The Olivet Discourse and the Centrality of the Cross


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Jun 17, 2002
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The key to understanding Jesus’ Olivet Discourse in Matthew 24 (also Mark 13 and Luke 21) is the apocalyptic “event” which happens "Immediately after the tribulation of those days.” As Matthew records it:

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 in heaven the sign of the Son of Man, 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. And he will send out his angels with a loud trumpet call, and they will gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other" (Matthew 24:29-31).

Matthew, following the precedent of the Old Testament prophets, uses apocalyptic imagery to describe such "the coming of the Son of Man" after "the tribulation of those days" to "gather his elect from the four winds.” But what is this actually describing? The distinguished New Testament scholar N.T. Wright, in his book The Millennium Myth, addresses a popular misconception concerning this “coming.”

The central feature of the hope held out in the Bible is of course the personal presence of Jesus himself. Many Christians, not least those who tend towards apocalypticism, have reduced this feature of the hope to the belief that one day Jesus will appear, flying downwards from the sky, perhaps riding on a cloud. This event, the “second coming”, is in fact the event for which many of the groups who see great significance in the year 2000 are getting ready, not least those going off to Jerusalem to witness it.

However, most of the biblical passages that are quoted in support of the idea of Jesus returning by flying downwards on a cloud are best seen as classic examples of apocalyptic language, rich biblical metaphor. They are not to be taken with wooden literalness. “The son of man coming on the clouds”, in Mark 13:26 and elsewhere, does not refer to Jesus’ return to earth, but to Jesus’ vindication, “coming” from earth to heaven, to be enthroned as Lord of the world. And the one occasion when Paul uses the language of descent and ascent (1 Thessalonians 4:16) is almost certainly to be taken in the same way, as a vivid metaphorical description of the wider reality he describes at more length in Romans and 1 Corinthians.

Does this mean abandoning belief in the “second coming”? Certainly not. It means taking seriously the whole biblical picture, instead of highlighting, and misinterpreting, one part of it. The problem has been, in the last two centuries in particular, that certain texts have been read from within the worldview of dualistic apocalypticism, and have thus produced a less than fully biblical picture, with Jesus flying around like a spaceman and the physical world being destroyed. And if we really suppose—as, alas, many seem to—that this will be the meaning of the Millennium, we will miss the point entirely. Rather, the Bible points to God’s new world, where heaven and earth are fully integrated at last, and whose central feature is the personal, loving and healing presence of Jesus himself, the living embodiment of the one true God as well as the prototype of full liberated humanity. When we talk of Jesus’ “coming”, the reality to which we point is his personal presence within God’s new creaton.

So, if we are to fully understand the reality Jesus speaks of in the Olivet Discourse, we must, as Wright suggests, take seriously “the whole biblical picture.” In so doing, we will find that the often enigmatic apocalyptic language of the synoptics is interpreted more plainly within the canon itself.

John (who gave us his fill of apocalyptic with Revelation) states in clear language in his Gospel the exact means by which Jesus gathers his elect:

But one of them, Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, said to them, "You know nothing at all. Nor do you understand that it is better for you that one man should die for the people, not that the whole nation should perish." He did not say this of his own accord, being high priest that year he prophesied that Jesus would die for the nation, and not for the nation only, but also to gather into one the children of God who are scattered abroad. (John 11:49-52)

It would appear that John equates Jesus' death with "gather[ing] into one the children of God who are scattered abroad." Paul agrees, proclaiming that the cross is God’s instrument of reconciliation:

But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near through the blood of Christ. For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility by abolishing the law of commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of
the two, so making peace, and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility." (Ephesians 2:13-16)

But if the cross is the instrument through which Christ "gathers" his elect, what is the purpose of Matthew's apocalyptic imagery concerning something that, contextually, appears to be describing something that happens after the crucifixion? A careful reading of Matthew reveals that he is not ignorant of the significance of the cross in bringing "all these things" about:

And Jesus cried out with a loud voice and yielded up his spirit. And behold, the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. And the earth shook, and the rocks were split. The tombs also were opened. And many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised, and coming out of the tombs after his resurrection they went into the holy city and appeared to many. When the centurion and those who were with him, keeping watch over Jesus, saw the earthquake and what took place, the were filled with awe and said, “Truly this was the Son of God!" (Matthew 27:50-54)

Luke, also, in an even more explicit manner, connects the cross with the cataclysmic "events" spoken of by Matthew and the other synoptics:

It was now about the sixth hour, and there was darkness over the whole land until the ninth hour, while the sun's light failed. And the curtain of the temple was torn in two. Then Jesus, calling out with a loud voice, said, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit!” And having said this he breathed his last. (Luke 23:44-46)

(It is significant to note that the "curtain of the temple," guarding access to the Holy of Holies, was a tapestry resembling the stars of heaven.)

Understanding the cross as the center of God's redemptive plan is key to understanding the eschatological prophecies concerning "the end of the age." For, in Christ, that "end" has come. Paul even goes so far as to equate Christ with "the end of the ages" (1 Corinthians 10:11). But history continues under the long shadow of the cross until it has served God's purpose in gathering all his people into one. For everything that God has spoken forth into being will endure for as long as it is accomplishing that for which he created it:

For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven and do not return there but water the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it." (Isaiah 55:10-11)

Meanwhile, a "new" temple is being built, not of stones and mortar but, as Paul continues in his epistle to the Ephesians:

And he came and preached peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near. For through him we both have access in one Spirit to the Father. So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built on the foundation of the apostles and
prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord. In him you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit. (Ephesians 2:17-22)

This "temple" is, at one and the same time, a finished product (established from the foundation of the world) and a work in progress, building both upon and toward the ultimate victory of God in Christ.

The big transition which takes place in the midst of history after the cross, however, is that any and every "event" which takes place from now on is understood by looking back to Calvary, whereas previously (that is, in the Old Testament), all such "events" looked forward to it.

The fall of Jerusalem is the first major "event" to be understood from such a post-Calvary perspective. It is the primary focus of Jesus' discourse in Matthew 24. There are countless other "events" which have since taken place which have, for one all too brief moment, caused the whole world (or a significant portion of it) to be reminded of God's eternal truth, established from the foundation of the world and made plain in the death and resurrection of Christ: Whenever we are confronted with the harsh reality of our sinfulness and its devastating consequences, we cannot seek refuge in a temple made by human hands. We must go all the way to Calvary, be crucified with Christ, and find there the only path God has provided for redemption, restoration and resurrection.

As the New Covenant transcends, encompasses and consummates the Old Covenant, so "the coming of the Son of Man" transcends, encompasses and consummates all of history, thus reconciling all things to God in Christ, whose suffering, death and resurrection form the pattern by which all his "elect" shall follow him into glory.

For this is a gracious thing, when, mindful of God, one endures sorrows while suffering unjustly. For what credit is it if, when you sin and are beaten for it, you endure? But if when you do good and suffer for it you endure, this is a gracious thing in the sight of God. For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps. He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth. When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly. He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed. For you were straying like sheep, but have now returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls. (1 Peter 2:19-

This is basic Apostolic Christianity 101: As Christ did not enter into glory before first having to suffer, so his Church does not enter with him into that glory without likewise suffering.

What, then, is "the sign of the Son of Man?" It is the cross, shining with a splendor that outlasts the sun, the moon and the stars of heaven, casting its long shadow over the whole of human history, gathering God's elect and reconciling all things to God in Christ.

Where does "rapture" theology fit into this? It is beyond the pale of orthodoxy because it
teaches "another gospel" than the Gospel of Jesus Christ, crucified and risen. In his first letter to Timothy, Paul warns his young protégé about those who “devote themselves to myths and endless genealogies, which promote speculations rather than the stewardship from God that is by faith” (1 Timothy 1:4).

Vain speculations about “the end of the world” do not serve the kingdom of God well. Good stewards of the mysteries of God will guard well the grand depositum of faith bequeathed to us by the Apostles, who received them from our Lord himself. Central to the proclamation of the kingdom of God is the cross of Jesus Christ which is, at one and the same time, the sign and symbol of both the suffering servant and the glorified Son of Man who is forevermore King of kings and Lord of lords.