Many folks point to the Olivet Prophecy to show the chronology of Christ’s return at the end of this age. Is this accurate, that is, is the understanding that what Jesus told the disciples on the Mt. Olives just before his death a true and clear explanation of the chronology of the Second Coming of Christ? Well, Jesus does give what seems to be a chronology of his coming, but I don’t believe it points to his Second Coming as we understand this term today.
Why do I say this? How could I say that the coming to which Jesus points is not his Second Coming at the end of this age? Well, to begin with the Apostles asked a question and he gave the appropriate answer to their query. It is difficult at times to get our minds around the truth of a matter when we have always understood and believed something false about the matter under question. For example, Jesus tried to tell the Apostles that he would go up to Jerusalem, be rejected and betrayed by the Jewish authorities and finally handed over to the Romans for crucifixion, but they understood none of these things (Matthew 16:21-22; Mark 9:31-32). The disciples were always taught that the Messiah would come and deliver the nation out of bondage to Rome (cp. John 12:34). No one understood a Messiah who must die in order to save. It was just too difficult to get their minds wrapped around that idea when they were always taught something false.
According to Matthew 24:3 the disciples asked Jesus what would be the sign of his coming? Notice:
And as he sat on the Mount of Olives, the disciples came to him privately, saying, “Tell us, when shall these things be? and what shall be the sign of your coming, and of the end of the world?” (Matt 24:3, AKJV ~ emphasis mine)
Before we are able to understand Jesus’ reply, we need to understand what prompted the Apostles’ question. In Matthew 23 Jesus confronted the Jewish leadership for their hypocrisy and evil practices and exposed their sins to everyone listening. As he was ending his lecture, he prophesied that he would send prophets, wise men and scribes to Jerusalem but the authorities would beat them in the synagogues, kill some and persecute others from city to city. Nevertheless, judgment would come upon this evil generation of people, and although there was a time when Jesus would have protected and healed them, because they would continually kill all who should be sent to them, their House, i.e. the Temple in which they boasted, would be left to them desolate (Matthew 23:34-39). The Apostles were astonished with his words and pointed out the immensity of the stones, but Jesus merely reiterated his judgment—there would not be one stone left standing upon another that wouldn’t have been thrown down from its place (Matthew 24:1-2).
This was completely unexpected. The disciples could hardly believe Jesus’ words. They were always taught that Messiah would come and save the nation, but Jesus’ words revealed he will judge the nation. “When will all these things be, and what will be the sign of your coming (they assumed it was Jesus coming to Jerusalem, meek and riding upon an ass—cp. Zechariah 9:9 & Matthew 21:5) and of the end of the age?” (Matthew 24:3). The question the Apostles asked was in this context. They did not understand the concept of Jesus leaving them. When Jesus told them on the night he would be betrayed that they would see him no more, they were surprised and sad (John 16:5-6, 17-18), and simply didn’t understand. Therefore, if they couldn’t understand the idea that Jesus was about to leave them, how should we understand their question concerning the sign of Jesus’ coming?
Logic demands that, if they didn’t know he was leaving, they couldn’t be asking about his return as we understand the term today! When we use the Olivet Prophecy to point to a chronology of Jesus’ Second Coming, we are redefining the question of the Apostles in a manner in which they did not intend. They simply didn’t understand the concept of their Messiah leaving the nation, so how could they have been asking about his return to the nation? Jesus had to have answered the Apostles’ question according to their understanding, otherwise he would be leading them to believe something he didn’t intend, and that without further explanation. Is this what Jesus would have done? On the other hand, if Jesus didn’t reply to the context of the Apostles’ query, wouldn’t this concept, once the Apostles saw Jesus did leave, tend to cause them to believe Jesus would return in their lifetime and pave the way for their becoming false prophets?
Obviously, something is amiss in our understanding of the Olivet prophecy, and this misunderstanding has paved the way for many false teachings and prognostications similar to the most recent prediction that the world would end on May 21, 2011.