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Jesus on His Return (The Olivet Discourse)

A good first step in exploring what the Bible teaches about Jesus’s return and the events preceding it is examining Jesus’s own words about the topic. Before his final meal with the disciples and before he is arrested, Jesus teaches his disciples on the Mount of Olives, often called the Olivet Discourse (found in Matthew 24, Mark 13, and Luke 21). In this post, I want to highlight key things that Jesus teaches in this message, focusing on the account in the Gospel of Matthew. I would encourage you to read that passage and/or have it open as you read through this post.

The Context - The Disciples’ Question About the Temple and Jesus’s Return

Jesus’s teaching on the subject is sparked by a question from his disciples upon their departure from the temple. As they left the temple area, Jesus told his disciples that a time will come when the temple would be destroyed (Matthew 25:2). This leads the disciples to ask a two-part question about when it will happen and what will be the sign of Jesus’s coming and the end of the age (25:3). When the disciples asked this question, they likely would have envisioned that the destruction of the temple and the end of the age would occur together since the temple was such a key component of their faith. Jesus’s answer points to the fact these may be two separate, but related, things.

The Content - Rough Times Ahead But They Point to an Unexpected and Visible Return of Jesus

Jesus’s teaching is interesting in that he notes there are signs that should be recognized that point to Jesus’s return but also that his coming will be sudden and catch people by surprise. For example, in Matthew 24:32-33, Jesus uses the illustration of the leaves on a fig tree showing that summer is near, and tells us that we can know the nearness of Jesus’s return. But a few verses later (vv. 36-37, 44), Jesus says “concerning the day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father only. For as were the days of Noah, so will be the coming of the Son of Man...Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect”. How can both of these be true? Moreover, Jesus also seems to say that these things will happen within the generation to whom he speaks (see 24:34), but we are many generations later now and still awaiting his return. What does that mean? I think a key to understanding these elements could be noting that part of the message is focused on the fall of the temple while other parts focus on the return of Jesus, separating these two events the disciples might have linked together. 

Jesus talks about the “abomination of desolation” that was spoken of by Daniel, with the Gospel writer adding a note “let the reader understand” (24:15), implying this is something to ponder. This abomination should cause the people in Judea to flee (24:16-20), thus it would seem to be the destruction of the temple that is in mind here. This happened in 70 AD as people fled from Jerusalem as the Roman army attacked the city and destroyed the temple (this connection to 70 AD seems even more clear in Luke’s account of this teaching, as Luke 21:20 talks about Jerusalem being surrounded by armies and a desolation then being near). Jesus then speaks that there will be great tribulation (24:21) which includes a series of false messiahs and false prophets that seek to lead God’s people astray (24:22-28). Immediately after this period of tribulation, there will be cosmic events (24:29) and the visible return of Jesus - like lighting (24:27) and for all to see (24:30) - in which he will gather up his people from all over the earth (24:31). 

In discussing the presence of false messiahs in this period of persecution, Jesus recalls the words he spoke earlier in the message (see especially 24:5), as Jesus let them know that there are a series of things that will occur: false messiahs who try to lead people astray, wars and rumors of wars, famines, and earthquakes (25:4-8), but these things are not the end (24:6) but rather than “beginning of the birth pains” (24:8). It seems to point to the temple falling as what then moves us into this period of tribulation of trials which will last for a time, and then Jesus will return. These events should not alarm us, as they are signs of the need for Jesus to return and also  that Jesus must be coming back soon - they are labor pains. However, we also recognize that we do not know how long these birth pains last - hence the unknown element of when Jesus will return. Since the temple was destroyed in 70 AD, it appears that his visible and glorious return could happen at any moment.

The Consequence - How Now Shall We Live? 

As I studied this message of Jesus again, I was struck by what Jesus instructs His disciples - and therefore, us - to do. He does not seem to tell his disciples to spend a lot of times looking at the various events happening in our world and think they are a way we can decipher when Jesus will return. In fact, He seems to discourage that sort of speculation by noting that false prophets, wars, and earthquakes are not necessarily signs of the end but rather birth pains. Instead, he encourages faithful living in view of the reality of his return in the face of persecution. He calls for us to stay firm under persecution (24:13) and to continue to proclaim the gospel (24:14). We should not be discouraged if it seems that Jesus is taking longer to return than we hoped, but rather, we are to serve our master (24:45-51). The parables that follow in Matthew 25 further teach us the importance of being ready when we do not know the hour (25:1-13) and that we are called to use the various talents God has given us while we wait for Jesus’s return (25:14-30). Jesus concludes this section of teaching by telling us what will happen when the Son of Man comes in his glory (25:31-46), as he will judge the nations with the righteous going to eternal life while others will go to eternal punishment (25:46). May we live in light of this reality - looking less at the news headlines and more at the needs of those who are around us and in need of the message of hope found in Jesus Christ.

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