Matthew 24 and 25 is a lengthy narrative which consists almost entirely of Jesus’ discourse on the Mount of Olives. Much of it is found in parallel accounts in Mark 13 and Luke 21. This “Olivet Discourse” is also called the “little apocalypse.”
As Jesus was leaving the Temple (It is implied by Matthew’s narrative that this is directly after Jesus’ denunciation of the Jews and His lament for Jerusalem in Matthew 23.), His disciples pointed out the magnificence of the Temple. Jesus replied with a saying that most have interpreted as a prophecy of the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple in AD 70. Jesus said that “not one stone here will be left on another...”
The disciples asked some follow-up questions to Jesus’ reply. They asked them sometime later when they were alone with Jesus on Mount Olivet. I think it is significant to understand that all that follows (often called the Olivet Discourse) is said to the disciples in private. It is not said to the Jewish nation at large, but rather to the disciples, who can also be considered the apostles, the foundation of the church.
The questions that the disciples asked are the following:
1. When will this happen?
2. What will be the sign of your coming [parousia]?
3. What will be the sign of the end of the age [suntelios tou aionos]?
It can hardly be in doubt that “this” of question (1) is the destruction of the Temple. The disciples seemed to associate that event with Christ’s coming and with the end of the age. So they followed up the first question with two more. They wanted to know what would be the sign of Christ’s coming and the sign of the end of the age. The wording is as though the sign of His coming would also be the sign of the end of the age. The following is an outline of Jesus’ reply:
1. Jesus’ immediate answer: 24:4-31
a. The beginning of birth pains–events in the world: 24:4-8
b. Developments in the church until the end: 24:9-14
c. The end(?)–the Abomination of Desolation and associated events: 24:15-25
d. The end(?)–the Parousia of the Son of Man: 24:26-31
2. Jesus’ comments about the timing of the events: 24:32-44
a. The parable of the fig tree: 24:32-35
b. The days of Noah: 24:36-41
c. The thief: 24:42-44
3. Jesus’ comments about readiness: 24:45-25:13
a. The good and bad servants: 24:45-51
b. The wise and foolish virgins: 25:1-13
4. Jesus’ comments about judgment: 25:14-46
a. The allegory of the talents: 25:14-30
b. The sheep and the goats: 25:31-46
In this first of several articles on this passage, I shall make some brief preliminary comments on this outline and then mention one important controversy regarding the passage. I shall keep interpretation to a minimum, since interpretation needs to await sufficient space to make the arguments.
JESUS’ IMMEDIATE ANSWER: Jesus replied to the disciples’ questions. Jesus often replied to questions in very unexpected ways. At times I would call them non sequiturs. See, for example, Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus. Jesus never felt confined by a conversation. First, Jesus gave two sets of developments. The first set is what will be going on in the world at large. The second set is what will be happening to His followers—in terms of persecution from the outside and of diminishing morale within. There is no time frame for these developments. The most natural explanation is that they would progress from the near future until the “end.”
The turning point of these developments is verse 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.*
There follows material that one would take to be very close to the end (verses 15-25). Notice that events are described more specifically than the earlier account of developments in history. Christ issues a warning that people should flee to the mountains. He also warns that a terrible time of tribulation will take place. All of this begins with an event called the Abomination of Desolation. Finally, the end takes place, and the Son of Man comes, gathering His elect (26-31).
THE TIMING OF EVENTS: Jesus used three figures of speech to comment on the timing of the events He outlined for the disciples. The first is the lesson of the fig tree. That lesson is that precursor events will signal that the whole complex of events is about to unfold (24:32-35). The second figure is the lesson of the days of Noah. That lesson is that most people will be oblivious of the impending doom that is coming (24:36-41). The third figure is the lesson of the thief in the night. That lesson is to be ready for the “Son of Man will come at an hour when you do not expect him.” (24:42-44)
JESUS’ COMMENTS ABOUT READINESS: Jesus used two parables to illustrate the need for watchful readiness and what that entails. The story of the good and the bad servants contrasts faithful followers of Jesus to unfaithful ones: the former are “caught” being faithful and the latter are caught being unfaithful by the sudden return of the Lord (24:45-51). The story of the wise and foolish virgins contrasts those who have properly prepared for the arrival of “the bridegroom” with those who have not (25:1-13).
JESUS’ COMMENTS ABOUT JUDGMENT: The final two units in the Discourse give two sets of criteria for judging. The first uses the allegory of the talents to emphasize one aspect of faithfulness (25:14-30). The last unit is the sheep and the goats (25:31-46). Because there are several interpretations of this passage, I shall not comment further in this article.
THE CONTROVERSY CONCERNING “THIS GENERATION” IN 24:34: Probably the verse in the Discourse that has created the most controversy is verse 24:34:
Truly I tell you, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened.
I mentioned in my previous article that J. S. Russell and others have advocated that many prophecies were fulfilled in the first century. (This is termed Preterism.) The linchpin of this approach to interpretation is the understanding of this verse. In that article I made the point that how one deals with this issue—and especially with this verse—is a deciding point in one’s study of prophecy. I shall not go through my argument to refute the Preterist position. I shall simply say that a thorough study of the entirety of the Olivet Discourse makes the Preterist approach an unlikely interpretation. It is my belief that it is wiser to use the total context of the Discourse to interpret one verse than to use one verse to interpret the entire Discourse.
FUTURE STUDY OF THE OLIVET DISCOURSE: I shall devote future articles to the various sections of the outline that I have included above. In some cases, I shall digress in order to discuss difficult issues, such as the Abomination of Desolation.
NEXT ARTICLE: JESUS’ PREDICTION OF THE DESTRUCTION OF THE TEMPLE
*Scripture quotations are from New international Version.
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