Eschatology Outlines: No. 3B The Olivet Discourse (conc.)

Posted by R. Fowler White

Getting Our Bearings on the End from Jesus:
The Birth Pains Period from Beginning to End

I. The big picture: The Olivet Discourse starts with a survey of the time from the beginning of birth pains to the end of the age (i.e., the end of the birth pains period). See Matt 24:4-14//Mark 13:5-13//Luke 21:8-19. In other words, Jesus begins the Discourse by giving an overview of the entire birth pangs era.

A. The beginning of the birth pains period, Matt 24:4-8 and parallels—Jesus pointedly says the following are not yet the end: false christs, wars, and rumors of wars, 24:4-6; famines, pestilence, and earthquakes, 24:7-8. (See also Rev 6.) It is relevant here to remember the history of Cain and his descendants: according to Jesus, culture (with nature) suffers from degradation during the birth pains era (Matt 24:4-8) just as it did during the era narrated in Gen 4:17–6:8. Each age of birth pains culminates in the birth of a new world.

B. The end of the age = the end of the birth pains era, Matt 24:9-14 and parallels—The end comes only after gospel witness goes to all the nations, 24:14 (see 28:19-20). The end marks the limit of gospel preaching, persecution, and perseverance, 24:9-13.

II. Tribulation and persecution, from beginning to end—It is noteworthy that tribulation and persecution take place throughout the period of birth pains. That is, they last as long as gospel witness lasts, and the spread of the gospel witness to the nations brings the spread of tribulation and persecution to the nations. Tribulation and persecution, therefore, occur both early and late in the period.—From Christ’s 1st Coming through His 2nd Coming, there is intensifying pressure on the church to apostatize because of cultural degradation (i.e., apostasy, removal of restraint, lawlessness). In other words, the days of Noah and the days of Lot recur, and tribulation and persecution bear the fruit of apostasy and betrayal; false prophecy multiplies deception; lawlessness increases and culture suffers corruption.

IV. Tribulation in Jerusalem, Matt 24:15-20//Mark 13:14-18// Luke 21:20-22—After giving an overview of the entire birth pains period, Jesus answers the disciples’ question about Jerusalem and the temple.

A. Jerusalem in spiritual decline—In Matt 23:13-39, Jesus pronounced judgment on 1st century Jerusalem. Just as Moses compared the people and land to Sodom in Deut 30:22-28 and Isaiah compared Jerusalem to Sodom in Isa 1:9-10, so Jesus did (Matt 11:23-24; Luke 17:28-29). He characterized the city’s population for its apostasy, hypocrisy, murder, corruption, robbery, self-indulgence, lawlessness, and moral blindness. In short, they were very much like the neighbors of Lot and Noah in their days. With its worship and justice corrupted, Jerusalem had also persecuted the church.

B. Jerusalem to be destroyed: Your house is being left to you desolate, Matt 23:38.—The temple will be abominated by an enemy nation. In the destruction of Jerusalem, nation will rise against nation, kingdom against kingdom (Matt 24:7). With these words, Jesus connects Jerusalem’s tribulation and destruction to the beginning of birth pains, not the end of the age. As predicted by Jesus, then, the destruction of Jerusalem is at the beginning of birth pains, not the end; the tribulation in Jerusalem is early tribulation, not late.

C. A remnant to be delivered, Matt 24:16-20: like Noah and Lot, the Christian remnant in Jerusalem will escape to the mountains (cf. Matt 24:16 with Gen 8:4; 19:19).

V. Tribulation and false reports of Christ’s coming throughout the birth pains period, Matt 24:21-28//Mark 13:19-23//Luke 17:23-24, 37—Next, Jesus answers the question about His coming and the end of birth pains.

A. Tribulation in Jerusalem is only one early example of the tribulation that occurs during the entire birth pains period to the end of the age, Matt 24:21-22.—Jesus emphasizes three traits of the tribulation in the age of birth pains. That tribulation is great in its increasing severity, longevity, and scope, Matt 24:21. Tribulation in the birth pains period is comprehensive, in that it threatens not just Jerusalem, but all flesh, Matt 24:22a. (Note: tribulations in the earth threatened all flesh before the flood, Gen 6:11-13.) Tribulation in the birth pains period is shortened, even though it is great and comprehensive, Matt 24:22b. According to Gen 6:3, God had limited the duration of tribulation on the earth before the flood by limiting the apostates’ years in the earth without the Spirit’s restraint. God will limit the duration of tribulation again before Christ’s return.

B. False reports of Christ’s coming and the true character of His coming, Matt 24:23-28.—False christs and false prophets appear throughout the era, Matt 24:23-25: these pseudo-christs and pseudo-prophets will mock the true God and deceive the world with great signs and wonders.—False sightings of Christ recur during the age, Matt 24:25-27: we’re to remember that Christ’s coming will be not be secluded or hidden, but public, unmistakable, universal, cosmic. False prophets, like vultures on a corpse (of a dead nation or a dead world), will prey, however, on their hearers, Matt 24:28. Again, it’s important to recall that false christs and prophets are not yet the end; they appear from the beginning of birth pains, Matt 24: 6, 8.

VI. The end of birth pains, the end of the age, Matt 24:29-31 // Mark 13:24-27 // Luke 21:25-28—Christ returns to judge heaven and earth. It is the judgment of heaven and earth, not the judgment of Jerusalem, that marks the end of birth pains and the end of the age.—Note the shift in focus and scope from Jerusalem to heaven and earth. With the heavens shaking (sun, moon, stars, heavenly powers, Matt 24:29; see Heb 12:26-27), the end of the world that now is comes in days of cosmic judgment, like the days of Noah.—The sign of the Son of Man and the gathering of the elect, 24:30-31 (//13:40-43, 49-50). Note the elect are gathered from the four winds, the point being that the gospel will have gone to all the nations before the end of the age comes.

VII. Admonitions and instruction on alertness between the beginning and the end, Matt 24:32-25:30//Mark 13:28-37//Luke 21:29-36—Jesus declares that His disciples are not to be afraid, misled, or surprised. Instead, we’re to be courageous, discerning, and vigilant.

VIII. The transition from the end of this birth pains age to the regeneration of heaven and earth, Matt 19:28; 25:31-46—The transition from this age to the age to come, the eternal state, is accomplished through redemptive judgment, according to which God’s people are ushered into eternal life in the world to come, while His enemies depart into eternal judgment.

Eschatology Outlines: No. 4 The Apostolic Writings

Eschatology Outlines: No. 3A The Olivet Discourse 

Posted by R. Fowler White

Getting Our Bearings on the End from Jesus:
Overview of the Olivet Discourse

I. As others have noted, for many the study of the Olivet Discourse specifically and eschatology (aka the future, last things) generally is overwhelming and ought to be avoided because it’s daunting, divisive, and leads some to bizarre and kooky conclusions. After all, experienced and mature Christians, even after considerable study, differ over even the basic approach to these subjects. Can we expect to reach a settled conviction on these matters when such differences exist? Isn’t it best perhaps to leave the subject alone? In short, no. The better approach is to keep studying, proceeding methodically.

II. It is vital, for example, to consult the church’s historic creeds, confessions, and catechisms composed over the centuries by the shepherds and teachers whom Christ has given to His church. We consult those documents not as rules for our faith, but as helps in our faith. From them we learn where consensus and differences have existed. We also learn which conclusions are novel or new, thus requiring weightier evidence than usual to convince others.

III. Turning to Scripture as our rule of faith, we should reckon with the way Jesus responds to the disciples’ questions about the future. His response should forever silence the notion that the study of last things ought to be avoided. The disciples came to Jesus after His words regarding the future (see, e.g., Matt 23:37–24:3), even if we still find ourselves asking, “the future of exactly what?” The disciples asked Jesus questions about the temple’s destruction, about the end of the age, and about His coming, questions showing that they already had knowledge of certain future events and that they were still curious about those events, questions requiring detailed responses from Jesus. One important thing to notice is that Jesus considered their questions to be legitimate concerns. He did not discourage or chide His disciples for asking questions about the future. In fact, the Discourse that Jesus gave following their questions is the longest answer that He ever gave to any of the questions they asked. We ought, it appears, to be very interested in the topics related to last things.

IV. Three interpretations of the Olivet Discourse: Jesus answers His disciples’ questions by connecting the temple destruction, the end of the age, and His coming to either 1) the judgment of Jerusalem, or 2) the judgment of the world (the present creation), or 3) the judgment of both Jerusalem and the world. For our purposes, option #3 accounts for more of the evidence than the others.

V. General orientation to the Olivet Discourse: Jesus teaches His disciples to compare the days of His coming with the days of Noah and of Lot. See Luke 17:22-37 and its parallels.—In Scripture God has not left us without guidelines and boundaries by which to understand and anticipate the future. He has given us examples, patterns, shadows (foreshadowings), and types of the future. In fact, it is the past that is a predictor of the future: the past tells us the shape of things to come. From episodes of divine judgment in biblical history, we discern that divine judgment has a patterned character, and from it we can learn what God wants us to know about the future. As we see in our “Eschatology Outlines: No. 2 Noah and Lot,” divine judgment followed the discernible pattern narrated in Genesis 6–7 (cf. Jesus’ words, “as in the days of Noah”; see also 2 Peter 3). We get our bearings on our questions about the future by noticing that in His Olivet Discourse Jesus instructs us to compare the day of His coming, the days of Noah, and the days of Lot.

A. As we suggested above (under IV.), in the Olivet Discourse Jesus presents the judgments on both Jerusalem and the present creation side by side, the former judgment being a microcosmic version that foreshadows the latter, macrocosmic judgment to come. We might use the word stereoscopic (cf. stereophonic) to describe this presentation of the two judgments in the one context of the Discourse. (Aside: arguably, a similar stereoscopic presentation of these two judgments is at work in Revelation.)

B. Presuming for the sake of this post that Jesus presents both judgments in the Discourse, one thing that makes discerning the distinction between the two judgments challenging is the fact that they both follow the paradigm of the flood judgment. (Recall that the days of Lot followed the pattern of the days of Noah.) Generally, though, we can distinguish the two by giving careful attention to temporal markers and geographical markers in the text (e.g., the beginning vs. the end of birth pains; in Judea vs. from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other).

C. Given the markers of time and place in the Discourse, Jesus’ intent seems clearly, in part, to get the disciples to disconnect Jerusalem’s destruction from creation’s destruction: that is, He wants them to understand that the two judgments won’t happen contemporaneously. Jesus bases that disconnection on, among other things, this observation: both judgments take for granted that the remnant, whether in the nation or in the world, has come to salvation through gospel preaching. So, before creation’s destruction but separate from Jerusalem’s destruction, the gospel must go to all the nations so that, once the destruction of creation arrives, the elect remnant from all those nations might be gathered from the four winds of the earth. 

D. In other words, Jesus would have the disciples to keep this straight: whether they’re thinking about the destruction of the nation’s temple or of creation’s temple, the destruction of either temple presupposes that the populations associated with each have been evangelized and that the elect remnant in each has been saved. This observation doesn’t answer every question, of course, but it seems to help.

VI. Periodization in the Discourse: Jesus answers their questions by describing what He calls a period of birth pains, a period with a beginning, Matt 24:8, and an end, Matt 24:6, 13-14.

A. The beginning of birth pains is linked historically with the Great Commission because gospel witness, tribulation, and persecution among all the nations are all linked with the birth pains.

B. The end of birth pains comes at the end of the age, Matt 24:3. As such, it ushers in the regeneration (of heaven and earth), Matt 19:28, a situation otherwise known as the eternal state that follows the Day of Judgment, Matt 25:31-32, 46; 13:40-43, 49-50. (Interestingly enough, the word regeneration encourages us to compare the emergence of the new heavens and earth with the creation of the world, Gen 2:4.)

Eschatology Outlines: No. 3B The Olivet Discourse (conc.)