Many Bible scholars maintain that most, if not all, of the prophecies in the Olivet Discourse were fulfilled in the events surrounding the destruction of the Jerusalem temple in 70 A.D. Some have even gone on to embrace Replacement Theology, the teaching that all O.T. promises made to the nation of Israel have been transferred to the church and that God is done with Israel. Does Scripture teach that God has a future for the nation of Israel? More specifically, do Jesus’ words in Matthew 24 necessitate the existence of a Jewish nation in the end times? This essay will argue that the Olivet Discourse extends far beyond the fall of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. and that this necessitates the existence of a literal Jewish nation that will face the wrath of God in the Tribulation and be saved out of it at Messiah’s return.
The Audience of the Olivet Discourse
The Olivet Discourse was delivered by Jesus on the Mount of Olives in front of Jerusalem three days before His crucifixion. In it, Jesus provided His disciples with an overview of eschatological events culminating in His second advent. The immediate context of the discourse is a question posed by Jesus’ disciples: “Tell us, when will these things be? And what will be the sign of Your coming, and of the end of the age?” The disciples would have understood from Zechariah 14 that a time of tribulation would precede the kingdom, but they would not have expected the kingdom to have been postponed for thousands of years (Luke 21:24).
Jesus’ prophecy deals primarily with the tribulation that will occur just before the inauguration of the kingdom. The kingdom was offered to the Jewish nation during Christ’s first coming, but the Jews rejected it because they “were not looking for inward deliverance from sin but for outward deliverance from political oppression.”(1) In other words, the Jews expected Messiah to deliver them from the Roman Empire and restore Israel to her place as head of the nations. It must be recognized that the Jews were mostly correct in their eschatology. Their error was that they failed to recognize that Messiah would come twice — first, to die for the sins of mankind, and second, to establish His millennial kingdom. In the Old Testament, both advents are described in detail with no time gap indicated between the two
With Israel identified as the primary audience of the discourse, the interpreter can either anticipate a future literal fulfillment of the discourse, or he can dismiss most of the discourse as having been fulfilled in 70 A.D. as the late R.C. Sproul has done.(2) If all of Christ’s prophecies were fulfilled historically in the Roman destruction of Jerusalem (70 A.D.), future prophetic fulfillment is unnecessary. If, however, it is determined that portions of the Olivet Discourse are yet future, it must be concluded that Jesus is talking to end-times Israel.
Israel in the Tribulation
As discussed earlier, the disciples’ question concerning the temple’s destruction was rooted in their understanding of the Messianic kingdom, which they knew from O.T. prophecy would be preceded by a time of trouble (Jer 30:7, Dan 12:1, Zech 14:1-4). Concerning the scope of this time of trouble, O.T. prophecy reveals two realities: 1) It is global, not regional. 2) It focuses on Israel in particular, even though all nations are affected.
The birth pains of Matthew 24:4-8 roughly correspond to the first four seal judgments of Revelation 6. This places their fulfillment in the first half of the Tribulation.(3) In v.6, Jesus addresses the future Jewish nation, saying, “you will hear of wars and rumors of wars.” This is significant and could not have been fulfilled before Israel was reborn as a nation in 1948. Furthermore, the wars that Jesus warned about in v.7 (nation rising against nation, kingdom against kingdom) cannot be characterized as the general course of the church age but are specific events that will be fulfilled in the Tribulation. These birth pains of war and natural disaster (v.7) are global catastrophes and must not be limited to the Roman world of 70 A.D., which many commentators have unfortunately done.(4)
Israel and the Gospel
It can be inferred from the Olivet Discourse that Israel is an active player in the Tribulation. In v.14, Jesus says that immediately prior to the end, the “gospel of the kingdom” will be preached to all nations. Many interpreters hear this phrase and make the mistake of conflating it with the personal gospel of eternal life. The “gospel of the kingdom” is a technical phrase that always refers to the Jewish expectation of the Messianic kingdom. This gospel is identical to that preached by Jesus and John the Baptist. The fact that it is being proclaimed during the Tribulation demands that the nation of Israel is in existence again. This prophecy will be fulfilled during the Tribulation by the 144,000 Jewish evangelists. It was not fulfilled in 70 A.D., and it will never be fulfilled by the church because the church will be raptured before the kingdom is again offered to Israel.
The Abomination of Desolation
The Abomination of Desolation is a phrase that appears five times in Scripture (Daniel 9:27, 11:31, 12:11; Matthew 24:15, and Mark 13:14). In four of these passages, the phrase refers to the Antichrist’s desecration of the Jerusalem temple. However, in Daniel 11:31, the reference is to a historical event that foreshadows the future reality. Following a humiliating defeat in Egypt, Seleucid king Antiochus IV Epiphanes sent his general Apollonius with 22,000 soldiers into Jerusalem on an alleged peace mission. The soldiers, however, brutally slaughtered many residents of the city, taking many women and children captive.(5)
Antiochus IV forbade Jews to keep the Sabbath or recite the Torah under pain of death. Finally, On December 16, 167 BC, Antiochus IV terminated sacrifice and offering at the Jerusalem temple and erected an altar to Zeus in the Jerusalem temple. The Jews were forced to offer a pig on the 25th of each month to celebrate Antiochus Epiphanes’ birthday.(6) This event was called the Abomination of Desolation because it was a vile act that rendered the temple ritually defiled and unfit for worship.
Many scholars understand the remaining four references to this event as all referring to Antiochus. This is problematic because Jesus anticipated it happening again in the future. Matthew 24:15-16 says, “So when you see the abomination of desolation, spoken of by the prophet Daniel, standing in the holy place” (let the reader understand), “then those in Judea must flee to the mountains.”
Jesus’ words are significant because they imply that the Abomination of Desolation will 1) occur again, and 2) be recognizable to the residents of Jerusalem, serving as a warning sign to flee the city immediately. The Abomination of Desolation will have two components. First, the Antichrist will forcibly terminate all sacrifices and offerings to the God of Israel, taking his seat in the Most Holy Place and declaring himself to be God. Second, the false prophet will construct an image of the Antichrist in the temple to mark the Antichrist’s ongoing presence in Jerusalem as the city becomes a worship center for the Antichrist and epicenter of the final holocaust.
As soon as the Abomination of Desolation occurs, Jews living in or near Jerusalem are instructed to flee for their lives immediately. Any delay in escape will mean certain death. Mark indicates that even after the Jews have reached safety in the east, false prophets will infiltrate their ranks, performing miracles that apparently deceive some into leaving their places of hiding and returning to Jerusalem where they will be killed (Mark 13:21-23).
In Matthew 24:20, Jesus instructs his Jewish readers to pray that their escape will not occur in winter or on the Sabbath. Why? In modern Israel, public transportation is closed on the Sabbath, making escape on the Sabbath more treacherous. Concerning the winter season, Arnold Fruchtenbaum provides a compelling analysis, one that demonstrates that Jesus is speaking to a Jewish audience residing in the land of Israel:
The reason for this prayer is that the Jews will be escaping toward the mountains in the east. Most of the escape routes will force them to use wadis, which are dry water beds that only fill up with flash floods when it rains during the winter months. Israel receives no rain between April and October. From October through the winter months up until April, Israel receives all its rain for the year. When it does rain, many of these wadis become filled instantly and are very dangerous to cross. Frequently in Israel, people drown because they are caught in these dry riverbeds during a flash flood. If the Abomination of Desolation occurs during the winter months, it will make the escape toward the east that much more difficult. So, prayer is urged that it will not happen in winter.(7)
In summary, the Abomination of Desolation and Jesus’ warning to the Jews in Jerusalem to flee the city can only occur in relation to Israel in the Tribulation. Its prophetic antecedent, the desecration of the temple by Antiochus Epiphanes, gives readers a clear picture of what will happen to Israel in the future.
Will Modern Israel go through the Great Tribulation?
The Nazi Holocaust is a core feature of Israeli identity. The Israeli pledge “Never Again” conveys the promise that the Jewish people have made to themselves that they will never allow the Nazi Holocaust to repeat itself. In other words, never again will Israel experience the atrocities of Adolf Hitler, which wiped out two-thirds of Europe’s Jewish population.
Unfortunately, as the Bible teaches, the leadership of Israel will sign on to a deadly covenant with a world dictator that will secure the nation’s complete annihilation if it were not for Messiah’s return in glory. Israel’s ongoing rejection of Jesus as their only Savior and Messiah will secure their vulnerability to the Antichrist. Consequently, the Olivet Discourse is largely a survival guide to the Jews in the Tribulation who have come to know Jesus. These Jewish believers will have heard the gospel of the kingdom; that is, the message that Jesus is soon returning to inaugurate His Messianic kingdom. That message alone necessitates the fulfillment of Daniel’s Seventieth Week, which will purge Israel in preparation for the kingdom.
How do some scholars get around this and fall into Replacement Theology? By asserting that the entire sequence of end-times events laid out in the discourse was fulfilled in A.D. 70 during the Roman destruction of Jerusalem. Many scholars make this error when they fail to recognize that Jesus discusses two crises in Jerusalem that are separated by thousands of years.
Two Different Crises in Jerusalem
The Olivet Discourse begins with a question that the disciples ask Jesus. This question is recorded differently in Luke than it is in Matthew and Mark because Luke is concerned with the fall of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. In Luke 21:7, the disciples ask Jesus, “so when will these things happen? And what will be the sign when these things are about to take place?” Jesus responds in verse 20: “When you see Jerusalem surrounded by armies, then recognize that its desolation has come near.” This likely refers to the Roman 10th Legion under General Titus, which had surrounded Jerusalem in the summer of 70 A.D. The siege would continue and eventually make escape utterly futile. Concerning the siege, Josephus writes:
So, all hope of escaping was now cut off from the Jews, together with their liberty of going out of the city. Then did the famine widen its progress and devoured the people by whole houses and families; the upper rooms were full of women and children that were dying by famine; and the lanes of the city were full of the dead bodies of the aged; the children also and the young men wandered about the marketplaces like shadows, all swelled with the famine, and fell dead wheresoever their misery seized them.(8)
This was the very sign that Jesus said would indicate that the temple’s destruction was imminent. His warning to Jewish believers in Jerusalem during this time was to flee the city as soon as they saw Jerusalem surrounded by Roman armies. Jesus wanted his readers to know that there would be no divine deliverance. The city had been given over to judgment (Luke 21:22), and anyone still in the city when these events unfolded would be vulnerable to death. The warnings that follow in vs. 21-23 sound remarkably similar to those in Matthew 24:16 because Jesus uses the former sign to illustrate the severity of the latter sign, which according to Matthew 24:15, is the Abomination of Desolation.
In other words, in 70 A.D., the sign of the temple’s destruction was the siege of the city under general Titus. During the Tribulation, the sign of the end will be the Abomination of Desolation. Jesus, then, refers to two different signs, which are two different crises in Jerusalem. In the earlier crisis (70 A.D.), the city was destroyed, whereas in the latter crisis (the Tribulation), the city, though severely ravaged, will be delivered. Quite clearly, these two sieges are not the same, though both can only be applied to literal Israel, ruling out a church-age fulfillment. These are both geographical events relating to the Jewish people and their Holy City. Importantly, they both serve as signs of impending judgment.
The Olivet Discourse provides students of Scripture with a general blueprint of the future, specifically as it relates to Israel. Jesus surveys the Tribulation and warns Jewish believers about the Abomination of Desolation and how to escape and persevere until the end. The events and personages in the discourse necessitate the existence of a literal Jewish nation in the end times. Hundreds of prophecies in the Bible anticipate a future regathering of Israel in the end times, and the Olivet Discourse may be added to the number. Though it does not specifically predict the regathering of Israel, the entire substance of the discourse is based on the presupposition that God will have brought His chosen people back into their ancient homeland to endure a time of testing that will result in their redemption.
In the twenty-first century, students of Scripture have witnessed the initial stages of this fulfillment, indicating that God is beginning to wrap up human history.
Southern California Seminary, El Cajon, CA
- John Macarthur. The MacArthur New Testament Commentary. Chicago, IL: Moody Publishers, 2016.
- R.C Sproul. The Last Days According to Jesus: When Did Jesus Say He Would Return? Grand Rapids, Mi: Baker Books, 2015, 158. Dr. R.C. Sproul and others argue that “the substance of the Olivet Discourse was fulfilled in A.D. 70. This is achieved by an allegorizing of the text.
- Some premillennialists, such as John Walvoord and David Jeremiah, understand the birth pains of false messiahs, wars, famine, and death, to begin in the church age, only to accelerate once the church is raptured. Others like Scofield have understood the birth pains to find strict fulfillment in the tribulation. This view is in harmony with the reality that Jesus speaks in definite terms about definite events that will literally be fulfilled.
- Jamieson, Robert, A. R. Fausset, and David Brown. 1997. Commentary Critical and Explanatory on the Whole Bible. Vol. 2. Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc: “The annals of Tacitus tell us how the Roman world was convulsed, before the destruction of Jerusalem, by rival claimants of the imperial purple.” This interpretation is highly problematic because Jesus is prophesying world war (nation rising against nation) before His return. He is not speaking of regional skirmishes.
- Pentecost, J. Dwight. 1985. “Daniel.” In The Bible Knowledge Commentary: An Exposition of the Scriptures, edited by J. F. Walvoord and R. B. Zuck, 1:1370. Wheaton, IL: Victor Books.
- Arnold G. Fruchtenbaum. “The Footsteps of the Messiah: A Study of the Sequence of Prophetic Events” (Tustin, CA) Ariel Minstries, 2003, 510.
- Flavius Josephus and William Whiston. The Works of Josephus: Complete and Unabridged. Peabody: Hendrickson, 1987.