Olivet Discourse: temple and king (Matthew 24)

Whatever your views about end times, here’s a way to hear Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 24 within the temple-versus-kingship conflict that is its context.

Open Matthew 24.

“Signs of the end” is the heading in many versions of Matthew 24, and there are almost as many interpretations as there are interpreters. That’s the irony of eschatology: we tend to divide over something God intends to bring us together in Christ.

So, I’m writing cautiously, not wanting to contribute to the division. I’m not about to fit the Olivet Discourse onto world events of our day. Can we agree together that the starting point for understanding Matthew 24 must be its context in Matthew’s Gospel?

Matthew’s message is that Jesus is the Messiah. The temple leaders didn’t see it that way. The conflict of kingship and temple escalates with Jesus’ final trip to Jerusalem, culminating in his crucifixion and resurrection. As our previous post showed, the temple/kingship conflict forms the framework of Matthew 21–28, including Chapter 24.

Listening from this position, we hear the Olivet Discourse with a clarity any audiophile would love, the counterpoint of temple and kingship.

Temple

After entering Jerusalem as the son of David arriving in the name of the Lord and overturning the temple (21:1-27), Jesus told stories about the eviction of the play-actors who occupied God’s house (21:28 – 23:26). They were in power because they killed those who did speak for God (23:27-36). The anointed ruler had tried to gather the capital under his leadership but it resisted him, so their house would be desolated until they recognized him (23:37-38).

In case we’re not clear that Jesus was talking about the temple being literally demolished, he clarifies it for the disciples who stood in awe of the temple (24:2). Matthew’s double verbs suggest Jesus giving up on the temple: he left the temple and was walking away as he spoke of the temple’s demise (24:1).

From the Mount of Olives, the temple is your view. But the disciples were looking to Jesus. They ask when the temple was going down and the king’s reign would arrive to complete the era God had promised (24:3). Jesus doesn’t immediately answer the When? question — the one that tends to divide us.

Instead, he warns about deceivers who claim the authority that belongs to Jesus as God’s anointed (24:4-5). While I’m not suggesting this exhausts the meaning, consider who else in this context could have been claiming to be God’s anointed leader rather than Jesus.

Israel’s tradition recognized two anointed leaders: high priest, and king. Zechariah (a book Jesus keeps alluding to in the temple/conflict section) dealt with the restoration of these two offices after the exile. Both were anointed positions: These are the two who are anointed to serve the Lord of all the earth according to Zechariah 4:14. So while Messiah connoted kingship, the Dead Sea Scrolls could speak of the Messiahs of Aaron and Israel (1QS Col. ix:11).

So, who would be the most immediate referent for deceivers claiming authority as God’s anointed, portraying Jesus as a deceiver (27:63-64) while they themselves plot to deceive the people (28:12-15)?

The topic of deception introduces the problem of wars and associated propaganda (24:6-8). The point of having a king in Israel’s history was to lead us and to go out before us and fight our battles (1 Samuel 8:20). The wars made David great, and wars meant the downfall of the kingdom when his descendants could not lead their people to victory.

Was Jesus really God’s anointed if he did not save his people? That’s the claim the temple made against his kingship. It’s still a stumbling block for Jews today. And for gentiles, the question of why God does not intervene recurs whenever there are wars and rumours of wars.

But Jesus had no plans to form an army and liberate his people. They would hear of wars and rumours of wars, but they should not be alarmed as if his protective kingship wasn’t working.  Nations and kingdoms would fight each other as they had always done, along with other issues like food shortages and the shaking of the earth. These things were not signs that the end had come for God’s people. They were not signs of the failure of his kingship. In fact, these troubles were merely the beginning of the anguish they should expect, like the onset of labour-pains (24:6-8).

So, how would the king protect his people against foreign powers that want to lord it over them (20:25)? He wouldn’t. As part of their apprenticeship, he warned they would be as safe as sheep among wolves … handed over to local councils … arrested by governors and kings as witnesses to them and their nations, … put to death. You will be hated by everyone because of me, but the one who stands firm to the end will be saved (10:16-22).

Now, in 24:9-13, the king reminds them of the training they received and adds a promise: the good news of his kingship will be proclaimed as a testimony to all nations, and that’s how it will end (24:14).

And this is the point in the Olivet Discourse where Jesus starts using apocalyptic imagery. Apocalyptic was a whole genre of Jewish literature addressing the question of how it would end. Finding themselves subjected to kingdom after kingdom, ruler after ruler, the big questions for God’s people were, “How will this ever be resolved? How will God restore his people, fulfilling the promises to the patriarchs? How will God restore the kingdom, fulfilling the promises to David? How will God deal with the injustice of the nations dominating his people?”

The apocalyptic books didn’t have a simple answer. Some were dark, focusing on the judgement God would bring on the ungodly, overturning the world as in the days of Noah. Others held hope of God raising up a powerful leader to defeat their enemies, physical and spiritual. A popular one echoed the language of Daniel 7, that God would give power to the Son of Man (Enoch). But none of them answered the apocalyptic question the way Jesus did: a peaceful king calling his servants to proclaim and embody his kingship to the nations, so the nations would end up included in his reign.

The desolating abomination (24:15) is an apocalyptic phrase from Daniel (9:27 11:31; 12:11). It referred to Antiochus IV desecrating the temple by installing an abomination (an image to Zeus), sacrificing a pig on the altar. The temple had been unable to function for years until it was cleansed and rededicated (Hanukkah).

So, what was Jesus referring to? When would the holy space of the temple be a desolated abomination again? The most obvious answer would be AD 70: Roman soldiers violating the sacred space, exposing it to the profane world by literally tearing it down stone by stone, just as Jesus had said.

Jesus was convinced that day would come because the temple was already full of uncleanness (23:27), a den of bandits leading God’s people to destruction. It’s what he told them: Look, your house is left to you desolate (23:38).

Kingship

Though he was God’s anointed king, Jesus would give no military support to his people when the Roman invasion came. Like Jeremiah, Jesus advised them to desert the place, leave the city, run for the hills. He told them not to rescue any belongings, not to go back even for a coat to keep them warm at night (24:17-18).

That’s desperate advice from a king. Doesn’t he care? The anointed ruler answers that question through empathy with the most vulnerable. Pregnant women can’t run. Those carrying a crying baby can’t hide. They’ll freeze if it’s winter. They’ll fall to the sword if Sabbath regulations inhibit their escape (24:19-20). He owns the reality that the most shocking distress comes on his watch, yet the king will not fight for his people (24:21).

People in extreme trouble are to vulnerable anyone who claims to be sent by God to rescue them. The king warns his people not to follow them. God is not intervening to prevent the tragedy. So, even if someone sounded like David tending the flock on the Judean wilderness, or like Saul hiding in the baggage, they should not trust him or give him allegiance (24:22-26).

Jesus’ kingship doesn’t come like that. In apocalyptic imagery, the son of man receives authority not by defeating the beasts but by the decree of heaven, like a lightning bolt flashing across the sky from one side to the other (24:27).

Verse 28 presents a problem, for Jesus speaks of eagles gathering over corpses and eagles don’t do that. Modern translation sometimes change it to vultures, even though an aetos was never a vulture. But the eagle was the emblem on the imperial standard of the Roman army. So, when they saw the eagles gathering, it was drop-everything-and-run or be a carcass (24:28). Jesus would not prevent their suffering, because he receives his kingship not by defeating his enemies but by divine decree.

That is what we’re talking about in this chapter: the temple is going down, but the kingship of God’s anointed is coming to earth through the power of heaven.

Divine decree

The Son of Man receives the kingship because God shakes everything and gives it to him. Matthew 24:29-30 is apocalyptic imagery describing heaven’s management of earth. It was never about literal stars or clouds.

The imagery goes back to God’s decree in the beginning: the sun ruling by day, the moon ruling by night, visible signs that earth is under heaven’s reign (Genesis 1:14). Seasons and days represent God’s unfailing management of the world (Genesis 8:22). Another sign in the sky affirms God’s covenant to never give up reigning over the earth, even when he permits human government (Genesis 9). Consequently, the imagery of the stars of heaven not showing their light, the sun being darkened, the moon not giving its light is another way of saying that God is putting an end to the arrogance of the haughty rulers and humbling the pride of the ruthless (see Isaiah 13:9-11).

Those rulers lost their authority as the heavens declare the kingship of the son of man, the human descendant who reigns with heaven’s authority over the earth. His kingship does not come from having a bigger army (the hosts of earth) but from the one who reigns among the angels (the clouds of heaven’s hosts, as in Daniel 7:13).

The great power and glory that God’s anointed receives from heaven does change things here on earth. Those who pierced him mourn (another Zechariah allusion), for the rulers of this age would not have crucified the Lord of glory if they understood the wisdom of the cross (1 Corinthians 2:8).

With the power of heavenly (not earthly) forces, God’s anointed gathers God’s people from all over the earth into his kingship (24:31).

Conclusion

This chapter is part of a larger narrative describing the temple/kingship conflict. Its core is the double-sided truth:

  • the temple falls, because it no longer represents God’s throne.
  • the son of man rises, not by war but by divine decree, bringing the nations under God’s reign — the astounding answer to the apocalyptic question.

There’s much more we could add, but can we agree on this basic framework? As the rest of the New Testament affirms, the Son’s kingship establishes a new temple for God’s throne to be openly experienced in his world.

Related posts

For the broader framework, see:

For more detail on this chapter, see:

Photo by Allen Browne, 2017-05-17.

Author: Allen Browne

Seeking to understand Jesus in the terms he chose to describe himself: son of man (his identity), and kingdom of God (his mission). Riverview Church, Perth, Western Australia

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