Studies On Christ’s Olivet
(Matthew 24 And 25)
Dr. Frederick A. Tatford of East Sussex, England, is President of the Prophetic Witness Movement, International, well-known lecturer and conference speaker, and author of over sixty books. This current study on Christ’s Olivet Discourse is the first of an extended series of articles on this important and instructive passage in the Gospel of Matthew.
The student of prophecy quickly finds himself faced with problems of interpretation but is early conscious of the fact that an understanding of the whole scope of the Divine programme is dependent primarily upon the correct interpretation of a small number of related subjects. One of these is undoubtedly that of the seventy heptads of Daniel 9. Another, possibly of almost equal importance, is that of the Olivet discourse. They have been described with some justification as the two major keys to prophecy.
‘The writer has attempted to deal with the first in his exposition of Daniel, The Climax of the Ages, and in a smaller work entitled, Daniel’s Seventy Weeks. This first study and others which will follow represent a brief examination of our Lord’s teaching in His Olivet discourse. It is not intended for the theological student but for the ordinary reader and is, therefore, penned in ordinary, non-technical language. It is hoped that this small contribution will assist to a better understanding of one of the Master’s most important discourses.
The Last Week
Although our Lord’s early days were spent at Nazareth, His home during much of His public ministry was at Capernaum (Matt. 4:12, 13) and Matthew, in fact, referred to it as “His own city” (Matt. 9:1). The greater part of His preaching and the majority of His miracles seem to have taken place in Galilee and He must often have taught the crowds by the blue waters of the lake.
But the end was now in sight. He had journeyed from Tyre and Sidon to Caesarea Philippi on the slopes of the Hermon ridge, where He had evoked the amazing confession from Peter of His Messiaship and Deity (Matt. 15:21, 29; 16:16), and shortly after which had occurred His transfiguration on Mount Hermon (Matt. 17:1-6; Mark 9:1-8). In that scene of glory the subject of the conversation with Moses and Elijah had been the “decrease which He would accomplish at Jerusalem.” He was going up to the holy city to die.
Travelling southwards to Capernaum and then traversing Samaria, He and His followers eventually came into Judea (Matt. 19:1; Mark 10:1; Luke 9:52). As the little band made their way up to Jerusalem, the Master warned the disciples that He would there be betrayed and put to death (Matt. 20:17-19), but although He had disclosed this to them on more than one occasion, they still did not seem to realize the full significance of His words.
The small company evidently reached the outskirts of the city on the Sunday of Passion Week, although John 12:1 implies that they arrived on the previous day and spent the Saturday night at Bethany. They made their way to the fig tree fields of Bethpage (the name of which meant “the house of figs”), a hamlet on the Mount of Olives near Bethany. From thence, in fulfilment of the prophecy in Zecharia 9:9, the Lord rode into the city on an ass, with the crowds acclaiming Him and crying “Hosanna” before Him (Matt. 21:1-8). They were virtually acknowledging Him as their long-expected Messiah. “The cry Hosanna is the equivalent of our English ‘God save the king’,” says H. D. A. Major.1 “It could only be used in selecting a sovereign or his vice-regent.” When the crowd cried out, “Blessed is the kingdom of our father David that is coming” (Mark 11:10), they indicated clearly their expectation that He would now inaugurate the Messianic kingdom.
He entered the temple and observed — as He must often have done in the past — the trading that was going on in the porches and in the court of the Gentiles. The records of Matthew and Luke imply that He immediately cleansed the temple of these desecrating commercial activities, but Mark 11:12, 15 makes it clear that this actually occurred on the following day. Evening had come and the Lord and His followers left the temple and made their way across the brook Kidron and up the olive-clad hill to Bethany, where they stayed at the house of Mary, Martha and Lazarus (Mark 11:11, John 12:1). Here they lodged each night up to and including the Wednesday of that week.
On the following day, the little band left Bethany early in the morning. It was customary for the Jew not to eat before the hour of prayer and morning sacrifice and they had evidently not breakfasted, for they were hungry. Coming down the hillside, the Master saw a fig tree by the side of the road and halted that he might satisfy their hunger. The thick foliage gave promise of abundant fruit. F. W. Farrar says, “although the ordinary season at which figs ripened had not yet arrived, yet, as it was clad with verdure, and as the fruit of a fig sets before the leaves unfold, the tree looked more than usually promising. Its rich large leaves seemed to show that it was not only fruitful but precociously vigorous. There was every chance, therefore, of finding upon it either the late violet-coloured kermouses, or autumn figs, that often remained hanging on the trees all through the winter, or even until the new spring leaves had come, or the delicious bakhooroth, the first ripe on the fig tree, of which Orientals are particularly fond.” But the tree was barren, the “fit emblem of the nation in whom the ostentatious professing religion brought forth no ‘fruit of good living’ — the tree was barren. And it was hopelessly barren; for had it been fruitful the previous year, there would still have been some of the kermouses hidden under those broad leaves; and had it been fruitful this year, the bakhooroth would have set into green and luscious fragrance before the leaves appeared; but on this fruitless tree there was neither any promise for the future, nor any gleanings from the past.”2 Because of its complete barrenness the Lord laid a curse upon the tree (Mark 11:12-14; Matt. 26:18, 19).
The House Of God
As they entered the temple, they were confronted with the same scene as on the previous day; the house of God was being desecrated by secularization. There may well have been three million people in the city for the feast. The vast throng of pilgrims had to change their money for the temple half-shekel (Ex. 30:12). Those who had come from a distance would have been unable to bring their sacrifices so far and would consequently have needed to select and purchase their paschal lambs and any other animals or birds needed for sacrifice, as well as wine, oil and salt for the purpose.
Money could, of course, have been changed at the money-changers in the city, but it was obviously more convenient to do so at the temple. Sheep and cattle could have been purchased in the market, but would then have required the authentication of the priests: it was easier to buy at the temple the animals already approved. The porches of the temple were intended for prayer and teaching, but they and the court were being turned into what was no better than an oriental bazaar. The priests had evidently not only authorized the commercial activities, but were apparently participating in them for their own financial profit.
The Lord drove out the traders from the temple with their sheep and cattle, set free their pigeons and doves and overturned the tables of the money-changers (Mark 11:15-17; Matt. 21:12, 13). He had previously taken the same action at the commencement of His ministry (John 2:14-16) — although some commentators regard the two events as identical.
For the remainder of that Monday, He evidently spent the time teaching the crowds in the temple porch, returning with His disciples in the evening to the home at Bethany.
On the Tuesday morning, as the small company again began to descend the Mount of Olives to return to the city, they noted that the fig tree, cursed by their Master on the previous day had completely withered up (Mark 11:20, 21; Matt. 21:20). They had evidently imputed little significance to His action or words on the Monday morning and were amazed to see what had happened so quickly. He gave no explanation at the time, but merely used the incident as an illustration of the effectiveness of faith. His discourse that evening, however, indicated the symbolical significance of the event.
During the hours of Tuesday He again spent the day teaching in the temple, concluding with the gravest denunciation of the scribes and Pharisees and a sad lamentation over the city as He realized its obdurate impenitence (Matt. 23:13-39). “Your house is left unto you desolate,” He declared, presumably in reference to the temple, although He may have been referring to the nation generally. In His eyes, it was no longer God’s house but their own.
He left the temple and, as they were probably about to climb the hill to return once more to Bethany, the disciples started to discuss the magnificent temple buildings and the treasures with which they were adorned. The first temple had been built by Solomon a thousand years before, but it had been destroyed by Nebuchadnezzar after less than four centuries. It was rebuilt by Zerrubbabel and the returned exiles in the sixth century, B.C., and was later reconstructed by Herod the Great, many of the old stones and part of the old building being retained so, that it was still regarded by some as a continuation of the second temple. Votive offerings and gifts to adorn the building had added to the munificence of the Idumean ruler, and the Jews were justifiably proud of the edifice. With its environs, it was a massive and artistic complex 1,500 feet long and 1,200 feet wide. Commenced in 19 B.C., it was not finished until 63 A.D., although it was substantially complete at the time of the Lord.
This temple was one of the wonders of the world at that time. It was built on large white marble blocks ornamented with gold. Farrar pictures the “nine gates overlaid with gold and silver, and the one of solid Corinthian brass yet more precious; those graceful and towering porches; those bevelled blocks of marble 40 cubits long and 10 cubits high, testifying to the toil and munificence of so many generations; those double cloisters and stately pillars; that lavish endowment of sculpture and arbesque; those alternate blocks of red and white marble, recalling the crest and hollow of the sea-waves; those vast clusters of golden grapes, each cluster as large as a man, which twined their splendid luxuriance over the golden door.”3 It was certainly a wonderful building.
As they drew our Lord’s attention to the beautiful sight, with the rays of the sun still dazzlingly reflected from the golden plates which covered the temple, the disciples must have been staggered by His reply —that not one stone of that magnificent building would be left standing upon another, but that the whole
would be completely demolished. On the previous Sunday afternoon He had predicted the destruction of the city itself (Luke 19:44), but now He warned that the same fate was to overtake the sacred temple. It must have struck utter despondency into the hearts of His loyal followers. Even if Jerusalem, the holy city, was doomed to be destroyed, surely no conqueror would be so foolish and impious as to destroy such magnificent buildings as the temple. They had patiently been anticipating the overthrow of the Romans and the inauguration of the kingdom, and had visualized scenes of glory and power. The triumphal entry into the city on the preceding Sunday had only encouraged such hopes and expectations. But they did not question their Master’s words and slowly and quietly they crossed the brook and began to ascend the hill.
The next two days saw the completion of the plans of the Jewish authorities for the capture of Jesus. On the Thursday evening He celebrated the passover with the twelve disciples and instituted the memorial feast of the Lord’s Supper. But that night He was betrayed and after the mockery of trial and false accusations, He was led out of the city to be crucified.
1 The Mission and Message of Jesus, p. 139.
2 The Life of Christ, Vol. 1, pp. 213-15.
3 Ibid., p. 254.