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Has Jesus Christ's Olivet Prophecy Been Fulfilled?

by Bruce Gore Estimated reading time: 14 minutes. Posted on 1-Oct-1999
Jesus Christ gave a detailed prophecy of the future of Judea and Jerusalem in Matthew 24. What does history tell us about this prophecy's fulfillment?

With only a short time remaining until the dawn of a new millennium on Jan. 1, 2001, talk about the end of the world is on the increase. This type of speculation is often voiced as one century ends and another begins, but interest is even more heightened with the approach of the dawn of a new millennium.

Talk about the end of the world as we know it is nothing new. In Jesus Christ’s time His disciples were also interested in the end of their age, and they asked Him about it as they stood with Him outside the temple in Jerusalem.

In the Jerusalem of Christ’s day, the temple was the dominant edifice, rising above the city to greet travelers arriving one of the crossroads of the ancient world.

Several decades earlier Herod the Great had drawn up a grand plan to rebuild the temple and surrounding buildings. He even had 1,000 priests trained as builders so he would not be accused of having the temple built by “unclean hands.” The construction commenced in 19 B.C. and was not completed until A.D. 63, well after Herod’s death.

Jesus Tells the Future

Carefully crafted of marble and limestone blocks weighing as much as 20 to 30 tons each, the temple and its vast platform were imposing. The disciples were understandably shocked when Jesus pointed to the magnificent temple complex and said: “Do you not see all these things? Assuredly, I say to you, not one stone shall be left here upon another, that shall not be thrown down” (Matthew 24:2). Disturbed by these comments, several of the disciples asked Christ: “Tell us, when will these things be? And what will be the sign of Your coming, and of the end of the age?” (verse 3).

In Matthew 24, Mark 13 and Luke 21, Christ’s prophecy of what would come on Jerusalem is recorded for us. Much of what Christ told His disciples would happen indeed occurred within the next 40 years. What did Christ prophesy would happen? Which of His words came to pass in subsequent decades, and which are yet to be fulfilled? Do His words shed light on events yet to come before His return?

False Prophets and Teachers

Jesus began His explanation of events to come by cautioning, “Take heed that no one deceives you” (Matthew 24:4). This first, warning statement did not address the disciples’ question directly. “For many will come in My name, saying, ‘I am the Christ,’ ” He continued, “and will deceive many” (verse 5). This would not be an isolated or rare occurrence, He warned. Many would come, using His name and claiming to represent Him, and these false teachers would “deceive many.” Here and later in the prophecy He was warning of the coming of false prophets—false religious teachers. “Then many false prophets will rise up and deceive many” (verse 11). The New Testament mentions some of the many false teachers and leaders who attempted to take advantage of the unrest of the time and the hopes of people living under the domination of the Roman Empire.

Acts 5:36-37 records two such men: Theudas, leader of a group of 400, who “was slain, and all who obeyed him were scattered and came to nothing,” and Judas of Galilee, who “drew away many people after him” but whose movement collapsed after his death.

Later, Acts 8 records Simon Magus, a sorcerer with a popular following, attempting to buy the power of God’s Spirit from the apostles. Peter soundly rebuked him for his self-serving attitude. The apostle Paul, in epistles to the Corinthians, Thessalonians and Galatians, spoke of many other false teachers. Near the end of the first century John in his letters wrote of the spirit of “Antichrist” that was already at work in his time.

This confusion seemed to reach a peak in the Jewish nation beginning in the early 60s. Josephus, a first-century Jewish historian, elaborates: “Now, as for the affairs of the Jews, they grew worse and worse continually; for the country was again filled with robbers and impostors, who deluded the multitude” (Antiquities of the Jews, Book XX, Chapter VIII, Section 5, emphasis added throughout). Jesus Christ also warned that “false christs and false prophets will rise and show great signs and wonders to deceive, if possible, even the elect” (Matthew 24:24). These deceivers are different from those who preach Christ but add their own interpretations of His teachings. Indeed, some of the impostors would falsely claim to be the prophesied Messiah Himself. Some historians say that no fewer than 60 pretenders claimed the title of Messiah in the first century.

Wars and Rumors of Wars

Christ continued with descriptions of other trends that would follow. “And you will hear of wars and rumors of wars. See that you are not troubled; for all these things must come to pass, but the end is not yet” (Matthew 24:6).

Many of the events and trends Jesus prophesied culminated in the mid-60s. Soon after the death of the Judean king Herod Agrippa in 44, unease increased as one corrupt Roman procurator after another ruled the region. These administrators, agents of the emperor, exercised little respect for the Jews’ religious practices.

The final straw was the requisitioning of a heavy tribute of gold from the temple treasury. When the people protested this desecration of their temple, practices and beliefs, Florus, procurator of Judea, turned his troops loose on the populace of Jerusalem. As many as 3,600 were killed in a bloodbath, and the rebellion of the enraged Jews spread over much of the area. Soon Jewish factions were fighting each other for control of the rebellion.

Not only was war waged in Judea, but unrest struck other parts of the world. Josephus describes the situation: “But now sedition and civil war prevailed, not only over Judea, but in Italy also; for now Galba [one of several men who laid claim to the throne in Rome when Nero committed suicide] was slain in the midst of the Roman market-place; then was Otho made emperor, and fought against Vitellius, who set up for emperor also; for the legions in Germany had chosen him; but when he gave battle to Valens and Cecinna, who were Vitellius’s generals, at Betriacum, in Gaul, Otho gained the advantage on the first day, but on the second day Vitellius’s soldiers had the victory; and after much slaughter, Otho slew himself ...” (Wars of the Jews, IV, ix, 9).

As Christ had prophesied, conflict shook not only Judea but much of the mighty Roman Empire. He had also cautioned, “All these things must come to pass, but the end is not yet” (verse 6).

Famine, Disease and Earthquakes

War is almost always accompanied by food shortages and diseases. Planting, harvesting and normal commerce are interrupted. Cities are often besieged and able to survive only on the foodstuffs they have stored within their walls. Jesus spoke of the breakdown that results from warfare and social upheaval.

“For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. And there will be famines, pestilences, and earthquakes in various places. All these are the beginning of sorrows” (Matthew 24:7-8; emphasis added throughout).

The Roman army systematically isolated Jerusalem from the rest of the country, subduing one by one the surrounding towns and cities. Once Titus, the Roman general, began the siege, he built an earthen wall five miles in circumference around Jerusalem to prevent escape and stop the nightly smuggling of food into the city. As food supplies were exhausted, the weakest began to starve.

Much of Jerusalem’s suffering came when the city’s inhabitants turned against each other, a consequence of their nightmarish circumstances. These attitudes, too, were prophesied: “And then many will be offended, will betray one another, and will hate one another ... And because lawlessness will abound, the love of many will grow cold” (Matthew 24:10, 12).

Josephus also reported that, through their infighting, the factions destroyed their stores of grain and other provisions that could have been sufficient to feed them for years. Once these stores were gone, famine began its deadly march through the city. Some historians think that more Jews died in Jerusalem by the hand of their own people than by the Roman soldiers.

Abomination of Desolation

Jesus spoke of another ominous development. “Therefore when you see the ‘abomination of desolation,’ spoken of by Daniel the prophet, standing in the holy place” (whoever reads, let him understand), “then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains” (Matthew 24:15-16).

About three and a half centuries after Daniel’s prophecy (Daniel 11:31; 12:11), in 168 B.C., Antiochus Epiphanes’ army entered Jerusalem, slaughtered many of its inhabitants and sacrificed pigs on the altar of the temple.

But what could be the abomination of desolation in the late 60s? According to Josephus, the Romans, “upon the burning of the holy house itself, and of all the buildings lying round about it, brought their ensigns to the temple, and set them over against its eastern gate; and there did they offer sacrifices to them ...” (Wars, VI, vi, 1). So once again an abominable sacrifice was offered at the site of the temple, which did in fact lie desolate at the hand of these Roman soldiers.

Luke adds that another important event leading to the desolation would be Jerusalem’s encirclement by armies. “But when you see Jerusalem surrounded by armies, then know that its desolation is near. Then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains, let those who are in the midst of her depart, and let not those who are in the country enter her. For these are the days of vengeance, that all things which are written may be fulfilled” (Luke 21:20-22).

In 66, while suffering under the increasingly corrupt and oppressive rule of minor Roman regents and appointees, a segment of the Jewish population revolted. Cestius Gallus, military governor of Syria, took the Twelfth Legion to put down the Jewish rebellion. He plundered and burned the city of Zebulon in Galilee, then moved south to surround Jerusalem.

Remarkably, according to Josephus’s account, the Roman commander, after laying siege to the city, pulled his army back from Jerusalem. “It then happened that Cestius was not conscious either how the besieged despaired of success, nor how courageous the people were for him; and so he recalled his soldiers from the place, and ... retired from the city, without any reason in the world” (Josephus, Wars, II, xix, 7). Near this time, according to the fourth-century historian Eusebius, the members of the Church still living at Jerusalem received a sign, “given by revelation to those in Jerusalem who were ‘approved,’ bidding them leave the doomed city and settle in Pella” (F.F. Bruce, New Testament History, 1980, p. 375). Pella was on the other side of the Jordan River in an area of relative safety.

Signs in the Heavens

Luke’s account records Jesus Christ saying: “And there will be great earthquakes in various places, and famines and pestilences [diseases]; and there will be fearful sights and great signs from heaven” (Luke 21:11). “And there will be signs in the sun, in the moon, and in the stars; and on the earth distress of nations, with perplexity, the sea and the waves roaring” (verse 25). In 61 a great earthquake struck Phrygia, in Asia Minor, wreaking vast destruction. In 62 or 63 an earthquake near Mount Vesuvius in Italy destroyed half the city of Pompeii. (It was completely buried 17 years later, in 79.) From 66 to 70, according to Josephus, terrifying apparitions appeared in the sky around Jerusalem:

“Thus there was a star resembling a sword, which stood over the city, and a comet, that continued a whole year. Thus also, before the Jews’ rebellion, and before those commotions which preceded the war, when the people were come in great crowds to the feast of unleavened bread, on the eighth day of the month Xanthicus, (Nisan,) and at the ninth hour of the night, so great a light shone round the altar and the holy house, that it appeared to be bright day-time; which light lasted for half an hour ... “Besides these, a few days after that feast, on the one-and-twentieth day of the month Artemisius, (Jyar,) a certain prodigious and incredible phenomenon appeared; I suppose the account of it would seem to be a fable, were it not related by those that saw it, and were not the events that followed it of so considerable a nature as to deserve such signals; for, before sun-setting, chariots and troops of soldiers in their armour were seen running about among the clouds, and surrounding of cities. “Moreover, at that feast which we call Pentecost, as the priests were going by night into the inner (court of the) temple, as their custom was, to perform their sacred ministrations, they said that, in the first place, they felt a quaking, and heard a great noise, and after that they heard a sound as of a great multitude, saying, ‘Let us remove hence’ ” (Wars, VI, v, 3).

Terrifying Turmoil

Matthew’s account of Jesus Christ’s prophetic words continues: “For then there will be great tribulation, such as has not been since the beginning of the world until this time, no, nor ever shall be” (Matthew 24:21). Indeed, great distress and tribulation did come. In late summer of 70 Titus’s army broke through the remaining wall that protected Jerusalem. The magnificent temple, completed only seven years earlier, went up in flames as Titus’s war machines pounded the Holy City into rubble. Between 600,000 and one million men, women and children perished in the siege and destruction of Jerusalem. The survivors were taken prisoner, and many of these ultimately died for the entertainment of the crowds in the Roman circus in Caesarea.

Future Fulfillment

Many scholars recognize duality in Bible prophecy, meaning that many prophecies have an initial fulfillment as well as a later one. Jesus Himself alluded to this principle when He cited the prophecy of “the ‘abomination of desolation,’ spoken of by Daniel the prophet” (Matthew 24:15). The Jews of His day well understood that Antiochus Epiphanes had desecrated the temple, fulfilling this prophecy some 200 years earlier. Yet Jesus made it clear this prophecy would be fulfilled again. The events of A.D. 66 to 70 are a foretaste of what must yet happen. What was the question asked by the disciples? “What will be the sign of Your coming, and of the end of the age?” (verse 3). That Christ did not return then proves that the events cited above were not the primary fulfillment of His message. The decades after Christ’s death did not immediately precede the time of the end. God’s plan for humanity was not yet ready for completion.

Some Prophecies Not Yet Fulfilled

A closer examination of Christ’s words shows that they were not all fulfilled, indeed could not have been fulfilled, at that time. He warned that the time leading up to His return “will be a time of great distress; there has never been such a time from the beginning of the world until now, and will never be again. If that time of troubles were not cut short, no living thing could survive; but for the sake of God’s chosen it will be cut short” (verses 21-22, New English Bible).

In Christ’s day mankind did not have the means to threaten literally every human life on the face of the earth, as opposed to just those in the Roman province of Judea. Now, however, we see the frightening possibility that “no living thing could survive”—that human life could be exterminated in several ways undreamed of when Jesus first gave this warning almost 2,000 years ago.

Jesus Christ knew His Church would have much work to do: “And this gospel of the kingdom will be preached in all the world as a witness to all the nations, and then the end will come” (verse 14). The apostles would begin that work. Christ said that, after receiving the Holy Spirit, they would “be witnesses to [Him] in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth” (Acts 1:8).

Many more books of the Bible—comprising what we call the New Testament—would be written. Many more people would hear the gospel of the Kingdom of God, which Jesus Christ taught. Many more will yet hear that same message!

Then and only then, when the time is right in God’s great plan, will He send His Son in power and glory to establish the Kingdom of God on earth. Hundreds of verses throughout the Bible proclaim that incredible truth.

“Heaven and earth will pass away, but My words will by no means pass away,” said Jesus (Matthew 24:35). Every word of Jesus Christ’s prophecy will ultimately be fulfilled. GN

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