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Significance of the Olivet Discourse
By Prof. J.S. Malan, University of the North, South Africa
A very clear prophetic scenario of the first and last generations of the present dispensation is described by Jesus in His Olivet Discourse. Both these generations are characterised by the coexistence of Israel and the Church. In the first generation, the Church was established and phased in, while Israel was on a course of being phased out by way of the Diaspora. In the last generation, Israel is restored and phased in while the Church must prepare itself to be phased out by way of the rapture.
The Lord Jesus made various cogent statements about the future of Israel and the nations in His Prophetic Discourse, also known as the Olivet Discourse. These facts are often disregarded in prophetic analyses, or misinterpreted because of a number of reasons. This important discourse will be considered within its appropriate dispensational framework, from which its great prophetic significance is evident.
Different perspectives of the Gospels
As an introduction to this article, I would like to explain the reasons for the different presentations of the Olivet Discourse by Matthew and Luke (Mark's version of the Olivet Discourse is virtually the same as that of Matthew). Appreciation of these facts will hopefully keep one from only reading the version of Matthew and to wrongly contemplate the prophetic future of the Church in the typical Jewish scenario described by Matthew.
An intensive study of the three synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) reveals the fact that they have complementary theological perspectives. Although the basic message of salvation is described by all three of them, the Gospel of Matthew was written for the Jews. It has a decidedly Jewish orientation in which preference is explicitly given to Israel for proclaiming the message of God's kingdom. In the period before the national rejection of Jesus by the Jews, the disciples were ordered to concentrate on Israel and not to go to the Gentiles such as the Samaritans (cf. Mt. 10:5-6; 15:24). References to the Old Testament predominate in Matthew to demonstrate to a sceptical nation that the life and works of Jesus in minute detail fulfil the Old Testament prophecies about the coming of the Messiah. A Jewish genealogy is quoted for Jesus, which is reckoned from Abraham. His descent from David is often mentioned and He is specifically described as the King of the Jews.
In the presentation of prophecies, including the Olivet Discourse, the Jewish perspective is maintained. The destruction of Jerusalem is clearly foretold, as well as the fact that Jesus would leave His people who rejected Him until the time when they will accept Him and bless Him in the Name of the Lord (Mt. 23:37-39). The hardships of the tribulation period and also the desecration of the temple are recorded by Matthew in chapter 24 since Israel, as a nation, will go through the tribulation period. In this Gospel, clear instructions are given to the Jews on how to flee from Judea in the middle of the coming tribulation. In this description, use is made of typical Jewish terms such as the Sabbath (Mt. 24:15-22).
Luke, in his Gospel, offers a strikingly different perspective. This Gospel was written for non-Jewish believers and has a much more universal orientation in that the position of the Christians as well as the unsaved Gentile nations is specifically described. The genealogy of Jesus is reckoned back to Adam (Lk. 3:38) as Jesus has come for all the descendants of Adam "to seek and to save that which was lost" (Lk. 19:10). The Jews are rebuked for their intolerance towards the Samaritans (Lk. 9:51-56), while it is also indicated that with the healing of the ten lepers only one, a Samaritan, turned back to glorify God (Lk. 17:11-19).
In his prophetic review, Luke not only discusses the fate of the unbelieving Jewish people but he also records prophecies for the Messianic believers, the non-Jewish Christians and the nations. The escape from the destruction of Jerusalem, which has been promised by Jesus to believers, is mentioned by Luke (Lk. 21:20-22) but not by Matthew. Likewise, the promise of the rapture to Jewish as well as non-Jewish believers is recorded by Luke (Lk. 21:34-36) but not by Matthew. On the other hand, Luke only summarises the events of the tribulation period and does not refer to the desecration of the temple by the false messiah, as does Matthew. It is also conspicuous that Luke clearly indicates the times of the Gentiles that would expire between the first and last generations (Lk. 21:24). Mathew makes no mention of this period.
The Olivet Discourse
In the Olivet Discourse, the Lord Jesus gave to His disciples clear signs pointing to the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple, as well as signs related to His Second Coming:
"Then Jesus went out and departed from the temple, and His disciples came to Him to show Him the buildings of the temple. And Jesus said to them, Do you not see all these things? Assuredly, I say to you, not one stone shall be left here upon another, that shall not be thrown down. Now as He sat 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?" (Mt. 24:1-3).
Two questions were posed to the Lord: (1) "When will the temple be destroyed?" and (2) "What is the sign of your coming at the end of this age?" In the discourse following these questions, various important events of contemporary significance to the Jews of the first generation after the rejection and crucifixion of the Messiah were discussed, as well as events related to the last generation before the Second Coming of Jesus. In these prophecies, a clear distinction must be made between first generation and last generation events as they relate to the two questions asked to Jesus. It is also significant that the beginning and end of both generations are linked to events in and around the city of Jerusalem.
When referring to the immediate future of Jerusalem and its inhabitants of the early first century, Jesus addressed the sceptical Jewish leaders who rejected Him just as their fathers rejected and killed the prophets. They filled up the measure of their fathers' guilt and would inevitably have to bear the consequences of their actions:
"Assuredly, I say to you, all these things will come upon this generation. O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the one who kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to her! How often I wanted to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing! See! Your house is left to you desolate; for I say to you, you shall see Me no more till you say, 'Blessed is He who comes in the Name of the Lord!" (Mt. (23:36-39).
"But when you see Jerusalem surrounded by armies, then know that its desolation is near For there will be great distress in the land and wrath upon this people. And they will fall by the edge of the sword, and be led away captive into all nations. And Jerusalem will be trampled by Gentiles until the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled" (Lk. 21:20, 23-24).
When Jesus refers to the last generation, it is done in the context of a restored Jerusalem which is in the midst of the great tribulation with its unprecedented distress, wars and natural disasters that will culminate in His Second Coming. This generation would start after the long period of the trampling of Jerusalem has come to and end:
"And Jerusalem will be trampled by Gentiles until the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled. And [after that] there will be signs in the sun, in the moon, and in the stars; and on the earth distress of nations, with perplexity, the sea and the waves roaring; men's hearts failing them from fear and the expectation of those things which are coming on the earth, for the powers of heaven will be shaken. Then they will see the Son of man coming in a cloud with power and great glory. Now when these things begin to happen, look up and lift your heads, because your redemption draws near Assuredly, I say to you, this generation will by no means pass away till all things are fulfilled" (Lk. 21:25-32; see also Mt. 24:34).
The parameters of the first and last generations of the present age (the dispensation of the Church) are clearly defined in the above quotations from Scripture. The first generation started when the inhabitants of Jerusalem rejected their Messiah-King and delivered Him to the Roman authorities to be crucified. The end of the first generation was marked by the destruction of Jerusalem and the beginning of the Diaspora.
The last generation commenced with the recapturing of Jerusalem (the Old City) by the restored people of Israel. Please note that with the rebirth of Israel as a nation in 1948, Biblical Jerusalem (Mount Zion and the Temple Mount) was not under their control. They only recaptured it during the Six Day War in June 1967, thereby ushering in the last generation. This generation will end when the inhabitants of Jerusalem receive and accept their Messiah-King when He will suddenly appear on the Mount of Olives at the end of the tribulation period. They will look on Him whom they have pierced, and say: "Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord!" (Mt. 23:39).
The last generation will end where the first one started: The inhabitants of Jerusalem will again be given the opportunity to accept Yeshua as their Messiah-King and to bow down before Him for salvation. On the first occasion they rejected Him, but on the second occasion they will fully accept Him.
A very conspicuous characteristic of the inaugurating and concluding generations of the Church dispensation is the coexistence of Israel and the Church. During the first generation, the Church was gradually phased in while Israel was on a course to be phased out as a nation by way of the Diaspora. During the last generation, modern Israel is gradually phased in while the Church must prepare itself to be phased out by way of the rapture.
Prominent events of the first generation
A matter that receives great emphasis in the Olivet Discourse is that the true believers would be excused from the divine judgements over Jerusalem in the first generation. The same Biblical principle is also applied to the last generation in that true believers will again be removed from the disaster area of divine judgements. This is a long-established principle, as God never pours out His divine wrath over believers when He judges the wicked. Noah, Lot, and their families were also removed to safety before God judged the wicked generation of their time.
The following promise was given to the believers of the first generation:
"But when you see Jerusalem surrounded by armies, then know that its desolation is near. Then let those in Judea flee to the mountains, let those who are in the midst of her depart, and let not those who are in the country enter her. For these are days of vengeance, that all things that are written may be fulfilled" (Lk. 21:20-22).
This promise was literally fulfilled to the believers in November and December of the year 66 AD. The occasion was the siege of Jerusalem by the forces of the Roman governor of Syria, Cestius Gallus. After realising that he was not well enough prepared for a long siege of Jerusalem, which was a strongly fortified city, he withdrew to Syria.
The Jewish leaders wrongly concluded that God was giving the enemy into their hands, and pursued them. In their pursuit the Jewish forces killed 5300 of the retreating Roman soldiers, while sustaining virtually no loss themselves.
At the same time, the Messianic believers observed the promise of Jesus and fled the city in a north-easterly direction. They crossed the Jordan and took refuge in Decapolis, in the city of Pella, where they were safe from the impending doom of Jerusalem and its inhabitants.
At this time Nero, one of the greatest tyrants in history, was the emperor in Rome. He was outraged when he heard of the humiliating defeat of his Syrian army at the hands of the Jews. He ordered one of his best generals, Vespasian, to subject the Jews by brutal force. The end of Vespasian's bloody campaign was the siege of Jerusalem that started on 10 May, 70 AD. His son, Titus, joined him with his soldiers who were stationed at Alexandria. When Vespasian was called to Rome to succeed as the new emperor, Titus took command of the forces in Judea.
Contrary to what Jesus ordered in Luke 21:20-24, great numbers of Jews flocked to Jerusalem after various Jewish towns and cities were captured and destroyed by the enemy. They thought that they would be safe in Jerusalem, but Jesus described an opposite scenario:
"Now as He drew near, He saw the city and wept over it, saying, If you had known, even you, especially in this your day, the things that make for your peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes. For the days will come upon you when your enemies will build and embankment around you, surround you and close you in on every side, and level you, and your children within you, to the ground; and they will not leave in you one stone upon another, because you did not know the time of your visitation" (Lk. 19:41-44).
During the siege of Jerusalem, 1,1 million people died half of them of hunger. The temple was set alight and all its walls broken down to the rock foundation to retrieve the molten gold that flowed into the cracks in the floor. All the buildings in the city were burned and demolished. On 26 September in AD 70, the once famous City of David died. Only one wall (the present Western Wall on the Temple Mount) was left standing to serve as a shelter for Roman soldiers who remained behind to ensure that the Jews did not rebuild the city. The 97 000 surviving Jews were taken as captives of war. Many of them were sold on slave markets in other provinces of the Roman Empire.
The long time of Israel's international dispersion and the trampling of Jerusalem by the Gentiles had dawned in AD 70. The subsequent period is described as the times of the Gentiles (Lk. 21:24), that is the time of world evangelism. It was not until late in the 20th century that Jerusalem would revert to Jewish control.
Prominent events of the last generation
The physical restoration of Jerusalem to the Jewish people occurred in June 1967. Israel had to be established in the surrounding country for a number of years to become strong enough to capture the Old City and the West Bank area. That happened in the Six Day War, when they achieved remarkable victories on three different fronts fighting Egypt, Syria and Jordan at the same time. The control over the entire Jerusalem ushered in the last generation and paved the way for the declaration, in August 1980, of Jerusalem as the eternal and indivisible capital of Israel.
There are striking similarities between Israel and Jerusalem in the last generation, and the situation that prevailed during the first generation:
The phasing out of the Church is a very prominent event of the last generation. The judgements and testing that Israel as well as the Christ-rejecting nations need in order that a remnant may be saved, are not meant for the true Church:
"Watch therefore, and pray always that you may be counted worthy to escape all these things that will come to pass, and to stand before the Son of Man" (Lk. 21:36).
Please note that nominal believers will not be counted worthy to escape the coming tribulation period. True Christians are vigilant and praying witnesses of the Lord Jesus Christ. The others only have a form of Godliness. Jesus says:
"These people draw near to Me with their mouth, and honour Me with their lips, but their heart is far from Me" (Mt. 15:8).
After the rapture, the Antichrist will reveal himself and be accepted by Israel and all the other nations (Jn. 5:43; Dan. 9:27). At the middle of the tribulation period he will enter the rebuilt temple in Jerusalem, stop the sacrificial service, declare himself to be God, and institute the forced worship of an image of himself (Dan. 9:27; 2 Thess. 2:4; Rev. 13:15). When the Jewish leaders refuse to accept and worship him in his new capacity, he will try to annihilate them. Jesus warned the Jews against this very serious turn of events and advised them to flee hastily from Jerusalem when it happens:
"Therefore when you see the abomination of desolation, spoken of by Daniel the prophet, standing in the holy place (whoever reads, let him understand), then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains. Let him who is on the housetop not come down to take anything out of his house. And let him who is in the field not go back to get his clothes. But woe to those who are pregnant and to those with nursing babies in those days! And pray that your flight may not be in winter or on the Sabbath. For then there will be great tribulation, such as has not been since the beginning of the world until this time, no, nor ever shall be" (Mt. 24:15-21).
This escape will occur 3½ years after the rapture, and will be aimed at preserving a remnant of the Jews during the dark days of the great tribulation, that they may live to see the coming of the true Messiah 3½ years later and be saved.
At the end of the seven-year tribulation period, the Second Coming of the Lord Jesus will take place. The surviving Jews will go to the Mount of Olives where He will stand on the mountain after having descended from heaven. "In that day His feet will stand on the Mount of Olives, which faces Jerusalem on the east" (Zech. 14:4). They will then say to Him: "Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord!" (Mt. 23:39).
The spiritual restoration of the remnant of Israel will conclude the events of the last generation of the present age (Zech. 12:10; 13:1).
In the light of these very clear prophecies in the Olivet Discourse of Jesus it should be obvious that the last generation is far advanced. The rapture of the Church is very near, and will be followed by the revelation of the false messiah and the beginning of the tribulation period. Jesus warned against the deception that will coincide with the coming of the false messiah (Mt. 24:4-5).
Prophetic turning-points in the history of Israel and the Gentiles
In the Olivet Discourse it is clearly stated that during the Diaspora the position of Israel, their land and their city, Jerusalem, was never meant to be one of permanent rejection. The word until is used a few times to underscore the fact that at some future time their fate will certainly change and take a turn for the better. Likewise, the times of the Gentiles will also not continue indefinitely:
There are also other prophecies about the future of Israel and the nations in which the word until is used in the same way as in the Olivet Discourse. Paul said:
"For I do not desire, brethren, that you should be ignorant of this mystery, lest you should be wise in your own opinion, that hardening in part has happened to Israel until (Gr. achri) the fullness of the Gentiles has come in. And so all Israel will be saved, as it is written: 'The Deliverer will come out of Zion, and He will turn away ungodliness from Jacob; for this is My covenant with them when I take away their sins" (Rom. 11:25-27).
The national conversion of the remnant of Israel will occur right at the end of the present generation, which will also be the end of the great tribulation. By that time, the after-crop among the Gentiles will have been gathered during the preceding tribulation period; and then "all Israel" will be saved (Jer. 31:7, 31, 34).
Through the prophet Hosea, the Lord rebukes Israel for their spiritual revolt against Him and indicates the implications of their consequent rejection of the Messiah:
"For I will be like a lion to Ephraim, and like a young lion to the house of Judah. I, even I, will tear them and go away, and no one shall rescue. I will return again to My place till (Heb. ad) they acknowledge their offence. Then they will seek My face; in their affliction they will diligently seek Me.
"Come, and let us return to the Lord; for He has torn, but He will heal us; He has stricken, but He will bind us up. After two days he will revive us; on the third day He will raise us up, that we may live in His sight" (Hos. 5:14 - 6:2).
The time will certainly come when Israel experiences great distress because they have rejected their Messiah during His first coming. However, the full realisation of their national rejection of the Messiah will only take place after "two days". These prophetic "days" of a thousand years each (2 Pet. 3:8) are the same as those used by Jesus when He referred to His own ministry: "I cast out demons and perform cures today and tomorrow, and the third day I shall be perfected" (Lk. 13:32). After the "two days" (2 000 years) of the ministry of Jesus to save people from the bondage of Satan, He will reign as King in the third millennium (also referred to as "the Day of the Lord" Zech. 14:8-9). These three "days" started with the coming of Jesus to the world two thousand years ago, which was the beginning of the Messiahs earthly ministry.
From this prophetic context it is clear that two millennia after the first coming of the Messiah, a time of great affliction and distress will dawn for Jacob (Jer. 30:7). As indicated by Jesus in His Olivet Discourse, Israel will first worship the false messiah. After he will have set up his image in the temple and declared himself to be God (Mt. 24:15:21; Dan 9:27, 11:31, 36, 12:11), Israel will realise that he is a false messiah and break their covenant with him. This action will greatly infuriate the false messiah and induce him to try and annihilate the Jewish people. That will be a time of great distress, when Israel will realise their past sins of having rejected Yeshua ha Mashiach. Their meeting with Him at the Mount of Olives will lead to their national conversion (Zech. 12:10 - 13:1).
After the false messiah has set up his image in the temple during the middle of the tribulation period, the remnant of Israel will study the Messianic prophecies and discover that great distress is awaiting them, but that it will not be long before the true Messiah will come:
" there shall be a time of trouble, such as never was since there was a nation, even to that time. And at that time your people shall be delivered And from the time that the daily sacrifice is taken away, and the abomination of desolation is set up, there shall be 1290 days" (Dan. 12:1, 11).
The last 42 months of the tribulation period, referred to as the "great tribulation" by Jesus (Mt. 24:21; Rev. 11:2, 13:5), will elapse between the self-deification of the false messiah in the temple and the coming of the true Messiah on the Mount of Olives. That will be followed by a month of mourning by the Jews while they are reconciled with Yeshua ha Mashiach (Zech. 12:10-14; cf. their mourning for Moses in Deut. 34:8). By then, 43 prophetic months of 30 days each (1290 days) will have passed since the day that the false messiah desecrated the temple and forced people to worship him as God.
The meaning of a generation
A further concept that needs to be properly defined to gain a better understanding of the Olivet Discourse, is that of a generation (Gr. genea). This word has two related meanings as it may refer to a specific period in the existence of a group of people, or to the people themselves. In some cases Jesus used this word to indicate a group of people, for instance when He called the Scribes and Pharisees "an evil and adulterous generation" (Mt. 12:39). However, in other cases a specific period of time in a group is singled out for the occurrence of certain events. In that case only the members of that particular generation will be directly affected: "Assuredly, I say to you, this generation will by no means pass away till all these things are fulfilled" (Mt. 24:34).
It is obvious that in the chronology of a group, such as the nation of Israel, there are many generations. These generations come and go, and therefore all have a starting-point and a terminal point. The one generation is succeeded by another. Whereas a group of people may have a relatively continued existence, chronological generations are periods of limited duration.
Since the three living generations of a group (grandfather, father, and son) overlap, a single generation may be equated with the adult life of a person not his entire life span. In the history of Israel, a generation in their chronology represents a period of about 40 years. This is not a rigidly defined period, as a generation may be a little more or a little less than 40 years. The 28 generations from David (born in 1052 BC) to Jesus (Mt. 1:17) represent an average of 38,75 years per generation.
There are three generations in the history of Israel that are of immense prophetic significance. They are associated with:
The Lord said the following about the generation (adult persons) of the people of Israel who were delivered from Egypt:
"Surely none of the men who came up from Egypt, from twenty years old and above, shall see the land of which I swore to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob So the Lord's anger was aroused against Israel, en He made them wander in the wilderness forty years, until all the generation that had done evil in the sight of the Lord was gone" (Num. 32:11, 13).
It is obvious that not the entire nation, but only one specific generation, died in the wilderness during the 40 years of their wanderings.
The other two generations, associated with the Diaspora and end-time restoration of Israel, were both mentioned by Jesus in His Prophetic Discourse. The generation that elapsed between the rejection of Jesus as Messiah in AD 32 and the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD was 38,5 years long. The last generation started with the recapturing of Jerusalem in June 1967. Given the fact that the 7 years of the tribulation period are part of the last generation, the time of the rapture of the Church must surely be very near.
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