The longest prophetic utterance of Jesus can be found in what is called the Olivet Discourse. This discourse can be found respectively in Matthew 24, Mark 13, and Luke 21. Many have associated these sections of scripture as referring to events that will usher in the Second Coming of Jesus. Indeed, what precedes the coming of the Son of Man are various “signs” of the times, which are to indicate that the time is “near”. Many have sought to interpret these texts with a newspaper in one hand, and an open Bible in the other. Matthew 24, Mark 13, and Luke 21 are parallel accounts of the Olivet discourse, however, because the present article does not intend to be exhaustive, we will focus on the Olivet discourse as found in Matthew 24; And as we look at Matthew 24, we will focus on just a few relevant portions of it.
The Olivet discourse is prophetic in nature as it predicts future events to the first hearers of the discourse. However, establishing the context for the discourse brings us to the earlier chapter (23) where Jesus condemns the sinfulness and hypocrisy of the Pharisees and the religious leaders. Jesus condemns the religious leaders and warns them of a coming judgment. This event occurs in the midst of the Temple in Jerusalem and upon leaving, the disciples of Jesus bring to his attention the various buildings and structures of the Temple complex. Indeed, the 1st century Temple in Jerusalem was quite a marvel to behold. However, Jesus then begins to predict the future demise of the Temple, when he says, “Do you not see all these things? Truly I say to you, not one stone here will be left upon another , which will not be torn down.” (Matthew 24:2). This statement was definitely a shock to the disciples as the Temple represented God’s presence in the midst of His covenant people. Surely, God’s dwelling will not be removed from amongst the people of God. However, there is clear indication in the text of scripture that God has rejected the Temple because of the sinfulness and hypocrisy of Israel’s leadership, who in turn have rejected their Messiah. Indeed, we even see a shift in the biblical language where Jesus earlier on in his ministry calls the Temple “my Father’s House” (John 2:16). However, later on he says, “Your house is being left to you desolate” (Matthew 23:38). It is clear that things do not bode well for Jerusalem and the Temple, which at this point is seen as “your House” as opposed to the previous “My Father’s house”.
Shortly after these shocking statements, the disciples ask Jesus in private while on the Mt. of Olives:
“Tell us, when will these things happen, and what will be the sign of your coming, and of the end of age?” (Matthew 24:3). Interestingly enough, the disciples connected the destruction of the Temple with the “coming” of Jesus and the end of the “age”. Jesus then proceeds to give his answer in the form of the Olivet discourse. It is here where we read of the famous “signs of the times.” Jesus in answering their questions provides signs to look for so as to know that the time is near. This portion of scripture has been the subject of great debate and disagreement as evidenced by the various competing end-time perspectives and interpretations. However, Matthew 24 has also been the center of attack from skeptics. For as Jesus gives the “signs”: Wars and rumors wars, false Christs, earthquakes in various places, nation rising against nation, and worldwide gospel proclamation, etc. he tops off these predictions that will precede his coming with verse 34 which states: “Truly I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all these things take place.” The skeptic points out what appears to be a clear false prophecy uttered by Jesus. Indeed, if this prophecy has not been fulfilled prior to “this generation passing away”, then Jesus was in fact a false prophet, since he would have prophesied falsely.
It is important therefore to understand that Jesus’ prediction concerning the destruction of the Temple and the events, which were to precede it, did in fact take place before that generation passed away. Without going into too much detail due to the limitation of space, let us take a look at a portion of Matthew 24, which many believe could not have fulfilled during the generation to which Jesus was speaking and demonstrate that it indeed was fulfilled. We turn to Matthew 24:14.
“This gospel of the kingdom shall be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all the nations, and then the end will come.”
If we take verse 34 of chapter 24 of the Gospel of Matthew as our time text in which the events which preceded are limited to within “This generation” (The generation then living; not a future generation thousands of years into the future), then we must understand that in some sense verse 14 has been fulfilled; it seems as though the text demands it. It is here where some knowledge of the Greek (N.T. was written in Greek) is helpful. When considering the impossibility of the gospel being preached in the “whole world” given such a brief time span, within that generation, we can have a clearer understanding of what is being said when we consider the greek used for the word “world” here in verse 14. Interestingly enough, the word used is not “kosmos” which would entail the entire planet; rather the word used is “oikomene”. This word carries the understanding not of the entire planet, but a “political house”. The Roman Empire was most definitely a political house in this sense and is a perfect candidate for the meaning of verse 14. Furthermore, if we understand oikomene to be referring to the Roman Empire, this would also fit the span of a generation, since the gospel most definitely was preached throughout the Roman Empire (which encompassed people from all over the world) within a generation from when Jesus uttered his Olivet Discourse. Not only does this understanding demonstrate that this portion of Matthew 24 easily fits within the context of a single generation, this interpretation is nothing new. It has been a traditional understanding of Matthew 24 that the Roman Empire was in view.
To provide a clear example of the above application of oikomene elsewhere in the New Testament, Let us turn briefly to Luke 2, where we are told:
“In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world (Grk: oikomene) should be registered.”
Did Caesar August have the entire planet registered? Of course not. The “world” in view is clearly the political house, i.e. Roman Empire. However, if one is still inclined to understand Matthew 24:14 to imply the entire world in a literal sense, then the position that this verse pertains to distant future realities is still undermined given other texts more specifically in the Pauline corpus. For instance, consider Paul’s words in the book of Colossians:
“If indeed you continue in the faith, stable and steadfast, not shifting from the hope of the gospel that you heard, which has been proclaimed in all creation under heaven.”
– Colossians 1:23
If one is to assert that Matthew 24:14 pertains to the gospel going out into all the world (entire planet) and then the end comes, then Colossians 1:23 says that within the 1st century, the gospel was proclaimed in all creation under heaven (ESV), or the NIV puts this way: “…has been proclaimed to every creature under heaven.” So if the entire planet is view, then it was fulfilled; but I think the most reasonable understanding of Matthew 24:14 is that it refers to the world (oikomene: political house/Roman Empire), in which case, this was also fulfilled before the generation to whom Jesus was speaking had passed away.
Lastly, the critic of such an interpretation may say: But the end did not come! Well, it depends what we mean by “end”. Is Matthew 24 speaking of signs that will precede the “end of the world” or the “end of the age? It is clear that the latter is in view and hence, the age did pass away within that generation; namely, the Old covenant age where the Temple and its sacrifices were the central focus and God dealing particularly with Israel. That age has passed and hence the gospel message and the knowledge of the God of Abraham is spread to the four corners of the earth through the proclamation of the resurrection of the Son of God. Indeed, more can be said concerning Matthew 24 that was not addressed, but I hope what has been addressed is challenging and good food for thought.