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 true that what Jesus told the disciples on the Mt. Olives just before his death that he would return some 2000 years hence? I don’t believe such an understanding is logical, because the disciples didn’t really understand that Jesus would leave them in the first place (John 13:33, 36; 16:17-18). Moreover, I don’t believe such an understanding is Biblical. That is, such an understanding would go beyond what the text could mean. What Jesus offers in the Olivet Prophecy is a chronology of events between the time of his going away to the Father and his return (John 16:16).
The coming, to which Jesus points, is what we presume to be his Second Coming, and it occurred at the end of that age in the first century AD. Notice that the Apostles asked a question, and Jesus gave the appropriate answer to their query. While it may be difficult for us to get our minds around the truth of a matter, when we have always understood and believed something false, a change of mind is not impossible. For example, Jesus told the Apostles in no uncertain terms that he would go up to Jerusalem, be rejected and betrayed by the Jewish authorities and finally be handed over to the Romans for crucifixion. Yet, they understood none of these things (Matthew 16:21-22; Mark 9:31-32), because the disciples were always taught that the Messiah would come and deliver the nation out of bondage to Rome (cf. John 12:34). No one understood a Messiah who must die in order to save his people. It was just too difficult to wrap their minds around that idea, because they had always been 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 preaching, 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 that evil generation. Although there was a time when Jesus would have protected and healed them, yet, because they would continually kill all, whom he would send 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 would judge and destroy the nation. “When will all these things be, and what will be the sign of your coming, and of the end of the age, which was presumed if the Temple was destroyed (Old Covenant ending).
Just days ago, they had assumed Jesus was coming to establish his Kingdom at Jerusalem, meek and riding upon an ass (cf. Zechariah 9:9 & Matthew 21:5). However, now, Jesus prophesied judgment, so what would be the sign 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 the disciples didn’t know Jesus was leaving them (physically), they couldn’t be asking about his return (physically)! When we in our modern days 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 and, perhaps, couldn’t conceive. 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?
Therefore, Jesus had to have answered the Apostles’ question according to their understanding. That is, he spoke of his coming into his office as Messiah, thus establishing his Kingdom. If this was not the context in which Jesus replied to his disciples, he would have allowed them to go on believing 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 in the context of the Apostles’ query, that is, if he was saying he would leave them (physically) and then return (physically), but he never offered an explanation (cf. John 13:33, 36; 16:17-18), wouldn’t this concept, once the Apostles saw Jesus did leave (physically), tend to cause them to believe Jesus would return (physically) 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 doctrines and prognostications that go on and on without end. I have to wonder, since this kind of approach to the Olivet Prophecy has produced nothing but evil fruit, isn’t this what the wicked servant does by saying the Lord has ‘delayed’ his coming (Matthew 24:48)?