will still be preached “in the whole world as a testimony to all nations.”

Next, Jesus warns His disciples about a specific event:  “So when you see standing in the holy place ‘the abomination that causes desolation,’ spoken of through the prophet Daniel—let the reader understand—then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains.  Let no one on the roof of his house go down to take anything out of the house. Let no one in the field go back to get his cloak. How dreadful it will be in those days for pregnant women and nursing mothers! Pray that your flight will not take place in winter or on the Sabbath” (vss. 15–20).  Jesus warns His disciples to flee Jerusalem when they see “standing in the holy place ‘the abomination that causes desolation’”.  We are not sure, at this time centuries later, to which specific event this refers in the destruction of Jerusalem.  Presumably, the Romans entered and defiled the temple.  This was to be a sign to the disciples that they were to leave the city because great destruction was to be coming.

Jesus uses the phrase ‘the abomination that causes desolation’ to tie His prophecy with a prophecy in the book of Daniel, where the same phrase is used.  Speaking of the conqueror, Daniel prophesied:  “His armed forces will rise up to desecrate the temple fortress and will abolish the daily sacrifice.  Then they will set up the abomination that causes desolation” (Dan. 11:31; see also, Dan. 8:13; 9:27; and 12:11).  It is quite amazing, even miraculous, how the prophecies in the Bible tie together, and relate to each other.  Jesus uses Daniel’s phrase to teach us that He is speaking of the same events that Daniel was.

As I said, it seems that the immediate fulfillment of this prophecy occurred during the destruction of Jerusalem.  But, as occurs so much in prophecy, it seems that there will be a more complete fulfillment in the future.  Jesus spoke of the destruction of Jerusalem, but with an eye also toward the end-times.  “We must not suppose that this part of our Lord’s prophecy is exhausted by the first taking of Jerusalem.  It is more than probable that our Lord’s words have a further and deeper application still.  It is more than probable that they apply to a second siege of Jerusalem, which is yet to take place;… and to a second tribulation on the inhabitants thereof, which shall only be stopped by the advent of our Lord Jesus Christ” [Ryle, 317-318].  Jesus next seems to speak of this ‘second tribulation’, which will be even more horrible than the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70:  “For then there will be great distress, unequaled from the beginning of the world until now—and never to be equaled again.  If those days had not been cut short, no one would survive, but for the sake of the elect those days will be shortened” (vss. 21–22).