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PCRT Greenville Pre-Conference #2 - Cornel Venema on "The Olivet Discourse"

The second pre-Conference talk at the Greenville PCRT Conference was given by Dr. Cornel Venema. The text was Matthew 24 and the title was "The Olivet Discourse."

Dr. Venema opened by suggesting that we must exercise a measure of modesty and reserve when we approach the subject of eschatology. Geerhardus Vos once make the point that exegesis of many of the disputed texts concerning the coming of Christ and His kingdom will be there  fulfilled (i.e. at the coming of Christ). This is a reminder that we must humbly wait for the Lord while studying the things concerning His coming.

Matthew 24 is a "text of Christ's triumph." This discourse is commonly termed "The Olivet Discourse," or "The Little Apocalypse." There are parallel texts found in Mark 13 and Luke 21. The discourse extends at least to the end of Matthew 24, but the immediate break is found at Matthew 24:36.

Then Jesus went out and departed from the temple, and His disciples came up to show Him the buildings of the temple. And Jesus said to them, “Do you not see all these things? Assuredly, I say to you, not one stone shall be left here upon another, that shall not be thrown down.†Now as He sat on the Mount of Olives, the disciples came to Him privately, saying, “Tell us, when will these things be? And what will be the sign of Your coming, and of the end of the age?†And Jesus answered and said to them: “Take heed that no one deceives you. For many will come in My name, saying, ‘I am the Christ,’ and will deceive many. And you will hear of wars and rumors of wars. See that you are not troubled; for all these things must come to pass, but the end is not yet. For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. And there will be famines, pestilences, and earthquakes in various places. All these are the beginning of sorrows. Then they will deliver you up to tribulation and kill you, and you will be hated by all nations for My name’s sake. And then many will be offended, will betray one another, and will hate one another. Then many false prophets will rise up and deceive many.  And because lawlessness will abound, the love of many will grow cold. But he who endures to the end shall be saved. And this gospel of the kingdom will be preached in all the world as a witness to all the nations, and then the end will come. Therefore when you see the ‘abomination of desolation,’ spoken of by Daniel the prophet, standing in the holy place†(whoever reads, let him understand), “then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains. Let him who is on the housetop not go down to take anything out of his house. And let him who is in the field not go back to get his clothes. But woe to those who are pregnant and to those who are nursing babies in those days! 20 And pray that your flight may not be in winter or on the Sabbath. For then there will be great tribulation, such as has not been since the beginning of the world until this time, no, nor ever shall be.Then if anyone says to you, ‘Look, here is the Christ!’ or ‘There!’ do not believe it. For false christs and false prophets will rise and show great signs and wonders to deceive, if possible, even the elect. See, I have told you beforehand.Therefore if they say to you, ‘Look, He is in the desert!’ do not go out; orHe is in the inner rooms!’ do not believe it. For as the lightning comes from the east and flashes to the west, so also will the coming of the Son of Man be. For wherever the carcass is, there the eagles will be gathered together. Immediately after the tribulation of those days the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light; the stars will fall from heaven, and the powers of the heavens will be shaken. Then the sign of the Son of Man will appear in heaven, and then all the tribes of the earth will mourn, and they will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory. And He will send His angels with a great sound of a trumpet, and they will gather together His elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other.Now learn this parable from the fig tree: When its branch has already become tender and puts forth leaves, you know that summer is near. So you also, when you see all these things, know that it is near—at the doors! Assuredly, I say to you, this generation will by no means pass away till all these things take place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but My words will by no means pass away.But of that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, but My Father only. And unless those days were shortened, no flesh would be saved; but for the elect’s sake those days will be shortened.

This is one of those passages that is often disputed. If you have three persons present discussing this text, you very well might have three interpretations. It is one of the principle passages where the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem is predicted. Two major variations on the interpretation of this text appear in the "Futurists' and "Preterists" camps. Futurists read the passage in the present and future. Those who hold this view are often found in dispensational circles. They are constantly considering Matthew 24 in light of current events. The other camp is the "preterist" school of eschatology. These interpreters are commonly postmillennial in conviction. These interpreters see everything, or at least the majority of what is found in Matthew 24, to have been fulfilled in 70 A.D.

There is, however, another approach to Matthew 24. The key to understanding what our Lord is teaching in this passage is a right understanding of the questions that are put to Jesus by the disciples. As they walked by the Temple, with its large stones, the disciples point it out to Him. But Jesus answers them in a strange way. He says, "Truly I say to you, there will not be left one stone standing upon another." He predicts the destruction of the Temple. As they sit down on the side of the Mount of Olives, the disciples ask a few questions: "When will these things be?" "What will be the sign of the end of the age?" These are double questions. In the mind of the disciples the two are closely related. But they are distinct questions considered by reason of what they are unknowingly asking. The disciples consider that the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem must mean the end of the world. The Temple represented the dwelling of God with man. It is inconceivable for the disciples, at this point, to understand a world without the Temple. As you keep the two questions in mind, you will see that the passage is more complex than is 0ften thought.

When Jesus comes to answer the first question, He focused on (vs. 15-28) on the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem. They He answers the second question of the disciples--namely the sign of Your coming and the end of the age--in verses 29 and following. There is a focus on the inter-advental period (i.e. the period of time between our Lord's first and second coming) in what is taught in the passage as well. One of the problems of the reading of passages like this, that talk of the inter-advental period, is that seeing things as only future allows us to try to pinpoint His second coming. This is not what our Lord intended for us to do. There will be signs throughout the Messianic Age. Broadly, this section of the discourse is a panorama of the nature of the history of this world in this age between the times of Christ's first coming and His coming at the end of the age. Interestingly, that language of "the end of the age" pops up again in the Great Commission, "Lo, I am with you always even to the end of the age."

In His answer to the question, "When will these things be?" Jesus immediately teaches about the destruction of the Temple. In the parallel passage in Luke, Jesus explicitly says, "When you see Jerusalem surrounded by armies...you know that its end is near." The Futurist reading places this in a future period of tribulation when the Temple is rebuilt. This is too far reaching to be what Jesus has in mind.

One other interpretive key to Matthew 24 is understanding that there is not simply one fulfillment to what our Lord teaches concerning the signs of the times (i.e. the second question); rather there are successive predictive events of the same kind occurring through the Messianic Age. Many Preterists reject this suggestion. Here is where there is debate in Reformed circles. Is the language of the Son of Man coming like lightning and the Angels gathering the elect from the four corners of the earth, all finished at the destruction of the Temple in 70 AD? It is not impossible to take this view, but it is not the most likely interpretation. Our Lord seems to take the events of the destruction of Jerusalem to be a typological, predictive event foreshadowing the coming of the Son of Man at the end of the age.

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