Jesus was more of a forthtelling prophet than a foretelling one, but that did not stop him from giving a detailed prophecy concerning the future – one that skeptics today believe did not come true. If they are right, Jesus was not a true prophet (Deut. 18:21-22). What is worse, whereas this prophecy could be an important support to Jesus’ claims to divinity, if Jesus failed, then claims of his divinity could be undermined (Isa. 41:22).
The Olivet Discourse (Matt. 24-25 cf. Mark 13, Luke 21) is Jesus’ second-longest speech, and it is the longest reply Jesus gave to a question. In it Jesus speaks of false Christs, worldwide war, the tribulation, and his coming in judgment. In popular end-time prophecy circles, these words are interpreted as referring to the end of the world and Jesus’ glorious return.
The problem is that Jesus specified when these all of events would take place: “this generation will not pass away till all these things take place” (Matt. 24:34). If “this generation” is taken in its normal sense of Jesus’ living audience (cf. Matt. 11:16; 12:41-45; 23:29-39; Acts 2:40), then this prophecy would have to have been fulfilled within about forty years (e.g., Num. 32:13; Heb. 3:8-10) – somewhere around A.D. 70.
It might seem clear that the first century did not see worldwide wars, famines, the sun and moon darkened, and the stars fall from heaven (Matt. 24:6-7, 29). Nor does it seem possible to believe that the Gospel was preached to the whole world before then (Matt. 24:14). If nothing else, how can anyone take seriously the idea that everyone on earth saw Jesus “coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory” (Matt. 24:30)?
So how do we deal with this seemingly false prophecy?
Some hold out hope that Jesus was speaking in prophetic terms that were meant to be taken in more than one way. It is not unusual for biblical prophets to mean much more than they appear to be saying when they speak for God – but they do not mean less. For example, the Old Testament prophecies that St. Matthew cites in support of Jesus’ virgin birth (Matt. 1:23) and his return from Egypt (Matt. 2:15) do not seem to have had any messianic significance when they were uttered (cf. Isa. 7:14-15 and Hos. 11:1, respectively). Moreover, each had already been fulfilled by the time Jesus was born. So, even if the Olivet Discourse is a “double prophecy,” it would still have required an initial fulfillment in the first century.
An important clue to the solution comes from the passage itself – specifically, the questions that the Olivet Discourse was meant to answer. We find these at the beginning of Matthew 24, where Jesus tells his disciples that the temple would be destroyed (Matt. 24:1-2). His disciples ask him, “when will this be, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the close of the age?” Let’s consider these two questions in reverse order.
Jesus answers the end of the age question by explaining that, “this gospel of the kingdom will be preached throughout the whole world, as a testimony to all nations; and then the end will come” (Matt. 24:14). So, the gospel being preached to the whole world is itself the sign that the end is coming. Now, was the gospel preached to the whole world in the first century?
According to St. Paul in Romans 10:17-18 and Colossians 1:5-6, it had (clearly “world” here is referring to the Roman world and not the planet earth!). Now we can quibble about what exactly is meant here – but if Jesus meant what St. Paul meant, the problem is solved.
Jesus explains his coming with a series of events that will take place first:
Immediately after the tribulation of those days the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will fall from heaven, and the powers of the heavens will be shaken; then will appear the sign of the Son of man 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 (Matt. 24:29-30).
It might appear that this completely undermines any kind of first century fulfillment. When we take sacred Scripture as a whole, however, we can see that Jesus is quoting a typical Old Testament description of “The Day of the Lord” (e.g., Isa. 13:10; 24:23; Ezek. 32:7; Joel 2:10, 31, & 3:15; Amos 5:20, 8:9; Rev. 6). Throughout the Bible, this imagery was used to express God’s judgment on a nation through its destruction by a foreign power. So, while this language might not evoke this interpretation to twenty-first century westerners, it is certainly how Jesus’ hearers would have understood it. As we will see, Jerusalem / Judea (cf. Matt. 23:37, 24:15-16) was judged in this very manner.
After discussing the events leading up to the end, Christ moves on to the sign that “these things” (i.e., the temple’s destruction) are about to begin. He warns them it will be shortly after they “see the desolating sacrilege spoken of by the prophet Daniel, standing in the holy place.” Jesus expected His disciples to understand what the “desolating sacrilege” was. In the book of Daniel this refers to Antiochus Epiphanies’ defiling of the temple after seizing Jerusalem in 169 B.C. (cf. Dan. 9:27, 11:31, 12:11, and 1 Macc. 1:54, 6:7). This is clarified for non-Jewish believers by St. Luke, who says that, “when Jerusalem is surrounded by armies its desolation is near” (Luke 21:20).
Now, due to insurrection, the Roman army surrounded Jerusalem and laid siege to it in A.D. 67. After a grueling three-and-a-half year siege, they managed to enter the city, kill its starving and diseased citizens, and destroy the temple. This famously occurred in A.D. 70—forty years (one generation) after Jesus prophesied it event would take place.
The last troubling aspect to this understanding of Jesus’ prophecy is that Jesus said he would be seen by those he came to during this time (Matt. 24:30). Here we must keep in mind that “world” or “earth” is referring to the Roman world or the Jews of the “land” (e.g., Ezra 4:4, Zech. 12:10, Rev. 1:7). We possess no historical record saying this took place, but this is not exactly surprising since no records exist from the inhabitants of Jerusalem who were the recipients of Jesus’ wrath (Acts 2:16-23, 38-40). Indeed, no Christian is recorded as having fallen victim to the siege because during a seemingly inexplicable retreat of the Romans, they heeded the words of Jesus to flee the city (Matt. 24:15-20) and escaped.
The inhabitants of Jerusalem were massacred (by the Romans and each other) and very few historical records remain from the Romans but those of Josephus—records showing that armies were seen in the clouds (Jewish Wars, VI.V.3). Likewise, the Roman historian Tacitus records the same in his Histories (V.13). While not said to be Jesus Christ himself, the fact that two independent enemies of both Jew and Christian reported something that sounds a lot like an angelic army (cf. Matt. 24:31) is impressive testimonial support.
It is important to note that Jesus’ “coming” here is not the same event as his final “return,” even though the terms sometimes get used interchangeably. Jesus himself threatened to “come” to unfaithful churches in judgment prior to his return in glory to judge the living and the dead (e.g., Rev. 2:26, 3:3). So a first century coming of Christ is neither historically impossible nor theologically problematic.
More can be said about each of the details of the Olivet Discourse prophecy, but the key takeaway is that what Jesus predicted would take place “before this generation passed” seems to have actually occurred within forty years of his speaking. (The prophecy is so precise, in fact, that some skeptics use it to date the gospels later than A.D. 70 to account for its accuracy!) At worst, the less-historically-supported events cannot be shown to have not taken place.
There is nothing to say that this prophecy will not receive a “double fulfillment,” or a preliminary and ultimate fulfillment, in the future like some other prophecies of Jesus. To replace the prophecy’s first century fulfillment with futuristic speculation, however, easily gives rise to skepticism and removes an important support for Jesus’ claims to not only being a prophet (see Deut. 18:21-22), but also God in the flesh (see Isa. 41:22).