Theme: Do Not Be Alarmed
God is in control of the world now and until the end of time
Jesus left the temple and was going away, when his disciples came to point out to him the buildings of the temple. But he answered them, “You see all these, do you not? Truly, I say to you, there will not be left here one stone upon another that will not be thrown down.”
As he sat on the Mount of Olives, the disciples came to him privately, saying, “Tell us, when will these things be, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?”
There are few things so fascinating as prophecy, or so problematic. Prophecy is fascinating because most people would like to know the future. Some would like to know it out of fear. They would like to be able to avoid life’s difficulties or tragedies. Some would like to know what is coming in order to plan for it successfully. If we could know what the stock market will do in the next few months or years, we could all become wealthy. Other people would like to know what is coming out of simple curiosity, to be on the inside track, as it were. Christian speculations about the future are often in this category. In the secular world horoscopes, fortune tellers, seances, tarot cards, and the popularity of cult figures like Jeane Dixon show how fascinated most people are with what is coming
But prophecy is also difficult. Most prophecies are vague. The famous prophecies of the Greek oracle at Delphi are examples. Once the oracle told a king that if he went into battle, he would destroy a great empire. He assumed it was the empire of his enemy, went to war, and was defeated. The kingdom that was destroyed was his own, but it just as easily could have been the other way around. Most prophecies simply do not come to pass.
Jesus’ disciples were as curious about the future as ourselves, and the questions they asked about it were the occasion for Jesus’ famous teaching about the last things recorded in Matthew 24 and 25. It is called the Olivet Discourse because it was spoken on the Mount of Olives. It is the last of the six collections of Jesus’ teachings in this gospel: chapters 5-7, 10, 13, 18, 23 and 24-25. It is an important part of the gospel, but it is also a passage that, together with its parallels in Mark 13 and Luke 21, has puzzled and divided commentators all through the long history of the church.
Out of this chapter, its parallels and other specifically prophetic sections of the Bible have come a diversity of eschatological schemes. The major divisions are known as pre-millennialism, post-millennialism and a-millennialism. But there is also historic pre-millennialism and a view known as preterism that is becoming popular in some Reformed circles at the present time. Preterism is the view that all or nearly all the events foretold in Matthew 24 and 25, as well as other passages (like the book of Revelation), have already come to pass and that all we have to look forward to is the end of the world and the final judgment.
This is not the place to discuss all these views. But we will touch on some of them as we try to understand what Jesus was teaching in this final collection of his teachings in Matthew’s gospel.
The place to begin is with the disciples’ double question in verse 3 : “Tell us” they said, “when will this happen, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age”
This was a natural query for them to have raised in view of two things they had heard Jesus say. In the first two verses of this chapter they had called Jesus’ attention to the large buildings of the temple complex and had heard Jesus predict Jerusalem’s destruction. “Do you see all these things” he asked. “I tell you the truth, not one stone here will be left on another; everyone will be thrown down” (v.2). But just before this, at the end of that terrible list of woes spoken to Jerusalem’s religious leaders (reported in Matthew 23), Jesus had spoken of his departure, saying to the citizens of Jerusalem, “You will not see me again until you say, Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord ‘” (Matthew 23:39).
It was natural for the disciples to have put those two together. They probably associated his prediction of the city’s destruction with his words about his return. But these were still two separate questions and they came from separate contexts: first, when will Jerusalem be destroyed? and, second, what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age? Matthew has both questions, and Jesus answers them separately.
In fact, that seems to be the main point of the passage. The disciples may have associated the fall Jerusalem with Christ’s coming and the end of the world, as I said. But Jesus did not want them to assume that these two matters are necessarily linked together. On the contrary, although Jerusalem would fall quickly, within forty or so years of his prediction, the disciples were not to regard either it or other historical disasters, however terrible, as signs of his return. His return would be without warning, and what they needed to be concerned about was being ready for it whenever it might come.
What is the Olivet discourse and why is it named that?
Why is prophecy considered puzzling?
What two comments does Jesus make that sparked the disciples’ questions?
Why do you think that people are so interested in knowing the future?
Do you read the Bible seeking to understand God’s Word? God wants us to think and act biblically which requires thoughtful study of the Bible.