Studies On Christ’s Olivet Discourse
Dr. Fredrick 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 is the second study of his extended series on “Christ’s Olivet Discourse.”
The Conditions Of The Age
The sun had evidently not yet set and our Lord, with the four disciples who were accompanying Him at the time — Peter, James, John and Andrew (Mark 13:13) — sat down on the hillside and looked back westwards to the city and the temple. The heat of the day was gradually dying away and the darkness would soon bring the coldness of the Jerusalem night, but they would be in the shelter of Bethany before the black mantle fell upon hill and city. The grey olive groves lay on either side of the green sward on which they reclined, the grass not yet scorched and withered as it would be a few weeks later.
W. K. Price sees a significance in the physical attitude adopted by the small group on Olivet. He writes: “The early church had two forms of oral communication: the kerygma, which was preaching to the unsaved; and the didache, which was teaching directed to the believer. The first was done in a standing position. “Peter, standing up with the eleven, preached to the multitude at Pentecost. However, following the Jewish tradition, teaching was done in a seated position.”1 The distinction was doubtless not quite so clear-cut, but on the hill of Olives our Lord was about to impart instruction to the four disciples and they were patiently sitting or reclining on the ground while He spoke.
The panegyrics in which the disciples had earlier indulged were justified by the vista on which they gazed. It was certainly an incomparable sight. Josephus says, “The whole of the outer works of the temple were in the highest degree worthy of admiration; for it was completely covered with gold plates, which, when the sun was shining on them, glittered so dazzingly that they blinded the eyes of the beholders not less than when one gazed at the sun’s rays themselves. And on the other sides, where there was no gold, the blocks of marble were of such a pure white that to strangers who had never previously seen them (from a distance) they looked like a mountain of snow.”2 Carr says that it rose “with its colonnade of dazzling white marble, surmounted with golden roof and pinnacles, and founded on a substructure of huge stones” from 25 to 45 cubits in size. Was this majestic building, which was not even yet complete, destined to be utterly demolished? It must have seemed almost inconceivable that all the glory and splendour of this incomparable temple should be lost.
The four men did not question their Master’s statement, however, but not unnaturally they pressed him for further information. When was this awful calamity to occur and what prior indications could be expected? They may well have poured out a flood of questions, but the three synoptic Gospels record only four, viz.:
1. When will these things be? (Matt. 24:3; Mark 13:4; Luke 21:7)
2. What will be the sign when all things are to occur? (Mark 13:4; Luke 2:7)
3. What will be the sign of Thy coming? (Matt. 24:,3)
4. What will be the sign of the end of the age? (Matt. 24:3)
Our Lord patiently replied to each of the questions they had put to elicit further clarification. The three Synoptics each give slightly different accounts of His discourse, but the records are fairly concise summaries of what was probably a long discussion. The accounts are complementary to each other and reference to all three is necessary to obtain the full story. The Fourth Gospel does not mention the discourse at all; John’s orderly presentation of selected signs and miracles from the life of Christ was directed to achieve the end he indicated in John 20:31, and the Olivet discourse had no place in his plan. It has been suggested by some critics that the Olivet discourse or “Little Apocalypse” was a piece of Jewish-Christian apocalyptic literature inserted into the Gospel narratives by early Christian writers, but there is no evidence whatsoever to support this ingenious theory. Indeed, the discourse was not cast in the normal apocalyptic form.
A Broad Outline
Before replying to the questions posed by the disciples, our Lord described in broad outline the events which might be expected to occur up to the end of the age. The revelation made two days later in that memorable discourse in the upper room on the Tuesday evening (John 13-17) was obviously outside the disciples’ knowledge on the preceding Tuesday afternoon, as were also, of course, the details disclosed by the apostle Paul long afterwards in 1 Thessalonians 4:15-17. Although the Lord had earlier referred to the building of the Church (Matt. 16:18), it is doubtful whether they had comprehended the significance of the statement. They were still Jewish disciples, whose vision was limited by their nationalistic outlook, and they evidently had no conception at that date of the Divine intention of introducing an entirely new age.
To these men, as to their compatriots generally, there were two ages, viz., the present one in which they were living, and the coming one which would be ushered in by the Messiah (and which they obviously regarded at that time as imminent). As Nathaniel West writes for the Jew, “The whole course of time, from the creation of the heaven and earth to the re-creation of the same, is divided into two great ages, the bisecting epoch between which is called the End. In this End is placed the Yom Jehovah, during which the personal self-revelation of Jehovah in glory, for the deliverance of Israel, and the destruction of His and their enemies, is also placed, and for the establishment of His kingdom in glory on earth. To this Day of the Lord belong all the Eschata, or Last Things, that precede the age of glory on earth, and are connected with the Advent of Messiah. To this one End all prophecy constantly looks, in every picture of the future, from Joel to Malachi. The first of these two ages is the pre-Messianic age, or Jewish age, with all the time preceding, and is called in Hebrew theology, Olam Hazzeh, ‘this present world.’ The second of these ages in the Messianic age, and is called Olam Habba, or ‘the world to come.’ The New Testament employs those divisions of time, and they are ever in the mouth of our Lord and His apostles as aion ho houtos, ‘this present world,’ and aion ho mellon, ‘the world to come,’ i.e., ‘this age’ and ‘the coming ago.’”3
The disciples were not yet aware that “the present age” was to be interrupted by the parenthetical period of the church era and that it would not conclude until after the church era had finished. The Lord’s reply took account of their limited apprehension and His description of future events covered the period up to the end of the Jewish “present age” and, therefore, went beyond the church era which commenced at Pentecost and has not yet expired. While some of the details He mentioned may be reflected in events occuring during the church era, their primary relevance was consequently to the closing unfulfilled period of the Jewish “present age.” The frequent attempts to identify the fulfilment of His predictions with current events today is, therefore, a fruitless exercise (although precursory indications may possibly be perceived).
Our Lord warned that many would come in His name, claiming to be the Messiah and thereby leading numbers astray by their deception, but His followers should not be deceived or misled (Matt. 24:5; Mark 13:6; Luke 21:8). Some writers claim that this was partially fulfilled during the apostolic period and have quoted as examples claimants such as Theudas (Acts 5:36), Judas of Galilee (Acts 5:37), the unnamed Egyptian referred to by the chief captain at Jerusalem (Acts 21:38), and Bar Coohba (whose name was derived from Num. 24:17), although neither Scripture nor history records that any of these claimed the title. Basil F. C. Atkinson writes, “During the forty years between the Lord’s resurrection and the destruction of Jerusalem several false Christs appeared and collected considerable followings,” and others have referred to the countless number of individuals who, during the last nineteen centuries, have claimed to be the Messiah.
The Master also predicted that there would be wars and rumours of wars, but exhorted the believer not to be troubled or terrified by such occurrences: all these things must happen before the end (Matt. 24:6; Mark 13:7; Luke 21:9). There have, of course, been numberless wars and threats of military conflict since that day. At the time it must have seemed improbable. Under the Pax Romana, wars had ceased throughout the Roman Empire. Not long had elapsed, however, before strife, insurrection and military conflict were being experienced, not only in Palestine, but throughout the Empire. Four emperors can) a to a violent end in the space of 18 months. J. M. Kik says, “To the Jews it was a highly turbulent time. There was an uprising against them in Alexandria. In Seleucia 50,000 were slain. In Caesara a battle between Syrians and Jews brought death to about 20,000 Jews. The fight between Syrians and Jews divided many villages and towns Into armed camps. Constant rumours of wars kept the Jewish people in an unsettled state.”4
But the prophecy related primarily to the remainder of the Jewish age and not to the present church era. At that future time, He intimated, nation would rise against nation and kingdom against kingdom (Matt. 24:7, etc.): in other words, conflict and disturbance would be universal and, as other passages indicate, this will be specially applicable during the great tribulation.
In addition, the Master declared that there would be famines, pestilences and widespread earthquakes (Matt. 24:7; Mark 13:8), together with fearful sights and great signs from heaven (Luke 21:11). In the following few decades famines were experienced in many parts of the Roman Empire. That predicted by Agabus actually occurred during the reign of Claudius Caesar (Acts 11:28), when Rome, Egypt and Africa suffered acutely, and this was followed by another serious famine in the days of Nero. During the siege of Jerusalem stores of grain were destroyed by the inhabitants and Josephus says that “famine increased its dimensions and devoured the people by whole houses and families; the roofs were full of women and children who were dying of starvation, and the lanes of the city were full of dead bodies of the aged; the children also and the young men wandered about the market-places like shadows, all wasted away with famine, and fell down dead whenever death seized them.” Since those days the record of famines has sometimes been appalling, yet the reference was chiefly to a day still future, when the dark shadow of famine will bee seen to an unprecedented extent (Rev. 6:5, 6).
Prior to the destruction of the city of Jerusalem in 70 A.D., there were serious earthquakes in Crete, Smyrna, Miletus, Chios, Samos, Hierapolis, Laodicea, Colosse, Phrygia, Rome and Judea. Not unnaturally perhaps, many attempts have been made to demonstrate that the forecasts made on Olivet that day have been at least partially fulfilled and statistics have frequently been published, in particular, of the number of seismological disturbances over the centuries, but our Lord’s words related primarily to a period which is still future.
All these calamities He described as the beginning of sorrows, i.e., the birthpangs or travail indicative of the commencement of the period of the great tribulation to which He subsequently referred (Matt. 24:8; Mark 13:8). Darker days and more bitter experiences would ensue, but the happenings He described would be the indications of the imminence of those events.
A Legacy Of Sufferings
Before all these things occurred, however, He warned that the disciples (and those whom they represented, of course) would be delivered up to councils, beaten in the synagogues (terms plainly appropriate to Jews), afflicted and even killed, while others would be brought before rulers and kings for a testimony against them. They mould be betrayed by their own friends and kinsfolk and would be hated by all nations for His name’s sake (Matt. 24:9, 10; Mark 13:9; Luke 21:12, 16). This, in fact, actually happened. As one writer says, “Almost immediately after the preaching of the gospel, the apostles were put in prison and beaten. Stephen was stoned. James was killed by Herod, and there was great persecution against the church in Jerusalem (Acts 8:1). Wherever the early missionaries went, they were hated, persecuted, jailed and killed.” With the exception of Judas Iscariot, who committed suicide, and possibly of John, all the apostles (including Paul) suffered martyrdom. Even if they were martyred, Christ declared paradoxically that not a hair of their head would perish, i.e., their permanent future was assured: by their steadfast endurance they would gain their lives (Luke 21:18, 19) — presumably a reference rather to spiritual life.
When they were hauled before the civil and ecclesiastical courts, there would be no need for them to be anxious or to premeditate what defence to offer. The words would be given to them by the Holy Spirit at that critical hour, and the wisdom imparted to them would be such as their adversaries would be unable to resist (Mark 13:11; Luke 21:14, 15).
Our Lord further predicted that, before the end, many false prophets would arise, who would deceive a large number of people (Matt. 24:11; cf. 2 Pet. 2:1; 1 John 4:1). And because iniquity would abound, the love of many would wax cold (Matt. 24:12; cf. Rev. 2:4). The one who endured to the end, however, would be saved (Matt. 24:13; Mark 13:13). J. F. Walvoord appropriately argues that this reference is not to “salvation from the guilt of sin, but deliverance from persecution and threatened martyrdom … The deliverance is bodily deliverance of the persecuted at the Second Coming of Christ” (cf. Rom. 11:26). It does not relate to the Christian but to the sufferer in the period of the great tribulation.
Finally our Lord declared that, before the end of the Jewish “present age” came, the gospel of the kingdom would be preached in all the world for a witness to all nations (Matt. 24:14). This is referred to later in Chapter 4.
The meticulous calculations of Sir Robert Anderson in The Coming Prince show that the period described as sixty-two heptads (actually the 69th heptad) in Daniel 9:26 expired on the Sunday of Passion Week. According to that verse, the crucifixion of Messiah and the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple four decades later in 70 A.D. were to occur after the conclusion of that period and prior to the commencement of the last heptad or seven-year period of Daniel 9:27. This parenthesis was not restricted to four decades, but has already lasted for over nineteen centuries. During that parenthetical period, God has been calling out the Church of which the apostle Paul wrote in his Ephesian epistle. After the completion of the church era and the removal of all Christians at the coming of the Lord Jesus Christ to the air (1 Thess. 4:15-17), the interrupted Jewish age will continue to its end. The events described by our Lord covered the period up to that end. There may be reflections today of these events, but the complete fulfilment still lies in the future.
1 W. K. Price, Jesus’ Prophetic Sermon, p. 39.
2 Josephus, The Jewish Year, V, p. 14.
3 Nathaniel West, The Thousand Years in Both Testaments, pp. 11-12.
4 J. M. Kik, Matthew XXIV, p. 35.