Christadelphians have always been fascinated with the Olivet Prophecy. But perhaps in the struggle to understand the exact meaning and application of the prophecy, we have lost sight of the exhortation that it contains for all generations.

Since the inception of the Christadelphian movement, hope has centred on the return of the Lord Jesus Christ. Every generation from that of Brother Thomas has believed that the second coming was near. As a result, the emphasis has been on preparing for that great event. Signs apparently indicating that his advent was near have come and gone. Each decade seemed to contain signs that the Lord was at the door. Although we are now much closer to Christ’s return and the world is closer to a point of no return, we still are unable to pinpoint the precise day of his coming, even though we know we are living in the “latter days”.

As a result, a kind of paradox has developed in our thinking on this subject. Despite our constant talk about the return, when it does occur we may be completely shocked and yet none of us will be the least bit surprised.

We have seen many fall asleep in Christ over the years. Some were old, some in their middle years, others in the full vigour of youth. Probably all of them expected to see the return in their own lifetime. It did not happen yet, in a sense, for all of them it did.

Harmonising the Olivet Prophecy

To understand the prophecy it is helpful to harmonise the three records in Matthew 24, Mark 13 and Luke 21. In doing so, we build a complete picture of the Lord’s words to his disciples. There is a problem however in doing this. If we mix the records of the three writers, the special message that each record contains can be lost. Each writer was selective in his use of the words and events of the Lord’s ministry. Therefore it is important to read each gospel as a separate entity to capture the unique flow of thought presented by the Spirit in the writer. Even when the gospel writers give the same material, they are not wasting words. They are each combining the same events in different ways to present their own particular theme. If we separate the three versions of the prophecy and the narrative attached to them, we discover three distinct themes that exhort us to be prepared for the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Three Themes

The theme of Mark’s record in chapter 13 can be seen in the repetition of two expressions. They are “take heed” and “watch”.

“Take heed” appears in the following verses:

“Take heed lest any man deceive you.” (v5)

“But take heed to yourselves…” (v9)

“But take heed” (v23)

“Take ye heed… ” (v33)

“Watch” appears as follows:

“Watch and pray… ” (v33 niv Be alert)

“Watch ye therefore… ” (v35)

“… I say unto all, Watch.” (v37)

The Lord’s words emphasised by Mark give us a clear warning to “take heed” (ie be on your guard) and “watch”.

Luke has an entirely different thread. He is telling us on the one hand that those who reject or know nothing of the gospel will be trapped. They will not be able to escape the awful circumstances that they will find themselves in. On the other hand, those who do believe the Lord’s words will be able to escape.

Luke’s theme is found in chapter 21 verses 17–19, 20, 21, 24, 25, 28, 34–36 and 37.

“For I will give you a mouth and wisdom, which all your adversaries shall not be able to gainsay nor resist” (v15 escape prosecution)

“But there shall not an hair of your head perish” (v17–19 escape from eternal death)

“… and let them which are in the midst of it [Jerusalem] depart out…” (v20,21 escape from Jerusalem and the Roman armies)

“‘… and shall be led away captive into all nations…” (v24 trapped in slavery)

“… upon the earth distress of nations with perplexity [no way out]” (v25 trapped in world events)

“… for your redemption draweth nigh”’ (v28 escape from the troubles outlined in the prophecy, and having done so, ultimately from death itself)

“For as a snare shall it come on all them that dwell on the face of the whole earth” (v35 the worthy escape the judgment that comes from being caught in the snare of the cares of this life)

“…that ye may be accounted worthy to escape all these things…” (v36 escape all the things that were to come to pass as outlined by the Lord in the prophecy).

To complete the imagery of the chapter, each evening Jesus left Jerusalem as though he was leaving the city where he would finally be trapped (v37).

Matthew’s record of the Olivet prophecy is contained in chapters 24 and 25. His exhortation follows the conclusion of the prophecy in 24:41 and his theme is ‘No one knows the day or the hour’.

This appears in chapter 24:36, 39, 42, 44, 50 and chapter 25:13.

“But of that day and hour knoweth no man…” (v36)

“And knew not until the flood came…” (v39)

“… for ye know not what hour your Lord doth come” (v42)

“… for in such an hour as ye think not…” (v44)

“ …for ye know neither the day nor the hour…” (25:13)

The Message of Mark

Most of the signs, warnings and exhortations apply to the period leading up to AD70. Therefore we cannot apply the Lord’s words specifically or directly to our generation. But we can take them as general warnings that apply in some sense to all of us who live at the final end of all things.

Mark’s record warns us to “take heed”. But in what sense should we “take heed”?

In verse 5 we are told to take heed that no one deceives us “saying, I am the Christ”. Josephus says that such claims were literally made and in the period leading up to AD70 many were deceived into following these false Christs, often to their own destruction.
What is the analogy to ourselves?

People were deceived then because they did not understand the Scripture and they had rejected the words of the Lord and of the apostles. It is strange that the men who back then claimed that they were Messiah, could convince themselves and others that they were the Messiah. This is not unlike the Jewish Rabbi who, in New York in recent years, convinced his followers that he was the Messiahthat is, until he died.

Few would make such direct claims today. However, there are many charismatic church leaders who believe that in some way they are chosen by God to take their particular brand of the gospel to the world. The more extraordinary their claims are, and the more they ask for money to support their ministries, the more success they seem to have. If Christadelphians are not rock-solid in their understanding of the Word of God, they can be drawn into joining such movements. This is particularly so of those churches who claim to have the gifts of the spirit. If a Christadelphian becomes convinced that a church does have the gifts, the conclusion must follow that God is with that church. It also follows that if God is with them, either their wrong doctrine does not separate them from God or if correct doctrine does matter then this church’s doctrine must be right and Christadelphians are wrong. The first view invites open fellowship. For if God accepts the church with its wrong doctrine, on what grounds can we reject them? The second view invites Christadelphians to abandon their beliefs and join this particular church.

The end result of this process is just as it was in the days before AD70, when many died at the hands of the Romans. If we associate with modern charismatic churches, ultimately we will pay the price for doing so at the judgment seat of Christ. If we know Christ’s words however, we will take heed and not go down this path.

The next “take heed” is in verse 9. “But take heed to yourselves: for they shall deliver you up to councils; and in the synagogues ye shall be beaten: and ye shall be brought before rulers and kings for my sake, for a testimony against them.”
The apostles faced persecution by the authorities. Their words and actions testified against their persecutors and testified for the Lord and the gospel. They had to “take heed” because any inconsistency between their words and their actions would have exposed the Lord and the gospel to ridicule.

At present, in the western world at least, we do not suffer the same kind of persecution, but we still need to “take heed” by acting consistently with our beliefs wherever we are. Otherwise, we will expose the Truth we hold to ridicule and expose ourselves to Christ’s disapproval. It is very embarrassing to have someone outside our community point out some inconsistency between what we say we believe and how we act. It is so easy to get caught up in the frivolous banter where we work or study and go beyond what is appropriate. We can find ourselves making comment on topics such as politics that may be out of step with our Biblical non-political stance.

The Apostle Paul in speaking to the Corinthians said: “We put no stumbling block in anyone’s path, so that our ministry will not be discredited.” (2 Cor 6:3 niv).

The next “take heed” in verse 23 follows a series of warnings and instructions by the Lord to his disciples on what to expect and how they should act when they see “the abomination of desolation spoken of by Daniel the prophet, standing where it ought not”.
Those who failed to understand the description of the Roman power in this allusion would do so at their own peril and their position is no different from the one we find ourselves in today. Christ, the apostles and the prophets have forewarned us of conditions leading to the second advent.

The disciples experienced days of uncertainty, turmoil and distress. Had they not embraced Christ’s words they may have been deceived into neglecting his warnings. As times of uncertainty and distress come upon us, we will need to know accurately the Bible’s prophecies if our faith is to stand. We cannot allow speculation about prophecy to replace the prophecies themselves. Nor can we afford to make the mistake of following the prophetic beliefs of the evangelical churches on subjects such as the anti-Christ and the rapture.

The final “take heed” is based on a fact that applies as much today as it did in AD70 and that is, that no man knows the day or the hour. Not knowing the day or the hour is designed to keep us awake and watching. We do this by our diligent and consistent service. The men in the following parable were all servants. They had work to do and they had to busy themselves doing it. The watching was only part of that service.
The same has to apply to us. Our task is to serve in the best way we can and to do so in step with our Master’s instructions. If our service begins to dwindle through indolence, lack of interest or interest in other pursuits, then we will not be taking heed, staying awake or watching.

Mark’s version of the Olivet Prophecy concludes with a very strong warning: “And what I say unto you [the apostles] I say unto all [which includes us], Watch.”

The classic example of the disciples failing to do this occurred soon after the Lord had given this prophecy (14:34, 37, 38, 41). The message for us is perfectly obvious.

The Message of Luke

Luke’s exhortation is clear. Those who understand and follow the Lord’s words will escape judgment and death. “Watch ye therefore, and pray always, that ye may be accounted worthy to escape all these things that shall come to pass, and to stand before the Son of man.” (v36)

Those who do not try to understand or who reject the Lord’s words will not escape. “And take heed to yourselves, lest at any time your hearts be overcharged with surfeiting and drunkenness, and cares of this life, and so that day come upon you unawares. For as a snare shall it come…” (v34–35).

The Lord gives two reasons why we might be caught “unawares”.

(i) Our hearts may be overcharged with surfeiting and drunkenness. “Hearts” refers to mind and emotions. “Drunkenness” is habitual intoxication. “Surfeiting” is the giddiness, nausea and headaches that accompany overindulgence in strong drink. Although some have indulged in this type of activity with alcohol and drugs, generally speaking, a literal application of these words to our community is unnecessary. But there remains a warning to all of us to avoid any excessive indulgence in activities that can dull our minds to the reality of what is happening around us, to the needs of others and to the impact of God’s Word.

(ii) The second reason is “the cares of this life”. “Cares” means distractions or anxieties. There is a myriad of things that can distract us from involvement in the service of God in our private lives, our ecclesias and our employment. Simply trying to survive in a modern fast-paced world brings pressures. The modern world is complex and demanding. To obtain and retain employment, the young especially have to be better educated. But education saps time and mental energy, probably the two things most required in family and ecclesia. To not keep abreast of the latest developments in many fields of employment means going backwards. The public service and the corporate world demand more from their employees than ever, so that many of those who are employed have to work long hours. This is usually to compensate for those who have been made redundant and are struggling to find employment at all. In addition to these factors, there is the impact of the changing values of society on families and ecclesias. Many of these values run counter to Scriptural values, hence the increasing moral problems that ecclesias have had to deal with. Despite all of these challenges we somehow have to get our priorities right and invest as much time and effort as possible in God’s service. We cannot afford to lose sight of our major objectives in Christ so that we “might be accounted worthy to escape…and stand before the Son of man” (v36).

The Message of Matthew

Matthew’s message is that “…no one knows about the day or hour”(niv). And because we do not know we have to make ourselves aware.

In verse 38 the Lord reveals that the problem in Noah’s day was the mind-numbing involvement in the cycles and necessities of life. The people of Noah’s generation had failed to take a hard, objective look at what their life was all about, nor had they considered their relationship to God.

Not knowing the day or the hour, we might be tempted to think that the Lord delays his coming. Where there is a loss of focus on the coming kingdom and the need to serve, personal lives can become self-indulgent and ecclesial life can involve squabbles over unimportant issues.

The final example of not knowing the day or the hour is the parable of the five wise and five foolish virgins (Matt 25:1−13). Not knowing the hour caused the wise to be alert and ready at all times and the unwise to be caught unprepared. The difference between the two groups was a difference in attitude. The wise were taken to the marriage, the unwise were sent away with the words, “I know you not” (v12).

The Lord completed the parable with the words: “Watch therefore, for ye know neither the day nor the hour wherein the Son of man cometh” (v13).

The subsequent parables of the talents and the judgment seat (Matt 25:14–30 and v31–46) illustrate the different aspects of being prepared. We have to develop our God-given talents in serving our Lord Jesus Christ and serve the least of our brethren. By using our talents and serving our neighbour we can be ready at all times.

In Conclusion

The three records of the Olivet Prophecy contain three distinct though related themes. We need to give thought to how we can best ‘take heed and watch’ as Mark tells us. We need to be prepared so that we can escape condemnation as Luke emphasises. And we have to be alert, for as Matthew says, “No one knows… the day or hour”’.

“… God hath from the beginning chosen you to salvation through sanctification of the spirit and belief of the truth: Whereunto he called you by our gospel, to the obtaining of the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore, brethren, stand fast, and hold the traditions which ye have been taught, whether by word, or our epistle. Now our Lord Jesus Christ himself, and God, even our Father, which hath loved us, and hath given us everlasting consolation and good hope through grace, Comfort your hearts, and stablish you in every good word and work”(2 Thess 2:13–17).