This post is lengthy and requires pre-reading of the set text. Please allow for appropriate time, alertness, and study aids.
Eschatology teachers generally agree that Revelation is not a good place to start when constructing an eschatology. Ideally I would prefer to start in the OT and build upwards. However, that would take some time. As a compromise, I have chosen the Olivet Discourse as our starting point.
This teaching is from the mouth of the incarnate Lord and, like Revelation, is a synthesis of various points. It is in fact a perfect summary of the end times and an indispensible text.
I have elected the Matthean version for a few reasons. (1) Mark’s is so similar, but contains slightly less, that Matthew is better for these purposes. (2) The Lukan account is lacking in some very important material, which making it less well-suited to my purposes here. (3) I am not fully convinced that Luke 21 is actually an account of the Olivet Discourse. One of the problems of Gospel harmonisation is the very real possibility that Jesus delivered several discourses with broadly similar content, but minor or major variations and editions. This is particularly obvious in his Galilean ministry (although the Olivet Discourse took place in Jerusalem in Passion Week) as he preached in various locations.
I use various methods when interpreting the bible generally, but am particularly mindful of them in eschatology. A few points I note here. (1) I try not to multiply entities (Okham’s Razor): various texts, if similar enough, are probably referring to the same thing, even if their language is not identical. (2) I follow the chain of intertextuality (references to another text in a text, whether by quotation, allusion, paraphrase, citation, subversion, or other method). (3) I watch out for markers of sequence and simultaneity. (4) I watch for the structure of arguments and parables, allegories, and metaphors.
Please read Matthew 24-25 before continuing with this post. The aim of this post is to help navigate and simply the Olivet Discourse with a view to constructing a simple chronology. This chronology will then be expanded and complemented by other texts, and on some points we must suspend judgment where Scripture does not provide sufficient detail for our purposes. I shall put a bullet-point chronology at the end of this post, which will assist readers who may wish to research diagrams elsewhere.
As Jesus left the Temple precincts, He told the Disciples that the Temple would be destroyed (as indeed it was in AD 70). They then asked Him, “Tell us, when shall these things be? and what shall be the sign of thy coming, and of the end of the world?”
The problem for the reader is that the Disciples seem to have assumed that Jesus would come and the world would end when the Temple was destroyed. This, of course, did not happen. The first problem (or fork in the road) in this Discourse, is how to divide it (if at all). Which portion is about telling when the Temple will be destroyed and which portion is about the return of Jesus and the end of the age? It is almost 2,000 years since the fall of the Temple, and Jesus has still not returned.
Partial preterists believe that most of the Olivet Discourse was fulfilled in 70 AD and that all that remains is for Jesus to return in the sky and resurrect His saints. Full preterists believe Jesus returned in 70 AD. I interpret the Olivet Discourse futuristically – i.e. it is overwhelmingly about events that have not happened yet.
I take the destruction of the Temple as a sign that the Olivet Discourse is true, because Jesus accurately predicted it, validating His status as Prophet, but I do not believe the Olivet Discourse is really about the fall of the Temple (except the Lukan version, to some degree). Dr Brock has an excellent book refuting preterism, but some of my own reasons can be found here at AATW.
Not signs or key points for our purposes
Jesus mentions various things that will occur:
- False christs
- False prophets
- Rumours of wars
- Civil strife
- The preaching of the Gospel
These things characterise all history since the Ascension. They are therefore not, in and of themselves, signs of the end. Many fall into the trap of becoming alarmed at every war or major disease or persecution or trend of apostasy. But Jesus specifically says that these things do not mean the end has come (24:6).
It is true that these things will become more frequent and intensify as the end approaches (see Jesus’ metaphor of birth), but they are not helpful either for assessing how close the return of Christ is or for constructing a chronology (though I will develop the Great Apostasy point in my post on 2 Thessalonians 2). They are far too general. I am therefore not going to use them in our constructed chronology.
The first point 1 of the Olivet Discourse chronology: the Abomination of Desolation
The first true, clear sign that Jesus mentions is the “Abomination of Desolation”. This term comes from the Book of Daniel (repeated in the Books of the Maccabees). Jesus tells us that He is referencing Daniel (24:15). I will devote at least one post to Daniel, so will not go into great detail here.
However, these details will suffice for this post. The Abomination of Desolation means a sacrilige in the Temple that causes god-fearing or Torah-observant people to flee, making the Temple empty (i.e. desolate) of such people people. This event therefore presupposes that the Temple is standing.
The proximity of this event to the return of Jesus (as we will see from combining our study of Daniel with this study) means that the destruction of the Temple in AD 70 was not the Abomination of Desolation. This event therefore presupposes that the Temple will be rebuilt in some form. Jesus, knowing the Temple would be destroyed in AD 70, knew that the Temple would be rebuilt, although His Disciples did not and He does not explicitly outline this. By way of independent verification, we can also confirm this from Daniel 9, which we will study on another occasion. The rebuilding of the Temple is therefore a non-explicit point of chronology in the Discourse, followed by the Abomination of Desolation.
The rhetorical logic is important here. Jesus contrasts the Abomination of Desolation as a clear sign of the proximity of His return and end of the age, with the general characteristics of the Church Age, which do not give an indication of the proximity of His return. The end of verse 14 and beginning of verse 15 is therefore a critical hinge of the Discourse.
For the purposes of simplifying and building a chronology, the easiest thing is to essentially ignore the preceding verses and treat the Discourse as beginning at verse 15 for these purposes, noting that the Book of Daniel will be needed to add detail. The Olivet Discourse, as stated above, is really a series of highlights, to give the general structure of the end times, and to inspire perseverance amidst evil.
The second point of chronology: the Great Tribulation
Jesus then tells us that the Abomination of Desolation is immediately followed by the Great Tribulation (Great Trouble) – 24:21, which is our second hinge. This is the worst period in the history of the world (24:21-22). From context, we can see that trouble means persecution of Jews and Christians and this detail is fleshed out from other texts. Here, Jesus is drawing on Daniel and Jeremiah primarily.
Jesus does not say how long this period is but He tells us that it has been cut short (i.e. God, in His mercy has shortened it from its previous decreed length). As we will see from our study of Daniel, God originally decreed that this period should last three-and-a-half years: short compared with geological ages, but an eternity for the persecuted, given its severity.
Jesus also tells us that it will be ended by His return (24:29-30). These verses are crucial to understanding this passage and form our third hinge. This is how we know that the Abomination of Desolation and Great Tribulation did not happen in AD 70 – because Jesus did not return 3.5 years or less later. Jesus did not return; therefore the Great Tribulation did not happen. The Great Tribulation did not happen; therefore the Abomination of Desolation did not happen.
The third point of chronology: cosmic disturbances – darkness
The earth is plunged into darkness at the end of the Great Tribulation, when the heavenly bodies cease to give light (24:29). Here Jesus is drawing on various Old Testament texts, but it is important that we not jump to Revelation at this stage. There are various celestial disturbances in the Book of Revelation and there is controversy over whether they are all the same event (and the same as the event of Matthew 24:29) or whether they are separate events.
Let us leave that controversy for now, but note that the world is plunged into darkness to set the scene for the return of Jesus, so that His return will be glorious and unmistakeable. His return will be the first light that the world sees. We do not know how long this darkness lasts, but the context suggests it is relatively brief – likely no more than a few days and quite possibly less.
The fourth point of chronology: Heaven opens and Jesus appears – the return and the gathering and resurrection of His people
Jesus will suddenly appear in light and splendour. Those who did not worship Him will mourn, for this event will confirm their folly. Jesus is accompanied by angels, who proceed to gather His people to meet Him in the sky (24:31).
This is the resurrection of the dead and transformation of the living and their rapture (snatching) up to the sky described by Paul in 1 Thessalonians 4 and the gathering mentioned in 2 Thessalonians 2. Applying the principle of simplicity and not multiplying entities, we see that this glorious event, our blessed hope, is the resurrection event and sudden appearance of Jesus referred to using various language throughout the Scriptures.
The return of Jesus is a complex event, however. There are various things He does before matters calm down. Therefore, we must still be careful when thinking about the return of Jesus and what we actually mean.
The fifth point of chronology: the wrath of God
Jesus addresses the next point in our chronology, by comparing His return to the days Noah – i.e. the Flood. Elsewhere He will compare it to the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah and flight of Lot. It is important to get the logic of this comparison correct because it influences the interpretation of the famous “one will be taken, the other left” (24:40-41).
The taking and leaving is describing what is actually happening at the return (taking being semantically similar to the snatching, “rapture”, referred to by Paul). The people who are “taken” are the righteous, the Saints. They are snatched from the surface of the earth by Christ’s angels, who take them up into the sky to meet Him in the clouds (a comparison of 24:31 with 1 Thessalonians 4 is instructive).
In the Noah scenario, the righteous or Saints, are Noah and his family, who take refuge in the Ark. Entering the Ark is therefore analogous to being snatched by the angels. Being left behind is analogous to being killed in the Flood.
Jesus does not go into detail about the wrath of God in this passage, but it was already well established in the Prophets (which we will visit later), is recapitulated by Paul and Peter and Jude, and expanded upon in the Revelation. It is sufficient for Jesus to reference the Flood here for us to realise that God will pour out great destruction upon the earth.
In the Great Tribulation the wicked killed, tortured, and otherwise persecuted God’s people. In the months and days following Jesus’ return, God will punish the wicked. Just as the Flood was physical, so the wrath of God will be. Indeed, the Prophets and John the Revelator refer to this as the time of God’s vengeance or justice. That is the narrative logic here.
The sixth point of chronology: the Kingdom begins
Our last point of chronology in the Olivet Discourse is the beginning of Christ’s Kingdom, found in Matthew 25:31 ff. Here we see the beginning of the Kingdom linked with the return because Jesus is seated on His throne in Jerusalem, judging those who have survived the wrath of God. He cannot be seated upon that throne while He is in Heaven, and He explicitly refers to His return. We therefore know that the Kingdom, Jesus ruling from Jerusalem, begins after His return (although it exists spiritually now among the faithful). This is the time when various promises of God will be fulfilled, that are currently not fulfilled or only partially fulfilled in this age. We shall explore this topic in subsequent posts.
-The Temple is rebuilt – some time thereafter:
- Abomination of Desolation (24:15)
- Great Tribulation, lasting approximately 3.5 years (24:21)
- The sky is darkened (24:29)
- A burst of light as Heaven opens and Jesus appears with His angels (24:27, 30)
- The angels gather Christ’s people, having been resurrected/transformed, to Jesus – the resurrection-and-rapture (24:31)
- The wrath of God – the wicked are punished (24:39)
- Jesus takes up His throne in Jerusalem, the earthly, fulfilled Kingdom of God begins (25:31)