Christ’s Olivet Discourse on the End of the Age—Part I

Christ’s Olivet Discourse on the End of the Age—Part I John F Walvoord Wed, 07/18/2007 - 06:00

[John F. Walvoord, President, Dallas Theological Seminary, Editor, Bibliotheca Sacra.]

The Twentieth Century

The twentieth century has been a very remarkable period for the study of the prophetic Word. The first quarter of the century included World War I and the rise of communism with its atheistic philosophy that fits so naturally into end-time events. The second quarter of the twentieth century has as its major event World War II, out of which came some most significant developments. First of all, immediately after World War II the United Nations was formed in 1946, indicating the trend toward a world government. Also, in 1948 the World Council of Churches was organized, a forerunner of the world religion in the end of the age of which the Bible speaks. The state of Israel was also created in that same year by the United Nations, marking the beginning of their regathering and their possession of a portion of their ancient land. Careful students of prophecy become immediately aware that these major events have set the stage for what the Bible calls the end of the age.

The third quarter of the twentieth century has featured the awakening of Asia as a political, international, and military force. The increasing tensions of our day have focused the attention of the whole world upon the Middle East, and the struggle between Israel and the Arab world. In the area of religion. there have been rapid developments with the “God is Dead” doctrine, and increasing moral apostasy. The breakdown of moral standards in our day in society and the conflict between classes, races and nations have made our day a time of crisis. On every hand an increasing tension is evident that seems to point to a coming climax which may not be too far away. In such a climax, of course, careful students of the prophetic Word place first the precious truth of the rapture of the church, an event scheduled by many to occur before the world comes to the dramatic conclusion predicted in prophecy.

The General Content of Matthew 24-25

In the Scriptures, the words of Christ to His disciples on the Mount of Olives delivered not long before He died have dramatic contemporary significance. In this discourse, Christ answered their questions concerning the signs of the end of the age and of His second coming. This revelation becomes increasingly vital to understanding the meaning of events that are occurring today. Matthew 24 and 25 present Christ’s discourse on the end of the age, His predictions of the events which lead up to and climax in His second coming to the earth. In addition, Matthew 25:31-46 reveal the events which immediately follow His second advent. A study of these prophecies will help one to understand the headlines of our newspapers today, and major events and trends of our twentieth century.

The Context of Matthew 24-25

The context of the Olivet Discourse has an amazing similarity to contemporary problems. As Christ dealt with spiritual, theological, and moral apostasy in His day in Matthew 23, He delivered the most scathing denunciation of false religion and hypocrisy to be found anywhere. He calls the scribes and the Pharisees hypocrites no less than seven times (Matt 23:13, 14, 15, 23, 25, 27, 29). He calls them blind five times (Matt 23:16, 17, 19, 24, 26), labels them fools twice (Matt 23:17, 19), describes them as whited sepulchers (Matt 23:27), serpents or snakes, the children of poisonous vipers (Matt 23:33), and declares that they are in danger of going to hell. It would be difficult to find words more biting than these words of Christ used to characterize the religion of His day. One wonders what Christ would say about religion today—the radical unbelief of contemporary scholars; the hypocrisy, materialism, and superficiality that characterizes modern Christianity. (Matt 24:2b). When stones as large as were used in the temple are dislodged, it is not through the force of nature. It had to be by human effort. They have to be deliberately torn down, and the disciples were fully aware of this.

The great pyramid of Egypt, for instance, located seven miles southwest of Cairo, has stood for 5, 000 years. It was 1, 000 years old when Abraham saw it. It was 1, 500 years old when Moses saw it, and possibly Joseph, Mary, and the Christ child witnessed the great pyramid when it was already 3, 000 years old. Composed of blocks of stone weighing two or three tons each, many of them much smaller than the huge stones used in the temple, the great pyramid is still a monument to the ingenuity of those who planned and built it and will endure indefinitely. Likewise, unless disturbed by deliberate destruction, the stones of the temple would still be in place in Jerusalem.

But Christ said not one stone would be left upon another. In Jerusalem today, the wailing wall is claimed as a wall of the ancient temple. It is probable that it was a part of one of the outer buildings and not the main structure. The destruction that Christ is talking about here actually took place in A.D. 70, only six years after the temple was completed. At that time the Roman soldiers surrounded the city of Jerusalem when it was crowded with pilgrims. Because of the previous rebellion of the Jewish nation against their authority, they burned the city, destroyed the temple, and literally wrecked it just as Christ indicated, leaving Jerusalem in desolation for more than 150 years.

When Christ predicted the destruction of the temple, the disciples at once recognized that this was important. When Solomon’s Temple had been destroyed in 586 B.C., the events which followed included the captivity—a time of great trouble for the children of Israel. The temple’s destruction as predicted here must also involve great events. How did this relate to the promise of the kingdom? This was a natural question for the disciples, and a question that remains today.

Principles of Interpretation

In the interpretation of the prophecy such as Christ gave to His disciples on the Mount of Olives, the basic principles of understanding prophecy need to be used carefully by any conservative interpreter. One of the things learned in the study of prophecy is that prophecy must be interpreted on the basis of fulfilled prophecy in history. When God predicts future events, they always come to pass exactly as He prophesied. This leads to a second principle in understanding prophecy—that close attention must be paid to what is actually said as the details are very important. Third, the study of prophecy in any area necessarily has to be subject to the context of the entire revelation of the Word of God. No portion of the Bible contradicts any other portion, and prophecy must be interpreted in the background of the total revelation of the Word of God.

Theological Presuppositions

Any expositor who approaches a prophetic portion like the Olivet Discourse has various options based upon his own interpretation of other Scripture. Generally speaking, amillenarians, while accepting prophecies of a tribulation as preceding the second advent, tend to generalize rather than to accept particulars of prophecies such as the Olivet Discourse, believing as they do that the second advent is followed immediately by the eternal state. Postmillenarians are forced to generalize even more than amillenarians because of their concept of gradual improvement and Christianizing of the world to the preaching of the gospel, a concept which is expressly contradicted by the trends indicated in the Olivet Discourse of increasing evil climaxed by judgment of Christ at the second coming. Liberals, of course, who deny the validity of prophecy, often take refuge in making the Olivet Discourse a summary of current apocalyptic concepts inserted by the writer as if taught by Christ but actually not a part of His teaching ministry. M’Neile, for instance, states, “Some predictions of Jesus concerning the nearness of the End probably formed the basis upon which a Jewish-Christian writer compiled a series of sayings, many of them couched in the conventional language of Jewish eschatology. This theory of a Small Apocalypse is widely accepted, in various forms by modern writings.” He cites Moffatt, B. Weiss, J. Weiss, Zahn, and others. He adds, “The compiler of it gave some doubtless genuine sayings of Jesus, and also some that reflect a later date when Christians had begun to realize that some delay must be expected before the Parousia.”1

Premillenarians, generally speaking, take the Olivet Discourse as genuine prophecy, an accurate summary of Christ’s interpretation of end-time events given to His disciples on the Mount of Olives. Only the premillennial interpretation allows for a literal interpretation of these prophecies as factual predictions of future trends and events.

Relation to the Rapture

Further, it is important for the expositor to determine whether he believes the rapture of the church will occur before the final tribulation or afterward as a phase of the second coming of Christ to the earth. Writers who are posttribulational in their interpretation, even though premillennial, tend to gloss over the details of this prophecy. Even such a careful expositor as G. Campbell Morgan in his exposition of the Gospel of Matthew, for instance, skips entirely Matthew 24:15-22, which in many respects is the most specific sign of the coming of Christ and a major feature of the Olivet Discourse.2 If on the basis of other Scriptures, the pretribulation view of the rapture is supported, the prophecies of Christ in Matthew can be related to other Scriptures in the broad sequence of events bringing the age to a close.

Accordingly, it is important to bear in mind in the study of Matthew 24—25 that the rapture is not mentioned in these chapters, and actually comes before the specific end-time events. The rapture was revealed later in 1 Thessalonians 4 and in 1 Corinthians 15, which predict that Christ will come for His church. When He does, Christians who have died will be resurrected and Christians who are living will be translated. Their bodies will be suddenly changed, they will meet the Lord in the air and proceed to heaven. The departure of the church from the earth will obviously cause quite a stir, though the Bible never seems to refer to it directly. Many Christians are in prominent places, and their sudden, mysterious disappearance will, no doubt, cause a lot of questioning. The main effect of the rapture on the world as a whole is that things will begin to happen very fast.

Order of End-Time Events

According to the premillennial interpretation of the prophetic Word, a confederacy of ten nations in the Middle East will be banded together in a political unit (Dan 7:24; Rev 13:1). A man will emerge who becomes their dictator conquering three of these nations, and then eventually the other countries capitulate. He becomes a strong man in the Middle East. While the Bible does not reveal how long this will take, it may occupy only a few months or at the most a year or two for these events to take place. Once the dictator assumes power, he will attempt to solve the problems of Israel in relation to the other nations in the Middle East. He will make a covenant with Israel, apparently guaranteeing their borders and promising protection from attack. This is indicated in Daniel 9:27 as a covenant of seven years made by “the prince that shall come” who is related in verse 26 to the Roman people. In effect, there will be a revival of the ancient Roman empire.

This covenant will be observed for about three-and-a-half years, and somewhere in that first period of three-and-a-balf years another war will break out when Russia attacks Israel (Ezek 38—39 ). The effect is devastating on Russia because her armies are wiped out, apparently by an act of God (Ezek 38:22-23; 39:3-4 ), but the ensuing disruption and the unbalance in the international situation makes it possible for this dictator in the Middle East to proclaim himself a world ruler. The prophecy of Revelation 13:7 is fulfilled, and he rules over every kindred, tongue and nation, a clear reference to a world government.

When this ruler takes power, he takes over everything—the economic wealth of the world (Rev 13:16-17), the political power of the world (Rev 13:7), and he also claims to be God. In the process, he demands that everybody worship him as God (Rev 13:8). He breaks his covenant with Israel and becomes their persecutor (Dan 9:27). As a result of this blasphemy against God, God begins to pour out terrible judgments upon him. Great catastrophies overtake the world, pictured in detail in the book of Revelation 6—19 , climaxing in a great world war as large sections of the world, under the impact of these judgments of God, apparently rebel against his leadership and descend upon the Middle East to fight it out (Dan 11:40-45; Rev 16:12-16).

At the height of this conflict, Jesus Christ comes back in power and glory to reign (Rev 19:11-16), and to set up His kingdom for a thousand years in the earth (Rev 20:4-6). After the thousand years, of course, a new heaven and a new earth are created, and eternity begins (Rev 21—22 ),

According to this brief outline, the rapture occurs first, followed by a brief period of preparation while the stage is set for later events. Then a period of protection for Israel is enjoyed for threeand-a-half years after the covenant is signed with them. The final period of three-and-a-half years of persecution precedes the second coming of Christ, which issues into the thousand-year reign preceding the eternal state.

In Matthew 24—25 the expositor should, therefore, understand that the program of God for the end of the age has in view the period ending with the second coming of Christ to the earth and the establishment of His earthly Kingdom, not the church age specifically ending with the rapture. Both the questions of the disciples and the answers of Christ are, therefore, keyed to the Jewish expectation based on Old Testament prophecy, and the program of God for the earth in general rather than the church as the body of Christ.

The subsequent study of the questions of the disciples and the answers which Christ gave are important additions to other prophecies and are Christ’s own instruction and interpretation of events that will mark the end of the age and the second coming of Jesus Christ to the earth. These will be considered in the discussions to follow.

This article was taken from the Theological Journal Library and posted with permission of Galaxie Software.

1 Alan Hugh M’Neile, The Gospel according to St. Matthew (London, 1915), p. 343.

2 G. Campbell Morgan, The Gospel according to Matthew (New York, 1929).