Jesus and the Olivet Discourse (The Sign of Christ’s ‘Coming,’ False Messiahs, Wars, Famines, and Tribulation (Part 3: The Jewish War Series)

Unfortunately, we in 21st century America are not too well-versed in the history of the entire New Testament era. Consequently, we do not fully realize the impact that the destruction of the Temple in 70 AD had on both the Jewish nation, as well as the early Christians.

Jesus Condemns the Temple

As I mentioned in my previous post, when one reads any of the three Synoptic Gospels, one should see that as soon as Jesus came to Jerusalem, riding on a donkey and being hailed by the crowds as the long-awaited Davidic Messiah, he made it a point to confront the Temple priesthood and to condemn the Temple. And, as I said before, this was the exact opposite of what the Jews were expecting: they were expecting the Messiah to confront Rome and cleanse the Temple—yet Jesus did the opposite. In fact, we should see Jesus’ over-turning of the tables of the money-changers in the Temple (Mark 11:15-19; Matthew 21:12-13; Luke 19:45-46) as not so much a “cleansing” of the Temple as it was a declaration of impending judgment on it.

It should be noted that all three Gospels record Jesus as weaving together both Isaiah 56:7 (“My house shall be a house of prayer for all nations”) and Jeremiah 7:11 (“You’ve made it a den of robbers”). Jesus’ point was simple: the Temple was intended to be the place where all nations would come and worship the God of Israel, but instead, the Temple had become a place of nationalistic zeal against foreigners. The Greek word often translated as either “robbers” or “thieves,” is lestai, which is a reference, not simply to your run-of-the-mill thief, but to an insurrectionist and a rebel. Far from being a light to the nations, the Temple had become the focal point for anti-Roman zeal and nationalistic fervor.

The Scandal of the Coming Messiah
The scandal was that Jesus was saying the Temple was beyond saving, because the priests and the Temple establishment had led the people astray. They had made the Temple, which was meant to be a “house of prayer for all nations,” into a nationalistic rallying point for the Jews alone, and they thus ended up fleecing and cheating the crowds of poor Jews who flocked there. “If you want God to get rid of Roman oppression, you’d better repent completely, and show how sincere you are by tithing to the temple, making better sacrifices at the temple, and donating to the Temple treasury, etc. etc.”

The scandal concerning Jesus, therefore, was that he was not really concerned with “Roman oppression,” (he did say, after all, that they really should pay taxes to Caesar); but rather that he was “waging his Messianic war” against the exploitative Jewish Temple establishment itself. What a shock it would be to hear his “Parable of the Tenants,” the “Parable of the Wedding Banquet” (particularly in Matthew 24:7—“The king was angry, and he sent his troops and destroyed those murderers and burned their city”), his lament over Jerusalem, in which he said, “Your house is left to you, desolate” (Matthew 23:37-39), and, of course his Olivet Discourse.

Jesus Weeps Over Jerusalem

In fact, in Luke 19:41-44, right before Jesus’ actions in the Temple, we are told that he weeps over Jerusalem and prophesies that it will be destroyed—why? Because he knew that the Jews would not recognize the time of their “visitation.” Translation? Jesus was the long-awaited Messiah, but not the kind they were hoping for—and thus they would reject him and his message, and instead would choose the way of rebellion against Rome. And for that—for rejecting their Messiah, God would allow Rome to come in and destroy the Temple, just as God allowed Babylon to come in and destroy Solomon’s Temple in Jeremiah’s day.

The point I am making is that Jesus’ condemnation of the Temple establishment, and his prophecy about the destruction of the Temple itself was not a footnote in his ministry. It was central to it, and in fact, was the main reason why the chief priests wanted to kill him—just look at Matthew 21:45-46: right after his Parable of the Tenants, we are told the chief priests and Pharisees knew that he was directing it to them, and they wanted to kill him for it.

Jesus’ Condemnation Against the Temple Has Consequences for the Early Christian Movement
Once we realize that Jesus openly condemned the Temple as soon as he set foot into Jerusalem for that Passover, we need to also realize that such a declaration had consequences. If Jesus openly condemned and prophesied about the destruction of the Temple, and if it in fact did not happen, his reputation as prophet and Messiah would be ruined. Fulfilled prophecy was vital in vindicating someone as a true prophet. For example, the reason we have the book of Jeremiah, and not the book of Hananiah, is that Jeremiah’s prophecy concerning the destruction of the Temple by Nebuchadnezzar actually came true, whereas Hananiah’s prophecy that Nebuchadnezzar would be defeated was proven to be false.

The Old Testament prophets were persecuted in their day, but later vindicated when their prophecies were fulfilled. Therefore, they were the prophets whose writings were eventually kept and passed on. In a similar way, the fulfillment of Jesus’ prophecy against the Temple would be the thing that vindicated Jesus. If what he prophesied about came true, it would vindicate him as a true prophet and the Messiah.

One must remember that after his resurrection Jesus appeared to only about 500 of his followers in order to reassure them that he was really alive. His resurrection was not witnessed by the majority of the Jewish people, let alone the world. His resurrection, therefore, could not be “the proof” to convince everyone else that he was a true prophet and the Messiah. Jesus did not intend it to be.

The Destruction of Jerusalem 70 AD

Even after Pentecost, the verdict “was still out” among the Jewish nation as a whole as to whether this new movement of “Nazarenes” was legitimate (see Gamaliel’s speech in Acts 5:33-39). As the rift between the early Christian-Jews and the rest of the Jewish nation grew, the reputation of Jesus would obviously be of utmost importance. As long as the Temple stood, Jesus’ prophecy about its destruction remained unfulfilled, and therefore, his claim to be both prophet and Messiah would not be acknowledged by the Jewish nation as a whole, and perhaps there would be a certain amount of doubt among Christians as well. Therefore, the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple in 70 AD by the Roman armies removed all doubt. It was that event that vindicated Jesus as both prophet and Messiah in the eyes of the world.

Given the importance of this event, it would certainly seem strange that Jesus would devote only one verse in chapter 24 to it (verse 2), and that the disciples would completely ignore this prophecy and skip right to asking about a future second coming that they as of yet had no idea about!

The Specifics of Mark 13, Matthew 24, Luke 21
With all that, let’s now look at the specifics of the Olivet Discourse. All of what I said may be well and good, but the question remains, “Does the text of the Olivet Discourse itself support the interpretation that it is all about the destruction of the Temple that was fulfilled in 70 A.D.?

(A) The Disciples’ Question and “the Sign”
Let’s start with a simple question, stemming from Matthew 24:3: What did the disciples mean when they asked for “The sign of your coming at the end of the age”? The Greek term here translated as “coming” is parousia. Parousia basically means “presence” as opposed to apousia, which means “absence.” Most importantly, it is especially used to denote the arrival of a royal official or person. For example, after a king or general won a great military battle, and came into the conquered city in triumph, that was his parousiahis arrival as conqueror. So what were the disciples asking about? They were expecting Jesus to come to Jerusalem and be enthroned as the rightful king. If he condemned the corrupt Temple system, so be it; but when would this happen? When would his parousia as the King of the Jews come?

The second part of their question concerns “the end of the age.” What does this mean? Contrary to the view we may have today, “the end of the age” in Jewish thinking had nothing to do with the end of the space-time universe. “The end of the age” that Jews were hoping for was rather the end of the present evil age in which they found themselves dispersed and under foreign domination, and the introduction of (a still very much this-worldly) “age to come” in which Israel found herself vindicated and free of foreign domination. That is the “end of the age” that the disciples were asking about. Their question, therefore, was pretty standard for any Jew who thought Jesus was the long-awaited Davidic Messiah—when would it finally happen? When Jesus would become king and set up a liberated kingdom of Israel?

(B) False Messiahs, Wars, Famines, and Tribulation
Jesus’ initial response (Mark 13:5-13, Matthew 24:4-14, Luke 21:10-19) indeed the entire chapter for all three gospels, contains a description that easily fits in with the historical context of 70 AD, and therefore there is no need to assume that he was speaking of some future time period, thousands of years later.

Concerning False Messiahs: We must remember that “messiah” is simply a term denoting the anointed king, and not God. Therefore, when Jesus warns against false messiahs, he is simply warning the disciples and the early Christian community in Judea about Jewish zealots during the Jewish War who would claim to be leaders sent by God to rise up and revolt against the Romans. In his account of the Jewish War, Josephus tells us about men such as Eleazar, Manahem the son of Judas the Galilean, John of Gischala, and Simon—all of them actively led the revolt against Rome in 66-70 AD. Not only did they revolt against Rome, but they fought with each other and mercilessly slaughtered thousands of innocent Jews who were unable to flee Jerusalem, and who were essentially held captive by their own zealot leaders.

Jesus’ prophetic warnings about “false messiahs” bore out to be true—for during the Jewish War of 70 AD, those zealot leaders brought about the destruction of not only Jerusalem and the Temple, but they themselves actively slaughtered their own people during the siege of Jerusalem, while Rome waited outside the city walls.

Flavius Josephus

Concerning Famines and Earthquakes: Whereas Josephus does not relate any information about an earthquake during the time of the Jewish War (though he does earlier), he does repeatedly emphasize the devastating famine that took place within Jerusalem during the Jewish War of 66-70 AD that escalated during the time of Rome’s siege of Jerusalem. Josephus relates, in truly horrific fashion, various stories of zealot soldiers killing civilians and taking the food out of their mouths, of people eating the leather of their sandals, and even of mothers, driven insane by the horrors they saw, killing their babies and eating them.

Concerning Tribulation and Being Hated: Jesus also warned his disciples that they would endure great tribulation and be handed over to death. He also warned against false prophets and an increase in lawlessness before “the end.” He also called for his followers to endure to the end. Now, we in America hear the word “tribulation,” and we instantly get visions of Nicolae Carpathia from the Left Behind series dancing in our head—but we have to realize that is precisely what it cannot mean. Jesus’ words were addressed to his disciples at that time, and they were written down in their final form around the time of 70 AD—they meant something, first and foremost, to those people at that time.

And if we take the time to really understand that, we quite easily will realize that a simple look at the book of Acts, and knowledge of the persecution of the early Church, tells us that the disciples and the early Christians were indeed persecuted and tortured and killed, both by the Temple establishment, and also by Roman authorities themselves. In fact, the Greek word we often translate as tribulation is thlipsis—and throughout the New Testament, it is used over and over again to denote the suffering that followers of Christ are expected to suffer.

Conclusion…Thus Far…
By just looking at the opening verses of all three accounts of the Olivet Discourse, we should be able to see that all of it makes perfect sense in the first century context of the early decades of the early Church, culminating in the Jewish War of 66-70 AD. To put it simply, no one reading Mark, Matthew, or Luke for the first time in, let’s say, 75 AD, would have thought, “Wow! When is this going to happen?” No…the reaction would undoubtedly be, “Wow! This is what we have just gone through!”

…but I’m sure some of you are thinking, “Okay, but what about the Abomination of Desolation and all that cosmic chaos? Did any stars fall from the sky during the Jewish War?” Well, we’ll take a look at all that in the next post.

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