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The Olivet Discourse – pt. 4,
by Scott Sperling
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. 33Even so, when you see all these things, you know that it is near, right at the door. 34I tell you the truth, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened. 35Heaven 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, but only the Father. 37As it was in the days of Noah, so it will be at the coming of the Son of Man. 38For in the days before the flood, people were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, up to the day Noah entered the ark; 39and 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. 40Two men will be in the field; one will be taken and the other left. 41Two women will be grinding with a hand mill; one will be taken and the other left. 42Therefore keep watch, because you do not know on what day your Lord will come.”
Jesus is in the midst of a discourse in which He answers a question from His disciples about “when [the destruction of the Temple will] happen, and what will be the sign of Your coming and of the end of the age” (Matt. 24:3). In verses 32 and following, Jesus speaks of how His disciples should react when they witness the signs Jesus has spoken of.
First, Jesus gives a parable that teaches us that His disciples should not be taken by surprise as they see God’s plan for the last days begin to unfold: “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. Even so, when you see all these things, you know that it is near, right at the door” (vss. 32–33). Jesus’ disciples should be attuned to the spiritual signs of the times. They should be able to perceive and recognize when God is working in the world, for His eternal purpose. Earlier in His ministry, Jesus chided the Pharisees for not recognizing God’s work through Jesus: “When evening comes, you say, ‘It will be fair weather, for the sky is red,’ and in the morning, ‘Today it will be stormy, for the sky is red and overcast.’ You know how to interpret the appearance of the sky, but you cannot interpret the signs of the times” (Matt. 16:2–3). Jesus’ followers must not be like the Pharisees, but rather must be able to see God’s hand at work in the happenings on earth.
Jesus continues: “Even so, when you see all these things, you know that it is near, right at the door. I tell you the truth, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened” (vss. 33–34). When He uses the term “all these things” in verse 33 (as opposed to “that time”, in verses 23 and 30), Jesus seems to be referring back to the signs He mentioned in verses 5 through 8—false Christs; “wars and rumors of wars”; “famines and earthquakes in various places”—about which He said, “All these are the beginnings of birth pains” (vs. 8). So, in verse 34, Jesus seems to be indicating that that “generation” would witness the “beginnings of birth pains”. And indeed they did. That generation did not pass away before the city of Jerusalem itself was utterly destroyed. “Within fifty years the city was wiped out, the Temple razed, the whole region reduced to appalling devastation, and the world’s obstinacy rose up against God. A furious passion raged to destroy the doctrine of salvation, false teachers came up to pervert the true Gospel with their impostures, religion was shocked in amazing ways, and the whole company of the godly was wretchedly harassed. Although the same evils continued without a break for many centuries to follow, Christ still spoke truly, saying the faithful would actually and openly experience before the end of one generation how true His oracle was, for the Apostles suffered the same things as we see today” [Calvin, 97].
And so, the “beginnings of birth pains” has already occurred. Ever since those times, all of Christ’s followers should be in a constant state of excitement and expectation that His return will be soon. Just as the “beginnings of birth pains” has already occurred, so also will everything Jesus has prophesied be fulfilled. Jesus assures us: “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away” (vs. 35). “The accomplishment of these prophecies might seem to be delayed, and intervening events might seem to disagree with them, but do not think that therefore the word of Christ is fallen to the ground, for that shall never pass away: though it be not fulfilled, either in the time or in the way that we have prescribed; yet, in God’s time, which is the best time, and in God’s way, which is the best way, it shall certainly be fulfilled. Every word of Christ is very pure, and therefore very sure” [Henry].
“Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away” (vs. 35). Note that with this verse, Jesus accomplishes two things. First, He declares the certainty that what He proclaimed will be accomplished. Second, He declares the temporal nature of this universe: “Heaven and earth will pass away.” This agrees with John’s prophecy in the book of Revelation: “Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away” (Rev. 21:1).
Now, about “that day”, Jesus tells us: “No one knows about that day or hour, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father” (vs. 36). “Christ wishes the day of His coming to be so hoped for and looked for that yet no one should dare to ask when it will come. He wants His disciples to walk in the light of faith and, without knowing times with certainty, to expect the revelation with patience. Beware then not to worry more than the Lord allows over details of time… It would be threefold, fourfold madness to grudge submission to the ignorance which not even the Son of God refused to accept, for our sake” [Calvin, 98].
There are some who are bothered that Jesus, in His incarnation, did not know the “day or hour” of His return. They ask, “Is not Jesus deity? Does He not know everything?” Certainly this is true of His heavenly existence. But on earth, Jesus chose to take on limitations of humanity. In His human body, He did not have full knowledge. “We read of Him at twelve years of age that He ‘advanced in wisdom and stature’ (see Luke 2:52). If He then advanced in wisdom, He did not cease advancing at the age of twenty or of thirty. If His knowledge was incomplete at twelve, it was still incomplete at thirty” [Broadus, 493]. “This is clearly associated with those limitations of Deity that were not only inevitable during the earthly life of our Lord, but inherent in the very idea of the Incarnation; for the Gospels seem unanimous that our Lord suspended use of His Godhead during most of His earthly life and that His utterances partook of this accepted position” [Thomas, 352]. “As for Christ the man not knowing the last day, it detracts in no way from His divine nature, other than that He was mortal” [Calvin, 99]. As He took on death, so He also took on other aspects of humanity. “There is something beautiful in the thought that He lived His life on earth as man, not using His own Divine power but receiving knowledge and power every moment from His Father (see John 5:19-20)” [Thomas, 352]. In this way, we live as He did.
But this, Jesus does tell us: “As it was in the days of Noah, so it will be at the coming of the Son of Man. 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; 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” (vss. 37–39). In general, and to most of the world, the end will come as a total surprise, just as the flood came as a total surprise to those who were destroyed by it. “Christ’s coming, like the flood, will be sudden, unexpected, universal in its effects, and terrible to the ungodly, although they will be utterly unconcerned” [Spurgeon, 354]. Concerning when it will happen, “we only know that it will be a very sudden event. Our plain duty then is to live always prepared for His return” [Ryle, 321].
One reason that the return of Christ will come as a great surprise to the world is because the world chooses not to believe that He will return. In fact, those of the world mock Christians who believe such a thing. Peter foresaw that this would be the case: “First of all, you must understand that in the last days scoffers will come, scoffing and following their own evil desires. They will say, ‘Where is this “coming” He promised?’ Ever since our fathers died, everything goes on as it has since the beginning of creation. But they deliberately forget that long ago by God’s word the heavens existed and the earth was formed out of water and by water. By these waters also the world of that time was deluged and destroyed. By the same word the present heavens and earth are reserved for fire, being kept for the day of judgment and destruction of ungodly men” (II Peter 3:3–7).
Christ’s return will be accompanied by an extraordinary event: “Two men will be in the field; one will be taken and the other left. Two women will be grinding with a hand mill; one will be taken and the other left” (vs. 40–41). This is the “gathering of the elect”, spoken of in verse 31. “In a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet, each party shall be separated from the other forevermore. Wives shall be separated from husbands, parents from children, brothers from sisters, masters from servants, preachers from hearers. There shall be no time for repentance, or a change of mind, when the Lord appears: all shall be taken as they are, and reap according as they have sown” [Ryle, 327-328]. This “gathering of the elect” (popularly known as “the rapture”) is also similar to what happened in the “days of Noah”, God’s people were taken away and sheltered from the judgment of God. As Paul tells us: “For God did not appoint us to suffer wrath but to receive salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ” (I Thess. 4:9).