With this post I enter into a conversation in which much ink has been spilled debating the nuances of these statements of Jesus. The passage in consideration is Matthew 24 which is often referred to as the Olivet Discourse. In Matthew’s Gospel this discourse is the fifth and final speech of Jesus before his Passion Week began. The majority of the chapter is filled with terrible visions of war and famines and earthquakes. Many readers who read this passage believe these events to describe the timeframe that will occur in our future, immediately preceding Christ’s return. This is called a Futurist interpretation. And I have to confess this is a position I held for quite some time. One of the great challenges with this futurist interpretation of Matthew 24 is Jesus words towards the end when he says:
Truly, I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all these things take place.Matthew 24:34 (ESV)
Those word by Jesus at the end of the Olivet Discourse have always troubled me. If we believe this entire chapter is speaking of events that will happen in our future, how do we justify Jesus’ words that they were to take place in His direct disciple’s generation. I have seen a number of efforts to spiritualize Jesus’ words in that verse or to somehow make them mean something other than what they seem to say at face value. And I do not mean to dismiss those efforts as they are worthy efforts. And yet personally, they leave me unconvinced. If not the physical return of Christ (which obviously has not happened yet), what could Jesus have been referring to?
Let’s go back to the beginning of the chapter. In the opening of the chapter, Jesus points to the actual temple that was in Jerusalem and says to his disciples, “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 (Matt. 24:2).” That particular statement was an audacious statement of prophecy. The temple in Jerusalem was one of the most magnificent structures in the known world at the time. And yet Jesus prophesied that it would be torn down stone by stone.
His disciples naturally proceed to ask the right question, “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 want to know when this momentous event of the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem will take place. And then they use the fascinating language of “the end of the age” to describe that event. What did the disciples mean by this phrase? It certainly does not have to be interpreted or understood as “the end of the world.” Rather it seems they were associating the destruction of the temple with the closing of an epoch, an end to a certain period of time, and the beginning of another.
Jesus responds to their question in quite apocalyptic language describing events and circumstances that to an uninformed reader sound like they are events that have not yet taken place in human history. However, with a closer reading of history many are startled to learn that history in fact played itself out exactly as Jesus said it would in the exact time frame (within one generation) that Jesus said it would.
The physical temple in Jerusalem was destroyed in AD 70 by Roman Legions underneath General Titus. The ruins of that temple, the scattered stones that Jesus foretold, are literally still present in Jerusalem today. Historians from that time wrote in detail of what took place during the attack. Comparing historians notes of the destruction in Jerusalem to Jesus’ words in Matthew 24 is remarkable. Below are just a few key comparisons if only to stir you to read more on this topic elsewhere.
Jesus claimed there would be “false Christs” leading up to the temple’s destruction. Indeed the historian Josephus writes writes of a number of false claims to messiah and false claims of prophecy in the years leading up to the destruction. See Josephus’ Antiquities 20.97-99.
Jesus claimed of “wars and rumors of wars,” as well as “earthquakes and famines.” When Jesus said that statement to his disciples it was during a time of incredible peace. And yet in the decades after Jesus death there were plenty of rumors of war taking place. Particularly the in years leading up to AD 70, the Jewish revolt took place and rumors of coming war would have been present all throughout the city of Jerusalem. Similarly history records a number of earthquakes in the years leading up to AD 70, one particularly that struck Jerusalem in AD 67. As Jesus said “these were but the beginning of the birth pains.“
Jesus 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 let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains.” The term “abomination of desolation” is a reference to the prophet Daniel who also spoke of such an event (Daniel 9:26-27). Notice that Jesus talks about one who is, “standing in the holy place,” a reference to the Holy of Holies, the inner room of the temple where only the High Priest was permitted once a year. This is a clear reference to Titus invading the city of Jerusalem, walking into the temple, and taking the temple artifacts from the inner rooms away with him. Jesus told his disciples that everyone should flee at that point, and Josephus records that many did exactly that, they fled to the hilltops and to other towns. In fact, later traditions record that it was the Christians living in Jerusalem at the time, who had been “commanded by an oracle” to flee Jerusalem in advance and fled across the Jordan, literally fulfilling Jesus’ words for his followers to flee the city (See Eusebius, Church History, 3, 5, 3).
Verses 29-31 are certainly the most intense verses of this prophecy. Jesus describes, “stars falling from heaven,” and “the powers of heaven will be shaken,” and “the sign of the Son of Man” will appear in heaven (a clear reference to Daniel 7:13-14). These verses certainly seem like they could easily fit into a futuristic schema of the return of Christ. And yet, it seems that Jesus is borrowing imagery from the prophet Isaiah. Isaiah first wrote in Isaiah 13 that, “the sun will be darkened” and “stars of heaven” will not give their light, as well as “heaven rolled up like a scroll.” Isaiah used that prophetic judgment language to describe the destruction of Babylon. It was metaphorical apocalyptic language describing a horrendous moment in human history. Isn’t it possible that Jesus is referencing these older prophecies about the fall of Babylon to describe the soon to come destruction of Jerusalem.
If such language was appropriate to describe the end of Babylon or Edom under the judgment of God, why should it not equally describe God’s judgment on Jerusalem’s temple and the power structure which it symbolized?… And when such a power structure collapses, another is needed to take its place this will be supplied in vv. 30-31 with its vision of the enthronement of the Son of Man and the gathering of his chosen people from all over the world.R.T. France. New International Commentary of the New Testament. Page 922.
What do we make of all of this? Why is this important? First of all, from an apologetic standpoint, Jesus’ pinpoint accurate description of the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem and the timeframe in which it would happen is remarkable. Jesus spoke about what would happen in his future (what is now our past) and it all took place exactly as He said. This should cause tremendous trust in the words of Jesus.
Secondly, this adds significance to exactly what took place in Jerusalem on that day in AD 70. Yes, there was a physical toppling of a building. But spiritually, it was an outward expression of a spiritual reality, that the previous “age” had come to its completion. “The end of the age” spoken of by the Apostles, was a reference to the end of the age when God could be found primarily through the Jews in a temple in Jerusalem. That age was torn down stone by stone. In its place a new age has emerged. A new covenant has been formed, “For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the LORD: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people (Jeremiah 31:33).” An age where God is not found in a physical building nor in primarily one people group. But rather God’s Kingdom, by the power of the Holy Spirit which was unleashed at that first Pentecost, continues to gather people of all nations and all tribes under the sun.
What a great passage of Scripture! Man I love the Bible!