One of the most misunderstood passages is Jesus Big Prophecy in Matthew 24, sometimes known as the Olivet discourse (there are parallel accounts in Mark 13 and Luke 21). This passage is often misunderstood, so it needs careful consideration. Most people assume that this passage gives a number of signs of the second coming of Jesus. This is not true. The first 35 verses are actually a warning of the destruction of Jerusalem. Jesus was giving a strong warning to the Jews of what would happen to them, if they rejected him. Only at the end of the passage is the second coming described, and here no signs are given.


Before looking at Matthew 24 in detail, we must get an understanding of the context in which Jesus was speaking. The gospel of Matthew records a long confrontation between Jesus and the leaders of the Jewish nation. It began in the time of John the Baptist. When the Pharisees and Sadducees came out to him, he told them to flee from the coming wrath and produce fruit worthy of repentance. He warned them that the axe was already at the root of the trees, and every tree that did not produce good fruit would be cut down and thrown on the fire (Matt 3:7-12). This was the first ominous warning to the Jewish nation. History shows that they did not repent, and Matthew 24 describes how the axe would fall.

Early in his ministry, Jesus gave a similar warning. After seeing the faith of the Gentile Centurion he said that many of the Gentiles would take a place in the Kingdom of Heaven, but many of the Jews, to whom the Kingdom really belonged, would be thrown out into the place of darkness, and weeping, and gnashing of teeth (Matt 8:11,12).

Matthew 12 records an incident in which some Jews accused Jesus of using the power of Satan to cast out demons. From that time on, Jesus spoke in parables, so that they would not be able to understand what he was saying (Matt 13:13). The Jewish nation seemed to be set on a collision course with the purposes of God. This confrontation came to a head after the triumphal entry of Jesus into Jerusalem (Matt 21). The Jewish leaders again questioned Jesus' authority. Jesus responded with the parables of the Wicked Tenants and the Wedding Banquet, which warn that those who refuse to acknowledge him will find themselves shut out of the Kingdom.

This debate reached a climax in Matthew 22. The Jewish leaders had already begun to plot ways in which to kill Jesus (Matt 12:14), so they tried to trap him with trick questions about paying taxes to Caesar, the resurrection, and the commandments. Jesus' answers were so confounding that no one dared to ask any more questions.

Jesus Warning

Jesus responded by publicly denouncing the Pharisees and Teachers of the Law. Matthew 23 records his terrible accusation: of pride, false teaching, lack of mercy and faith, false judgment, dishonesty, greed and self-indulgence. After denouncing the Jewish leaders in a series of seven woes, Jesus then announced:

Fill up, then, the measure of the sin of your forefathers (Matt 23:32).

This is a picture of a cup that is nearly full, and is being filled up to overflowing by the current generation of Jews.

The nation has been rebelling against God and grieving him for many centuries. Now with the rejection of his son, they would fill up the cup of evil and bring destruction on their nation. The law had warned that a nation that refused to be corrected would experience the consequences of its sins, seven times over (Lev 26:23,24). This is exactly what would happen.

Jesus pronounced a terrible sentence on the Jewish nation.

Upon you will come all the righteous blood, that has been shed on earth, from the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah son of Berakiah, whom you murdered between the temple and the altar. I tell you the truth, all these things will come upon this generation (Matt 23:35-36).

The consequences for the deaths of all the prophets would come upon this generation. They would pay the price with their blood.

Jesus then wept for Jerusalem and said.

O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing. Look, your house is left to you desolate. For I tell you, you will not see me again until you say, 'Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.' (Matt 23:37-39).

Jesus had longed to draw the people of Jerusalem to himself, but he knew they would reject him. He declared that God's immediate purposes for the Jews were finished. Their house would be left desolate. The temple, which had been the dwelling place of God, had become a place of desolation. It was now deserted by God, so its destruction was inevitable. After pronouncing this solemn sentence, Jesus left the temple, never to return. The Messiah deserted the temple.

Temple Destroyed

The disciples expected the Messiah to rule the world from the temple. They expected it to be a centre of worship for all people on the earth (Acts 1:6). They were totally shocked by Jesus' words. They could not accept the idea that God would desert the temple, so they pointed out the wonder of its buildings. But Jesus made his meaning clear when he said,

Do you see all these things. I tell you the truth, not one stone here will be left on another; every one will be thrown down (Matt 24:2).

The temple would be totally destroyed. This is the context in which Jesus made his prophetic statement on the Mount of Olives. The leaders of the nation had repeatedly questioned and rejected his authority. Jesus declared that the consequence of this rebellion would be the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple. All these things would come upon the current generation.

Two Questions

Jesus' Big Prophecy was prompted by the disciple's questions as they sat with Jesus on the Mount of Olives. They came to him with two questions:

  1. When will these things be (the destruction of Jerusalem)?

  2. What will be the sign of your coming (parousia) and the end of the age?

The disciples believed they were asking one question, because they had assumed that these events would happen together. They could not imagine a world without the Temple of Jerusalem, so they assumed that the destruction of the Temple must mean the end of the world. Jesus had taught them about the day of judgment that would follow his coming at the end of the age. When they heard him speak of the destruction of Jerusalem, they just assumed that it would also come at the same time. They wanted to know both the sign and the time of these events.

Whatever the confusion of the disciples, Jesus is very clear that the destruction of Jerusalem is different from the second coming and the end of the age. He treats their question in two parts. Firstly, he gives the signs and timing of the destruction of Jerusalem . Then he speaks of the sign and the time of the second coming (question 2). Matthew 24 has two parts. Verses 4-35 deal with the destruction of Jerusalem (question 1). Verses 36-51 deal with the second coming and the end of the age (question 2).

All These Things

The key to understanding the first part of Matthew 24 is the phrase "all these things" (panta tauta). Jesus ends his answer to the first question by saying:

I tell you the truth, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away (Matt 24:34-35).

When Jesus says that "all these things" must take place while the current generation is alive, he is referring back to his statement about the temple and the first question.

Do you see all these things? Not one stone here will be left on another (Matt 24:2).

Tell us, when will these things be? (Matt 24:3).

When challenging Jewish leaders, he had used the same phrase.

Upon you will come all the righteous blood that has been shed on earth, from the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah son of Berekiah, whom you murdered between the temple and the altar. I tell you the truth, all these things will come upon this generation (Matt 23:35-36).

The phrase "all these things" is shorthand for the destruction that would make the house of the Jews desolate. When Jesus says that "all these things" shall happen before the generation listening has passed away, he is also referring to the destruction of the nation of Israel. The only catastrophe that took place within the appropriate timespan was the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70. This is clearly the event to which Jesus was referring. Matthew 24:4-35 is a description, and a warning of the destruction of Jerusalem. Jesus gives emphasis to his sombre prophecy by saying that heaven and earth will pass away, but his words will never pass away.

A shortened version of this phrase (panta) is used in Matt 24:8.

All these are the beginning of birth pains.

The destruction of Jerusalem marks the beginning of a new season in history. The events Jesus described are the birth pangs of this new age.

Jesus' reference to the current generation rules out any double fulfilment. Some interpreters make the confusing claim that Jesus prophecy was partially fulfilled in AD 70, but will be fully fulfilled before the second coming. Jesus statement that all these things will be fulfilled during the lifespan of his hearers makes this impossible.

To avoid the clear meaning of Jesus' statement, some people place another meaning on the word "generation". They translate the word as "race" or "nation", making Jesus say that the nation of Israel will not pass away before the fulfilment of these things. Not only does this make Jesus' statement rather vague, but it also has no basis in scripture. There is no other place in the gospel where the word has this meaning. Matthew always uses it to refer to people living in the present. Jesus is referring to the people who were present (see also Matt 16:28).


In Matthew 24:36, Jesus goes on to answer the second part of the disciples' question. He gives a description of the second coming and the end of the age. He makes this clear by dropping the expression "these things" and taking up the phrase "that day". This phrase would have been familiar to the disciples. Jesus had used it many times to describe the last judgment (Matt 7:22; 11:22). They would understand that he is now talking about the day of judgment at the end of the age (second coming).

But of that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, but My Father only (Matt 24:36).

Jesus himself does not know the day or the hour. He warns his followers to be prepared, so they will be ready whenever he comes.


This is not the usual interpretation of Matthew 24. Most people interpret the entire chapter as a description of the events leading up to the second coming. In view of this, some further arguments in favour of dividing it into two parts will be given.

  1. The destruction of Jerusalem is an important event. We would expect Jesus to make some comments on it. The only lengthy description and warning is found in Matthew 24:4-35. If this passage only refers to the second coming, Jesus has let a vital event in the history of Israel pass without comment. It would also mean that Jesus had avoided the disciple's question, which would be odd.

  2. In the equivalent account in Luke's Gospel, only the first part of the disciple's question is recorded.

    When will these things happen? And what will be the sign they are about to take place (Luke 21:7).

    Luke 21 only gives the first part of Jesus answer (the equivalent of Matt 24:4-35). Luke recognises that Jesus' comments about the last day are part of a separate topic and records them separately in a different chapter (Luke 17:20-37). Here we see the Holy Spirit guiding a writer to divide the prophetic declaration in half, because it covers different topics.

  3. The events in the first part of Matthew 24:4-35 are limited to the locality of Palestine. This is indicated by the reference to Sabbath travel (Matt 24:20). This would only be a hardship in Palestine. Likewise, the command not to go down off their houses was only relevant in Palestine, where houses were all joined together allowing people to walk along the rooftops. In contrast, the scene in the second part of the passage is universal in application.

  4. The first section gives an impression of very tumultuous times. There are wars, famines, earthquakes and persecutions. The second section describes a more normal situation; people are eating and drinking, getting married and working in normal employment. This only makes sense if the two sections refer to different times.

  5. Jesus gives a specific sign for the events described in the first part of the chapter; the abomination of desolation (Matt 24:15). In the second part, Jesus absolutely refuses to give any signs. He tells three parables which all teach that there will be no warning signs prior to his coming. This would be incoherent if he were speaking about the same events.

  6. In the first section, Jesus tells his followers to flee from Jerusalem into the mountains. This would be pointless behaviour at the second coming, as his followers will simply be taken (Matt 24:40-41). However, it would be good advice if Jerusalem were about to be besieged by a foreign army, which is what Jesus was really describing.

  7. There is a sense of urgency in the first part of the chapter. Yet the parables in the second part suggest that there will be considerable delay before Jesus returns.

  8. In the first few verses of Matthew 24, Jesus speaks about the Jerusalem Temple. It can have no relevance to the second coming as it was destroyed in AD 70, so these verses cannot apply to the second coming. Some commentators get around this by saying that the temple will be rebuilt, but this does not help as Jesus is specifically talking about the temple that the disciples were looking at. Actually, there is no place in the New Testament that says that the temple will be rebuilt. His followers are the temple of the Holy Spirit.

The first part of Jesus' Big Prophecy describes the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70. It is his answer to the first question that the disciples asked and has no connection with the second coming.


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