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THE OLIVET PROPHECY

One of the greatest sources of misunderstanding preached in the end-time Churches of God pertains to the Olivet prophecy, found in Matthew 24, Mark 13 and Luke 21.

In this prophecy, given by Christ just a few days before His death, the destruction of Jerusalem is foretold. Matthew describes this event as "great tribulation" (Matt 24:21).

 

Whereas many Bible Commentaries written in centuries past make it clear that the general consensus used to be that this prophecy was for the most part fulfilled in the first century AD, in the last 150 or so years the Churches of God (COG) have instead projected the "great tribulation" into the future.

 

Israel and Jerusalem were besieged and conquered in the time period of 67 to 73AD, when first a large Roman army led by general Vespasian attacked Israel, and subsequently his son, Titus, took command and totally destroyed Jerusalem and the Temple in 70AD, 40 years after the Jews had rejected and killed Christ. This war is usually referred to as "The Jewish War" or "The First Jewish Revolt". Its final battle was the 73AD conquest of the last remaining Jewish fighters at the fortress of Masada, in the south-east of Israel near the Dead Sea.

A careful study of the three accounts of the Olivet Prophecy will show that its primary topic is this first century Roman campaign.

Before going through the text of Matthew 24, I will first give some explanatory notes to enable better understanding of the terminology and context of this prophecy. Some of these notes are drawn from the page "FULFILLED PROPHECIES".

[1] In Luke 21:23 the term "great distress" is used instead of "great tribulation" as found in Matt 24:21. Luke says that the "great distress" would affect "the land" (which he identifies as "Judea") and "this people" (the people of Judea, i.e. the Jews). He continues by stating that the "great distress" would be followed by "this people" being led away into captivity.

Luke further states, in Lk 21:24, that after the "great distress" Jerusalem would remain under foreign rule until "the times of the Gentiles" (2520 years of Jerusalem being under the control of Gentile nations, which had begun with Jerusalem's capture by Nebuchadnezzar) would continue until they came to their appointed end.

Luke's account fits exactly with a "great tribulation" coming upon the Jews at the hands of the Romans in the first century.

[2] Some people want to explain the "great tribulation" by claiming duality, thinking there is a second, end time fulfilment, in addition to the original, first century fulfilment.

However, Christ said the exact opposite. He said "For then there will be great tribulation, such as has not been since the beginning of the world until this time, no, nor ever shall be". How can that be dual?

[3] Much is made of Matt 24:22 which states "And unless those days were shortened, no flesh would be saved; but for the elect’s sake those days will be shortened". The phrase "no flesh" is explained by the COG's as applying to the whole world. As noted above, however, Luke 21:23 shows that this calamity was to befall "the land" (Judea) and "this people" (the Jews), rather than the whole world. All people had to do to escape this calamity was to leave "Judea" and "flee to the mountains" (Matt 24:16), which is exactly what the Christians did when an initial Roman assault on Jerusalem in 66AD was rebuffed, giving them time to flee and save their lives.

[4] Great confusion also results from misinterpreting the word "end" in Matt 24:14, which states "this gospel of the kingdom will be preached in all the world as a witness to all the nations, and then the end will come". The commentaries of Matthew Henry, Adam Clarke, and Jamieson, Fausset, Brown all agree that this verse is about the New Covenant gospel going out into the world through the preaching of the apostles, after which all things associated with the Old Covenant in Jerusalem were destroyed and came to an "end" in 70AD. Hence Christ logically continues in the next verse "therefore, when you see the abomination of desolation, spoken of by Daniel the prophet, standing in the holy place" (Matt 24:15), i.e. "Jerusalem surrounded by armies" (Luke 21:20), "then know that its destruction is near" (rest of verse 20).

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Even if one were to argue that the prophecy requires the gospel to have first been preached to an audience called "all the world", note that the Biblical writers already in their time considered the gospel to have gone "throughout the whole world" (Rom 1:8), been "made known to all nations" (Rom 16:26), "in all the world" (Col 1:6), and been "preached unto every creature under heaven" (Col 1:23).

[5] An additional source of misunderstanding involves the phrase "the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light; the stars will fall from heaven" in Matt 24:29. The Churches of God commonly take this sentence literally. However, in Genesis 37 the patriarch Joseph has a dream involving these heavenly bodies, and his father Jacob interprets these three elements as figuratively representing Joseph's father, mother and brothers. In Isa 13:10 and Eze 32:7 we likewise see the sun, moon and the stars used figuratively in regard to the demise of nations.

[6] Matt 24:29 continues by stating "the powers of the heavens will be shaken", which interpreters, again, usually fail to see as a figurative statement. When Christ was on trial before Pilate, He told this Roman ruler that he, Pilate, only had power because it had been granted to him by God, who of course dwells in "the heavens". God shows us in the prophecies of Daniel that the Gentile powers that would successively conquer and rule Jerusalem have been pre-ordained by Him. Thayer's Lexicon says that the word translated here as "shaken" should be read as "will be caused to totter".

Therefore the phrase "the powers of the heavens will be shaken" should be understood as "the ongoing Gentile powers (plural), ordained by God, will rise and fall".

This is exactly in line with what Luke writes at this point in the Olivet Prophecy, where Lk 21:24 says "Jerusalem will be trodden down by the Gentiles until the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled" (see the page "THE TIMES OF THE GENTILES").

[7] Another verse in the Olivet prophecy that causes modern interpreters to fall into error is Matt 24:34, "Assuredly, I say to you, this generation will by no means pass away till all these things take place". The term "this generation" is usually, incorrectly, understood to mean our generation today. However, the Gospels record 23 occurrences of Christ using the word "generation" apart from the Olivet prophecy, and every one of them pertains to the people He was talking to in His day. In Matthew alone the word is used ten times. Here are seven of these occurrences:​

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(i) "But to what shall I liken this generation?" (Matt 11:16)

(ii) "An evil and adulterous generation seeks after a sign and no sign will be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah" (Matt 12:39)

(iii) "The men of Nineveh will rise up in the judgement with this generation and condemn it, because they repented at the preaching of Jonah; and indeed a greater than Jonah is here" (Matt 12:41)

(iv) "The queen of the South will rise up in the judgement with this generation .... " (Matt 12:42)

(v) "So shall it also be with this wicked generation" (Matt 12:45)

(vi) "O faithless and perverse generation, how long shall I be with you? How long shall I bear with you?" (Matt 17:17)

(vii) "Serpents, brood of vipers! How can you escape the condemnation of hell? Therefore, indeed, I send you prophets, wise men, and scribes: some of them you will kill and crucify, and some of them you will scourge in your synagogues and persecute from city to city, that on you may come all the righteous blood shed on the earth, from the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah, son of Berechiah, whom you murdered between the temple and the altar. Assuredly, I say to you, all these things will come upon this generation" (Matt 23:33-36)

In Luke 17:25 we find Christ saying about Himself, "but first He must suffer many things and be rejected by this generation". He was speaking to that generation of Jews of His day, who rejected Him as their Messiah and caused Him to suffer a painful death.

So we see that the term "this generation" in Matt 24:34 must apply to the generation Christ was addressing at that time. What causes confusion in Matthew's account is that whereas verses 1-29 foretell the calamities that were about to befall Israel and Jerusalem in the first century, verses 30-31 refer to Christ's second coming. After a parable in verses 32-33, Christ states in verse 34 that "this generation will by no means pass away till all these things take place". People have mistakenly assumed that "all these things" includes Christ's second coming.

However, what we find here is that a particular form of literary construction has been used. A well known example of this is found in Rev 20:4-5 "And I saw thrones, and they sat on them, and judgement was committed to them. Then I saw the souls of those who had been beheaded for their witness to Jesus and for the word of God, who had not worshiped the beast or his image, and had not received his mark on their foreheads or on their hands. And they lived and reigned with Christ for a thousand years. But the rest of the dead did not live again until the thousand years were finished. This is the first resurrection". The final sentence "this is the first resurrection" does not apply to the statement "but the rest of the dead did not live again until the thousand years were finished", but rather it refers back to the main subject, i.e. those who "reigned with Christ for a thousand years".

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This same literary construction is also used in Matthew's Olivet prophecy. Matthew 24:1-29 refers to the destruction of the Jewish nation and Jerusalem. Verses 30-33 describe further chronological developments from that point in history, but verse 34 refers back to the original topic.

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[8] In addition to all the above information, the text of Luke 21:23-24 says that the "great distress" or "great tribulation" happens before the "times of the Gentiles" come to an end. As the "times of the Gentiles" came to an end in the 20th century when the Jews got their country back, the "great tribulation" cannot still be in the future.

Let's now look at the Olivet Prophecy in Matthew 24. My annotations are in gold.

1 Then Jesus went out and departed from the temple, and His disciples came up to show Him the buildings of the temple. 2 And Jesus 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.” 3 Now 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?”

4 And Jesus answered and said to them: “Take heed that no one deceives you. 5 For many will come in My name, saying, ‘I am the Christ,’ and will deceive many (the NT shows us many instances where already in those early days a false message was being preached in Christ's name. II Cor 11:13, Gal 1:6-9, Acts 15:5 and Rev 2:2 are just some of these examples)6 And you will hear of wars and rumours of wars (between the years of Christ's death and the 70AD destruction of Jerusalem, Herod Antipas, king of Galilee and Perea, went to war with Aretas, king of Nabatea; numbers of large scale riots took place in various Jewish cities between ethnic Greeks and Jews, killing tens of thousands; and a civil war raged between Zealot "Sicarii" and the Roman occupiers of Judea and their sympathisers). See that you are not troubled; for all these things must come to pass, but the end is not yet. 

 

7 For nation will rise against nation (ethnic rivalry, as above), and kingdom against kingdom (as above). And there will be famines (Acts 11:28-29 mentions famine coming to Judea. Paul collecting donations for the Jerusalem brethren confirms this), pestilences (a result of famine), and earthquakes in various places. 8 All these are the beginning of sorrows. 9 Then they will deliver you up to tribulation and kill you, and you will be hated by all nations for My name’s sake (the book of Acts gives ample examples of these things). 10 And then many will be offended, will betray one another, and will hate one another. 11 Then many false prophets will rise up and deceive many (the Jewish false prophet mentioned in Acts 13:6-10 would have been one of many). 12 And because lawlessness (among those professing Christianity) will abound (i.e. the false Christian "gospel" of "licentiousness" (Jude 1:4), teaching that Christ had supposedly done away with the law) the love of many will grow cold (love is the keeping of God's law (I Jn 5:3). Rev 2:4 shows that the condition of love growing cold started in the first Church era).

 

13 But he who endures to the end (remains faithful until the Roman attack on the Holy Land begins) shall be saved. 14 And this gospel of the kingdom will be preached in all the world as a witness to all the nations (will have gone out to nations far and wide), and then the end (of the Jewish state) will come (in 70AD). 15 Therefore when you see the ‘abomination of desolation,’ spoken of by Daniel the prophet, standing in the holy place” (whoever reads, let him understand) (Luke here states "but when you see Jerusalem surrounded by armies, then know its desolation is near"), 16 then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains. 17 Let him who is on the housetop not go down to take anything out of his house. 18 And let him who is in the field not go back to get his clothes. 19 But woe to those who are pregnant and to those who are nursing babies in those days! 20 And pray (be close to God) that your flight may not be in winter (not be delayed till winter, as the 66AD assault on Jerusalem, which was the cue to flee, occurred in the autumn, which Christ obviously foreknew) or on the Sabbath (as it is a holy day of rest).

21 For then there will be great tribulation, such as has not been since the beginning of the world until this time, no, nor ever shall be. 22 And unless those days were shortened, no flesh would be saved; but for the elect’s sake (Mark here crucially adds "whom He chose", which is in the past tense. Unlike in verses 24 and 31, where the "elect" are faithful Christians, "the elect .... whom He chose" (Mark 13:20) are the physical elect, of whom the Jews at the time of this event were a remnant) those days will be shortened (Titus' officers wanted to starve the inhabitants of Jerusalem in a long, drawn out siege, which was a common tactic. Titus, however, after waiting some time, decided to lift the siege and attack, as a decisive victory was desirable to shore up his father's role as the newly installed emperor. Hence, many Jews survived). 23 Then if anyone says to you, ‘Look, here is the Christ!’ or ‘There!’ do not believe it. 24 For false christs and false prophets will rise and show great signs and wonders to deceive, if possible, even the elect (the three Jewish factional leaders, Simon bar Giora, John of Gischala, and Eleazar ben Simon, who led the revolt against the Romans, and also fought each other in Jerusalem until its 70AD capture, are examples of such deceivers). 25 See, I have told you beforehand.

 

26 Therefore if they say to you, ‘Look, He is in the desert!’ do not go out; or ‘Look, He is in the inner rooms!’ do not believe it. 27 For as the lightning comes from the east and flashes to the west, so also will the coming of the Son of Man be (Christ's return, when it occurs, will be obvious to all). 28 For (But) wherever the carcass (the remnant of the Jewish nation) is, there the eagles (the Romans) will be gathered together (contrary to the belief of the Jews and their leaders who thought God would liberate them, the Jewish state, through its rejection of Christ, had become spiritually dead, or in other words, a "carcass". Consequently it was totally destroyed by the Romans, whose national emblem was the eagle). 29 Immediately after the tribulation of those days the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light; the stars will fall from heaven (the destruction of the Jewish nation, Jerusalem, and the Temple, caused God's light to stop shining on His people and the Holy Land), and the powers of the heavens will be shaken (the Gentile powers foretold and ordained by God will rise and fall in their continuous rule over Jerusalem. Luke 21:24 states at this point of the narrative "Jerusalem will be trodden down by the Gentiles until the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled").

30 Then the sign of the Son of Man will appear in heaven (the return of the Jews to rule Jerusalem, and the setting up of the Jewish State in 1948, after the "seven times", or 2520 years, of the punishment of the Jews was completed), and then (very soon now) all the tribes of the earth (the land of Israel) will mourn (Zech 12:10 says "they shall look upon me whom they have pierced, and they shall mourn for him, as one mourneth for his only son", and they will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory (the second coming of Christ). 31 And He will send His angels with a great sound of a trumpet (the seventh trumpet), and they will gather together His elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other (the gathering of the firstfruits at Christ's return - I Thes 4:16-17).

32 Now learn this parable from the fig tree: When its branch has already become tender and puts forth leaves, you know that summer is near (Luke 21:28-31 says "your redemption draws near" and "the Kingdom is near") (This is a general principle: no matter which time period God's faithful people live in, when they see Christ's prophecies being fulfilled, they know their place in His Kingdom is getting ever nearer). 33 So you also (the people in Christ's time), when you see all these things (the things described by Him, which were to precede the destruction of Jerusalem), know that it is near—at the doors!

34 Assuredly, I say to you, this generation (the generation of Christ's day) will by no means pass away till all these things (the core of Christ's message about the events leading up to and including the "great tribulation" and the destruction of Jerusalem) take place. 35 Heaven and earth will pass away, but My words will by no means pass away. 36 But of that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, but My Father only (Christ's words reveal that He has much knowledge of the events that are about to come to pass, but the fine details of prophetic fulfilment are in the hands of God the Father).

37 But (here Christ continues the prophecy of His second coming, which He touched on in verses 30-31) as the days of Noah were, so also will the coming of the Son of Man be (verses 37-51 are mirrored by those of Luke 17:22-37, which were spoken by Christ some time before the Olivet Prophecy, but where Christ also elaborates on the events surrounding His second coming as "so shall the Son of Man be in His day" Lk 17:24). 38 For as in the days before the flood, they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day that Noah entered the ark, 39 and did not know until the flood came and took them all away, so also will the coming of the Son of Man be. 40 Then two men will be in the field: one will be taken (by the angels gathering the "elect" at Christ's return) and the other left. 41 Two women will be grinding at the mill: one will be taken (as above) and the other left. 42 Watch therefore, for you do not know what hour your Lord is coming.

43 But know this, that if the master of the house had known what hour the thief would come, he would have watched and not allowed his house to be broken into. 44 Therefore you also be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect. 45 Who then is a faithful and wise servant, whom his master made ruler over his household, to give them food in due season? 46 Blessed is that servant whom his master, when he comes, will find so doing (or blessed is that servant who continues to do so till the end of his life). 47 Assuredly, I say to you that he will make him ruler over all his goods. 48 But if that evil servant says in his heart, ‘My master is delaying his coming,’ 49 and begins to beat his fellow servants, and to eat and drink with the drunkards (spiritual drunkards), 50 the master of that servant will come on a day when he is not looking for him and at an hour that he is not aware of (meaning he will die in an unprepared spiritual state, or be alive in such a state at Christ's return), 51 and will cut him in two and appoint him his portion with the hypocrites. There shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth.

So we see that, contrary to what the majority of COG's are teaching, most of the Olivet Prophecy pertains to the destruction of Jerusalem and the Jewish state in the first century, at the hands of the Romans.

At the same time we also see that Christ in this prophecy presents us with one long chronological sequence of events, starting from the first century AD, and ending with His return, almost 2000 years later. 

Consequently it becomes obvious that the common belief in a "great tribulation" just prior to Christ's return is without Scriptural foundation.

Note that the versions of the Olivet Prophecy found in Mark 13 and Luke 21 follow the same outline as Matthew 24, whilst providing a number of significant additional details.

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