Understanding Matthew 24, the Olivet Discourse

It is important to understand Matthew 24 in the context of the preceding chapters and in the light of its setting in the ministry of Jesus. To do that one must look at Matthew 21, 22, and then 23 as those set the stage for understanding of the 24th chapter.

This is the last week of the Lord Jesus’ life and he arrives in Jerusalem (Matt 21: 1-12). There He makes an entrance as the long–awaited King and shows His authority by cleansing the temple. This provokes the jealousy of the chief priests and the scribes (v. 15) with whom He is going to have a final confrontation beginning in v.23 which continues through the rest of this chapter, all of chapter 22 and chapter 23. This is very important as it bears directly on what is going to be said in chapter 24.

It is these religious leaders and their continued rejection of Jesus which are going to bring about the desolation of their own city and nation. It is on their account that Christ curses the fruitless fig tree withering it to the ground (v. 19). From henceforth there WILL NEVER AGAIN be any fruit on it. It is important to notice the expression that the Lord uses (‘henceforth forever’ KJV). This is a powerful symbol and it relates specifically as to why Israel AS A NATION has been rejected by God never again to be dealt with AS A NATION (See my article entitled ‘The True Israel of God’ where this is dealt with more extensively). This is not to say that Jews cannot be saved. Quite the contrary – the apostle Paul argues (Romans 11) that even in his day the Jews were being saved. But they were saved in exactly the same manner as the Gentiles. But that is another topic altogether.

The overwhelming majority of commentators throughout the church’s history have identified the fig tree in this particular passage specifically with the nation of Israel. This is confirmed by the account given of the same instance in Mark’s narrative in chapter 11 (Mark 11:12-14). Notice the words that Mark records: ‘May no one ever eat fruit from you again’(NASV). The King James is even more emphatic:, ‘No man eat fruit of thee hereafter forever’. Additionally this harmonizes with the Lord’s parable in Luke 13 where the fruitless fig tree is cut down after giving it additional time to produce fruit. Notice that the tree had been given a period of three years (Luke 13:7) yet it still failed to produce any fruit. It is given an additional year at the urging of the vineyard dresser. Then, if it is still fruitless , it is cut down as it only encumbers the ground. Christ’s ministry with the Jews lasted 3½ years. This parable appears to be given after the third year of Jesus’ ministry. After these three years of being blessed by the presence of the glorious Son of God in their midst, the nation by far had rejected Him. Note – the leaders and scribes in particular. They continually sought to poison the minds of His hearers and did all they could to discredit Him even accusing Him of being in league with Beelezbub! How many times do we read of the crowd taking up stones in an attempt to kill Him? How many times do we read of their insults and cruelty towards His person, mocking His virign birth, calling Him ‘mad’ and a quack, accusing Him of being a wine bibber and a drunkard and glutton? They would be granted one more year in which to hear Him speak the words of life and then they would reap the whirlwind if they still remained fruitless. The continued hostility of the chief priests and scribes right until the very end of Jesus’ life, even as He hung upon the bloody cross, revealed the depth of their intense hatred of His person and ministry. In other wrods, the longsuffering of the ownder of the vineyard had been exhausted and there remained nothing to look for except the onslaught of the fierce judgment of God upon the apostate nation. (See here also Isaiah 5).

There is a poignant saying of Christ at the end of chapter 21 in which He has just finished speaking a parable to the scribes and chief priests in which He predicts their utter ruin (Matt 21: 33-41). So angered were they by this parable that they sought to kill Jesus right there on the spot (v.46) as they understood that He was speaking directly against them (v. 45). Something Jesus said in verse 43 bears close scrutiny:

"The kingdom of God will be take away from you and given to a nation producing the fruit thereof" (Matt 21: 43).

This is a remarkable saying indeed! Fruitless Israel was stripped of the kingdom and was soon to be cast into utter ruin and desolation (v 41). Now what possible nation could be given the kingdom? Answer – the holy nation spoken of by the apostle Peter in his first letter:

"But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, A HOLY NATION, a people for God’s own possession…" (1 Peter 2: 9).

The Scripture knows of no other nation that is called ‘God’s holy nation’ but the church of the Lord Jesus Christ, that nation made up of both Jews and Gentiles, made one new man in Christ (Eph 2: 11-16, especially v. 15) where all national distinctions vanish (Gal 3: 26-29). Fruitless Israel after the flesh has been cast out, the covenant broken (Zech 11: 10-11) exactly as God had promised. The barren fruit tree would be cut down never to cumber the ground anymore or produce any fruit forever

A close inspection of the parable spoke of at the beginning of chapter 22 (Matt 22: 1- 14) reveals that the king had prepared a feast for his son but rather than his chosen subjects delighting in such a gracious provision, they spurned it and went about their own business (vs. 3-5). Some even went so far as to mistreat and abuse the servants who came announcing this glorious invitation (v. 6). The result ---"the king was ENRAGED and sent HIS ARMIES, destroyed those murderes, and set their city on fire". (Matt 22: 7).

This is most important as it reveals that those who were called were not worthy (v. 8) and by their ill treatment of the king’s messengers and their callous disregard of his provision, they had provoked their own king to wrath with the result that they were to be utter devastated by the king’s armies! This parable is highly illuminating as it reveals the destruction that would soon descend upon that rebellious people by the instrumentality of the Roman armies under the command of Titus which would end in their desolation in 70AD. In other words, the Roman armies were actually being used by the king (Jehovah) as a scourge on the nation of Israel. This is not a new concept and is one that Isaiah had employed in his prophecy concerning Assyria many years previous to this.

"Woe to Assyria, the ROD OF MY ANGER, and the staff in whose hands is MY INDIGNATION. I SEND IT against a godless nation and COMMISSION IT against the people of MY FURY" (Isaiah 10: 5-6).

Here we find Jehovah employing the wicked Assyrians as His instrument to inflict upon Israel a series of devastating judgments exactly as He had previously warned them He would in the event they trangressed His covenant.

"The Lord will bring against you a nation from afar, from the end of the earth, as the eagle swoops down, a nation whose language you do not understand, a nation of fierce countenance who shall have no respect for the old nor show favor to the young….And it shall besiege you in all your towns until your high and fortified walls in which you trusted come down throughout your land which the Lord God has given you". (Deut 28: 49-52).

This is precisely what happened to northern Israel when the land was invaded by the Assyrian army and its inhabitants carried away into captivity leaving no remnant. It occurred again to southern Israel or Judah by the means of the Babylonian invasion in which the temple was burned to the ground, most of the people were slain and those who were not were carried away captive into the land of Babylon there to reside for some 70 years until the time of their exile as predicted by Jeremiah was to come to an end.

Speaking to the land of Babylon and in particular to the king of Babylon, God had said through Jeremiah:

"You are My war club, My weapon of war, and with you I shatter nations, and with you I destroy kingdoms…." (Jer 51:20).

The exact same principle applies in relation to this parable in Matthew 22. The armies of the king were none other than the Romans, whom God used as His weapon of indignation, His axe, His war-club as it were to inflict upon a rebellious people the curses of the broken covenant.

The rest of Matthew , chapter 22, chronicles the manner in which the chief priests, scribes, and lawyers attempted to trick Jesus into saying something treasonable so that they could might accuse him before Pilate or confuse Him by arguing about some absract matters of the law so as to discredit Him before the people. Little did they figure on the Wisdom of God incarnate utterly putting them to shame. So thoroughly did the Lord Jesus confound His opponents that He left them speechless!

This now sets the stage where the Lord launches into a denunciation of the Pharisees, scribes, religious leaders, etc, of the day employing some of the harshest language even seen in the Scriptures. One solemn woe after another is pronounced upon these wicked men culminating in perhaps the most blood-chilling expression ever recorded in the entirety of Scripture.

"Fill up then the measure of the guilt of your fathers."

There is no more time for repentance. No more pleas from the Son of God. No more urgings. That is over. The longsuffering of God is exhausted and now all that awaits these reprobates is the totality of the wrath of God against whom they have finally sinned unto death.

"You serpents, you brood of vipers, how shall YOU escape the sentence of hell? Therefore, behold, I am sending YOU prophets and wise men and scribes, some of them you will kill and crucify, and some of them you will scourge in your synagogues, and persecute from city to city, that upon YOU may fall the guilt of ALL THE RIGHTEOUS BLOOD SHED ON EARTH, from the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah, the son of Berechiah, whom you murdered between the temple and the altar. Truly I say to you, ALL THESE THINGS SHALL COME UPON THIS GENERATION. O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, who kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to her? How often I would have gathered your chidlren together, the way a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were unwilling. Behold, your house is being left to you DESOLATE".

This is singularly important and it is essential that this principle be grasped or else the following chapter of Matthew 24 will not be able to be properly understood. The generation that was alive at that time, the generation to whom that Jesus addressed these solemn threatenings, was the generation that could expect to reap the judgment predicted by our Lord. "This generation", that was alive, not a future generation that might happen to be alive at some period in the distant future, a distant future that has now been almost 2000 years in the coming since these words were spoken. Once this is understood then the question posed by the disciples to the Lord Jesus at the beginning of the next chapter, 24, is more easily understood.

"And Jesus came out from the temple (this is the place at which he had just finished demouncing the Pharisees, scribes and chief priests) and was going away when His disciples came up to point out the temple buildings to Him. And He answered and said to them, ‘Do you not see all these things? Truly I say to you, not one stone here shall be left upon another, which will not be torn down.’ And as He was sitting on the Mount of Olives, the disciples came to Him privately, saying, ‘Tell us, when will THESE THINGS be, and what will be the sign of Your coming, and of the end of the age?" (Matt 24: 1-3).

It is important to keep in mind that Matthew 24 is a CONTINUATION of the events recorded in Matthew 21, Matthew 22, and Matthew 23. It should not thus be viewed in isolation or one is bound to go astray in properly interpreting it. It is sometimes unfortunate that the chapter breaks were introduced into the books in the Bible as occasionally they can cause problems by breaking the flow of thought as is the case here. The disciples were present with the Lord Jesus during the entirety of the dealings He had just had with the Pharisees, chief priests and scribes. They heard His parables, witnessed His cursing of the fig tree, and must have trembled when He uttered His solemn denunciations at the close of chapter 23. In particular, they surely heard Him say that , ‘all these things shall come upon this generation’ (Matt 23: 36).

Now after stopping the mouths of the Pharisees, Jesus left the temple proper and on the way out, paused with the disciples to utter the prediction in the second verse, i.e. that the glorious temple would be laid waste and torn down to the ground. Then He apparantly took His disciples and proceeded to cross the Kidron valley and ascend to the Mount of Olives. There they must have paused to rest and as they did a breathtaking view of the temple mount presented itself to the band of travelers.

Try to imagine if you can the mental anguish that must have gripped the minds of those disciples at that time. Their entire lives they had been taught that the temple was the center of Israel’s religious life. It’s very design had been given to Israel by Jehovah Himself. Having once been torn down and burned by the Babylonian armies, it had been rebuilt after the captivity and enlarged and beautified under Herod. It had withstood the assault made upon it by Antiochus Epiphanies, had been cleansed and rededicated and now stood as a proud reminder to the Jews of their special covenant relationship with Jehovah. The entire history of a people was wrapped up in that complex. Now as they sat in view of that same building here was Jesus Himself telling them that the entire thing would be laid waste and made desolate!

"Your house is left to you desolate" (Matt 23: 38).

Incredulous is perhaps too mild a word to define the stunned shock that must have taken hold of the disciples when these words first sounded in their ears. They had dreamed of the day when Israel would finally recognize Jesus of Nazareth for who He was – the long awaited Messiah. Then the temple would become the center of the glorious Messianic kingdom with Jesus at the head and the disciples as his favored servants and an era of prosperity and peace would commence or so they had thought. Can you not hear their anguish and complete dismay as they utter the question, "Tell us when will THESE THINGS be?…." (Matt 24:3).

Now, it is logical to assume that this question was not asked in a vacuum but had its source in the dire predictions uttered by Jesus beginning at the end of chapter 23 and finally commencing with His prediction of the ruin of the temple in verse 2 of chapter 24. The ‘THESE THINGS’ that the disciples asked about in verse 3 must certainly have been the same ‘THESE THINGS’ that Jesus said would come upon THIS GENERATION in verse 36 of the previous chapter. It is necessary to keep in mind that these events recorded by Matthew are continuous. As a matter of fact, Jesus’ confrontation with the Pharisees, chief priests and scribes and His leaving the temple at the beginning of chapter 24 all take place on the same exact day. Is it not reasonable to properly assume that the disciples were asking to know when to expect the events spoken of by Jesus a few minutes earlier? In other words they are not suddenly shifting gears and asking the Lord about some supposed events to occur at a distant period in the far-off future but rather events which Jesus said were to occur within the life span of the current generation (‘this generation’ Matt 23:36). In other words, they were asking what signs might manifest the coming of these events which they clearly connected the end of the age.

The disciples properly understood the ramifications of what Jesus had spoken on that day. The temple was to be utterly destroyed and left desolate. Henceforth the nation was never to bear fruit forever (Matt 21: 19). The kingdom of God was to be taken away from Israel and given to a nation producing the fruits thereof (Matt 21: 43). If this was to occur and occur it must since the Lord Himself had predicted it, then everything that marked the Jewish economy was coming to a bitter end. The end of that age was coming to a close.


Dan Norcini

January 25, 2002


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