The Olivet Discourse: “This” Generation Or “That” Generation (Part 3 of 4)


In the first post (Part 1) of this series, we examined the first few verses of Jesus’ famous Olivet Discourse, recorded in Matthew 24:1-3, Mark 13:1-4, and Luke 21:5-7. We saw the disciples admiring the temple, Jesus telling them it would soon be destroyed, and the disciples asking Him when that would take place. In Matthew’s account alone they asked Him about His coming and the end of the age that they were living in. In the second post, we examined a roughly 10-verse segment in each account where Jesus described some of the signs which would take place before the temple’s destruction. We saw how those signs were fulfilled between the time of His ascension around 30 AD and the temple’s overthrow in 70 AD, about 40 years later.

In this post we will look at how Jesus warned His followers living in Judea to flee to the mountains when they saw “the abomination that causes desolation” (Matthew 24:15/Mark 13:14), that is, “Jerusalem being surrounded by armies” (Luke 21:20). We will see some remarkable accounts of how the believers obeyed and did this very thing about 36 years later. We will also consider what Jesus said about a time of great tribulation that was to come.

MATTHEW 24:15-28

MARK 13:14-23

LUKE 21:20-24

15 So when you see standing in the holy place ‘the abomination that causes desolation,’ spoken of through the prophet Daniel—let the reader understand16 then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains. 17 Let no one on the housetop go down to take anything out of the house. 18 Let no one in the field go back to get their cloak. 19 How dreadful it will be in those days for pregnant women and nursing mothers! 20 Pray that your flight will not take place in winter or on the Sabbath. 21 For then there will be great distress, unequaled from the beginning of the world until now—and never to be equaled again. 22 “If those days had not been cut short, no one would survive, but for the sake of the elect those days will be shortened. 23 At that time if anyone says to you, ‘Look, here is the Messiah!’ or, ‘There he is!’ do not believe it. 24 For false messiahs and false prophets will appear and perform great signs and wonders to deceive, if possible, even the elect. 25See, I have told you ahead of time.26 “So if anyone tells you, ‘There he is, out in the wilderness,’ do not go out; or, ‘Here he is, in the inner rooms,’ do not believe it. 27 For as lightning that comes from the east is visible even in the west, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. 28 Wherever there is a carcass, there the vultures will gather. 14 When you see ‘the abomination that causes desolation’ standing where it does not belong—let the reader understandthen let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains. 15 Let no one on the housetop go down or enter the house to take anything out. 16 Let no one in the field go back to get their cloak. 17 How dreadful it will be in those days for pregnant women and nursing mothers! 18 Pray that this will not take place in winter, 19 because those will be days of distress unequaled from the beginning, when God created the world, until now—and never to be equaled again. 20 “If the Lord had not cut short those days, no one would survive. But for the sake of the elect, whom he has chosen, he has shortened them. 21 At that time if anyone says to you, ‘Look, here is the Messiah!’ or, ‘Look, there he is!’ do not believe it. 22 For false messiahs and false prophets will appear and perform signs and wonders to deceive, if possible, even the elect. 23 So be on your guard; I have told you everything ahead of time. 20 When you see Jerusalem being surrounded by armies, you will know that its desolation is near. 21 Then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains, let those in the city get out, and let those in the country not enter the city. 22 For this is the time of punishment in fulfillment of all that has been written. 23 How dreadful it will be in those days for pregnant women and nursing mothers! There will be great distress in the land and wrath against this people. 24 They will fall by the sword and will be taken as prisoners to all the nations. Jerusalem will be trampled on by the Gentiles until the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled.

THE ABOMINATION OF DESOLATION

Matt. 24:15-20/Mark 13:14-18/Luke 21:20-21, 23a – Both Matthew and Mark speak of an event which Christ’s followers were to be on the lookout for, “the abomination that causes desolation.” Both writers appeal to the reader “to understand,” and Matthew adds that this was spoken of by Daniel (9:26-27, 11:31, 12:11).  Luke also speaks of an event which would lead to desolation, which he describes as “Jerusalem being surrounded by armies.” Looking at all three accounts together, we can see that these (apparently) two different signs were actually one and the same, for they were to bring about the same response: immediate flight. Luke, addressing a non-Jewish audience, makes plain what the “abomination of desolation” was to be:

AUTHOR:

Matthew

Mark

Luke

CATALYST: “So when you see standing in the holy place ‘the abomination that causes desolation’…” “When you see ‘the abomination that causes desolation’…” “When you see Jerusalem being surrounded by armies… desolation is near.”
RESPONSE: “then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains.” “then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains.” “Then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains…”

Perhaps overlooking this fact, it is often said by futurists that, at the time of Jerusalem’s destruction in 70 AD, nothing occurred which may have fulfilled Christ’s prophecy of a coming abomination of desolation. A number of early church writers, however, did teach that this prophecy was fulfilled at that time. These included Clement of Alexandria (150-215 AD), Eusebius (263-339) Athanasius (296-372), Augustine (379), Chrysostom (379), Jerome (347-420), and Remigius (437-533). Eusebius (263-339 AD) was a Roman scholar and historian, known as the “Father of Church History.” In his work entitled “Proof of the Gospel” (Book III, Chapter VII), written in 314 AD, he said the following:

It is fitting to add to these accounts the true prediction of our Saviour in which he foretold these very events. His words are as follows: “Woe unto them that are with child, and to them that give suck in those days! But pray ye that your flight be not in the winter, neither on the Sabbath day; For there shall be great tribulation, such as was not since the beginning of the world to this time, no, nor ever shall be.” …These things took place in this manner in the second year of the reign of Vespasian, in accordance with the prophecies of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, who by divine power saw them beforehand as if they were already present, and wept and mourned according to the statement of the holy evangelists…

Moreover, the people of the church at Jerusalem, in accordance with a certain oracle that was vouchsafed by way of revelation to the approved men there, had been commanded to depart from the city before the war, and to inhabit a certain city of Peraea. They called it Pella. And when those who believed in Christ had removed from Jerusalem, as if holy men had utterly deserted both the royal metropolis of the Jews itself and the whole land of Judaea, the Justice of God then visited upon them all their acts of violence to Christ and his apostles, by destroying that generation of wicked persons root and branch from among men.

…at last the abomination of desolation, proclaimed by the prophets, stood in the very temple of God, so celebrated of old, the temple which was now awaiting its total and final destruction by fire– all these things any one that wishes may find accurately described in the history written by Josephus.

Remigius (437-533 AD) tells us this:

[F]or on the approach of the Roman army, all the Christians in the province, warned, as ecclesiastical history tells us, miraculously from heaven, withdrew, and passing the Jordan, took refuge in the city of Pella; and under the protection of that King Agrippa, of whom we read in the Acts of the Apostles, they continued some time.

This is fascinating stuff! Athanasius (296-372 AD), the bishop of Alexandria, likewise wrote this:

“And when He Who spake unto Moses, the Word of the Father [i.e. Jesus], appeared in the end of the world [age], He also gave this commandment, saying…, ‘When ye therefore shall see the abomination of desolation, spoken of by Daniel the prophet, stand in the holy place (whoso readeth, let him understand); then let them which be in Judea flee into the mountains…’ [Matt. 24:15-16]. Knowing these things, the Saints regulated their conduct accordingly” (Defence of His Flight).

When Athanasius spoke of the believers in Jerusalem living “accordingly,” it’s likely that he meant they lived simply, in order to be prepared for that time when they would need to suddenly vacate. Indeed, we read in Acts that the believers there “had all things in common,” they “were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need” (Acts 2:44-45), and “no one said that any of the things that belonged to him was his own” (Acts 4:32). Of course, many of these believers were later scattered throughout Judea and Samaria when persecution suddenly arose after Stephen was martyred (Acts 8:1).

SOURCE

From Scripture it seems clear that “the holy place” mentioned by Jesus (Matt. 24:15) was not the temple, but Jerusalem, since the entire city was considered holy (Nehemiah 11:1, Daniel 9:24, Matthew 4:5, Matthew 27:53). In Daniel’s day the temple was holy, but Jesus had just pronounced it desolate (Matthew 23:38). This was the viewpoint of Chrysostom (379 AD), who wrote, “For this it seems to me that the abomination of desolation means the army by which the holy city of Jerusalem was made desolate” (recorded in The Ante-Nicene Fathers). Thomas Newton, in his dissertation titled “The Prophecy of Matthew 24” written in 1753, also took this position:

Whatever difficulty there is in these words [in Matthew 24:15-16], it may be cleared up by the parallel place in St. Luke, ‘And when ye shall see Jerusalem compassed with armies, then know that the desolation thereof is nigh. Then let them which are in Judea flee to the mountains,’-xxi – 20, 21. So that ‘the abomination of desolation’ is the Roman army, and ‘the abomination of desolation standing in the holy place’ is the Roman army besieging Jerusalem. This, saith our Saviour, is ‘the abomination of desolation, spoken of by Daniel the prophet,’ in the ninth and eleventh chapters; and so let every one who readeth those prophecies, understand them. The Roman army is called ‘the abomination,’ for its ensigns and images, which were so to the Jews.

Other commentators roughly contemporary to Thomas Newton held to the same view, i.e. that these words of Jesus were fulfilled in 67-70 AD. These included John Wesley (1754), Adam Clarke (1837), C. H. (Charles) Spurgeon (1868), and Philip Schaff (1877). For example, Charles Spurgeon said (“Popular Exposition of Matthew”),

“This portion of our Savior’s words appears to relate solely to the destruction of Jerusalem. As soon as Christ’s disciples saw ‘the abomination of desolation’, that is, the Roman ensigns, with their idolatrous emblems, ‘stand in the holy place’, they knew that the time for them to escape had arrived, and they did ‘flee to the mountains.’ The Christians in Jerusalem and the surrounding towns and villages, ‘in Judea’, availed themselves of the first opportunity for eluding the Roman armies, and fled to the mountain city of Pella, in Perea, where they were preserved from the general destruction which overthrew the Jews.

The Romans came into Jerusalem bearing standards, emblems, and banners with images of their gods and proclamations of the deity of their emperor. B.H. Carroll (1915), in his well-known work, “An Introduction of the English Bible” (1915), related an interesting incident which took place during the reign of Tiberius (14-37 AD). This incident sheds light on what was constituted as such an abomination at this time:

Pilate, at that time Roman Procurator, sent from Caesarea, the seaport of that country on the Mediterranean Sea, a legion of Roman soldiers and had them secretly introduced into the city and sheltered in the tower of Antonio overlooking the Temple, and these soldiers brought with them their ensigns. The Roman sign was a straight staff, capped with a metallic eagle, and right under the eagle was a graven image of Caesar. Caesar claimed to be divine. Caesar exacted divine worship, and every evening when those standards were placed, the Roman legion got down and worshiped the image of Caesar thereof, and every morning at the roll call a part of the parade was for the whole legion to prostrate themselves before that graven image and worship it. The Jews were so horrified when they saw that image and the consequent worship, they went to Pilate, who was at that time living in Caesarea, and prostrated themselves before him and said, ‘Kill us, if you will, but take that abomination of desolation out of our Holy City and from the neighborhood of our holy temple’ (pp. 263-264).

Jesus had told those living in Judea to head to the mountains, predicting such urgency that they weren’t even to grab what was inside their homes. It would be especially difficult for those who were pregnant or nursing. Neither winter (according to Matthew and Mark) nor the Sabbath (said Matthew) would be an ideal time to have to flee. George Peter Holford, in his 1805 book, “The Destruction of Jerusalem, An Absolute and Irresistible Proof of the Divine Origin of Christianity,” notes a very sad situation predicted in the words of Jesus Himself:

The day on which Titus encompassed Jerusalem, was the feast of the Passover; and it is deserving of the very particular attention of the reader, that this was the anniversary of that memorable period in which the Jews crucified their Messiah! At this season multitudes came up from all the surrounding country, and from distant parts, to keep the festival. How suitable and how kind, then, was the prophetic admonition of our LORD, and how clearly he saw into futurity when he said, “Let not them that are in the countries enter into Jerusalem” (Luke 21:21).

Nevertheless, the city was at this time crowded with Jewish strangers, and foreigners from all parts, so that the whole nation may be considered as having been shut up in one prison, preparatory to the execution of the Divine vengeance; and, according to Josephus this event took place suddenly; thus, not only fulfilling the predictions of our LORD, that these calamities should come, like the swift-darting lightning “that cometh out of the east and shineth even unto the West,” and ” as a snare on all of them (the Jews) who dwelt upon the face of the whole earth ” (Matt. 24:27, and Luke 21:35) but justifying, also, his friendly direction, that those who fled from the place should use the utmost possible [speed].

There is also a significant note to be made concerning Jesus’ instructions to pray that their flight from Jerusalem would not be on a Sabbath (Matthew 24:20). Prior to 70 AD the Jews who controlled the city would close the city gates on the Sabbath and there would be no way to escape (See Nehemiah 13:15-22). It’s significant to note that this is not a practice in modern Israel; if it was, it would be helpful to the Futurist view which says that this will happen soon. As one can see from the quotes above, this Futurist view is a new one that doesn’t reflect what has been taught in church history.

GREAT TRIBULATION

Matt. 24:21/Mark 13:19/Luke 21:22-23 – All three writers define this time as one of “great distress.” This is the phrase used in the NIV, quoted above. In most other translations, the phrase used by Matthew and Mark is “great tribulation.”  That time would be more distressful than any other time since the world began. Matthew and Mark add that it was “never to be equaled again.” This statement by Jesus is one more indication that the tribulation He spoke of is already past. For if this refers to a supposed end of the world in the future, and not 67-70 AD, why would Jesus say such a thing? It wouldn’t make sense to use the expression “never to be equaled again” when referring to an event that brings humanity to the very end of time. Instead this phrase implies that a significant period of time would follow the great tribulation Jesus spoke of, which makes sense if it took place in the first century. This passage has several parallels in Scripture, as can be seen from the following chart:

JEREMIAH 30:7 DANIEL 12:1-7 MATTHEW 24:21 LUKE 21:22-23 REVELATION 7:14
“Alas! That day is so great there is none like it; it is a time of distress for Jacob; “At that time shall arise Michael, the great prince who has charge of your people. And there shall be a time of trouble, “For then there will be great tribulation, “Alas… For there will be great distress upon the earth [or ‘this land’] and wrath against this people.” “And he said to me, ‘These are the ones coming out of the great tribulation’…”
“…there is none like it…” such as never has been since there was a nation till that time. such as has not been from the beginning of the world until now, no, and never will be.”
yet he shall be saved out of it.” But at that time your people shall be delivered, everyone whose name shall be found written in the book.”
“And someone said…, ‘How long shall it be till the end of these wonders?’ And I heard…it would be for a time, times, and half a time, and that when the shattering of the power of the holy people comes to an end all these things would be finished.” “for these are days of vengeance, to fulfill all that is written” (verse 22).

So among the things which we see are that this tribulation was to be for Israel, it would last for 3.5 years (“time, times, and half a time”) and would end when the power of that people had been shattered (Daniel 12:6-7), and the followers of Christ would experience deliverance. We already saw that God delivered the believers of the first century when they obeyed and fled to Pella. The Roman campaign against Israel did in fact last for 3.5 years, from the time that Nero declared war in February 67 AD and dispatched Vespasian as his general (Revelation 6:2) until Jerusalem fell in August 70 AD (Revelation 18:9-24). This accomplished the shattering of the power of “the holy people” (Daniel’s phrase).

Josephus vindicates the words of Jesus in Matthew 24:21 (“For then there will be great tribulation, such as has not been from the beginning of the world until now, no, and never will be.”) with his own firsthand report: “If the misfortunes of all nations, from the beginning of the world, were compared with those which befell the Jews, they would appear far less in comparison; No other city ever suffered such things, as no other generation, from the beginning of the world, was ever more fruitful in wickedness.”

Luke, in his account, adds a couple of very revealing expressions, saying that this great distress would be “in the land” and that the wrath would be “against this people.” The phrase “the land” is not only a common expression in Scripture indicating “the promised land” (Israel), but Judea and Jerusalem are explicitly mentioned in verses 20, 21, and 24. Luke’s use of the phrase “this people” is also a clear reference to the Jews who lived in that land, who were left behind because they didn’t flee. Those who view the “great tribulation” as future tend to view it as a worldwide event, but these are very clear indications that this judgment was localized to Israel. We also have highly detailed historical records showing how utterly devastating Israel’s downfall was at this time in history (67 – 70 AD). To learn more, see this fascinating timeline here.

Another profound statement is made by Luke. He says that this time of punishment would be “in fulfillment of all that has been written.” Evan Erzingatsian provides the following chart showing how Jesus’ predictions are based on Israel’s covenant contract recorded in Leviticus and Deuteronomy. As Evan says,

“The table below shows the paraphrases (found in Matt 24 and Luke 21) based on the contractual terms found in Deuteronomy 28 and Leviticus 26. Only Israel said ‘Amen!’ to the curses (Deut. 27:15-26). Only Israel was bound to experience the calamitous events found in Matthew 24. This is why Matthew 24 mentions Jerusalem and Judea as the places where the events of the last days would unfold (Matt. 24:16, Luke 21:20-23).”

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It has been said by some futurists that the preterist (past fulfillment) position is anti-semitic, because it takes away prophetic significance from modern-day Israel and the Jewish people (over and above other peoples). Ironically, though, it’s the futurist position which is looking forward to mass devastation for Israel and the Jewish people, a time which will supposedly be even worse than what took place in 70 AD.

Matt. 24:22/Mark 13:20 – Matthew and Mark record that the destruction during this time of tribulation would be so great that no one would survive if it was allowed to continue for long. This would be done, says Matthew, for the sake of the elect. Jerusalem was under a very tight siege for five months, from April through September 70 AD, before the whole city was burned (Matthew 22:7). The famine became so great that mothers even ate their own babies. Dead bodies were piled everywhere, and those who tried to escape the city were crucified by the Romans at such a rate that Josephus tells us more than one Jew would often be nailed to the same cross. Josephus records that 1.1 million Jews were killed at this time.

Source: Cindye Coates (Matthew 24 Fulfilled)

Luke 21:24 – Luke tells us that many would be killed “by the sword” during this time. This, of course, is indicative of ancient warfare rather than 21st century style warfare. It is this section of Luke’s account (Luke 21:20-24) which many futurists admit took place in the first century. At the same time, they often insist that Luke’s phrase “this generation” in Luke 21:32 means a future (or present) generation which will see all these signs come together at once. This position is highly contradictory, for at least the following reason.

In the previous post, we saw that a number of signs precede “the abomination of desolation” and “great tribulation” in the accounts of Matthew and Mark: [1] imposters claiming to be Christ [2] wars and rumors of wars [3] nations and kingdoms clashing [4] earthquakes [5] famines [6] persecution and martyrdom [7] betrayal and hatred. Without a doubt, these exact same signs also appear in Luke’s account before Jerusalem is surrounded by armies and there comes a time of “great distress.” According to the Futurist interpretation, then, the above seven signs precede two entirely different time periods; i.e. in Luke they refer to a time period in the first century, and in Matthew and Mark they supposedly refer to our own generation. As we will see in the next post, however, Jesus says in each account that “this generation will not pass away until ALL these things take place.” The Futurist who admits that the “great distress” in Luke 21:20-24 took place from 67-70 AD, but who says that the rest of the prophecy remains unfulfilled, has already stretched out the definition of a generation more than 1900 years.

Luke also speaks of many being taken as prisoners “to all the nations.” We learned from the previous post that when Jesus spoke of all nations (Matt. 24:14, Mark 13:10), this was a reference to the Roman Empire. The same is true here. Josephus tells us that nearly 1.2 million Jews were killed in Jerusalem, and that the Romans carried off 97,000 Jews into international slavery.

Luke tells us that the end of Jerusalem’s trampling by the Gentiles would also be the end of “the times of the Gentiles.” Perhaps the most popular Futurist position is that “the times of the Gentilesbegan in 70 AD, that this continues until today (i.e. it’s the Church Age), and that “God’s program with the Jews will one day soon be resumed.” I believe this to be false, and that “the times of the Gentilesended in 70 AD instead. Without taking up more space here on this subject, I’d like to point to an article by Mike Blume, whom I believe does an excellent job showing that the times of the Gentiles began with Babylon’s affliction and domination of Israel, followed by that of Medo-Persia and Greece, and finally ending with Rome’s destruction of that nation. He also shows that Luke 21:24 is parallel to both Romans 11:25 and Revelation 11:2, which shows that Jerusalem was to be “trampled underfoot” for 42 months. Again, 42 months = 3.5 years, which is precisely how long Rome took to invade and destroy Jerusalem (February 67 AD – August 70 AD).

Matt. 24:23-26/Mark 13:21-23 – Here Matthew and Mark essentially repeat Jesus’ earlier warning (see previous post) about false prophets and false messiahs. Jesus’ 1st century listeners are told to be on their guard (this really did have meaning for them), because these deceivers would even perform great signs and miracles. As David Chilton reminds us, in his 1987 book, The Days of Vengeance (p. 340),

“The Book of Acts records several instances of miracle-working Jewish false prophets who came into conflict with the Church (cf. Acts 8:9-24) and worked under Roman officials (cf. Acts 13:6-11); as Jesus foretold (Matt. 7:22-23), some of them even used His name in their incantations (Acts 19:13-16).”

Matt. 24:27-28 – Jesus compares His coming (which, again, He promised would take place while some of His disciples were still alive – Matt. 16:27-28) to lightning which comes from the east and is also visible in the west. This statement appears only in Matthew’s account, the only account to have specifically mentioned His coming up until this point (in verse 3).

This is possibly a reference to the 12th Roman legion, Fulminata, that participated in the Roman siege of Jerusalem in 70 AD. This legion did not perform well in November 66 AD when Cestius Gallus was defeated by the Jews, but it did very well in 70 AD. Its emblem and nickname was “Thunderbolt.”

Image result for LEGIO XII FULMINATA

Source

Adam Clarke, in his 1810 commentary on this verse, interpreted it this way:

“It is worthy of remark that our Lord, in the most particular manner, points out the very march of the Roman army: they entered into Judea on the EAST, and carried on their conquest WESTWARD, as if not only the extensiveness of the ruin, but the very route which the army would take, were intended in the comparison of the lightning issuing from the east, and shining to the west.”

Then Jesus adds, “Wherever there is a carcass, there the vultures will gather.” Some translations say “eagles” instead of “vultures.” George Peter Holford (in 1805) noted that not only was Israel fit to be described as a carcass in 70 AD; being spiritually, politically, and judicially dead; but it was also a curious fact that the eagle was the principal figure on the Roman ensigns which were planted throughout the city of Jerusalem in 70 AD and finally in the temple itself. Albert Barnes, in his commentary on these two verses in 1832, agreed:

“The words in this verse are proverbial. Vultures and eagles easily ascertain where dead bodies are, and come to devour them. So with the Roman army. Jerusalem is like a dead and putrid corpse. Its life is gone, and it is ready to be devoured. The Roman armies will find it out, as the vultures do a dead carcass, and will come around it, to devour it… This verse is connected with the preceding by the word “for,” implying that this is a reason for what is said there, that the Son of man would certainly come to destroy the city, and that he would come suddenly. The meaning is, he would come by means of the Roman armies, as certainly, as suddenly, and as unexpectedly, as whole flocks of vultures and eagles, though unseen before, suddenly find their prey, see it at a great distance, and gather in multitudes around it.”

Source: Cindye Coates (Matthew 24 Fulfilled)

Quotes to Note

Jonathan Edwards (1736): “Thus there was a final end to the Old Testament world: all was finished with a kind of day of judgment, in which the people of God were saved, and His enemies terribly destroyed.”

Philip Mauro, scholar and US Supreme Court bar lawyer (1859-1952): “It is greatly to be regretted that those who, in our day, give themselves to the study and exposition of prophecy, seem not to be aware of the immense significance of the destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70, which was accompanied by the extinction of Jewish national existence, and the dispersion of the Jewish people among all the nations. The failure to recognize the significance of that event, and the vast amount of prophecy which it fulfilled, has been the cause of great confusion, for the necessary consequence of missing the past fulfillment of predicted events is to leave on our hands a mass of prophecies for which we must needs contrive fulfillments in the future. The harmful results are twofold; for first, we are thus deprived of the evidential value, and the support to the faith, of those remarkable fulfillments of prophecy which are so clearly presented to us in authentic contemporary histories; and second, our vision of things to come is greatly obscured and confused by the transference to the future of predicted events which, in fact, have already happened, and whereof complete records have been preserved for our information.

“Yet, in the face of all this, we have today a widely held scheme of prophetic interpretation, which has for its very cornerstone the idea that, when God’s time to remember His promised mercies to Israel shall at last have come, He will gather them into their ancient land again, only to pour upon them calamities and distresses far exceeding even the horrors which attended the destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70. This is, we are convinced, an error of such magnitude as to derange the whole program of unfulfilled prophecy” (Seventy Weeks and the Great Tribulation, 1921, emphasis added).

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The Olivet Discourse: “This” Generation or “That” Generation (Part 2 of 4)


In the previous post (Part 1), we examined the first part of Jesus’ famous Olivet Discourse, recorded in Matthew 24:1-3, Mark 13:1-4, and Luke 21:5-7. All three accounts show the disciples admiring the temple, Jesus telling them it would soon be destroyed, and the disciples asking Him when that would take place. In Matthew’s account alone they asked Him about His coming and the end of the age, which we identified as the Old Covenant age. We looked at how He had already told them (Matt. 10:23 and 16:27-28) that His coming was to be: [1] with His angels [2] in His kingdom [3] in the glory of His Father [4] to repay each person for their deeds, and [5] within the lifetime of some of His disciples.

In this post we will examine a roughly 10-verse segment in each account where Jesus describes some of the signs which would take place before the temple’s destruction. We will see how these signs were fulfilled between the time of His ascension around 30 AD and the temple’s overthrow in 70 AD, about 40 years later.

MATTHEW 24:4-14

MARK 13:5-13

LUKE 21:8-19

4 Jesus answered: “Watch out that no one deceives you. 5 For many will come in my name, claiming, ‘I am the Messiah,’ and will deceive many. 6 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. 7 Nation 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. 10 At that time many will turn away from the faith and will betray and hate each other, 11 and many false prophets will appear and deceive many people. 12 Because of the increase of wickedness, the love of most will grow cold, 13but the one who stands firm to the end will be saved.14 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. 5 Jesus said to them: “Watch out that no one deceives you. 6 Many will come in my name, claiming, ‘I am he,’ and will deceive many. 7 When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed. Such things must happen, but the end is still to come. 8Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be earthquakes in various places, and famines. These are the beginning of birth pains.9 “You must be on your guard. You will be handed over to the local councils and flogged in the synagogues. On account of me you will stand before governors and kings as witnesses to them. 10 And the gospel must first be preached to all nations. 11Whenever you are arrested and brought to trial, do not worry beforehand about what to say. Just say whatever is given you at the time, for it is not you speaking, but the Holy Spirit.12 “Brother will betray brother to death, and a father his child. Children will rebel against their parents and have them put to death. 13 Everyone will hate you because of me, but the one who stands firm to the end will be saved. 8 He replied: “Watch out that you are not deceived. For many will come in my name, claiming, ‘I am he,’ and, ‘The time is near.’ Do not follow them. 9When you hear of wars and uprisings, do not be frightened. These things must happen first, but the end will not come right away.”10 Then he said to them: “Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. 11There will be great earthquakes, famines and pestilences in various places, and fearful events and great signs from heaven.12 “But before all this, they will seize you and persecute you. They will hand you over to synagogues and put you in prison, and you will be brought before kings and governors, and all on account of my name. 13 And so you will bear testimony to me. 14 But make up your mind not to worry beforehand how you will defend yourselves. 15 For I will give you words and wisdom that none of your adversaries will be able to resist or contradict. 16 You will be betrayed even by parents, brothers and sisters, relatives and friends, and they will put some of you to death. 17 Everyone will hate you because of me. 18 But not a hair of your head will perish. 19 Stand firm, and you will win life.

John Wesley (1703-1791), in the introduction to his commentary on Matthew 24, wrote the following:

“Josephus’ History of the Jewish War is the best commentary on this chapter. It is a wonderful instance of God’s providence, that he, an eyewitness, and one who lived and died a Jew, should, especially in so extraordinary a manner, be preserved, to transmit to us a collection of important facts, which so exactly illustrate this glorious prophecy, in almost every circumstance.”

Clearly, Wesley believed that Matthew 24 was fulfilled by the time the Roman-Jewish War (66-73 AD) came to an end. Nearly 250 years after Wesley’s statement was made, statements like this one by Hal Lindsey in 2009 are far more typical when it comes to interpreting this passage:

“What generation? Obviously, in context, the generation that would see the signs – chief among them the rebirth of the State of Israel… I believe we are in the generation that will live to see the fulfillment of the ‘birth pangs’ that Jesus predicted would all come together in one time frame shortly before the Tribulations events that bring about His return.”

These interpretations couldn’t be more different. In this section of the Olivet Discourse, we will see that Wesley certainly had a point when he spoke of the relevance of Josephus’ historical records. We will be looking at one small portion at a time from the parallel Scripture texts above.

Matt. 24:4-5/Mark 13:5-6/Luke 21:8– Jesus warns the disciples about deceivers who would come claiming to be the Messiah and leading many astray. Matthew also speaks of “false prophets” again in verse 11 and verse 24, and Mark does so again in verse 22.

Luke here makes a remark that we don’t see in the other two accounts. He adds that these false prophets would claim that the time was “near” (or “at hand” in some translations), and that His disciples were not to go after them when they said that. We should give this some extra thought.

As we will see in Luke 21:28, Jesus later says “Now when these things begin to take place, straighten up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.” Jesus thus gives permission at that stage for His people to realize the very thing that earlier they were not to believe, that is, that the time was near. First they had to see “these things begin to take place,” and then they could know and proclaim that the end was near. The expression “these things” refers to what Jesus goes on to describe in verses 9-27.

Did any of the writers of the New Testament proclaim that the time was near? Consider these statements:

“…For salvation is nearer to us now than when we first believed. The night is far gone; the day is at hand…” (Romans 13:11-12).

Let your reasonableness be known to everyone. The Lord is at hand” (Philippians 4:5).

Yet a little while, and the coming One will come and will not delay” (Hebrews 10:37).

You also, be patient. Establish your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is at hand” (James 5:8).

The end of all things is at hand; therefore be self-controlled and sober-minded for the sake of your prayers” (I Peter 4:7).

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” (I John 2:18).

From these statements we see that Paul, James, Peter, and John all proclaimed that the time was near. Did they become the very false prophets Jesus had warned about in Luke 21:8, since they uttered the very statement that Jesus warned His followers not to believe? If the signs of the Olivet Discourse are still future and unfulfilled, as futurists insist, then they certainly did become those false prophets. We know, however, that this is not the case. This is actually one more indication that the events predicted by Jesus came to pass within His own generation. They witnessed the predicted signs coming to pass, and on this authority they announced that the end was near. Soon afterwards, that end came, the end of the Old Covenant world and age. Jesus kept His word and His promise.

George Peter Holford, in the year 1805, wrote a book entitled “The Destruction of Jerusalem, An Absolute and Irresistible Proof of the Divine Origin of Christianity” in which he outlined many of the events recorded by Josephus and other historians of that time. Concerning Matthew 24:4-5, he wrote:

[Jesus commenced] with a caution: “Take heed,’ says He, ‘that no man deceive you; for many shall come in My name, saying, ‘I am Christ,’ and shall deceive many.” The necessity of this friendly warning soon appeared; for within one year after our Lord’s ascension, rose Dositheus the Samaritan, who had the boldness to assert that he was the Messiah, of whom Moses prophesied; while his disciple Simon Magus deluded multitudes into a belief that he, himself, was the “GREAT POWER OF GOD.”

Holford went on to list a host of similar deceivers in that generation, some who literally called themselves “the Christ” or “Messiah,” and others who promised to take on His expected role in delivering the Jews from Roman bondage and bringing a physical, earthly kingdom to Jerusalem. This was a popular expectation, and one that Jesus didn’t live up to, so it was easily used to sway people their way.

Matt. 24:6-7a/Mark 13:7-8a/Luke 21:9-10 – Jesus’ next warning is about wars, rumors of wars, and nations and kingdoms rising against each other. Luke adds the word “uprisings.”

Regarding the Roman Empire in the decades following Jesus’ ascension, the Roman historian Tacitus had this to say,

“The history on which I am entering is that of a period rich in disasters, terrible with battles, torn by civil struggles, horrible even in peace. Four emperors fell by the sword; there were three civil wars, more foreign wars, and often both at the same time” (The Histories, 1:2).

As just one example, the Roman-Jewish War took place over a 6-7 year period, in which an incredible amount of blood was shed throughout Judea and Galilee, and women even ate their babies out of desperation. When Nero committed suicide in June 68 AD, even the Roman Empire nearly collapsed in on itself due to jostling for power and what Josephus called “civil wars of horrible ferocity and dramatic proportions.” Rome went through four emperors within one year, and Josephus remarked that “every part of the habitable earth under them [the Romans] was in an unsettled and tottering condition” (Wars 7.4.2).

In the fall/winter of 67 AD a brutal civil war also broke out in Jerusalem and Judea between the revolutionaries and those who wanted to maintain peace with Rome. Jerusalem was eventually divided into three factions led by [1] Eleazar, who was over the Zealots [2] John of Gischala, who was over the Galileans, and [3] Simon, who was over the Idumeans. It remained this way until the city was destroyed in September 70 AD. In one night 8500 people were killed, and their bodies were cast outside of Jerusalem without being buried. The outer temple was “overflowing with blood,” according to Josephus, and the inner court even had pools of blood in it.

Matt. 24:7b-8/Mark 13:8b/Luke 21:11 – Jesus next predicts famines and earthquakes. Once again, Luke adds other details: pestilences and “fearful events and great signs from heaven.”

   New Zealand

Haiti

 Japan

Was Jesus predicting the recent earthquakes we’ve seen in Pakistan, New Zealand, Haiti, and Japan, and others yet to come? Many prophecy teachers today would have us believe that He did. George Peter Holford (in 1805) also referred to a number of great earthquakes which took place during the generation to which Jesus and His disciples belonged.

In one instance in early 68 AD a terrible earthquake was accompanied by terrifying storms and violent winds, prompting Josephus to say, “These things were a manifest indication that some destruction was coming upon men, when the system of the world was put into this disorder; and any one would guess that these wonders foreshowed some grand calamities that were coming” (Wars 4.4.5). Seneca the Younger, a Roman philosopher, wrote the following in 58 AD:

“How often have cities of Asia and Achaea fallen with one fatal shock! Show many cities have been swallowed up in Syria, how many in Macedonia! How often has Cyprus been wasted by this calamity! How often has Paphos become a ruin! News has often been brought us of the demolition of whole cities at once.”

Henry Alford, The New Testament for English Readers (Chicago, IL: Moody Press, n.d.), 163.

Large earthquakes took place in Crete, Smyrna, Miletus, Chios, Samos, Laodicea, Hierapolis, Colosse, Campania, Rome, Judea and Pompei (February 5, 63 AD). Other earthquakes are recorded in Scripture in Matthew 27:51-54, Matthew 28:2, and Acts 16:26.

Holford then notes that the great famine predicted by Agabus in Acts 11:27-30 began in the fourth year of the reign of Claudius (i.e. 45 AD) and “was of long continuance. It extended through Greece, and even into Italy, but was felt most severely in Judea and especially at Jerusalem, where many perished for want of bread.” This famine was recorded by Eusebius, Orosius, and Josephus, who related that “an assaron [about 3.5 pints] of corn was sold for five drachmae” (in the heyday of ancient Greece in the 4th century BC one drachmae was the daily wage for a skilled worker). Regarding Christ’s predictions of pestilences, Holford writes:

History…particularly distinguishes two instances of this calamity, which occurred before the commencement of the Jewish war. The first took place at Babylon about A. D. 40, and raged so alarmingly, that great multitudes of Jews fled from that city to Seleucia for safety, as hath been hinted already. The other happened at Rome A.D. 65, and carried off prodigious multitudes. Both Tacitus and Suetonius also record, that similar calamities prevailed, during this period, in various parts of the Roman Empire. After Jerusalem was surrounded by the army of Titus, pestilential diseases soon made their appearance there to aggravate the miseries, and deepen the horrors of the siege. They were partly occasioned by the immense multitudes which were crowded together in the city, partly by the putrid effluvia which arose from the unburied dead, and partly from spread of famine.

These calamities, along with mothers eating their own children, are reminiscent of what God said would happen to Israel if that nation became faithless and rebellious (e.g. Leviticus 26:25-29, Deuteronomy 28:58-62, Deut. 32). It was also said that they would be punished sevenfold, so it’s of great interest that “Babylon the great” (Revelation 17:5), also called “the great city” (Rev. 17:18), was to be the recipient of seven seal, trumpet, and bowl judgments. The “great city” in the book of Revelation was first identified as the place where Jesus was crucified (Rev. 11:8), i.e. Jerusalem. “Babylon the great” was responsible for the blood of the saints, prophets, and apostles (Rev. 16:4-7, 17:6, 18:20, 18:24), the same thing for which Jesus said the religious leaders of Israel in His own generation were responsible for (Matthew 23:29-36).

Interestingly, for those who believe that famines are increasing on our planet today, a recent report reveals that the opposite is true. The Huffington Post reports that, according to the 2015 Global Hunger Index, “calamitous famines that cause more than 1 million deaths” have been completely eliminated. Additionally, there has been a “reduction ‘almost to a vanishing point’ of great famines, which cause more than 100,000 deaths.” Around 27 million died of famine between 1900 – 1909; more than 14 million died of famine during the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s; about 1.4 million died of famine in the 1990s; only about 600,000 died of famine between 2000 – 2015 (that’s still too many, but deaths from famine are mercifully becoming more rare).

Jesus also predicted that there would be “terrors and great signs from heaven” (Luke 21:11). In this regard, Holford pointed to a number of strange accounts recorded by Josephus:

[1] “A meteor, resembling a sword, hung over Jerusalem during one whole year.” This could not be a comet, for it was stationary, and was visible for twelve successive months.

[2] “On the eighth of the month of Zanthicus, (before the feast of unleavened bread) at the ninth hour of the night [3 AM], there shone round about the altar, and the circumjacent buildings of the temple, a light equal to the brightness of the day, which continued for the space of half an hour.” [Does this recall Zech. 14:7?]

[3] “As the High Priest was leading a heifer to the altar to be sacrificed, she brought forth a lamb, in the midst of the temple.” …[Some] may think that they discern in this prodigy a miraculous rebuke of Jewish infidelity and impiety, for rejecting the ANTITYPICAL Lamb, who had offered Up Himself as an atonement, “once for all,” and who, by thus completely fulfilling their design, had virtually abrogated the Levitical sacrifices… It did not occur in an obscure part of the city, but in the temple ; not at an ordinary time, but at the passover, the season of our LORD’S crucifixion in the presence…of the High Priests and their attendants, and when they were leading the sacrifice to the altar.

[4] “About the sixth hour of the night, the eastern gate of the temple was seen to open without human assistance.” When the guards informed the Curator of this event, he sent men to assist them in shutting it, who with great difficulty succeeded. — This gate, as hath been observed already, ‘Was of solid brass, and required twenty men to close it every evening. It could not have been opened by a “strong gust of wind,” or a slight earthquake;” for Josephus says, it was secured by iron bolts And bars, which were let down into a large threshold; consisting of one entire stone.”

[5] “Soon after the feast of the Passover, in various parts of the country, before the setting of the sun, chariots and armed men were seen in the air, passing round about Jerusalem.”

Except for the first omen above, says Holford, all the others were placed by Josephus during the final year leading up to the Jewish War (67-73 AD). Some of these accounts were also recorded by the Roman historian Tacitus.

Matt. 24:9-13/Mark 13:9-13/Luke 21:12-19 – Here Jesus tells His followers that they will experience persecution, arrests, death, and betrayal even by family members because of their faith in Him. Many would turn away from the faith, but those who would stand firm until the end would be saved. Matthew alone adds that wickedness would increase and that most would grow cold in their love. Mark and Luke speak of Christ’s followers needing to testify before kings and governors, at which time they were to depend on the Holy Spirit to give them the words to say.

On the early believers being brought before kings and governors, Albert Barnes remarked in 1834, “This prediction was completely and abundantly fulfilled, Acts 5:26Acts 12:1-4Acts 23:33Acts 26:1Acts 26:28Acts 26:30. Peter is said to have been brought before Nero, and John before Domitian, Roman emperors; and others before Parthian, Scythian, and Indian kings.” John Gill, in 1746, added: “Meaning Roman governors; so Paul was had before Gallio, Felix, and Festas; … and kings for my sake; as Herod, Agrippa, Nero, Domitian, and others, before whom one or other of the apostles were brought; not as thieves, or murderers, or traitors, and seditious persons, or for having done any wrong or injury to any man’s person or property; but purely for the sake of Christ.”

Mark and Luke also both speak of Jesus’ followers being handed over to the synagogues, and Mark adds that they would be flogged there. This clearly speaks of persecution at the hands of the Jews, just one strong indication that this was to take place in the first century. Jewish persecution is not a mark of our time, but it was a mark of that time (In fact, it only prevailed up until Israel’s destruction in 70 AD, for after that the surviving Jews were persecuted together with the Christians by the Roman Empire). For example, Paul said this to the Thessalonian believers (I Thess. 2:14-16):

For you, brothers, became imitators of the churches of God in Christ Jesus that are in Judea. For you suffered the same things from your own countrymen 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 mankind by hindering us from speaking to the Gentiles that they might be saved – so as always to fill up the measure of their sins. But God’s wrath has come upon them at last!”

The city of Smyrna had the largest Jewish population of any Asian city, and Jesus commended the church there for their patient endurance in the face of Jewish persecution (Revelation 2:9): “I know your tribulation and your poverty (but you are rich) and the slander of those who say that they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan.” A very similar statement was made to the church in Philadelphia in Rev. 3:9.

Concerning the love of many growing cold, even as we see in Acts and the epistles evidence that the gospel was greatly advanced, we also learn of a falling away taking place at the same time. The church in Ephesus had abandoned the love they had at first (Revelation 2:4), the church in Laodicea had become lukewarm and was in a miserable state (Rev. 3:15-17). The church in Galatia had turned aside to a different gospel (Galatians 1:6-7).

Matt. 24:14/Mark 13:10 – Luke doesn’t mention this, but both Matthew and Mark state that the end wouldn’t come until the gospel was preached to “all nations” (Mark) and “in the whole world” (Matthew). “The end,” of course, was “the end of the age” spoken of in Matthew 24:3.

Here is where many might object that Matthew 24:14 couldn’t have possibly been fulfilled before 70 AD. However, we can’t overlook the testimonies of Scripture itself:

[1] “Now there were dwelling in Jerusalem Jews, devout men from every nation under heaven… And they were amazed and astonished, saying… ‘we hear them telling in our own tongues the mighty works of God’” (Acts 2:5-11).

[2] “First, I thank my God through Jesus Christ for all of you, because your faith is proclaimed in all the world” (Romans 1:8).

[3] “Now to Him who is able to strengthen you according to my gospel and the preaching of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery that was kept secret for long ages but has now been disclosed and through the prophetic writings has been made known to all nations…” (Romans 16:25-26).

[4] “…the word of the truth, the gospel, which has come to you, as indeed in the whole world it is bearing fruit and growing… (Colossians 1:5-6).

[5] “…if indeed you continue in the faith, stable and steadfast, not shifting from the hope of the gospel that you heard, which has been proclaimed in all creation under heaven, and of which I, Paul, became a minister (Colossians 1:23).

Do these statements not indicate that Matthew 24:14 had already been fulfilled by the time they were written? The phrase “the whole world” here then must mean what it meant in Luke 2:1 when we are told that “the entire world” was registered in the days of Caesar Augustus, i.e. the known world or the Roman Empire (cf. Acts 24:5). Eusebius (263-339), the early church father, said this when commenting on Matthew 24:

Thus, under the influence of heavenly power, and with the divine co-operation, the doctrine of the Saviour, like the rays of the sun, quickly illumined the whole world; [1] and straightway, in accordance with the divine Scriptures, [2] the voice of the inspired evangelists and apostles went forth through all the earth, and their words to the end of the world;  the Apostles preached the Gospel in all the world, and some of them passed beyond the bounds of the ocean, and visited the Britannic isles.

Bishop Newton of Brazil (ordained in 1949) says of the spread of the gospel:

It appears from the writers of the history of the church, that before the destruction of Jerusalem the Gospel was not only preached in the Lesser Asia, and Greece, and Italy, the great theatres of action then in the world, but was likewise propagated as fax northward as Scythia, as far southward as Ethiopia, as far eastward as Parthia and India, as far westward as Spain and Britain.

John Wesley believed Jesus didn’t mean in this verse that the gospel would be preached in all the world “universally” before the end came. He said, “[T]his is not done yet: but in general through the several parts of the world, and not only in Judea [this happened]. And this was done by St. Paul and the other apostles, before Jerusalem was destroyed. And then shall the end come—of the city and temple.” Today we don’t need to be motivated by an impending time of judgment, and certainly not a desire “to be raptured out of here,” in order to preach the gospel. Just as the early church succeeded in spreading the gospel throughout their known world, we should be about the business of doing the same. Paul’s motivation can be ours:

“I make it my ambition to preach the gospel, not where Christ has already been named, lest I build on someone else’s foundation, but as it is written, ‘Those who have never been told of Him will see, and those who have never heard will understand’” (Romans 15:20-21).

In the next post (Part 3), one of the things we will look at is what Jesus said about the abomination of desolation, and the surrounding of Jerusalem by foreign armies, and how the early believers did flee as Jesus told them to when they saw those things.

Quotes to Note

F.W. Farrar (1831-1903): “The Fall of Jerusalem and all the events which accompanied and followed it in the Roman world and in the Christian world, had a significance which it is hardly possible to overestimate. They were the final end of the Old Dispensation. They were the full inauguration of the New Covenant. They were God’s own overwhelming judgment on that form of Judaic Christianity which threatened to crush the work of St. Paul, to lay on the Gentiles the yoke of abrogated Mosaism, to establish itself by threats and anathemas as the only orthodoxy… No event less awful than the desolation of Judea, the destruction of Judaism, the annihilation of all possibility of observing the precepts of Moses, could have opened the eyes of the Judaisers from their dream of imagined infallibility. Nothing but God’s own unmistakable interposition – nothing but the manifest coming of Christ – could have persuaded Jewish Christians that the Law of the Wilderness was annulled” (The Early Days of Christianity, 1882, pp. 489-490).

R.C. Sproul (1997-98): “The coming of Christ in A.D.70 was a coming in judgment on the Jewish nation, indicating the end of the Jewish age and the fulfillment of a day of the Lord. Jesus really did come in judgment at this time, fulfilling his prophecy in the Olivet Discourse” (The Last Days According to Jesus, p. 158, 1998). “The most significant, redemptive, historical action that takes place outside the New Testament, is the judgment that falls on Jerusalem, and by which judgment the Christian Church now [clearly] emerges as The Body of Christ” (R.C. Sproul, Dust to Glory video series, 1997).