Jesus’ message in Matthew 24-25 is commonly known as the Olivet discourse, so named because it was delivered to the disciples on the Mount of Olives. The theme of the discourse is Christ’s second coming at the end of the present age to establish His millennial kingdom on earth.
The message was prompted by the disciples’ question in 24:3, “Tell us, when will these things be, and what will be the sign of Your coming, and of the end of the age?” The answer Jesus gave is the longest answer given to any question asked in the New Testament, and its truths are absolutely essential for understanding His return and the amazing events associated with it. It is the revelation of our Lord, directly from His own lips, about His return to earth in glory and power.
In order to better understand the disciples’ question on this occasion it is necessary to know something of the basic hopes and aspirations of the Judaism of that day. A historical setting is an important key to the context.
Throughout history people have had a strong desire to know the future, and few societies have been without their seers, mediums, fortune-tellers, and other prognosticators. By various means, all of them deceitful and many of them demonic, such futurists have offered gullible inquirers purported revelations of what lies ahead. Although the Mosaic law strictly forbade consulting mediums and soothsayers (Deut. 18:9-14), Israelites had frequently fallen prey to them, the most prominent instance being that of King Saul’s consulting the medium of Endor (1 Sam. 28:3-25; see also 2 Kings 21:6).
There is no evidence that many Jews of Jesus’ day were guilty of Saul’s offense, but they did have an intense interest in the future. They were tired of being under the domination of pagan oppressors and were eager for the divinely promised deliverance of their Messiah. The Jews were a noble, highly intelligent, and highly gifted people who, humanly speaking, were entirely capable of competent self-rule. Yet for many centuries they had been subdued by one foreign tyrant after another. The northern ten tribes had been conquered by Assyria in 722 B.C., and the southern two tribes fell to Babylon in 586 B.C.
Following that were conquests by the Medo-Persians, the Greeks, and finally the Romans.
In their own minds, however, the Jews had always been their own people and had never truly been subjugated to any foreign ruler. It was that abiding and sometimes arrogant spirit of independence even in the midst of oppression that induced some of the Jews to declare before Jesus in the Temple, “We are Abraham’s offspring, and have never yet been enslaved to anyone” (John 8:33).
They knew all too well, of course, that outwardly they were indeed enslaved, and freedom from that enslavement was the overriding passion of most Jews.
Although the majority of them were not associated with the militant Zealots, they all yearned for Rome to be overthrown and for Israel to become a free nation once again.
The Jews knew intimately the many Old Testament promises of future blessing, deliverance, and prosperity. They knew God had promised to vanquish all the enemies of His chosen people and to establish His eternal kingdom of righteousness and justice on earth. They knew that the Lord’s Anointed One—His Messiah, or Christ—would come and establish the rule and reign from David’s throne again on earth, a reign of peace, prosperity, and safety that would never end.
Their great longing was to see that day when God restored the kingdom as He had promised. The Jews therefore had great hope for the future. They exulted as they read, “For a child will be born to us, a son will be given to us; and the government will rest on His shoulders; and His name will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Eternal Father, Prince of Peace. There will be no end to the increase of His government or of peace, on the throne of David and over his kingdom, to establish it and to uphold it with justice and righteousness from then on and forevermore. The zeal of the Lord of hosts will accomplish this” (Isa. 9:6-7). They thrilled at the promise that “a shoot will spring from the stem of Jesse, and a branch from his roots will bear fruit. And the Spirit of the Lord will rest on Him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and strength, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord” (Isa. 11:1-2).
Israel took immense encouragement from the words of Jeremiah: “‘Behold, the days are coming,’ declares the Lord, ‘when I shall raise up for David a righteous Branch; and He will reign as king and act wisely and do justice and righteousness in the land. In His days Judah will be saved, and Israel will dwell securely; and this is His name by which He will be called, “The Lord our righteousness” ’ ” (Jer. 23:5-6; cf. 30:9-10). They longed for the day when the spoil taken from them would be divided among them (Zech. 14:1), when “living waters [would] flow out of Jerusalem” (v. 8), and “there [would] be no more curse, for Jerusalem [would] dwell in security” (v. 11). They rejoiced that “the God of heaven will set up a kingdom which will never be destroyed, and that kingdom will not be left for another people . . . but it will itself endure forever” (Dan. 2:44).
By the time of Jesus, the Jews had formed in their minds a very clear scenario of how they believed those predicted events would unfold. To understand what the Jewish expectations were, it is helpful to read their literature from that time. In his A History of the Jewish People in the Time of Jesus Christ ([Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1893], pp. 154-87), Emil Schuer gives excerpts from numerous extrabiblical Jewish writings of that era which reveal those expectations.
First, consistent with the teaching of Zechariah 14 and other Old Testament prophecies, they believed that the coming of the Messiah would be preceded by a time of terrible tribulation. Just as a woman experiences intense pain shortly before the delivery of a child, so Israel would experience great torment shortly before the Messiah arrived.
2 Baruch 27 reported,
And honour shall be turned into shame,
And strength humiliated into contempt,
And probity destroyed,
And beauty shall become ugliness . . .
And envy shall rise in those who had not thought aught of themselves,
And passion shall seize him that is peaceful,
And many shall be stirred up in anger to injure many,
And they shall rouse up armies in order to shed blood,
And in the end they shall perish together with them.
According to another source, there would be “quakings of places, tumult
of peoples, schemings of nations, confusion of leaders, disquietude of princes”
(2 Esdras [4 Ezra] 9:3).
The Jewish Sibylline Oracles declared,
“From heaven shall fall fiery swords down to the earth. Lights shall come, bright and great, flashing into the midst of men; and earth, the universal mother, shall shake in these days at the hand of the Eternal.
And the fishes of the sea and the beasts of the earth and the countless tribes of flying things and all the souls of men and every sea shall shudder at the presence of the Eternal and there shall be panic. And the towering mountain peaks and the hills of the giants he shall rend, and the murky abyss shall be visible to all. And the high ravines in the lofty mountains shall be full of dead bodies and rocks shall flow with blood and each torrent shall flood the plain. . . . And God shall judge all with war and sword, and there shall be brimstone from heaven, yea stones and rain and hail incessant and grievous. And death shall be upon the four-footed beasts. . . . Yea the land itself shall drink of the blood of the perishing and beasts shall eat their fill of flesh.”(3:363ff.)
The Mishna anticipated that just before the coming of Messiah,
“arrogance increases, ambition shoots up, . . . the vine yields fruit yet wine is dear. The government turns to heresy. There is no instruction. The synagogue is devoted to lewdness. Galilee is destroyed, Gablan laid waste. The inhabitants of a district go from city to city without finding compassion. The wisdom of the learned is hated, the godly despised, truth is absent. Boys insult old men, old men stand in the presence of children. The son depreciates the father, the daughter rebels against the mother, the daughter-in-law against the mother-inlaw. A mans enemies are his house-fellows.”
Second, the popular eschatology of Jesus’ day held that in the midst of that turmoil would appear an Elijah-like forerunner heralding the Messiah’s coming. It was for that reason that so many Jews were drawn to John the Baptist.
Jewish oral tradition maintained that the ownership of any disputed money or property would have to wait “till Elijah comes” before being finally settled.
The third event of that eschatology was the Messiah’s appearance, at which time He would establish His kingdom age of glory and would vindicate His people.
The fourth event would be the alliance of the nations to fight against the Messiah. The Sibylline Oracles declared,
“The kings of the nations shall throw themselves against this land bringing retribution on themselves. They shall seek to ravage the shrine of the mighty God and of the noblest men whensoever they come to the land. In a ring round the city the accursed kings shall place each one his throne with the infidel people by him. And then with a mighty voice God shall speak unto all the undisciplined, empty minded people and judgment shall come upon them from the mighty God, and all shall perish at the hand of the Eternal.” (3:363-72)
In 2 Esdras [4 Ezra] is the prediction, “It shall be that when all the nations hear his (the Messiah’s) voice, every man shall leave his own land and the warfare they have one against the other, and the innumerable multitude shall be gathered together desiring to fight against him” (13:33-35). In other words, unbelieving mankind will interrupt all its other warfare in order to unite against the Messiah.
The fifth eschatological event would be the destruction of those opposing nations. Philo wrote that the Messiah would “take the field and make war and destroy great and populous nations.” The writer of 2 Esdras declared that the Messiah “shall reprove them for their ungodliness, rebuke them for their unrighteousness, reproach them to their faces with their treacheries—and when he has rebuked them he shall destroy them” (12:32-33). The book of Enoch reported that “it shall come to pass in those days that none shall be saved, either by gold or by silver, and none shall be able to escape. And there shall be no iron for war, nor shall one clothe oneself with a breastplate. Bronze shall be of no service, and tin shall not be esteemed, and lead shall not be desired. And all things shall be destroyed from the surface of the earth” (52:7-9). All the vast armaments and defences of the nations will be useless against the Messiah.
Sixth would be the restoration of Jerusalem, either by renovation of the existing city or by the coming down of a completely new Jerusalem from heaven. In either case, the city of the great King would henceforth be pure, holy, and incorruptible. In the book of Enoch, Jerusalem was envisioned as having “all the pillars . . . new and the ornaments larger than those of the first” (Enoch 90:28-29).
Seventh, the Jews scattered throughout the world would be gathered back to Israel. Many Jews today still utter the ancient prayer “Lift up a banner to gather our dispersed and assemble us from the four ends of the earth.” The eleventh chapter of the Psalms of Solomon gives a graphic picture of that regathering:
“Blow ye in Zion on the trumpet to summon the saints, Cause ye to be heard in Jerusalem the voice of him that bringeth good tidings;
For God hath had pity on Israel in visiting them.
Stand on the height, O Jerusalem, and behold thy children, From the East and the West, gathered together by the Lord;
From the North they come in the gladness of their God, From the isles afar off God hath gathered them.
High mountains hath he abased into a plain for them; The hills fled at their entrance. The woods gave them shelter as they passed by;
Every sweet-smelling tree God caused to spring up for them, That Israel might pass by in the visitation of the glory of their God.
Put on, O Jerusalem, thy glorious garments; Make ready thy holy robe;
For God hath spoken good for Israel forever and ever,
Let the Lord do what he hath spoken concerning Israel and Jerusalem;
Let the Lord raise up Israel by his glorious name.
The mercy of the Lord be upon Israel forever and ever.”
In the eighth event of the Messiah’s coming Kingdom would become the center of the world, and all nations would be subjugated to the Lord. “And all the isles and the cities shall say, How doth the Eternal love those men! For all things work in sympathy with them and help them. . . . Come let us all fall upon the earth and supplicate the eternal King, the mighty, everlasting God. Let us make procession to His Temple, for He is the sole Potentate” (Sibylline Oracles 3:690ff.).
Ninth and finally, the Jews of Jesus’ day believed that with the establishment of the Messiah’s kingdom would come a new and eternal age of peace, righteousness, and divine glory.
Those ancient views of the coming of Christ were extrapolated largely from Old Testament teachings, and they closely correspond to New Testament premillennial doctrine about His second coming. The major difference is that those Jews had no knowledge of His coming twice, the first time to offer Himself as a sacrifice for the world’s sin and the second to establish His millennial kingdom on earth. The Jewish people were not looking for inward deliverance from sin but for outward deliverance from political oppression.
In the minds of the Jews of Jesus’ day, the time was ripe for the Messiah’s coming. They had suffered persecution and subjugation for many centuries and were at that time under the relentless power of Rome. When John the Baptist appeared on the scene, reminiscent of the preaching and lifestyle of Elijah, the people’s interest was intensely piqued. And when Jesus began His ministry of preaching, with unheard of authority and of healing every sort of disease, many Jews were convinced that He was indeed the Messiah. When He rode into Jerusalem on the colt, the crowds were beside themselves with anticipation, and they openly hailed Him as the Messiah, the long-awaited Son of David (Matt. 21:9).
At that point, however, Jesus’ ministry rapidly and radically departed from their expectations. According to their thinking, the next steps would be the gathering of the nations against the Messiah and His dramatic and effortless victory over them.
That idea apparently was also still in the minds of the Twelve. Jesus’ many predictions that He must suffer, die, and be resurrected had simply not registered with them at that stage. In some way or another they either had discounted those teachings or had rationalized and spiritualized them into being something other than literal, physical, and historical realities.
(Main source: John MacArthur – New Testament Commentary – Matthew)