by Roger McCay
24 January 2021
Sermon Passage: Matthew 24:1-35
Link to Audio Version
There is quite a bit of confusion as to times and fulfilments of the last days given by Jesus. Lamenting this problem, pastor and author Sam Storms shares a 2010 advertisement, one reflecting and spreading such confusion.
The advertisement is seemingly ubiquitous. It has appeared in virtually every daily newspaper of every major city in the U.S. I most recently saw it in the Sports section of USA Today…. It is, if nothing else, bold and unequivocal in its prediction that Christ is Coming Very Soon! The article proceeds to identify “8 Compelling Reasons” why this is true.
In five of the eight “compelling reasons,” Matthew 24 and the Olivet Discourse of Jesus figure prominently…. For example, the increase of “famines, violence and wars” is allegedly a sign that the return of Christ is near (citing Matt. 24:6–8). The increase in earthquakes is also cited as an indication that the end is near (citing Matt. 24:7). The explosion of cults and counterfeit spirituality (Matt. 24:24), as well as the deceptive activity of Antichrist (Matt. 24:15) are all cited as infallible signs of the impending second coming.
We’ve all seen such things. There always seems to be someone pointing to this or that as a sign that Jesus is coming soon. The problem, however, is that Jesus did not speak of these things as signs to point to his second coming (his Parousia), at the end of time. Rather, they refer to events that occurred long ago, particularly from AD. 33 culminating in the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70.
The sermons for today and next week are intended to provide a sketch of the vital aspects of Jesus’ prophecies, as given in The Olivet Discourse in Matthew 24, concerning what was to come and what is yet to come. I had meant to preach the whole discourse in one sermon, but due to time considerations, it seemed best to divide it into two. Also, note that Jesus’ discourse is recorded in Mark 13 and Luke 21, with some variations.
My hope is that this rundown of the discourse will provide the benefit of a basic biblical understanding of Jesus’ prophecy, arming you against false pronouncements and advertisements, like the example I gave a moment ago. The more direct purpose, though, is for this rundown to prepare you and I for our journey through The Apocalypse of John (Revelation), which we will begin, Lord willing, the first week of February.
So, why is it important to start a study in Revelation with the Olivet Discourse? Well, to put it simply, if we have an understanding of the framework of Jesus’ Olivet Discourse, then we have a framework for understanding Revelation. This is because, in many notable ways, Revelation is John’s Olivet Discourse. His is the only gospel that does not include the discourse. And while his Apocalypse was revealed to him at a later time than Olivet, the parallels are significant.
My premise to you, then, is that the Discourse provides a key to understanding the Book of Revelation. With that key in mind, we can approach our study of Revelation with confidence that the book will open to us in a way we can understand. Dispelling confusion here will help clear up much confusion, as we embark on that journey.
The Olivet discourse, in Matt. 24-25, was given on the heels of the dramatic events at the temple in proceeding chapters. Towards the end of his visit, in Matt. 23, Jesus gave a “scathing denunciation” of the Jewish religious leaders. Immediately prior to our passage today, in 23:35, Jesus told them that judgment was coming upon them for “all the righteous blood shed on the earth.” He then tells them when in v. 36, “Truly, I say to you, all these things will come upon this generation.” Judgment was coming soon. Jesus then laments over Jerusalem in v. 38, saying, “See, your house is left to you desolate,” referring to the temple.
Illustrating his point, Jesus then departs the Temple, in Matt. 24:1, heading to the Mount of Olives. His movements recall Ezekiel’s vision of the Lord abandoning the Temple and Jerusalem, to then stand on the mountain to the east of the city, which is the Mount of Olives (Ezek. 10:18–19; 11:22–23). In Jesus’ departure, the Lord had abandoned the temple (in a literal and symbolic sense). It was no longer God’s house, thus it was left desolate and abandoned by God. It was now just the house of the Jews, filled with the corruptions Jesus had just denounced, waiting on the doom that was coming upon them, in their generation.
Along the route to the Mount of Olives, his disciples (perhaps perplexed and disturbed at his outburst in the temple and seeking reassurance) pointed out to him the magnificence of the temple, which was at the height of the city, incredibly beautiful and awe-inspiring—one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. Yet Jesus did not reassure them by confirming the temple’s beauty or seeming indomitable permanence. Rather, he crushed that idea. Verse 2: “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.”
A bit later, up on the mountain, the disciples ask Jesus about his shocking statement, “Tell us, when will these things be, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?” This question was really two questions, “when,” and “what.” Kenneth Gentry observes, “By these “when” and “what” questions they are asking about the time of the temple’s destruction and the sign of his coming which heralds the temple’s end—which they wrongly associate with the end of the world.” Like Jews of their time, the disciples, as John Calvin suggests, “believed … that the temple would stand till the end of time, and having this opinion deeply rooted in their minds, they did not suppose that, while the building of the world stood, the temple could fall to ruins.”  So, their question shows their confusion, equating the temple’s destruction with the end of the present world order (the end of the world) and Jesus’ (whom they knew was the Christ – Matt. 16:13-20) … Jesus’ second coming, his Parousia, bringing in the new world order. So, they were confused, equating the temple’s destruction with the end of the world and the Jesus’ second coming.
Thus, Jesus clears up their confusion in his answers. He first tells them when the temple will be destroyed and the nature of its destruction, including events leading up to it and giving a sign. Then he tells them that, “contrary to their expectations,” 1) his second coming at the end of history will not occur at that time, and 2) that his second coming cannot be anticipated by looking for signs.
In vv. 4-35, Jesus addresses the disciple’s first question of “when.” He describes events leading up to and including the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple. He sketches events of the apostolic age after his ascension in AD 33; through the great tribulation; to be followed by the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70, when he, the glorified Christ, the Son of Man, comes in judgment, inaugurating the church age.
So, when would “these things” be, as they asked? Well, in vv. 32-35, Jesus gives a general timeframe. In v. 34, he proclaims, “Truly, I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all these things take place,” which corresponds to the timeframe given in 23:36.
And what are “all these things? They are the events Jesus had been describing up to that point in the discourse. Jesus was saying that all of those events would take place before the current generation was gone.
But, what does he mean by “this generation”? Well, the term used in Matthew and the other gospels means “those living in Christ’s day” (e.g. Matt. 12:38–39; 16:4; 17:17), and it has the same meaning here. Also, in the Scriptures, a generation “involves roughly twenty-five to forty years.” So, Jesus’ statement provided a concrete timeframe for all that he said would happen up to that point in his discourse.
What events do “all these things” include? In vv. 4-14, Jesus announces various events that will take place from the time of his ascension until the destruction of the temple and the city, much of which took place during the time of the book of The Acts of the Apostles.
Speaking to general events of temptations, sufferings, and tribulations in vv. 4-8, Jesus calls them the “the beginnings of birth pangs.” These sufferings are not signs that the end is nigh, but the beginnings of birth pangs, which have occurred throughout history. Jesus uses biblical apocalyptic imagery here, speaking to a period of suffering due to God’s wrath—e.g. Isa. 13:8, Jer. 6:24; also Rom. 8:22, which says, “For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now.” Historical records further confirm the occurrence of each portent Jesus mentions to various extents during that time—false prophets, wars, national conflicts, famines, and earthquakes. These would be the background troubles in the world, framing the personal tribulations they would be forced to endure.
Thus, as Jesus warns in vv. 9-14, in the midst of these general events, there will be tribulations specific to the disciples (who would then be apostles) and the church—delivered up, arrested; put to death, martyred; hated by the nations, persecuted; also dealing with apostasy in the church; betrayal; false prophets; and many who fell away, as their love for Christ grew cold (cf. Rev. 2:4). Their experience of many of these tribulations are recorded in the book of Acts, and some of them are mentioned in the epistles. History shows us persecution by the Jews and persecution by Rome (the Roman Empire) provided regular tribulations for the early Christians, causing much turmoil in the church. Nero’s persecutions were particularly brutal. Indeed, he ordered Peter and Paul’s death around AD 66-67. By some accounts, six of the apostles were martyred prior to AD 70, seven if you include James the brother of Jesus. It is also interesting to note the correspondence that these portents have with the first five seals in Rev. 6:2-9—false Christs, wars, famine, death (including “pestilence” from Luke 21:11), and martyrdom.
Yet despite general and personal temptations and tribulations, Jesus’ call is to faithfully endure, giving the promise of “the ultimate spiritual security,” to those who persevere “for as long as it takes.” Resulting from such faithful perseverance of the apostles and the church, the gospel of Christ’s kingdom would be proclaimed to the whole world (v. 14).
Consider for a second, though. Was the gospel actually proclaimed to the whole world before AD 70? Some would argue no, pointing to the Western Hemisphere as an example. However, in the way the term “the whole world” is meant, similar to the term “the end of the earth” in Acts 1:8, the Bible answers “yes.” The Apostle Paul unquestionably reports that the gospel had been proclaimed to the whole world. In Rom. 10:18, written about AD 57, Paul affirms that the gospel has been proclaimed “to all the earth” and “to the ends of the world.” Then in Col. 1:6, writing from prison in Rome around AD 62 (Acts 28), Paul speaks of the gospel, “which has come to you, as indeed in the whole world it is bearing fruit and increasing.” Then in v. 23 he speaks of “the hope of the gospel that you heard, which has been proclaimed in all creation under heaven.” Thus, fulfilling Matt. 24:14, and also the Lord’s task given to his apostles in Acts 1:8, the gospel had spread from Jerusalem, to Judea and Samaria, and to the whole world.
Jesus then, in vv. 15-28, reveals a sign that would signal to his followers that God’s judgment upon Israel, the destruction of the city and temple, was about to happen. It is the sign of the abomination of desolation. This sign would be something the Lord’s people in Judea would surely recognize, so they could then react by fleeing, hopefully to escape the great tribulation. This reference to the “abomination of desolation,” in v. 15, harkens back to the prophecy in Dan. 9:7, 11:31, and 12:11. Many scholars think, and it seems likely, that the prophesied event in Daniel occurred in 167 BC, with the profanation of the altar of burnt offering, in the temple of Jerusalem, by a representative of Antiochus IV, Epiphanes. You can read about it in 1st Macc. 1:54–59 and 6:7. Now, if that is the correct historical fulfillment of the Daniel prophecy, Jesus is then saying there will be another “abomination of desolation,” something the first atrocity foreshadowed. There are various suggestions as to what this might be.
It is best not to be dogmatic about what event is the actual “abomination of desolation,” as several reasonable options are suggested by scholars. Jesus doesn’t spell it out. As it was, the Jewish War raged from AD 67-70. In June, 69, Vespasian marched upon Jerusalem, taking his Army up to its very walls. But he did not stay long, as he had his eyes on a bigger prize. In, July, the Roman Army crowned him emperor, so he left Judea for the civil war against his rival, emperor Vitellius. In Luke’s version of the discourse (21:20), Jesus expresses a way to know how to identify the sign of God’s judgment, “But when you see Jerusalem surrounded by armies, then know that its desolation has come near.” So, the Christians were probably alerted by Vespasian’s armies to look for the abomination of desolation, based on Jesus’ Words. Perhaps, as the Roman armies pulled back for a short time, that was when “those days were cut short,” for the sake of the elect (v. 22). Jerusalem got a short reprieve, while Vespasian passed the armies in Judea to his son Titus. But, in April, AD 70, Titus began “his final march to Jerusalem” to eventually surround and cut off the city. Josephus, a Jewish historian who was there, records all sorts of profanations that happened within the temple at the time, including criminals entering the Holy of Holies, murders within the temple, and other desecrations. Plainly, the temple was desolate, the Lord was gone, and what had been holy was desecrated by abominations—the abomination of desolation.
[Recommendation for reading: Josephus, Wars of the Jews (chs. 4-7), a 1st century eyewitness; also, Eusebius, The Ecclesiastical History (Book 3, chs. 3-9) (early 4th century).]
Now, possessing Jesus’ warning, alerted by the Roman army’s actions that the abomination was near, then with the horrors going on in the city and the temple, the alarm bell was ringing loudly for the Christians in Jerusalem. In the window of time before Titus’ armies arrived, many of them wisely fled the city with urgency. Some of those who fled may have taken to the hills as Jesus advised, and others (according to the 4th cent. church historian, Eusebius) headed for “one of the cities of Perea which they called Pella.” Whatever direction they fled, they made haste away from Jerusalem, which was Jesus’ point—“Flee!!!”
From there, with Jerusalem sieged, totally surrounded by the Roman armies, things went from bad to worse. Jesus describes it in 24:21: “For then there will be great tribulation, such as has not been from the beginning of the world until now, no, and never will be.” Jesus here refers to what is known as the great tribulation. It took place in Jerusalem, in the time of the siege, before the city’s destruction in August AD 70. Josephus records its horrors in his book, The Jewish Wars, and they are truly horrifying. I won’t get into the details of all the misery, but he records that during the siege, 1,100,000 Jews died.
Across Judea, during the War “the deaths of tens of thousands of Jews in Judea and the enslavement of untold thousands more,” even the annihilation of whole cities and towns, had the Jews desperate. Jesus further warns that during these times, people would be desperate, looking for the Christ to save them. There would be rumors he was here or there. He says not to believe it when people say that Christ had come to save them from the Romans (which is consistent of the popularized idea of a Messiah they tried to put on him, but which he rejected).
Why not believe the rumors? Because the real Parousia, when the Christ, the Son of Man would return, at the consummation of his Kingdom, would be an event that no-one anywhere would miss. It would not be secret. Verse 27: “For as the lightning comes from the east and shines as far as the west, so will be the coming of the Son of Man.” Jesus here refers to his second coming, using the word “parousia.” There would be no mistaking his physical and final return. Thus, Jesus “explicitly distinguished the parousia from the events of the siege of Jerusalem.”
Then he gives this enigmatic statement (Verse 28): “Wherever the corpse is, there the vultures will gather.” There are a number of reasonable ideas as to what this saying means. But, perhaps, R.T. France is correct when he says, “As the presence of the vultures infallibly indicates where the corpse is, so there will be no need to search for the coming of the Son of man—it will be obvious.” 
We’ll have to break off here, today, and pick-up next Sunday, Lord willing. But I hope, at this point, you are getting the thrust of Jesus’ message.
In the Olivet discourse, here in Matthew 24, Jesus was answering the questions of the disciples, correcting their misconceptions in his answers. Their question, really two questions, was asked based on Jesus’ statement concerning the temple being destroyed. Jesus answers in detail, answering the “when,” concerning the things that would happen before the generation that was then living would pass away, including the temple’s destruction. The various events Jesus addressed that we’ve touched on today were not signs of Jesus’ second coming, including the great tribulation of AD 70. Indeed, he is specific in v. 27, that when people are desperate for the conquering Christ to come and save them from their tribulation, and are drawn to various false-Christs, to not be fooled. Jesus’ physical return (bringing the consummation of his Kingdom, his Parousia) was not to be during that time. For, when he returned at his second coming, it would be an unmistakable event for everyone.
So, when you see people pointing to various things that Jesus mentions here in this discourse, saying they are signs of his second coming, know that they are wrong. Don’t be confused by them. They have taken temporally dated events, that happened long ago, and mistakenly moved them to some future fulfillment. Like Gentry comments, “Christians have embarrassed themselves for too long with calls for the end. Most of the verses they use for this purpose can be understood as referring to the destruction of the temple in AD 70.” Beware of self-proclaimed heralds of the end.
Let us not be confused. When Jesus said certain events would happen before the generation alive at that time had passed and that they were not signs of his second coming (his physical return, bringing the consummation of his Kingdom), we must take him at his Word. Because Christ Jesus prophesied truly, Christians must confidently take him at his Word.
 Sam Storms, Kingdom Come: The Amillennial Alternative (Fearn, Scotland: Mentor, 2013), 229–230.
 Cf. Robert Hillegonds, The Early Date of Revelation and the End Times (Fountain Inn, SC: Victorious Hope Publishing, 2016), 111ff.
 Storms, 231.
 Kenneth L. Gentry, Jr., The Olivet Discourse Made Easy (Draper, VA: ApologeticsGroup Media, 2010), 46.
 John Calvin, Commentary on a Harmony of the Evangelists Matthew, Mark, and Luke, vol. 3 (Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2010), 117. Cf. Philo of Alexandria, The Works of Philo: Complete and Unabridged (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1995), 541; i.e. Special Laws, 1:XIV , who writes, “But the temple has for its revenues not only portions of land, but also other possessions of much greater extent and importance, which will never be destroyed or diminished; for as long as the race of mankind shall last, the revenues likewise of the temple will always be preserved, being coeval in their duration with the universal world.” Cf. also Gentry, 42, and Storms, 236–237.
 Storms, 233.
 Ibid., 236.
 Gentry, 54.
 C Michael Patton, “What Happened to the Twelve Apostles? How Do Their Deaths Prove Easter?” Credo House, pub. 10 April 2009, https://credohouse.org/blog/what-happened-to-the-twelve-apostles-how-do-their-deaths-prove-easter.
 cf. Murray Robertson, The Future of Humanity: Preaching from Revelation 4 to 22 (Cumbria, UK: Langham Preaching Resources, 2015), 17; James M. Hamilton Jr., Preaching the Word: Revelation—The Spirit Speaks to the Churches, ed. R. Kent Hughes (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2012), 178; and Alan F. Johnson, “Revelation,” in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Hebrews through Revelation, ed. Frank E. Gaebelein, vol. 12 (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1981), 473.
 Cf. Hillegonds, 113-116.
 One suggestion is Titus and the Roman armies as being the Abomination of Desolation, particularly with them carrying the Roman ensigns into the temple when Jerusalem fell, which were their eagle standards, and to which they offered sacrifices in the temple. Certainly this was an abomination in the desolation. But, by that time, with Jerusalem fallen, it seems too late to be the sign for the Christians to look to in order to abandon Jerusalem in order to escape the horror. Cf. Storms, 246; also Josephus, The Works of Josephus: Complete and Unabridged (Peabody: Hendrickson, 1987), 743 (i.e. The Wars of the Jews, 6.6.1 ). Some see the abomination as encompassing cumulative events, thus Storms, 247, quoting Gentry (The Great Tribulation, 50), “Thus, although the Abomination of Desolation ‘involves the destruction of Jerusalem (beginning with its several encirclings by Cestius, Vespasian, Simon, and Titus), it culminates in this final abominable act within the temple itself.’”
 Another suggestion is that the Christians were alerted when Cestius’ armies surrounded Jerusalem in AD 66, to then retreat for inexplicable reasons. Josephus (The Wars of the Jews, 2.20.1) mentions that after that incident many Jews “swam away from the city, as from a ship when it was going to sink.” Cestius’ armies at the walls of the city may have been the correct signal, and it would give all Judea plus Jerusalem plenty of time to escape. Later note (14 July 2023): I initially thought, when I preached this in 2021 that Cestius’ encirclement and retreat seemed a bit too early to merit the urgency that Jesus emphasizes, along with too early of a timing for “seeing” the abomination of desolation. I’ve come to think that Cestius’ encirclement and retreat did set off the first exodus of the church from Jerusalem, with the bulk of the church ending up in Pella. Vespasian’s encirclement perhaps served to signal those who had remained during the war to follow suit. See my sermon on Rev. 12:1-6 for my thoughts on the issue as to how it played out.
 Gentry, 93.
 Cf. Gentry, 97.
 Eusebius, The Ecclesiastical History, vol. 1, The Loeb Classical Library (New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1926–1932), 201; i.e. Ecclesiastical History, 3.5.3.
 Flavius Josephus, The Works of Josephus: Complete and Unabridged (Peabody: Hendrickson, 1987), 749; i.e. The Wars of the Jews, 6:9:3 .
 Gentry, 96.
 France, 346.
 France, 346. Gentry, 102-105, suggests the translation for ἀετοί should be “eagles” rather than “vultures (cf. KJV, NKJV), referring to the gathered Roman soldiers, whose standard was an eagle, and their cruel ravaging of the people, and the destruction that they inflict, finally gutting the city of everything, leaving it utterly destroyed. This is possible. As he says on page 105, “Thus, as Jerusalem collapses to her “death” the marauding armies of Rome pour into the city and into the temple to devour the corpse.”
 Gentry, 141.