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).

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

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

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