The Three Questions of Matthew 24
A Featured Article by Jack Kelley
As Jesus was sitting on the Mount of Olives, the disciples came to him privately. “Tell us,” they said, “when will this happen, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?” (Matt. 24:3)
One of the mistakes Christians make in reading the Bible is caused by our tendency to look at everything through “Church colored glasses.” By that I mean we read it as if it all applies directly to us without regard for the context or historical background. I know Paul said everything that was written in the past was written to teach us (Romans 15:4) but that doesn’t mean it was all written to us or about us. It means we’re supposed to learn from the experiences of those who came before us. A prime example of this kind of mistake can be found in our interpretation of the Olivet Discourse (Matt. 24-25). I’ll show you what I mean.
Jesus left the temple and was walking away when his disciples came up to him to call his attention to its buildings. “Do you see all these things?” he asked. “I tell you the truth, not one stone here will be left on another; every one will be thrown down.” (Matt. 24:1-2)
These two verses set the tone for the entire discussion, yet in our rush to get to the meat of the passage they are often ignored. From Mark’s account we know that after Jesus said this, four of the disciples came to Him for clarification. They were Peter, James, John and Andrew (Mark 13:3), and they asked Him 3 questions; When will this happen? (When will these buildings be torn down? ) What will be the sign of your coming? What will be the sign of the End of the Age?
So let’s look at them individually to gain more of the background that prompted these questions. We’ll find that the first two are pretty simple, but the third one is a different matter altogether.
When Will This Happen?
The view of Jerusalem at sunset from the Mount of Olives is breathtaking, even today. In the Lord’s time it was even more so because the Temple was still standing. To them it was the most beautiful building imaginable. There’s a saying based on the Talmud that goes, “One who has not seen the Temple from the time of Herod has never seen a magnificent building.” It had been 46 years in the construction and was not finished yet. At sunset its white limestone exterior took on a bright golden hue, as if it was made of pure gold.
Repeating His Palm Sunday prophecy from Luke 19:41-44 Jesus said the temple and surrounding buildings would be so completely destroyed that not one stone would be left standing on another. Luke’s account of the Olivet Discourse is found in Luke 21. He’s the only one who recorded a detailed answer to their first question, “When will this happen?”. Luke 21:12-24, a description of the Roman conquest of 68-70 AD, was the Lord’s answer.
What Will Be The Sign Of Your Coming?
Obviously they meant His 2nd Coming and He actually gave them 2 clear signs. After describing several things that would not be specific signs, but merely “birth pangs”, He gave them the first clear sign in Matt. 24:15. It’s the Abomination of Desolation standing in the Holy Place and it will mark the beginning of the Great Tribulation (Matt. 24:21). The second unmistakeable sign of His coming is described as the Sign of the Son of Man. It will signal the Great Tribulation’s end (Matt. 24:29-30). After that the Lord will return on the clouds with power and great glory.
What Will Be The Sign Of The End Of The Age?
This question is more complex than they ever imagined when they asked it, even though the answer is simple. Ultimately, the sign of the End of the Age will be the Lord’s return to become King of the Whole Earth (Zech. 14:9). After that the Kingdom Age will begin. This question is the one where so many believers are way off the mark. It’s those “church colored glasses” I mentioned. But when you understand the disciples’ perspective you’ll see that it was not possible for them to be thinking of the Church Age when they used the phrase “end of the age” like so many Christians assume. Here’s why.
Over 500 years previously the Angel Gabriel had told Daniel how and when the end of the age would come (Daniel 9:24-27). He said that from the time they received permission to restore and rebuild Jerusalem after the Babylonian captivity there would be 70 periods of 7 years each (These 7 year periods are often called “weeks” because the Hebrew word Gabriel used means “a week of years”.) This gives us a total of 490 years (70 weeks).
When the disciples posed their questions to Jesus, 483 of those years (69 weeks) had come and there were only 7 years (1 week) left. You can imagine their astonishment when He told them that having come so close, just when the end was in sight, the temple and surrounding buildings would all be destroyed. How could this be? The temple was essential to their worship. It had been under construction for 46 years and as I said above was not finished yet. How could it be torn down so completely and then rebuilt again in just 7 years?
It was this astonishment that had led to their questions. They didn’t know anything about a Church Age that would cause a 2000 year pause in Daniel’s 70 weeks prophecy. Even today, most of us don’t understand that the Church Age didn’t end the Age of Law, it has just interrupted it seven years short of its scheduled completion. How could they have understood it? (The fact that the Age of Law hasn’t ended explains why there will be a Temple erected in Israel soon. They will need one to complete the final 7 years.)
40 days after the Resurrection, even after receiving the Holy Spirit (John 20:22) the disciples were still thinking that the End of the Age was at hand. When Jesus led them up to the Mount of Olives where He would soon ascend to the Father, they asked Him, “Lord are you at this time going to restore the Kingdom to Israel?” Once again He didn’t explain anything about the future, but said, “It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by his own authority” (Acts 1:7-8).
I’ve Got A Secret
James revealed the answer to the Apostles for the first time 20 years after the cross.
The whole assembly became silent as they listened to Barnabas and Paul telling about the miraculous signs and wonders God had done among the Gentiles through them. When they finished, James spoke up: “Brothers, listen to me. Simon (Peter) has described to us how God at first showed his concern by taking from the Gentiles a people for himself. The words of the prophets are in agreement with this, as it is written:
“ ‘After this I will return and rebuild David’s fallen tent. Its ruins I will rebuild, and I will restore it, that the remnant of men may seek the Lord, and all the Gentiles who bear my name, says the Lord, who does these things that have been known for ages.’ “ (Acts 15:12-17)
In effect, James told them Israel was being set aside while the Lord took a people from among the Gentiles for Himself. He was referring to the Church. After He had taken us (literally carried us away) He would turn His attention once again to Israel. If the Lord had taught them these things, James would not have had to explain them. It wasn’t that they had heard this and forgotten it. It was that the Lord had never told them.
There’s a very simple reason why the Lord never explained the Church Age in any detail. It’s because He came to offer the Kingdom to Israel. The theme of His ministry to Israel was, “Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is near” (Matt. 4:17). And when He sent the original 12 disciples out on their first missionary trip He told them, “Do not go among the Gentiles or enter any town of the Samaritans. Go rather to the lost sheep of Israel. As you go, proclaim this message: ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near’ (Matt. 10:5-7). Then there’s the strange incident where Jesus refused to even acknowledge the Canaanite woman who begged Him to heal her daughter. When the disciples urged Him to respond to her, He replied, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel” (Matt. 15:24).
When the officials asked Him for a definitive sign that He was their Messiah He gave them the sign of Jonah, which He knew would not be clear to them until after the resurrection (Matt. 12:38-40).
My point is that He couldn’t very well go around describing what a wonderful blessing was coming to Jews and Gentiles who became a part of the Church when He had already offered Israel the Kingdom. A few days before the crucifixion He warned them that the kingdom would be taken away and given to others (Matt. 21:43) but I’m convinced His offer to Israel was on the table right up to the day He ascended to Heaven, and that’s why He was still preaching about the Kingdom of God for 40 days after the resurrection (Acts 1:3). 40 is the number of testing. The sign of Jonah had been fulfilled and Israel was being given 40 days to finally accept Him.
Of course the Lord had always known they would fail the test. That’s why Paul could claim he was revealing an age old secret when he told the Church in Ephesus that through the Gospel gentiles were being made heirs together with Israel (Ephes. 3:4-6). Israel’s rejection didn’t surprise Him.
Seen from this perspective it’s clear that the Olivet Discourse is not about the Church. It’s the account of the Jewish Messiah speaking on the Mt. of Olives to His Jewish followers about the future of Israel. To underscore this point, in Matt. 24:15-21 He made reference to a Jewish Temple and warned them to flee when they saw the Abomination of Desolation standing there, because it would signal the beginning of the Great Tribulation. He told them to pray their flight wouldn’t take place on a Sabbath. That means there will be Old Covenant believers in Judea, the Biblical name for Israel, worshiping in a temple at the End of the Age. They are the only people for whom it would be unlawful to flee on a Sabbath.
These are the only specific references to a people group in the entire passage. They both point to Israel and they’re both written in the 2nd person (v. 15, when you see … v.20, pray that your flight … ), indicating that the Lord considered the disciples to be representative of Israel. To place the Church in the Olivet Discourse is to make a fundamental error in interpretation. Only the pre-Trib Rapture position avoids this error.
What’s That There For?
So why is the Olivet Discourse even in the New Testament if it’s not for the Church? There are several good reasons. First, it gives the Church some early warning signals we can use to know how close we’re getting to our departure. The birth pangs of Matt. 24:4-8 serve as “nearness indicators” in that the more frequently they occur the closer we are . Also, throughout the entire Church Age the signs the Lord gave to Israel have not been in evidence, primarily because until 1948 there was no Israel. This is what makes the re-birth of the nation the primary sign that the End Times are upon us.
Second, the absence of any reference to the Church shows us that we won’t be here during the time He was talking about.
And third, it shows Tribulation believers both inside and outside of Israel what to look for to help maintain their faith that He’s coming to end their ordeal.
Neither the Angel Gabriel nor the Lord misled Israel by not mentioning this indeterminate pause between the 69th and 70th weeks of Daniel’s prophecy. At least up to the cross and maybe all the way to His Ascension the Lord’s offer of a Kingdom to Israel was on the table. Had Israel accepted Jesus as their Messiah, the pause would never have occurred. This could also explain why the Gospel received limited exposure among the Gentiles during and immediately after the Lord’s ministry and why it was 20 years after the cross before things like direct Gentile participation in the Church, the doctrines of salvation by grace and eternal security, the pre-tribulation rapture, and the Church’s ultimate destiny were introduced.
Clearly the Olivet Discourse was given to and for Israel. No matter what view you hold of the sequence of End Times events, if you’ve based it on an assumption that the disciples represent the Church in the Olivet Discourse, it’s time to re-think your assumption.