Sunday, 11 May 2014

THE OLIVET DISCOURSE (1)




The first part of an exposition of the Olivet Discourse in Matthew's Gospel 
(Mt 23:37-25:46)

An eschatological calendar
 The Last Days teaching of Christ in the 24th & 25th chapters of Matthew’s Gospel (called the Olivet Discourse) is the Bible’s most important teaching on the end-times.

 It is of such great value because the discourse sets out in chronological order the sequence of major occurrences as they unfold at the time of the Lord’s return. I contend that there is no other substantive end time teaching that does this.*

 Christ’s purpose in giving the teaching was to provide each generation of believers with an approximate end-time calendar so that they could have the assurance of knowing at any given time in history whether His return was “not yet” (Mt 24:6); or whether it was “near, even at the doors”(24:33). 


 This is the critically important context to have in mind when considering the famous declarations made by the Lord in relation to His return. When Jesus made such statements as “you know neither the day nor the hour in which the Son of Man is coming”(25:13); we ought to realize that He did not mean us to understand that He might come at any day or hour over the last 2.000 years as many have taught. Such an interpretation would contradict the central message of the discourse that the end is "not yet."

 Indeed, His whole purpose in the discourse is to provide us with details of the eschatological environment prevailing at the time of His return; in order to warn us when the event is near, but also to reassure us where it is not near.

 It is as if I were to say to you, “I will visit you at your home next week”.  I have not made a precise appointment, such as if I had said, “I will come on Tuesday at 7:30”; and so you cannot know “the day or the hour” of my arrival. You know instead the general time frame of my visit. But I have provided you with enough information for you to know when I am not coming i.e. it will be next week, not this week or in three weeks time.

 It was this understanding of the general “times and seasons” that Jesus sought to convey to His Church. He wanted each generation of believers to know roughly where they stood in relation to God’s timetable for the end of this age. 

When we recognize this function of the discourse, we see that it strikes a fatal blow to the doctrine of imminency espoused by believers in a pre-tribulation rapture.  For since the return is described as “not yet” and requires that a series of events takes place beforehand (esp. the setting up of the Abomination of Desolation (24:15); then we can immediately see that His return for the Church cannot possibly take place “at any moment.” 

                                          
Two Discourses?       

We have three separate accounts of this teaching in the synoptic gospels, and it is usual to regard them as merely variations of the same discourse.

 However I have a theory that this may not actually be so.

 I believe that the internal evidence within the texts indicates to us that Jesus may actually have spoken two different discourses that day, and that what has come down to us is a compendium of these two teachings.

 Whilst Matthew’s version appears to be a fuller description of that found in Mark 13 (Mark is often assumed to be the earliest gospel); that found in Luke’s Gospel is significantly different in content, and he alone appears to deal in detail with the 1st Century destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD (Lk 21:20-24).

 The discourse in Luke shows evidence of having being spoken publicly in the temple (Lk 21:1-6; 37) during the day, which was appropriate since Jesus was publicly pronouncing doom upon the city. We are told by the Church historian Eusebius that many believers recalled His words during the First Jewish War (AD 66-70) and fled to safety before the final assault upon Jerusalem.

 This may help to explain the enigmatic statement found in each of the synoptics that “this generation shall not pass away till all things take place”(Lk 21:32). The city was destroyed almost forty years later, fulfilling the tragic curse that its inhabitants had brought upon their own children (Mt 27:25). Hence we can perhaps see that this comment, whilst found in each of the three accounts, has a probable origin in the daytime 70 AD teaching. Thus it was likely to be that 1st Century generation to which He was referring.

  At the conclusion of his account, Luke provides us with a seemingly incidental detail concerning Jesus'  movements at the time. He explains that,
 “in the daytime He was teaching in the temple, but at night He went out and stayed on the mountain called Olivet” (Lk 21:37).
 This information is useful in our attempts to harmonize the accounts.

 Since Matthew’s version is clearly assigned to the Mount of Olives (hence the Olivet Discourse); it would appear that his account from v3 onwards may well be a separate discourse from Luke’s, given privately to the disciples that same night (Mt 24:3).  We ought to bear in mind that it was not unusual for Jesus to “brief” His disciples at a later time concerning that day’s public teachings (Mt 13:10-13; 36).

 In this second nighttime discourse on the Mt of Olives He omits most references to the 70 AD siege (it would be of little relevance to the apostles in their future ministry as most of them would not live to see it); but instead He fills out His teaching on the Last Days assault upon Jerusalem. 

I believe that this "two discourses" theory well fits the textual evidence.


"Your house is left to you desolate” (Mt 23:38)  
  
 The whole teaching was prompted by Christ's final dramatic clash with the religious establishment of Israel.

 This ended in His announcement of  their rejection by God: “Behold your house is left to you desolate”(Mt 23:38). With these words He signifies that God no longer recognizes the building as His. This disowning of the temple contrasts starkly with His earlier defence of it,
 “My house shall be called a house of prayer” (Mt 21:13).  

 The presence of God in the temple (in the form of His Son), is now to be withdrawn; and it is to be handed over for judgement. The moment Jesus speaks these words; both temple and city are doomed.

 Christ’s leaving of the temple for the Mount of Olives (from where He would eventually ascend) bears a striking resemblance to the account in the book of Ezekiel of the giving over of an earlier generation to judgement. This staged withdrawal from the city is meant to remind us of Ezekiel’s description of the departure of the Shekinah Glory from Solomon’s temple at the Exile.  

 There is first a departure from the temple (Eze 10:18) and then a retreat to the Mount of Olives (Eze 11:23). This is history repeating itself in a most precise manner. In each case once God’s presence has been withdrawn, then these people have ceased to be regarded as His, and judgement upon them is certain.


“You shall me no more ...(Mt 23:39)      

Before leaving the temple, Jesus has one parting volley at the corrupt Jewish leadership of His day in the form of a promise that is of tremendous future significance,

You shall see Me no more until you say, ‘Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord’”(Mt 23:39).  

  It is noteworthy that all of the resurrection appearances of Christ in the New Testament are to believers and never to the authorities who had tried Him. On the road to Damascus, whilst Saul of Tarsus was blinded by the spectacle of the risen Christ in all His glory;  the men with him were only “hearing a voice but seeing no-one“ (Acts 9:7).

 It would seem that from the day when His dead body was taken down from the Cross, Christ has not been seen by anyone outside of the Body of Christ. 

 This state of affairs will  continue until the day of His epiphaneia,when a repentant Jewish Remnant “will look on [Him] whom they pierced” (Zech 12:10); and accept the Messiah they rejected at His first advent. The period of end-time tribulation which Christ later speaks of has, as one of its central purposes; the securing of this repentance. Only then will come the day that “every eye will see Him” (Rev 1:7). 

 These verses mark an eschatological watershed. They describe the giving over of an unrepentant nation unto judgement, in preparation for the dramatic expansion of God's plan of salvation. Paul understood that, in the counsels of God, this painful rejection of Israel was to be used to bring salvation to the Gentiles (Rom 11:11).

 But the apostle also foresaw the day after “the fullness of the Gentiles has come in” when God, in grace, would also favour His ancient people with His salvation (Rom 11:25). 


“The end is not yet” (Mt 24:6)     

With the drama of the day over with, Jesus retreats in the evening to the Mount of Olives.

 The disciples were surely astonished by His prediction that the temple; pride of their race, centrepiece of their religion, and the surety of God's presence with them was soon to be swept away.  Yet Christ now begins to paint a still gloomier picture of the future.

 A future in which believers would suffer deception and inspire hatred, persecution and martyrdom (Mt 24:5,9). One in which the intensity of the fires of tribulation would be so great that professing believers would even turn upon one another, betraying those who ought to be their brethren (v10). A future in which the only earthly hope would be simply to endure to the end (v13). 

This persecution is not to be identified with any specific period of church history but is rather to be seen as the typical experience of true believers throughout history. Whether it be the persecutions of pagan Rome in the early centuries, the inquisitions of the Middle Ages or the ferocious ordeal of believers in the Middle East today, our Lord warned that such treatment at the hands of the world was to be expected. 

Christian persecution is the motif of this age.    

 And the backdrop to these dramas would be continual upheavals in both the natural & human worlds (Mt 24:6-8). Neither earthquakes nor wars were new phenomena to Jesus' hearers. He was not saying that these would increase in the Last Days as many have asserted, only that they would continue as they had always done. In essence, these indicate only that it is “business as usual” on planet earth and are not to be seen as specific indicators of the end. 

 The end, Jesus was telling them, was a very long way off.  Later Christ would give us very colourful parables picturing the differing attitudes of professing believers to life in the long interregnum between His two advents. These would serve to re-enforce His assertion of a long-delayed return. 

 In the first of these, (Mt 24:45-51), He shows the contrasting behaviour of two servants to the continued absence of their master. This is followed by the well-known illustration of the Ten Virgins awaiting the bridegroom (Mt 25:1-13);  He then concludes with the Parable of the Talents (Mt 25:14-30).  

  It is important to note that in each of these parables the person who represents Jesus is pictured as being delayed:

“my master is delaying his coming” (Mt 24:48)  
“while the bridegroom tarried” (Mt 25:5)
“after a long time the lord of those servants came” (Mt 25:19)

  In each of the parables disastrous consequences ensue (“weeping and gnashing of teeth” speaks of eternal damnation) because of their response to the long absence of the master/groom.  In the case of the first two parables, we are specifically told that their calamity is a direct result of having been taken by surprise at the unexpected length of the delay. 

 This contrasts with how this teaching is often presented to us in the Church today. The impression you would gain from many modern interpretations of the discourse is that Jesus had warned us that we might be taken by surprise because His return would be earlier than anticipated. 

 Yet we can clearly see here that the dangers Jesus actually highlighted were those associated with a delayed return.  He  addressed  the issue, not of an unexpectedly short wait for the Second Coming, but rather of an unexpectedly long wait! 

 Jesus envisaged a very substantial period of time elapsing between His first advent and the second, during which the Gospel was to be preached to all nations (Mt 24:14). This message was repeated after His resurrection when He again punctured their hopes of a swift fulfillment of the Kingdom promises to Israel (Acts 1:6-8). 


Christ in the Olivet Discourse teaches us that which history has borne testimony to: that there would be an interminably long period of seeming normality before the end in which “wars and rumours of wars”; “famines, pestilences and earthquakes” (Mt 24:6-7) would continue just as they always had. These were not to be seen as imminent signs of the end; but rather only as “the beginning of sorrows”(24:8).   

 The apostle Paul would later use this teaching to dampen down eschatological excitement in Thessalonica (2 Thess 2:1-4) which demonstrates for us what the apostolic interpretation of Jesus' words was.

 Peter, we know, must certainly have lived his whole life knowing that he would not see the rapturing of the Church for Jesus told him that his departure would be by martyrdom (not translation) and that in old age (Jn 21:18-19). Anyone familiar with Jesus' prophecy could not consider the return of Christ an imminent event whilst the apostle Peter was still alive. 
 
 Clearly, then, it was the intention of all the New Testament writers to show that “the end is not yet.”

And although we in our day are manifestly far closer to the conclusion of the age then those 1st Century believers were; it is still worth noting that some final pieces of the end-time puzzle still remain to be put in place even today (see Mt 24:15). 

  What the Church in our day needs to re-discover is that healthy balance between an anticipation of the Lord’s return on the one hand, which the scriptures certainly encourage; and that which the Bible also highlights, which is the patient endurance of this present age and whatever challenges it might throw at us.   

 Also let us nurture a realization that there is manifestly still much work to be done before the onset of the Kingdom, not least being the preaching of the gospel of the kingdom in all nations, as this passage reminds us. Whatever our view of end-time events, we, like the Thessalonians of old must be encouraged to continue steadfastly in our normal duties (2 Thess 3:6-12) and not become lost in eschatological speculations.
 

   
* Close examination of the Book of Revelation, for instance, precludes the idea of mere chronological progression in John's work. The book is sequential, rather than chronological and it is necessary to envisage a great deal of recapitulation throughout; with the same themes being revisited time and again.