This paper presents this great passage from a Dispensationalist's point of view. I hope to deal with other viewpoints of this passage in future releases.
The Olivet Discourse has been a subject of controversy among Biblical scholars for many decades. There are three major views of the passage, which are listed below:
If the words of our Lord are taken literally, the third interpretation, that of the pretribulationist, is the most feasible, and the author's reasons for believing so will be stated in the course of the exposition.
But even among pretribulationalists there is some difference of opinion concerning some of the details. Some of these differences will also be stated in the course of the exposition.
Below is an outline of the Olivet Discourse. This outline reflects the opinions which the author has reached on the passage.
I. Introduction to the Discourse (24:1-3). A. Prophecy Concerning the Temple (24:1-2). B. Place of the Discourse (24:3a), C. The Apostles' Inquiry (24:3b). 1. Concerning the Destruction of the Temple. 2. Concerning the Sign of Christ's Return and the End of the Age. II. The End Times (24:4-28). A. Signs of the End Times (24:4-14). 1. False Christs (24:4-5). 2. Wars (24:6-7.). 3. Famines, Pestilences and Earthquakes (24:7b). 4. The Beginning of Sorrows (24:8). 5. Persecution (24:9-10). 6. False Prophets (24:11). 7. Abounding Iniquity and Consequent Emotional Indifference (24:12). 8. Parenthesis: Deliverance at the End (24:13). 9. Preaching of the Gospel of the Kingdom (24:14). B. The Great Tribulation (24:15-28). 1. The Abomination of Desolation (24:15). 2. Warning to Flight (24:16-20). 3. The Severity of the Great Tribulation (24:21-22), 4. Warning against False Christs (24:23-28). III. Christ's Return (24:29-41). A. The Prelude (24:29). B. The Appearanee (24:30). C. The Gathering (24:31), D. The Time (24:32-41). 1. The Hint of it (24:32-35). 2. The Uncertainty of it (24:36-41). IV. Parables Exhorting to Watchfulness (24:42-25:30). A. Introduction (24:42). B. The Goodman and the Thief (24:43-44). C. The Two Servants (24:45-51). D. The Ten Virgins (25:1Ä13). E. The Talents (25:14-30). V. Judgment of the Gentiles (25:31-46).
In Matthew 21:23, Jesus entered the temple, where He was confronted by Pharisees, scribes and Saducees who sought to trap Him into saying something for which they could condemn Him. The dialogue between Jesus and these Jewish leaders continued through Chapter 22. In Chapter 23, Jesus denounced the scribes and the Pharisees, and as Chapter 24 opens, Jesus is departing from the temple. His disciples approached Him and pointed out the buildings of the temple. Although the entire temple was not yet finished, and wouldn't be until A.D. 64, apparently some of the main buildings were already finished. The temple was constructed of massive stones, some of which weighed many tons, and they could only be dislodged by deliberate force. While they were viewing these magnificent structures, Jesus spoke His prophecy concerning its destruction: "See ye not all these things? verily I say unto you, There shall not be left here one stone upon another, that shall not be thrown down (v.2)." His words were fulfilled in A.D. 70, when Roman soldiers pried off the stones one by one and cast them into the valley below.3
After leaving the temple area, Jesus walked through the Kidron Valley and up the Mount of Olives, a hill east of Jerusalem which overlooked the city and the temple. As He sat on the Mount, His disciples came to Him with some questions. Their first question, "When shall these things be?," is not answered in Matthew's account, but is answered in Luke's account (Luke 2l:20-24). Their second question, "What shall be the sign of thy coming, and of the end of the world?," while it appears to be two questions, is actually only one, since the Jews understood that the coming of the Messiah would mark the end of their present age and usher in the "age to come."4,5
It must be remembered that when the disciples asked Jesus these questions, they asked them in light of their understanding of Biblical prophecy. When they spoke of "the end of the age," they were refering to the age in which they were then living, that is, the Jewish age, or the Mosaic Dispensation, not the Church age. That Jesus answered their question in light of this understanding is obvious from His reference to "the abomination of desolation, spoken of by Daniel the prophet" in 24:15. That Jesus' disciples at this point had not yet grasped the concept of a parenthetical Church age is obvious from Acts 1:6. The Olivet Discourse, therefore, is concerned primarily with the tribulation, or Daniel's "seventieth week."5,6
The end times, or the tribulation period of seven years, which leads up to the return of Christ, is outlined in 24:4-28. Verses 4-14 describe some signs which will indicate the presence of these end times, and verses 15-28 give a more detailed description of the last three and a half years of the tribulation, known as the "great tribulation."
Even among dispensational scholars there is disagreement as to the exact time span referred to in these eleven verses.
Chafer does not view the signs of verses 4-8 as characteristics of the tribulation, but as "characteristics of the unforeseen intervening or interealary age," i.e., the Church age. This view is based primarily upon Jesus' statement in verse 6 that "the end is not yet." Chafer then regards verses 9-28 as referring to the tribulation, and cites Christ's statement that "all these are the beginning of sorrows" as the signal marking the division.8 But, as Pentecost has pointed out, "consistency of interpretation would seem to eliminate any application of this portion of Scripture to the church or the church age, inasmuch as the Lord is dealing with the prophetic program for Israel."9
English views verses 4-14 as referring to the first half of the tribulation, while verses 15-26 refer to the second half. But Jesus' words at the end of verse 14, "and then shall the end come," reduce the feasibility of this view.l0
The most feasible view is that verses 4-14 describe signs of the entire tribulation period. There is an astonishing correspondence between the events mentioned by Christ here in Matthew 24:4-l4 and the order of the seals in Revelation 6. This view is also in keeping with the notion established earlier, that the Olivet Discourse is concerned with Daniel's "seventieth week."
It my be possible to carry this view one step further and divide the passage between verses 8 and 9,11 with verses 4-8 referring to the first half of the tribulation (the first through fourth seals of Revelation 6) and verses 9-14 referring to the second half of the tribulation (The fifth and sixth seals of Revelation 6, plus the parenthetic of Chapter 7).
Jesus' statement in verse 8, "All these are the beginning of sorrows," refers to verses 4-7 and this statement, together with "Then" in verse 9, seems to form a dividing point which lends plausibility to this view.
Scofield sees these verses as having double interpretation, seeing them as referring to the present age in general, but having their ultimate fulfillment in the tribulation. But while some of these characteristics do apply to the present age, interpreting these verses as a reference to it must be rejected on the same grounds as Chafer's view.12
The signs mentioned in this passage are; False Christs (4-5), wars (6Ä7a), famines, pestilences and earthquakes (7b), persecution (9-10), false prophets (11), abounding iniquity and consequent emotional indifference (12), and the worldwide preaching of the "Gospel of the Kingdom" (14).
Christ's statement that "he that shall endure unto the end, the same shall be saved" in verse 13 deserves special comment. Walvoord has stated:
This is not a reference to salvation from sin, but rather the deliverance of survivors at the end of the age as stated, for instance, in Romans 11:26, where the Deliverer will save the nation Israel from its persecutors.13
"This gospel of the kingdom" mentioned in verse l4 also deserves special comment. It is "the good news that the kingdom promised to Israel...is again 'at hand'"14 But this proclamation will not be divorced from the Gospel of salvation, since salvation is necessary for entrance into the kingdom and we know from Revelation 7 that a multitude of Jews and Gentiles will be saved during the tribulation. Kent gives a good comprehensive definition of the "Gospel of the kingdom":
[The Gospel of the kingdom is] the good news of salvation in the Messiah, with the emphasis that the Messianic kingdom is about to be established.15
Verses 15-28 of Chapter 24 describe the last half of the tribulation, known as the "great tribulation." The prominent sign indicating the beginning of the great tribulation will be the setting up of the "abomination of desolation" in the holy place, or the holy of holies, of the temple (24:15). Daniel speaks of an "abomination of desolation" three times, in 9:27, 11:31 and 12:11. One of these, 11:31, was already fulfilled when Antiochus Epiphanes set up an image of Jupiter in the holy place of the temple in the second century B.C. But Daniel's predictions in 9:27 and 12:11 await fulfillment in the tribulation, and according to 9:27 the abomination shall be set up in the midst of the tribulations. We are given more information regarding this abonimation in Revelation 13:14-15, which tells us that the world ruler will have an image of himself set up in the temple.
In verses 16-20, Jesus warns the Jews that they are to take flight when they see the "abomination of desolation." This sign is to mark the beginning of a three and a half year period which will be so horrible that Jesus told the people to flee to the mountains without the slightest hesitation, not even returning for clothes. He mentioned that it would be really bad for those nursing children, and instructed them to pray that it won't be winter when the great tribulation begins, which would hinder flight, or that it won't be on the Sabbath day, when their flight would be most noticeable and when they might have a hard time securing supplies or lodging.17
The severity of the great tribulation is described in verses 21-22. This is to be the worst time that the world will ever see -- so bad, in fact, that if it is allowed to continue beyond the time which God has ordained the entire human population of the world will be wiped out. However, for the sake of the elect -- probably referring to Israel -- the days will be cut short, in other words, they will not extend indefinately, but three and half years after the appearance of the abomination of desolation Christ will return, putting an end to the great tribulation.
Jesus warns them again in verses 23-28 about false Christs. Many will arise, and they will even be able to perform miracles. But Christ's second coming will not be something secret. According to verse 27, it will be a public event so that everyone, whether a believer or an unbeliever, will know when it occurs.18
As a prelude to Christ's return, there will apparently be complete darkness, since the sun will not be emitting light, the moon will have no light to reflect, and the stars will "fall from heaven." Furthermore, "the powers of the heavens shall be shaken."
Next Christ will send His angels, and they will gather His elect. Some have identified the elect as "the saints of all ages,"20 but since Christ is speaking here within the framework of His program with Israel, it is preferable to understand the elect here as a reference to the remnant of Israel.21,22 The Church will already be with the Lord when He returns, as will those who were martyred during the tribulation.
The parable of the fig tree in verses 32-33 has been interpreted by some to mean that when we see Israel regathered as a nation, we will know the time is near, since Israel is referred to elsewhere as a fig tree (Luke 16:6-9). They take this together with verse 34 and dogmatically state that Christ will return within the next ten years. But just because the fig tree is used elsewhere as a symbol for Israel is no reason to take it as such here. It seems to fit the context beautifully if we understand the parable to be teaching that when the signs of verses 4-28 appear, the time will be near when Christ will return.23,24
The word "generation" in verse 34 has caused some interpretive problems. Some, such as Gaebelein, see it as a reference to the nation of Israel. The meaning of verse 34, then, would be that Israel would continue as a nation until Christ's return. Others, noteably Arndt and Gingrich, see it as an age or period of time, so that verse 34 would teach that the second coming will not end until the event of the second coming itself. A third view is that the generation that will see the signs heretofore mentioned will also see the return of Christ. This third view seems to fit the context best.25
But while these signs give us some clues as to when the Lord will return, the exact time, the "day and hour," cannot be known to us. This is the teaching of verses 36-41. Jesus said in verse 36 that only the Father knows for sure when Christ will return.
Our Lord drew a parallel between the days of Noah and the time of His return. The people in Noah's day would have known of an impending flood as they observed Noah constructing the ark, and would have known, when the ark was completed, that the day was not far off. But they didn't know exactly when it would come. They just went about their usual business until the day that the flood waters came and destroyed them. So it will be with the Lord's coming. The various signs will let the people of the world know when the time is near, but they will have no knowledge of exactly when He will appear.26
Verses 40-41 have been taken by many as a reference to the rapture. The motion picture A Thief in the Night applies this passage to the rapture, and has been responsible to no small degree for the widespread belief that the rapture is in view here. But when one bears in mind that the Lord spoke of Israel in this passage, that He spoke of this event as occuring when He returns in glory, and that He had just made reference to the days of Noah when it was the wicked who were taken (destroyed) and the righteous who were left, it becomes apparent that it's not the rapture that's in view here but the taking of unregenerate Israelites to judgment while leaving the righteous to enjoy the blessings of the Millennial Kingdom. This is the judgment of Israel spoken of in Ezekiel 20.27
Having explained to His disciples the signs of the end times, Christ now speaks four parables with the intent of exhorting to watchfulness for His return. Verse 42 begins with the words "Watch therefore." The connection with the previous passage is that since it is not possible to know the "day and hour" of Christ's return, one must be watchful.
The importance of watchfulness is illustrated in this parable. If the goodman had known in what watch, i.e., in what time period the thief was going to come, he would have been ready and could have prevented the thief from breaking into the house. The Lord has just revealed the signs which will indicate when His coming is near, so they won't have the excuse that the goodman had, for he had not been forwarned that a thief was coming.28
In this parable, we see two servants with contrasting attitudes. The first, realizing that his lord would return, although at a time unknown to him, prepared himself for that return by the faithful performance of his duties. The second servant, on the other hand, noted that his lord's coming was delayed, and as Kent puts it, mistook "the uncertainty of the time of his coming for the certainty that it would not be soon."29 He therefore behaves himself horribly, and Christ said that "the lord of that servant shall come in a day when he looketh not for him, and in an hour that he is not aware of." In other words, he was not prepared for his lord's reappearance. The meaning of this parable is that those living during the tribulation who do not watch for Christ, anticipating His return, may not be prepared when He returns. They increase the likelihood that He will return before they have properly responded to the Gospel of the Kingdom.
Many have interpreted this parable as applying to the Church in the present age. But since this entire discourse has reference to the tribulation period, and since the word "then" in 25:1 seems to refer to Christ's second coming, this view is not feasible. It is rather to be understood as applying to the tribulation.
Oriental weddings had three stages, which are described by Walvoord:
An oriental wedding had three stages: first, the legal marriage arranged by the parents of the bridegroom and the bride; second, the traditional ceremony, when the bridegroom, accompanied by his friends, would proceed from his home to the home of the bride and claim her as his own; third, the marriage feast held at the home of the bridegroom.30
The legal marriage, that is, the rapture of the church, will have already taken place. At Christ's second coming, He will return with His bride, the Church. The virgins wish to participate in the wedding feast, and represent the professing Jewish remnant. The five virgins who were wise and took oil with them represent those who are ready for Christ's return, in other words, they are believers. The five foolish virgins, who brought no oil, represent those of the Jewish remnant who are not prepared for Christ's return. While they may profess to believe, they really don't. Thus they will not be able to enter the Millenial Kingdom, which is represented in this parable by the wedding feast.31,32
Oil is sometimes used in Scripture as a symbol of the Holy Spirit, and may represent His work of salvation in this parable.33 Some have used this symbol to support the idea that this parable refers to the Church age, since the Holy Spirit will have been taken away prior to the tribulation. But, as Pentecost has pointed out, "Since there will be a relation of the Holy Spirit to the saints of the tribulation, especially to those who are witnesses for Him, the reference to the Holy Spirit would be proper."34
The main point of the parable is the same as that of the preceding two -- that watchfulness, or preparedness for Christ's second coming, is necessary, and that this preparation must be made prior to His coming or it will be too late when He comes.
This parable likewise demonstrates the need for preparedness at the Lord's second coming, but also stresses service. The "man traveling into a far country" represents the Lord Jesus Christ. The talents, which were units of money, represent abilities which Christ will give to tribulation saints, as He does to saints of this age.
The first two servants each doubled the money which their master had entrusted to them, and received equal commendation despite the fact that the first brought a profit of five talents while the second brought a profit of only two. They both prepared themselves for the return of their master.
But the third servant buried the talent which was entrusted to him. He didn't even put it in the bank so that it would earn interest. Walvoord has suggested that his reasoning was as follows:
If my lord returns, I will be able to give him back his talent and cannot be accused of being a thief, but if he does not return, there will be no record that the money belongs to him, such as would be true if I deposited it in the bank, and then I will be able to use the money myself.35
At any rate, this third servant was not prepared for the return of his master, and was "cast into outer darkness."
At first glance it may appear that this passage teaches salvation on the basis of works, but this would contradict the New Testament doctrine of salvation. Actually the slothful servant's problem was lack of faith, not deficiency in service. He was obviously not convinced that his master was coming back, and as such would represent those in the tribulation period who, while they profess belief in the Gospel of the Kingdom, don't really believe it.36
All four of these parables, then, emphasise the need for watchfulness or preparedness, that is, that those in the tribulation believe before Christ's return. The importance of watchfulness can be further demonstrated by the fact that Jesus gives such a large portion of the discourse to stressing it.
This passage is a literal prophecy, not a parable, although some imagery is used. It goes beyond the question asked by the disciples to describe an event which follows Christ's return.37
This is a prophecy of the judgment of the Gentiles surviving at the end of the tribulation, who are referred to as "sheep" and "goats." The "sheep" are those who showed kindness to Jesus' "brethren" during the tribulation, obviously a reference to the Jews since they are the only ones remaining to whom this term could refer, and since at the time Jesus spoke this prophecy He was on earth as a Jew, so that the Jews were His brethren. The "sheep" enter the millenium. The goats, however, did not show kindness to Jesus' brethren during the tribulation, and they enter into everlasting fire.
This passage presents the problem of seemingly teaching that the salvation of these living Gentiles is based upon their acts of kindness. But as Walvoord explains:
The answer to this problem is found in the context of this passage. Those described here are people who have lived through the great tribulation, a time of unparalleled anti-Semitism, when the majority of Jews in the land will be killed. Under these circumstances, if a Gentile befriends a Jew to the extent of feeding and clothing and visiting him, it could only mean that he is a believer in Jesus Christ and recognizes the Jews as the chosen people. Accordingly, in this context, such works become distinctive evidence that the Gentiles described as the sheep are those who are children of God by faith in Jesus Christ.38
It can therefore be seen that the teaching of this prophecy is consistent with the New Testament teaching of salvation by grace through faith.
In the Olivet Discourse of Matthew 24-25 the Lord Jesus Christ has given us an overview of the events of the tribulation period and His second coming. The chronology of events presented in this passage provides us with a guide with which we can understand where many of the other prophetic Scriptures fit in.39
1Gaebelein, Arno C. The Gospel According to Matthew, pp. 167-170, according to Pentecost, p. 277.
2Pentecost, J. Dwight. Things to Come, pp. 277.
3Walvoord, John F. Matthew: Thy Kingdom Come, pp. 179-180
4Ibid., pp. 180-182.
5Kent, Homer A. "Matthew" in The Wycliffe Bible Commentary, p. 972.
7Darby, John Nelson. Notes on the Gospel of Matthew, p. 123.
8Chafer, Lewis Sperry. Systematic Theology, V, p. 120.
9Pentecost, p. 278.
10English, E. Schuyler. Studies in the Gospel According to Matthew, p. 173.
11Pentecost, pp. 278-279.
12Pentecost, pp. 277-279 provide the basic format for this entire discussion.
13Walvoord, p. 184.
14Gray, James H. Christian Workers' Commentary, p. 309.
15Kent, p. 972.
16Walvoord, pp. 186-187.
17Ibid., p. 187.
18Ibid., p. 189.
19Ibid., p. 190.
21English, p. 178.
22Pentecost, p. 280.
23Ibid., pp. 280-281.
24Walvoord, pp. 191-192.
25Ibid., pp. 192-193.
26Ibid., p. 193.
27English, pp. 179-180.
28Kent, p. 974.
30Walvoord, p. 196.
32English, p. 185.
33Walvoord, p. 196.
34Pentecost, p. 283.
35Walvoord, pp. 198-199.
36Ibid., p. 199.
37Ibid., pp. 199-200.
38Ibid., p. 202.
39Pentecost, p. 285.
Chafer, Lewis Sperry. Systematic Theology, Vol. V. Dallas, Dallas Seminary Press, 1948.
Darby, John Nelson. Notes on the Gospel of Matthew. London, G. Morrish, no date given.
English, E. Schuyler. Studies in the Gospel According to Matthew. New York, Fleming H. Revell Co., 1935.
Gray, James M. Christian Workers' Commentary. Chicago, Fleming H. Revell Co., 1915.
Kent, Homer A. "Matthew" in The Wycliffe Bible Commentary. Chicago, Moody Press, 1962.
Pentecost, J. Dwight. Things to Come. Grand Rapids, Zondervan, 1958.
Scofield, C. I., Ed., The New Scofield Reference Bible. Revised by English, et.al. New York, Oxford University Press, 1967.
Walvoord, John F. Matthew: Thy Kingdom Come. Chicago, Moody Press, 1974.