The Olivet Discourse: Armageddon or Rapture?

By Rev. Roger Best

Within the evangelical church today there are, unfortunately, a number of issues that are hotly debated. Not the least of these among premillennialists is the timing of the rapture of the saints. Is Christ's return imminent and pretribulational, or will He return at the mid-point of the tribulation? Will His return be at the end of the tribulation, or is His second coming during the second half of the seventieth week which is called prewrath? There are good men who are in each camp, but truth is not based on good men. Truth comes from the authority of the Word of God.

One of the critical end time passages is the Olivet discourse which we find in Matthew 24 & 25, Mark 13 and Luke 21. In this discourse Jesus is answering the disciples' question regarding the sign of his coming and the end of the age. Those who believe in an "any moment" or secret (pretribulation) rapture take the position that Matthew 24 pertains to Israel, not the church, and is speaking of Armageddon. Those who are pre-wrath or posttrib see Matthew 24 as speaking of the rapture of the saints. Both positions cannot be correct; at least one must be wrong because the passage cannot refer to both. However, in order for the pretribulation rapture position to be true, Matthew 24 cannot be speaking of the rapture so they insist that this important passage records Christ's coming at Armageddon (Revelation 19:11-16).

Stanley Toussaint, in his chapter in a recent book called "When the Trumpet Sounds" (pages 235 - 250), argues that Matthew 24, vital to the prewrath and posttrib positions, is not essential for the pretribulationalist. Toussaint concludes by saying, "This passage . . . is Jewish and relates to a very Jewish context. Because of its Jewishness, neither the church nor the rapture are in view in Matthew 24" (p. 250). Is Matthew 24 Jewish or does it include the elect of the church as well? If Matthew 24 is speaking of the church and Israel then the pretrib position has major problems.

Let's look at a few interesting facts that are often overlooked. For those who claim Matthew 24 is Jewish, what will they do with Mark 13 and Luke 21? These same folks teach that Mark and Luke are gospels to the Gentiles. The time of the Olivet discourse was a transition period from the old covenant to the new covenant in Christ Jesus. In fact Jesus gave this discourse in response to His disciples' question during the last week of His ministry before the crucifixion. The Olivet discourse was probably given a day or two before Jesus spoke the words of John 14 to His disciples, and certainly even the pretribbers believe that this passage is for the church. And it was Jesus' disciples, who became the apostles and the founders of the church, who ask the question, "When will these things be, and what will be the sign of Your coming, and of the end of the age" (Matthew 24:3). Yes, the disciples were Jewish, but by this time the Jews had rejected Jesus as Messiah and would crucify Him within a few hours.

There are some who go so far as to claim that the entire book of Matthew is for the Jews only. A well-known pastor is quoted as saying, "Matthew was written by a Jew, to Jews, to be understood by Jews." And yet in this Jewish book we see a preparation for the church which is to come. For example, in the Sermon on the Mount (chapters 5-7) Jesus sets forth principles of righteousness; the miracles of the next chapters bring credibility and authenticate His ministry as He goes on to give the disciples instructions on how to carry out their ministry. Remember the transition that will soon take place from the old covenant to the new covenant in Christ Jesus. Yes, Matthew presents Jesus as Messiah to the Jews, but they rejected Him, and He makes preparation for the church which will soon be established by His disciples.

Therefore, Matthew 28:19-20 - often referred to as "the marching orders for the church" - becomes very important in relationship to understanding that the Olivet discourse is for the church. How can Christ's "great commission" to the disciples and the church be included in an exclusively Jewish book? Jesus said, "Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age" (emphasis added). The question is: does "all things" include the Olivet discourse? Of course it does, or language has no meaning. In the Olivet discourse Jesus was giving instruction concerning the future, and that future included the church.

It is also interesting that the word church only appears two times in the gospels and both times it is in the book of Matthew which Toussaint says is Jewish. In Matthew 16:18 Jesus said; ". . . I will build My church and the gates of Hades shall not overpower it." In Matthew 18 Jesus gives instruction for church discipline and says that if an erring brother refuses to repent after he is confronted by one and then two, "if he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church" (v. 17). In Matthew 24 Jesus gives His disciples instruction about His future coming and what He tells them fits perfectly with the book of Revelation which He gave to John some years later.

It is interesting that the apostle Paul when speaking of false teachers in 1 Timothy 6:3-4 says, "If anyone advocates a different doctrine, and does not agree with sound words, those of our Lord Jesus Christ, and with doctrine conforming to godliness, he is conceited and understands nothing; but he has a morbid interest in controversial questions and disputes about words, out of which arise envy, strife, abusive language, evil suspicions." Is it fair for me to believe that the words of the Lord Jesus Christ included the Olivet discourse?

Let me quote from Dr. Samuel Tregelles, a Greek scholar in the Brethren Church and a contemporary of John Nelson Darby, who the dispensationalist claims first taught the pretrib position. In Tregelles' book "The Hope of Christ's Second Coming" on page 37 in his chapter entitled "The Jewish Wastepaper basket" he writes, "But if things are so, to whom would the Scriptures apply which give warning of perilous times? To whom could signs be given? This consideration has led to the Jewish interpretation of Scripture. Whatever has been felt to be a difficulty has been set aside by saying that it is 'Jewish;' and that one word has been enough to show that it has nothing to do with the Church." Darby started this practice, and it continues to this very hour.

Unfortunately those who cannot define their pretrib position exegetically from Scripture get quite exercised when questioned concerning their position. It's much easier if you take Scripture for what it says making sure that you do not violate the context. Then let Scripture interpret Scripture to teach us the truth that God has for us. The Olivet discourse was given in response to a simple yet profound question by His disciples. They asked, "What is the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?" In other words, they wanted to know when Jesus would return, and He answers them by giving them some details of what must take place first and what the sign would be. Compare what Jesus said in Matthew 24:27-31 with the classic rapture passage in 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 and the Armageddon passage in Revelation 19:11-16, and you will conclude that there is no question; Jesus is speaking of the rapture in the Olivet discourse.

 

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