The Olivet discourse or prophecy is the last of the five discourses of Matthew and is also found in the other two synoptic gospels of Mark (chapter 13) and Luke (chapter 21 and 17). The timing of this discourse between Jesus and some of his disciples occurs just before the “passion of Christ’s” beginning. Before we examine the contents of this prophecy from Jesus, let’s first examine the events that take place immediately beforehand.
THE DAYS BEFORE THE OLIVET DISCOURSE
The year was AD 33 in the Jewish first month of Nisan. As Jesus and his 12 disciples were traveling to Jerusalem for the upcoming Passover Feast (possibly the fourth one he attended during his three-year ministry), he took them aside and predicted his death and resurrection. This was the third time he had done so. They say the third time is a charm. In this case, I’m not so sure, as the disciples still did not understand fully what all this entailed.
Previous to this, Jesus had been teaching on the Kingdom of God by way of the parable of the workers in the vineyard (Matthew 20:1-16). Jesus ended this parable with a great truth regarding His Kingdom to come: “The last will be first, and the first last. For many are called, but few are chosen” (Matthew 20:16).
A little while later, Jesus reiterated this thought to John and James and their mother after she had asked Jesus if her sons could sit at the right and left hand of Jesus in His Kingdom. Jesus called his disciples together and said, “Whoever desires to be first among you, let him be your slave, just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many” (Matthew 20:26-28).
Four days before the Passover, on Nisan 10, AD 33, Jesus made his triumphal entry into Jerusalem and presented himself to the Jews as their king. This was done that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the prophet Zechariah, “Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion! Shout, O daughter of Jerusalem! Behold your king is coming to you; He is just and having salvation, lowly and riding on a donkey, a colt, the foal of a donkey” (Zechariah 9:9).
There was a great multitude in Jerusalem at this time, for it was a few days before Passover. Initially, the Jewish people accepted him as a king (a son of David), as some of them spread their clothes on the road, and others cut down palm branches from the trees and spread them on the road. The multitudes cried out, saying: “Hosanna (exclamation of joy, praise) to the Son of David! Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest” (Matthew 21:9). This event later became known as “Palm Sunday.”
Nisan 10 is also the day that the sacrificial lambs (without blemish) were to be selected by all the households of Israel. They were to keep the lambs until the 14th of the month when, at twilight, they would then be killed and eaten. This is known as the Lord’s Passover and is a Jewish tradition dating back to its origin during the time of Moses and the Exodus, as described in Exodus 12:1-28.
Upon entering Jerusalem, the first thing Jesus did was to enter the temple and cleanse it, as he drove out the merchants who sold doves and other small sacrificial animals and overturned the tables of the money changers. He then healed the blind and lame and all who came to him in the temple. Even after seeing these miracles, the chief priests’ and scribes’ only comments were to ask Jesus to condemn the masses for their previous praises of “Hosanna to the Son of David.” The religious leaders and rulers of Judea did not recognize Jesus’ authority as king or Messiah. The people would later bow to political pressure from these religious elites and desert him in just a few days. He would be killed on the day of the Passover Feast on Nisan 14, AD 33.
The next morning, on the way back to Jerusalem from Bethany, where they had spent the night, Jesus and the disciples passed a fig tree by the road. The scriptures say Jesus was hungry, but there was no fruit on the tree, only leaves; so he said to it, “Let no fruit grow on you ever again.” Immediately, the fig tree withered away (Matthew 21:18-19). Most Bible teachers believe this is a prophecy regarding Israel and their lack of faith (fruit) in Jesus as the Messiah.
Jesus’ next parable teaching on the Kingdom was regarding the wicked vinedressers and their killing of the landowner’s servants and son. Jesus said to his disciples, “Have you never read the scriptures?’ The stone [Jesus] which the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone. This was the Lord’s doing, and it is marvelous in our eyes. Therefore I say to you, the Kingdom of God will be taken from you [Israel] and given to a nation [Christians from every nation] bearing the fruits of it” (Matthew 21:42-43). The scriptures Jesus was referring to are found in Psalm 118:22-23 and Isaiah 28:16.
Jesus then describes what will happen to those who try to impede the Kingdom of God, “Whoever falls on this stone will be broken; but on whomever it falls, it will grind him to powder” (Matthew 21:44). Daniel talked about this same stone (Jesus and His Kingdom) in his prophecy/s of Daniel 2:34-35, 44-45.
In Matthew 22, Jesus teaches about the Kingdom of God again, as it is his favorite topic during his last days before his crucifixion. This time the Kingdom of heaven is compared to a wedding feast, where a certain King (God the Father) arranged a marriage for his son (Jesus) and sent out his servants (prophets and disciples) to call those who were invited to the wedding (Jews), but they were not willing to come (Matthew 22:2-3). The invitation (for salvation through faith in Jesus) eventually was sent into the ‘highways’ and gathered together all whom they found, both bad and good (Gentiles).
In this parable, Jesus is the bridegroom, and the Church is the bride. Notice he is teaching on a subject by way of a parable that is still in the future. The Lord is teaching in an ambiguous way because he did not want to reveal all the details of these future events at this time. Eventually, the disciples would understand Jesus’ parable after the Holy Spirit was given.
In Matthew 23:1-36, Jesus pronounces 7 woes (8 in some translations, such as King James) or exclamations of griefs to the scribes and Pharisees for their religious hypocrisy and apostasy. In verses 37-39, Jesus predicts and laments over the coming destruction of Jerusalem. He ends with this prophecy: “Your house is left to you desolate; for I say to you, you shall see Me no more till I say, Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord!” (Matthew 23:39).
THE OLIVET DISCOURSE
A few days before the Passover (and Jesus’ death), the disciples were commenting on the beauty of the temple. Jesus reminded them of their earlier conversation and said to them, “Do you not see all these things? Assuredly, I say to you, not one stone shall be left here upon another, that shall not be thrown down” (Matthew 24:2). Jesus was sitting on the Mount of Olives when this conversation developed, so Peter, James, John, and Andrew (according to Mark 13:3) naturally wanted to know the details of this great revelation from Jesus.
The discussion that ensued is known as the Olivet discourse. The disciples asked him three questions pertaining to this future event and the end times, including his coming to set up His Kingdom, which he had been teaching them about with such frequency during the last few days. The three questions in order were:
1) When will these things be (destruction of the temple)?
2) What will be the sign of Your coming? The disciples had been made aware of Jesus’ prophecies concerning his death and resurrection, so they were asking him when he would return (after his death) to set up His Kingdom.
3) What will be the sign of the end of the age? The disciples were true Jews, as they proved the point Jesus made in John 4:48, when he said, “Unless you people [Jews] see signs and wonders, you will by no means believe.” Paul would later echo Jesus’ words when he said, “for Jews require a sign, and Greeks seek after wisdom” (1 Corinthians 1:22).
Jesus did not answer the first question in the accounts of Matthew and Mark, but he did in Luke 21:20-24, although he did not mention a specific time or date. In hindsight, we know it occurred 36 years later (ironically, or not, about the age of Jesus upon his death) in AD 70. Jesus answered the disciples’ questions out of order. He answered the third question first (what shall be the sign/s of the end of the world?).
THE SIX SIGNS IN THE OLIVET DISCOURSE
There are six sure signs Jesus gave regarding the beginning of the “end of the age/world” before the Kingdom of God is established. These signs are slightly different in all three gospel accounts, so I have consolidated them here.
- False Messiahs (Matthew 24:4-5, Mark 13:5-6, Luke 21-8).
- Wars and rumors of wars and nation rising against nation and kingdom against kingdom (Matthew 24:6-7, Mark 13:7-8, Luke 21:9-10).
- Famines (Matthew 24:7, Mark 13:8, Luke 21:11).
- Pestilences (Matthew 24:7, Mark 13:3, Luke 21:11).
- Earthquakes in various places (Matthew 24:7, Mark 13:8, Luke 21:11).
- Fearful sights/events and great signs from heaven (Luke 21:11).
Matthew and Mark describe these signs as “birth pains” in some translations, for they will get stronger and more frequent as time progresses. The birth pains culminate during the last 7 years on earth before Jesus’ Second Coming, known as Daniel’s 70th Week or the Tribulation, and are recorded in the book of Revelation, written by John the apostle.
THE TRIBULATION IN THE BOOK OF REVELATION – THE CULMINATION OF THE OLIVET SIGNS
- The first sign or birth pain, false Messiahs, will culminate with the false prophet convincing the world to worship the Anti-Christ as their god (Revelation 13).
- The second sign, war, will reach its climax during this time as described with the opening of the second seal (Rev. 6:3-4) and the sixth trumpet judgment (Rev. 9:13-21), and the war of Armageddon (Rev. 19:11-21).
- The third birth pain of the Olivet discourse, famine, is born when the third seal is opened (Rev. 6:5-6).
- The fourth sign, pestilences, will reach its peak when the fourth seal is opened (Rev. 6:7-8).
- The fifth sign of the Olivet discourse, earthquakes, is mentioned in Rev. 6:12, 8:5, 11:3, 11:19, and the “mother of all earthquakes” in Rev. 16:18.
- The sixth sign, great sights in the heavens, will culminate during the sixth seal opening mentioned in Rev. 6:12-14, and when the first five trumpet judgments are sounded in Rev. 8 and 9, and during the fourth, fifth, and seventh bowl judgments (Rev. 16:8-11, 17-21) are poured upon the earth, and, of course, when Jesus returns to the earth as Lord of lords and King of kings.
In the Olivet discourse of Matthew 24, Jesus speaks of these signs in verses 4-31, thus answering their question (what shall be the sign/s of the end of the age?). These are all signs that the end of the world (as we know it) is near, and Jesus will be returning to the earth soon.
SIGNS, TRIBULATION, AND THE SECOND COMING
Let’s dissect Matthew 24 further. Verses 4-8 are describing the signs immediately preceding Daniel’s 70th Week and will culminate in the Tribulation as outlined above. Verses 9-26 include the entire 7-year Tribulation…start, middle, and end. Verses 27-31 describe the Second Coming, where there will be more signs in the heavens. “Then the sign of the Son of Man will appear in heaven, and then all the tribes of the earth will mourn, and they will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory. And He will send his angels with a great sound of a trumpet, and they will gather together His elect, from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other” (Matthew 24:30-31).
John F. Walvoord, the learned theologian, wrote in his book, Every Prophecy of the Bible, that the ‘elect’ in this verse refers to more than the elect still living on earth. It will include all the elect, or the saved, including Old Testament saints, saved Israel, the Church, and the saints of the tribulation period leading up to the second coming. However, Revelation 19:14 says that the armies of heaven (including the Church saints) will follow Jesus back to the earth during the Second Coming riding on white horses.
THE FIG TREE
Verses 32-35 explain which generation would see the Day of the Lord. Here Jesus is again talking about the fig tree as he did earlier in Matthew 21:18-19. I don’t think this is a coincidence.
This time, instead of cursing the fig tree, he tells the disciples to learn this ‘parable‘ from the fig tree. “When its branch has already become tender and puts forth leaves, you know that summer is near. So you also, when you see all these things, know that it is near – at the doors! Assuredly I say to you, this generation will by no means pass away till all these things take place” (Matthew 24:32-34). A parable is a simple story used to illustrate a moral or spiritual lesson, so I don’t think Jesus was just referring to a fig tree that blooms in late spring. I believe this is a typology of the modern nation of Israel, and the generation that was born when Israel became a nation (or in her youth) will not pass away until all the events of Matthew 24 are accomplished.
In part II, we will look at the coming of the Son of Man.