Jesus Verse by Verse

an expanded commentary on the Gospel of Matthew

Jesus Verse by Verse...

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Digression 24: Does The Olivet Prophecy Have A Break In Fulfillment?

Some have tried to impose a break in the Olivet prophecy between Lk.21:24 and v.25, saying that only after v.24 the prophecy applies to the last days. The following problems have to be tackled if this is done:
- Mt. 24:14 is located in the first half of Lk. 21 (i.e. before v.24, in the so-called AD70 section): "this Gospel of the Kingdom shall be preached in all the world for a witness unto all nations; and then shall the end come". The first century fulfillment of this was only typical of the major, latter day fulfillment. "The end" can hardly refer to AD70!
- The 'gap' between Lk. 21:24 and 25 is matched by Mk. 13:24: "But in those days, after that tribulation" - there is no room here for a gap of 1900 years! The prophecy flows straight on!
- v.24 is quoting Zech. 12:3 (LXX) concerning the last days.
- In what sense were "the times of the Gentiles" fulfilled in 1967? Plenty of Gentiles, especially in the developing world, are still being baptized.
- The signs of v.9-11 are obviously being fulfilled now and will be to an increasing extent, given the irreversibly worsening world situation.
- V.22 "These be the days of vengeance that all things that are written may be fulfilled" - language of the last days. "All things" were not fulfilled in AD70. also come true. For many readers approaching the Olivet prophecy seriously for the first time, what has been laboured at such length above may seem painfully obvious. It will seem strange to them that some argue so strongly and even aggressively that the Olivet prophecy has no relevance to our days. I have often wondered why there has to be such enthusiasm to disprove this relevance. Is it not something to do with the fact that deep down, far beyond our conscious thought processes, we just can't brook the idea that we could be in for a persecution which will shake our little cosy world inside out?
Valid Interpretation?
We need to examine more carefully how we have used the Olivet prophecy in our preaching to the world. For ease of reference we will stick mainly with Luke 21. As with many Bible prophecies, this had an initial fulfillment in AD70 as well as a latter day one. The clarity of its reference to the last days before Christ's return is frequently hammered home by Christian preachers. Time and again we put the graphs on the screen, show the ghastly slides from Oxfam- and then read Luke 21:9-11: "Wars and commotions... nation shall rise against nation...great earthquakes, famines and pestilences... fearful sights and great signs". And yes, we make a convincing case. The lecturer then does a dramatic Biblical leap-frog to v.24: " Jerusalem shall be trodden down of the Gentiles, until the times of the Gentiles be fulfilled" - cue to talk about the present position of Israel. Next, v.25,26: "Distress of nations with perplexity, men's hearts failing them for fear" - plenty to talk about there. "And then shall they see the Son of man coming" (v.27)- the real crunch point of the lecture.
Now there is nothing wrong with interpreting Luke 21 this way. Only someone blind to reason could deny that there is a marked correspondence between this chapter and the present world condition. But what we are now seeing is but a prelude to the real time of trouble and persecution: "Wars... famines... pestilences and earthquakes...all these are the beginning of (the) birth pangs". These labour pains will result in the glorious birth of the Spirit into the Kingdom (Mt. 24:6-8). But we must not overlook Lk. 21:12-23, which are all about the persecution of God's people "before all these (things)", v.12. It seems that the real time of world crisis will only be seen after a period of active persecution, and we are therefore only experiencing a very small fulfillment of these prophecies now. In the same way, we quote Ezekiel's prophecies regarding the fruitfulness of Israel and the return of Israel in the Kingdom as having some fulfillment now, in the present re-establishment of the Jewish state.
The greatest signs
The watchful student will note that the persecution of God's people spoken of in Lk. 21 is hard to slot in as coming before the earthquakes and famines in the parallel records of Mark 13 and Matthew 24. A glance at Strong's concordance will reveal that the Greek for "before" can also mean 'more importantly than'. Now this fits the lock even better. Jesus is saying 'The greatest indication that I will soon be back is when "they shall lay their hands on you and persecute you" - a far more important and obvious sign to you who suffer it than earthquakes, famines etc...'. So if there is no period of persecution, will there be a second coming? Notice that in v.12-20 Jesus is not talking to the natural Jews but to the believers. They were to be delivered up to the synagogues (i.e. Jewish powers), and the descriptions of being given the right word to speak in courts, and being betrayed and put to death, find ample fulfillment in the record of the early church in Acts. It is at this time that "ye shall see Jerusalem compassed with armies" (v.20), a situation clearly foretold in the prophets as occurring before the second coming. It could be that the latter day witness to Israel that takes place within the land results in the Jewish synagogues brutally persecuting the preachers (Lk. 21:12). Orthodox Jewish response to some Christian preaching makes this not hard to believe.
"Jerusalem shall be trodden down of the Gentiles, until the times of the Gentiles be fulfilled" (v.24) is a direct quote from the Septuagint of Zech.12:3. This is a prophecy of the latter day invasion of Jerusalem just prior to Christ's intervention. This treading down of Jerusalem is probably that predicted in Zech.14:1,2 also. "The times of the Gentiles" connects with the 42 months downtreading of Jerusalem in Rev.11:2, thus suggesting a 3.5 year period of Gentile domination of Jerusalem in the last days- and an identical period of persecution of the saints?
We have tended to think that wars, famines, plagues etc. are the clearest signs of the second coming. Yet this view of the Olivet prophecy fails to appreciate the context. The preceding Lk. 20 and Mt. 23 concern the weaknesses of the ecclesia of Israel at the Lord's time. The parables which follow directly on from the Olivet prophecy are all concerning the state of the ecclesia at the time of the Lord's coming. The prophecy itself has the state of the ecclesia as its main focus. Again, notice how the Lord turned the disciples' question round. They were so worried about when the temple would be destroyed. He gave them some relevant signs, but basically said: 'Don't worry so much about the physical temple. Watch for the well being of the ecclesia, the spiritual temple. Weep not for the temple, but for yourselves. Don't get too caught up with the feeling that the world / age has come to an end when the temple's destroyed; look instead for the day of my coming'.
- V.25,26 were fulfilled prior to AD70, not just in the last days. The description of Heaven and earth passing away is highly applicable to the ending of the Jewish heavens and earth in AD70; 2 Peter 3 uses similar language about this.
- The suggested break in fulfilment between AD70 and the last days runs into particular difficulty at Mk. 13:24: "In those days (of v.6-23, which some limit to AD70 alone), after that tribulation, the sun shall be darkened..." - i.e. the tribulation of the first part of the prophecy is in the "days" of the second part of it. Thus the entire prophecy must have reference to both AD70 and the last days.
So it appears that we have to face the uncanny conclusion: if the whole of the Olivet prophecy applies to the last days, then the verses about persecution of the saints must likewise.