The Olivet Discourse 3: The Abomination of Desolation – Matthew 24:15-28

So when you see the abomination of desolation spoken of by the prophet Daniel, standing in the holy place (let the reader understand) … Mt 24:15

The Olivet Discourse, the longest of Jesus’s recorded discourses in the synoptic gospels, is prompted by the disciples’ question in light of Jesus’s shocking revelation regarding the destruction of the Jewish temple (24:1-2). “Tell us, when will these things be, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?” (Mt 24:3). Jesus’s response seems to point to two distinct historical events – the destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70 and His yet future second coming.

In verses 4-14 of chapter 24, Jesus describes a series of “non-signs” of His return. I call these “non-signs,” as the events He prophesies do not point specifically to the end of the age, but instead they are warnings that the disciples would not find themselves deceived by the coming of a false messiah. We have seen how these signs – false prophets, wars, famine, earthquakes, tribulation, apostasy, and a lawless faith and frigid love – were fulfilled, and continue to be fulfilled, throughout the history of the church age. But like birth pains that portend the child’s birth, these afflictions and trials will intensify as the consummation of the age approaches. In particular the “apostasy,” and people following after “lawlessness,” will climax with the coming of “the man of lawlessness,” or “Antichrist;” the one who the book of Revelation refers to as “the beast,” who comes to conquer the saints.

In verse 15 Jesus begins to describe the terror of the days prior to His return. Destruction will arrive so quickly that believers ought waste no time in preparing their escape. The imagery of sacrilege that Jesus uses, “the abomination of desolation,” calls to mind Paul’s second epistle to the Thessalonians chapter 2: “For that day will not come, unless … the man of lawlessness is revealed, the son of destruction, who opposes and exalts himself against every so-called god or object of worship, so that he takes his seat in the temple of God, proclaiming himself to be God.” Matthew also calls us to discerningly read the book of Daniel – in particular Daniel 9:27 and 12:9-11.

This week, read Matthew 24, Daniel 7:19-28, chapters 9 & 12, and Revelation 13:1-10. Try to read them without any presupposed end-time position; as you do, make notes as to what they reveal to you about the “the beast,” and in particular the “abomination of desolation.”

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The Olivet Discourse 2: Apostasy and Mission – Matthew 24:1-14

The Olivet Discourse, named for the mountain where Jesus taught his disciples, is Jesus’s answer to His disciples’ question regarding the destruction of the Jewish temple and the end of the age (24:1-3). As the consummate prophet, Jesus answered using a common prophetic practice called “foreshortening,” where there is both a near and a far application to His predictive prophecy. In His answer, beginning in chapter 24 verse 4, Jesus seems to describe signs that would accompany two distinct historical events – the destruction of Jerusalem (which would be fulfilled in A.D. 70) and His yet future second coming.

Though the disciples were asking for signs or indicators of the end of the age, Jesus began his response by sharing a cluster of “non-signs;” that is, He spoke of events that the disciples believed might accompany the end of the world, but in fact were not signs specific to the end. Jesus is concerned that His disciples are not misled; when they would see false messiahs, wars, famines, and earthquakes – signs traditionally associated with the latter days – Jesus said, “the end is not yet,” and He warned them that these things marked only “the beginning of the birth pangs” (24:4-8). Like a woman in labor experiences contractions calling her attention to the child she will soon bear, these recurring events continually remind the church of the nearness of the return of Christ. As birth pains increase in frequency and intensity before birth, so these signs may increase in the latter days. But for Christians, as we see these things happening in the world around us, they ought to be no cause for alarm, for we have been told beforehand that they would happen.

Then beginning in verse 9, with the same heart of preparing and warning His disciples, Jesus foretells of the suffering, persecution, and apostasy that will come upon God’s people. As persecution increases, some will abandon the faith to save their skin. Spiritual life will deteriorate in the church as apostasy, betrayal, and hatred run rampant. Yet at the same time there is this one hopeful sign in verse 14, This gospel of the kingdom shall be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all the nations, and then the end will come.” What we see prior to Christ’s return is a growing polarization between good and evil as God’s people increase in power and witness even as persecution intensifies. So brethren, look up, for your redemption draws near!

The Olivet Discourse: Introduction – Matthew 24-25

The Olivet Discourse, named for the location where Jesus delivered it, is recorded in the three synoptic gospels: Mark 13, Luke 21, and our text, Matthew 24-25. This, the longest of Jesus’ discourses, is provoked by a question of the disciples, who were shocked by Jesus’ revelation regarding the destruction of the Jewish temple (24:1-2). For them, as for any Jewish person, the temple was an edifice that would stand until the last days; so when Christ said that the temple would be destroyed, it would be most natural for their thoughts to turn to the end of the age.

“Tell us, when will these things be, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?” (Mt 24:3). While this may have been one single question in the minds of the disciples, Jesus seems to give two answers to the two questions: 1) When will the temple be destroyed, and 2) what is the sign of His second coming? Not all interpreters agree upon the idea that Jesus is addressing two questions. A purely future interpretation argues that all of the discourse is yet to take place at some future time, while Preterism teaches that all of it was fulfilled with the judgment of Jerusalem and destruction of the temple in A.D. 70. On the one hand, it seems unlikely that Jesus would ignore the disciples’ main question and begin talking about events that would happen thousands of years in the future. However, it is far more unlikely that Jesus’ description of His coming with power and great glory to gather his elect (24:30-31) is a reference to the judgment of Jerusalem. Rather it seems that Jesus is describing two distinct historical events separated from each other by a certain amount of time.

In this discourse Jesus speaks as a genuine and consummate prophet; as such, we should not be surprised to see him utilize the common prophetic practice of “telescoping.” Often prophetic literature contains both a near and a far application to a prophecy. Examples of this phenomenon are found in several Old Testament passages which speak of the two Comings of Christ back to back, as if they were one event. It seems as though this is the best way to understand the Olivet Discourse. In seeking to understand the timing of the events in Matthew 24, the key interpretive question is: At what point in the text does Jesus begin to prophesy about his return?

The Future of Israel – Matthew 23:34-24:3

In chapter 23 of his Gospel, Matthew records the most shocking words that Jesus ever spoke, as He declared seven woes against the Jewish religious leaders of his day. He severely lays on them the blame for the murder of the God-sent Old Testament prophets. Their rejection of God would not end with the murder of these prophets, but it would continue with the crucifixion of their Messiah, the stoning and persecution of leaders in the early church, and the utter rejection of the Gospel message. Jesus concludes in verse 38 with what appears to be a final judgment, “your house is left to you desolate.” Soon there would be a day of reckoning that would come upon these people as a result of their abject rejection of Christ. The suffering that was to come upon them would be so devastating, that their very house of worship would be utterly demolished; in Jesus’ words, “there will not be left here one stone upon another that will not be thrown down” (24:2).

The severity of this judgment is somewhat softened by the poignant lament, “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, … How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings,” (23:37) as Jesus expressed His deep desire to enfold His people in His arms. But, alas, these people would not have it, and Jesus would leave their fate to their own devices. Judgment, however, is not the final word; Jesus will come again for a repentant people. Jesus leaves us with a hope that one day these rebellious people will repent and express the confession of Psalm 118:26, “Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord” (23:39). This seems to point to a future time when the Jewish people will repent and recognize Jesus of Nazareth as their Messiah, upon whom they returned evil for good. In the words of the prophet Zechariah (12:10), they will look on … him whom they have pierced, [and] they shall mourn for him, as one mourns for an only child, and weep bitterly over him, as one weeps over a firstborn (see Romans 11:25-32). While a future hope for a godless nation may seem unlikely in human estimation, we can trust in our God who sovereignly opens the eyes of His elect and grants them repentance and faith as free gifts of His sovereign grace. “I ask, then, has God rejected his people? By no means!” (Romans 11:1).

7 Woes to False Leaders – Matthew 23:13-33

In the first twelve verses of Matthew chapter 23, Jesus identified five marks or characteristics of a false leader – identifying them by: (1) the works they do, (2) the burdens they render, (3) their need for an audience, and (4) their love of honor and titles; all of these ultimately point to the 5th mark – pride. These were the characteristics of the religious leaders in Jesus’ day – the scribes and Pharisees. While some of them may have been charlatans and con men, most of them, as most false teachers in our day, believed they were serving God, even as they actually worked against Him.

Jesus followed his indictment in verses 13-33, with some of the most polemical and scathing words he has ever spoken. In light of Jesus’ command to love our enemies, some have stumbled over these words, even to the point calling into question their authenticity. But when we consider His prodigious love for His people and the sway that human leaders have over them, we can understand how the righteous indignation that Jesus Christ had toward these leaders would result in the harshest of condemnation against them. Sometimes shocking words are required, especially toward the wayward leaders of God’s flock.

Jesus’ condemnation against these scribes and Pharisees come in the form of seven “woes,” which flesh out Jesus’ previous statement, “whoever exalts himself will be humbled (23:12).”  A “woe” is an expression of pain, wrath and sorrow that is typically organized into three parts: (1) the recipient of the judgment; (2) the transgression for which the judgment comes; and (3) the resulting condemnation. “Woes” serve as the opposite of “blessings;” as blessings convey salvation to the contrite, woes communicate judgment to the prideful and unrepentant. In these seven woes pronounced by Jesus to the religious leaders of the Jewish people, we find them to be false proselytizers (v. 13-15) with false priorities (v. 16-24) coming under false pretense (25-28) as a result of a false pedigree (29-33).

Matthew 23:13-33 concludes the section which began in chapter 21, exposing the false shepherds of Israel; but it also serves as a bridge to the impending judgment on Israel and eschatological events leading to Judgment day, unpacked in the Olivet Discourse of chapters 24-25. Though talk of wrath and judgment and an ultimate Judgment Day may not be comfortable for us as Christians, the holiness of God necessitates our assimilating words of judgment into our understanding.

5 Marks of a False Leader – Matthew 23:1-12

For good or bad, people tend to resemble their leaders, as they assemble around those who reflect their own priorities. When they are led in a false direction, in one sense people cannot blame their leaders, because leadership is merely a reflection of their hearts; however, when God judges a people, while not exonerating the individuals, there is a particular responsibility that He holds leaders to. When the prophet Hosea came to announce judgment on the nation of Israel, in Hosea 4:4, 9 God says, “Yet let no one contend, and let none accuse, for with you is my contention, O priest… And it shall be like people, like priest; I will punish them for their ways and repay them for their deeds.”  Likewise in Ezekiel 34, God announced a scathing indictment of the shepherds of Judah for feeding and clothing themselves on the fat and wool of the sheep, not strengthening the weak, healing the sick, seeking the lost or gathering the straying, and judging the people harshly (Ez 34:1-4). The scattering of His people then is both a judgment as well as a protection. Finally God promises His people:  “Behold, I, I myself will search for my sheep and will seek them out. As a shepherd seeks out his flock when he is among his sheep that have been scattered, so will I seek out my sheep, and I will rescue them from all places where they have been scattered on a day of clouds and thick darkness” (Ez 34:11-12).

In the first twelve verses of chapter 23 of Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus identifies 5 marks or characteristics of false leaders. As God’s people today, we too ought to use this to help us identify true and false pastors of true and false churches. We can identify the nature of a leader by: The works they do (vs. 3), the burdens they render vs. 4), their need for an audience (vs. 5), and their love of honor and titles (vs. 6-7); all of these ultimately point to their pride (vs. 11-12). This is followed by some of the most shocking and harshest words ever spoken by the Lord Jesus Christ directed toward the Pharisees (the leaders of the Jewish people). Some have stumbled over the words of this chapter in light of Jesus’ command to love your enemies. But when we consider God’s jealous love for His people, and the sway that human leaders have over them, we can understand the righteous indignation that the God-man, Jesus Christ has toward the people who are leading His people astray.

The Parable of the Wedding Feast – Matthew 22:1-14

Jesus stirred considerable controversy among the religious leaders upon His final entry into Jerusalem. His Palm Sunday entry into the city followed by Monday’s cleansing of the Temple provoked the religious leaders to ask Jesus by what authority he was doing these things (Mt 21:23). We saw last time that these confrontations find their climax in Jesus’ prophecy of 21:43 that the kingdom of God will be taken away from them and given to a people producing fruits. Without giving them a direct answer to their question, Jesus told three parables, all of which pointed to the failure of the Pharisees and Sadducees to rightly lead Israel. The first parable (21:28-32) centered on their failure during the ministry of John the Baptist. The second parable (21:33-42) focused on the continual failure of the leadership throughout the history of Israel, culminating in their rejection of Jesus and the turning over of the kingdom to others who produce fruit. Now in the third parable of the wedding feast (22:1-14), Jesus reveals the continual rejection of Jesus’ mission, even in the church, until the final Day of Judgment. Each parable highlights a particular segment of God’s history of salvation. Taken together, these parables challenge and call all of us to an urgent faith that goes beyond a formal profession; they call us to a true conversion-wrought, fruitful, and persevering faith that is a product of the new birth.

Like the great marriage supper of the Lamb described in Revelation 19:7, the parable of the wedding feast directs us to consider the eschatological blessings of our eternal future. In keeping with Jesus’ first two parables, the people originally invited to the banquet most likely represent Israel. Despite the incredible joy and blessing that this future feast promised, some of those invited are more concerned with their regular affairs of life and do not care much about it. Others actively resist the invitation with hostility (much like the wicked tenants in the previous parable). Whether passive or active, rejection of the invitation results in inexorable judgment. Following the rejection of many, the king extended his invitation indiscriminately; this makes for a natural transition from the broad rejection within Judaism to the extension of the invitation to the Gentile world. Sadly however, even among those who appear to accept the invitation, are some who are no less liable to eternal punishment, because they are found unworthy (unreceptive of the Gospel message). As believers we ought to ask ourselves, “Why was I a guest?” and “Am I wearing the right garment?”