Harry Whittaker
Studies in the Gospels

173. The Olivet Prophecy [1] (Matt. 24:1 -14; Mark 13:1-13; Luke 21:5-19)*

"Your house is left unto you desolate" (Mt.23 :38). And Jesus accompanied by the twelve, left the temple. He had made his last appeal. He had spoken his last warning to the nation and its leaders.

As they were leaving, one of the apostles, Peter probably (see Notes), less oppressed by the solemnity of the occasion than he should have been, enthusiastically (or perhaps in an effort to persuade his Lord to go back on his sombre pronouncement) drew attention to some of the impressive features of that noble assembly of buildings: "Master, see what manner of stones, and what buildings!" Matthew's text seems to carry the idea: 'You ask me to look and admire. Instead I ask you to look and lament.'

The Wonder of the World

There was some excuse for pride. For nearly fifty years (Jn.2 :20) royal revenue and national effort had combined to make this temple the most majestic erection in the world. It had double cloisters, profuse ornamentation of red and white marble, great monolithic columns, and elegant decorations such as the great candelabrum and the golden vine, provided by Herod, which had bunches of grapes as tall as a man. Since the temple was still unfinished, it is not unlikely that there were some recent additions calling forth special admiration.

In his "Recovery of Jerusalem" Wilson, the nineteenth century archeologist, invites his readers to imagine "a building longer and higher than York Cathedral, standing on a solid mass of masonry almost equal in height to the tallest of our church spires." In those foundations were blocks of limestone of fantastic size. Josephus (Ant. 15.11.2) gives the dimensions of some as 25 by 8 by 12 cubits (and the cubit was at least half a yard), all of them precision cut and bevelled; and some, he adds, were 45 cubits long. Even after making due allowance for Josephus' undoubted weakness for exaggeration when dealing with numbers of any sort, it is evident that some astonishing engineering had gone into the erection of this sanctuary now deserted by the Glory of the Lord.

The phrase: "goodly stones and gifts" (Lk.), deliberately introduces a word marvellously like "anathema, curse," This doom Jesus now went on to pronounce: "As for these things which ye behold, the days will come in the which there shall not be left one stone upon another, that shall not be thrown down" (the negatives here are very emphatic).

It was a terrifying imprecation, from which any Jew would shrink away incredulous. Yet it had been foretold long before by Micah the prophet: "Therefore Zion for your sake shall be plowed as a field, and Jerusalem shall become heaps, and the mountain of the House (i.e. the altar; Ez.43 :15 mg) as the (deserted) high places of the forest" (3 :12). The context of these words was wonderfully apt-a searing denunciation of the nation's leaders comparable to that which Jesus himself had spoken that very day (Mt.23) to men whose philosophy was: "Is not the Lord among us? none evil can come upon us."

In the days of good king Hezekiah reformation had brought indefinite deferment of the fulfilment of these grim words (Jer.26:18,19) but now the one Man who could intercede on behalf of the unholy city was about to be done to death by it.

When these horrific events came to pass, the words seem to have been literally fulfilled. In the assault on Jerusalem Titus gave strict instructions that the temple was to be spared. Yet the entire complex of buildings has disappeared without trace. Today nothing is known about the lay-out of the temple area—only that the temple was there, somewhere. So far as is known, orify two of the temple stones have been identified -those which carry an inscription threatening death to any Gentile going beyond the Soreg, the "middle wall of partition." The Law of Moses had pronounced that when it was indubitably established, that a house had "leprosy" (dry rot?) in its fabric, it was to be utterly demolished, and "they shall pour out the dust that they scrape off without the city into an unclean place" (Lev.14 :41). Thus also the leprous house of God in Jerusalem. It meant an end to the Law of Moses, for sacrifices and atonement were at the very heart of that system, and without temple and altar none of the rest would be possible.

Were the twelve incredulous, or aghast, or too busy talking hard among themselves to take up the matter with Jesus immediately? It was not until they had descended the oblique path to the Kidron, and had breasted the mount of Olives directly opposite the temple, that they plied him with questions about it. And then it was only four of them, who asked him, apart from the rest, as he now sat looking sadly across to the temple area. Four out of twelve, and these four his first disciples (Jn.1 :40,41: Study 20) and closest to him! Not all the Lord's servants have a burning zeal for greater knowledge about the prophecies of Holy Scripture. Now, as then, enlightenment in this field comes to those who are persistent in their enquiries.

Pressing Questions

They asked three questions: "Tell us (note here how insistent they were), when shall these things be (the destruction of the temple)? and what shall be the sign (one particular sign) of thy coming, and of the consummation of the age?" The grim character of the Lord's prediction was accepted without demur or expostulation. But they assumed that the day which brought the temple to ruin must necessarily be the great climax bringing in Messiah's regeneration of all things. On this confusion between distinct events Jesus did not disillusion them—possibly because he could not, for even the Son of man did not know the time of his return in glory (Mk.13 :32). They had heard him speak of his coming again: "Ye shall not see me until ye say, Blessed is he that cometh in the name of the Lord" (Mt.23 :39). And from his own instruction they knew that "the consummation of the age" meant the Day of Judgment (Mt.13 :39,40: so also Dan.l2:4,7LXX).

The immediate reply of Jesus was only a summary; it included a brief anticipation of the events heralding the Last Day (Lk.21 :10,11), but for a while he concentrated mostly on the crisis of the temple's overthrow, and the chain of trials and catastrophes leading up to it. All students of the Olivet prophecy find themselves beset- with problems as to when the Lord intended reference to the fall of Jerusalem and when to the time of his coming. (For suggestions regarding these difficulties, see "The Time of the End," ch. 14, by H.A.W.).

First, then, a solemn warning against being misled by false Messiahs claiming for themselves: "I AM hath sent me unto you" (Ex.3 :14), and: "The time is at hand." Before he was through, Jesus was to recur to this warning as specially needful (Mt.24 ill,13-28). Those of his disciples who are most eager to see Messiah's return in their own time are specially liable to be deceived by imposters. If not by false Christs, then by equally false religious interpreters claiming special prophetic power and authority. The repeated exhortations to caution are very urgent: "Take heed that ye be not deceived (Lk.) . . . Many false prophets shall rise, and shall deceive many ... believe it not... go not forth .. . Behold, I have told you before (Mt.)."

The other technical term used here for the second coming—parousia—means, strictly, presence; and accordingly it has been much misinterpreted by "Jehovah's Witnesses" as necessarily meaning an invisible presence of the Lord since 1914. It requires one minute with a good concordance to expose the utter falsity of such a notion. Such passages as 1 Cor. 16:17; 2 Cor. 7:6; 10:10; Phil. 1:26; 2:12 make nonsense of the idea of an Invisible presence. In fact, in the first century, parousia was normally used to describe the visit of Caesar to one of his provinces—definitely not an invisible coming.

Social collapse

Another test of a very different kind would prove to be the violent national disturbances which were imminent—"wars and commotions," such as the occasion when twenty thousand Jews were slaughtered in Caesarea (Jos.B.J.2.18.1). Prophecies of this kind surely sounded strangely in the ears of disciples who lived under the settled pox Romana. A period of increasing chaos, such as Judaea experienced in the generation after Christ, would not only trouble the disciples then but make them increasingly confident that the End was near.

"Not so! "counselled Jesus, "wars and rumours of wars must not unsettle you. Neither the end of the temple, nor the end of the age, comes immediately." At this point he broke into the main thread of his discourse to explain what The End would be like (Lk.21 :10,11). "Nation against nation, and kingdom against kingdom" was hardly possible, except on the smallest scale, in the first century, because of the iron domination of Rome everywhere. Here, surely, Jesus was foretelling a complete breakdown of law and order in the Last Days, these evils being accentuated by "famines, and pestilences, and earthquakes in divers places." Yet even such an accumulation of horror would be only "the beginning of travail.". It, .would mean the, traumatic new spiritual birth of Israel and thus of the Messianic Kingdom.

This phraseology—'nation against nation, and kingdom against kingdom'—is very reminiscent of Isaiah 19 :2, where the context seems to require reference to civil war. Is it remarkable that today most nations of the world have such problems of racial minorities and a marked trend towards terrorism that there is now fair prospect of a complete collapse of ordered society? It is the kind of development that could come with frightening suddenness, and especially in Israel.


But more immediately there was to be a period of intense Jewish animosity and persecution of Christian believers: "They shall deliver you up to councils and in the synagogues ye shall be beaten" (Mk .). The story of the Book of Acts was to prove the truth of this prophecy. (Acts4:3;5:18;8:3; 12:4; 16:24; 22:4; 26:10). The Gentile authority of "kings and governors" would be organized against the new movement. Far from being demoralised by such hardships, the disciples must rejoice in this experience as a great opportunity for public witness: "It shall turn to you for a testimony," the best of all possible advertisements. (Or could these words mean: "It will prove to you that all is going right, according to the will of God"?)

They could face these persecutions with confidence and complete freedom from worry. No need for anxiety beforehand about how best to testify. (Luke uses the technical term for preparing a speech). The Faith of Christ would not be brought to shame. More than adequate guidance would be afforded them through the gifts of the Holy Spirit in the early church. "I will give you a mouth and wisdom which all your adversaries shall not be able to gainsay, nor resist" (Lk; c.p. Mt. 10:20).

The Lord made no promise of easy deliverance. Although Scripture provides repeated assurance of protection of the faithful remnant when divine judgment comes on an ungodly world, there is never any promise of immunity from persecution. "They will deliver you up to be afflicted, and shall kill you (Mt.)... Brother will deliver up brother to death (Mk.)." Even parents, kinsmen and friends (Lk.) would readily join in the persecution.

What was the look on the faces of those four apostles as they heard these things? In one way or another they were all to suffer personally in the cause of their Lord. Nevertheless (Jesus promised) they would become men of power, like Moses and like Jeremiah: "I will be with thy mouth, and teach thee what thou shalt say . . . Behold, I have put my words in thy mouth" (Ex.4 :12; Jer. l :9). And so it turned out: "Then Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit, said unto them (the chief priests)..." (Acts 4 :8); "and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit, and they spake the word of God with boldness" (4 :31). There would be hatred in full measure, not because of any qualities of their own, but because they stood up uncompromisingly for the truth of Christ: "Hear the word of the Lord, ye that tremble at his word: Your brethren that dated you, that cast you out for my name's sake, said, Let the Lord be glorified: but he shall appear to your joy, and they shall be ashamed" (ls.66 :5; the context is remarkable). In every way possible Jesus sought to assure his followers that persecution was not to be regarded as an evil: "There shall not an hair of your head perish" (Lk.21 :18; and this in spite of v.12,16).

This persecution passage, abundantly fulfilled in the first century, may well prove to have startling relevance in the Last Days also, when a remnant of Israelis believing in Jesus have to face the concentrated hatred of their bigoted fellows.

The disciple and his Lord

It is perhaps not inappropriate at this point to draw attention to a remarkable similarity which builds up in the Olivet prophecy between the trials and hardships foretold for the disciples and all that Jesus himself had to undergo in his last hours.

Mark 13
Deliver you up to councils;
Before the Sanhedrin.

Beaten in synagogues;
Buffetted by his adversaries.

Before rulers and kings,
Chief priests and Herod and Pilate.

for a testimony.
Confession before Pilate.
Brother shall deliver up brother to death
Betrayed (s.w.) by his "own familiar friend".
Not turn back to take his garment
John Mark's (?) linen garment.
Woe to them with child, and them that give suck
On the road to Golgotha, the same lament (Lk.23:27,28).
Days shortened.
The time in the tomb as short as possible, for "third day" to stand true.
False Christs.

Deceive the very elect.
The repentant malefactor a former disciple (led astray by Barabbas; Study 230).
I have foretold you all things.
Warning to the disciples of his sufferings.
Sun darkened.
Darkness at crucifixion.
Son of man coming in clouds.
This claim repeated at his trial (Mk.14 :62).
Of that day and hour knoweth no man
The hour is come.
Watch with me.

and pray.
Prayer in Gethsemane.
Ye know not when

— at even
Last Supper

— at midnight

— at cockcrow
Peter's denials

— in the morning.
Condemnation and crucifixion
Find you sleeping
Disciples sleeping in Gethsemane.

These resemblances can hardly be accidental. They underline the important lesson (Jn.15 :20,21) that, in following Christ, the disciple will find in his own experience echoes of what his Lord had to undergo (see H.A.W: "Revelation", ch.25; "Acts" ch.109).

Trials of yet another kind would assail the disciples: "And then shall many be offended, and shall betray one another, and shall hate one another. And many false prophets shall rise, and shall deceive many. And because iniquity shall abound, the love of (the) many shall wax cold." This was a blunt and shattering prophecy of failure. And so it came about. Many did renounce the Faith, many perverted it, the majority just drifted away.

Again, the student is bidden look for a further reference of these words to the last days, 'for "iniquity shall abound" is the equivalent of "the wicked shall do wickedly" (Dan.12 :10), a passage which most certainly foretells the time of the end in Israel (see v. 11).

But, yet again, Jesus can be seen to be referring back to the last two verses of Daniel: "Blessed is he that waiteth (endureth)... at the end of the days" (12 :12,13). It is a further intimation of the repeat fulfilment of this part of the Olivet prophecy in modern times.

Early decay

It is usual, in commentaries and histories of the early church, to represent the progress of the Faith as steady and irresistible. But in fact such statements are true only of the apostasy which set in, and not of the true gospel of Christ. The primary cause of this decay was what might well be described as the Jewish counter-reformation. Throughout the New Testament there are indications enough that the hostile forces of Jewry, finding themselves unable to stifle the Faith by the power of Holy Scripture or by the evidence of indisputable facts, applied themselves to the classic technique of wrecking the new movement from within. (This is a large and complex subject, not to be developed here. Its staring point is Gal.2:4. See "Acts", App. 3, HAW.

Thus, what Jesus was describing beforehand in this trenchant passage was the bitter discouragement of seeing his Truth being defeated by the powers of evil—members of the ecclesia of Christ betraying each other, false teachers working mischief amongst new converts (2 Pet.2 :1; 1 Jn.4 :1), and all kinds of wicked maneuvering by false brethren (2 Cor. 11 :26). All this happened on a big scale before ever Paul and Peter suffered martyrdom.

Jesus did not counsel denunciation or counter-violence, but simply the dogged holding on to truth which only faith can make possible: "He that endures to the end, the same shall be saved." He did not mean the end of the Jewish dispensation. Holding on to the Faith until the signal judgments of A.D.70 arrived was not outstandingly meritorious in itself. "Be thou faithful unto death," was the exhortation of Christ to his hard-pressed brethren (Rev.2 :10). "Ye have need of patience, that, after ye have done the will of God, ye might receive the promise . . . We are not of them that draw bad unto perdition, but of them that believe unto the saving of the soul" (Heb.10:36,39).

The prospect was by no means entirely discouraging. In spite of the many hindrances foreseen, the gospel would rapidly spread far and wide: "This gospel of the kingdom shall be preached in all the world for a witness unto all nations" (Mt.). Strange paradox, that the message should make headway in spite of deceivers, Roman hostility, tribulation, treachery, hatred, dissension, love growing cold, and iniquity abounding. Yet, within thirty years, it was possible for Paul to quote, with reference to the preaching of the gospel: "Their sound went into all the earth, their words to the end of the world" (Ps.19:4; Rom.10:18). Andin all soberness he would write to the Colossians that "the gospel was preached to every creature which is under heaven ... it is come unto you, as it is in all the world" (Col. l:23,6).

This work accomplished, the "end" that Jesus had first spoken of—the utter ruin of the temple and holy city—would be held back no longer: "Thus saith the Lord God unto the land of Israel: an end, the end is come upon the four corners of the land. Now the end is come upon thee, and I will send (unleash, hurry forth; Hebrew Piel) mine anger upon thee" (Ez.7 :2,3).

Notes: Mt. 24:1-14

His disciples. Mk: one of his disciples. Since Mark is Peter's gospel, and the phrase may be a Hebraism for ‘the leading apostle', this was probably Peter.
Thrown down. Evidently Stephen made use of this prophecy, for it was used against him at his trial; Acts 6:14.
When Mt. compiled his gospel it was evidently still understood that all these three things would happen together. For much more on this, see "Revelation", Appendix; H.A.W.
Deceive Ominous repetition of an ominous word: v.4,11,24
Hear...see...rumours (reports). Very apposite to the efficiency of modern news media.

Must come to pass = Dan.2 :28LXX = also Rev. 1 :1.

The end: Dan.9:26.
Hated of all nations. Lk. adds: But there shall not a hair of your head perish. The Lord quotes 1 Sam. 14:45, and in turn in Acts 27:34 he quotes his own words. What a contrast in 2 Cor. 11:23ff.

Previous Index Next