Among the many controversial and highly debated portions of Scripture, Matthew 24, most often referred to as “The Olivet Discourse,” or alternately, “The Olivet Prophecy,” is certainly close to the top of the list. The debate primarily swirls around the timing of the fulfillment of the prophecy. What time period was Jesus referring to? Preterist interpreters argue that the entirety of this prophecy was fulfilled in the events that surrounded the destruction of Jerusalem and the Jewish Temple in 70 A.D. Many Futurists, myself included, believe that Jesus was speaking here entirely of the last days. Many other commentators however, take a rather nebulous, confused or mixed view, seeing portions of the prophecy as speaking of the events of 70 A.D., other portions speaking of the last days, and other portions applying to all of history. C.A. Carson for instance, a brilliant scholar by any standard, outlines the passage as follows:
vv. 4-14: General prophetic warnings for all of history.
vv. 15-28: Prophecy concerning the events of 70 A.D.
vv. 29-31: Prophecy concerning the second coming.
vv. 32-35: Prophecy concerning the great tribulation.
vv. 36-44: Timing here is unclear.
In my view, Carson’s outline of the passage is both confusing and confused. Unfortunately, this is merely one of many cases where the fog of scholarship hangs thick over a passage that Jesus intended to be clear and easy to understand.
In this brief and very limited paper, we will zero in on the meaning of Jesus’ reference to “birth pangs” (v.8) and why his use of this phrase clearly contextualizes the timing of the prophecy as the last days. Though the prophecy certainly could be understood to contain shadows of warnings concerning the events of 70 A.D., its ultimate context is clearly the final seven years. This view is consistent with, and bears the pattern of so many Old Testament prophecies, which often contain shadows of immediate or near fulfillment in the days of the prophet, but which have their ultimate and most precise fulfillment in the last days. By recognizing the thorough Day of the Lord emphasis, burden, and orientation of virtually all of the prophets, Bible students will find so much of the prophetic portions of Scripture significantly easier to understand.
By no means does this brief paper represent a comprehensive commentary on Matthew 24, nor even a full discussion of the many important portions of the text which define the timing of its fulfillment. The purpose here is only to highlight Jesus’ crucially definitive statement at the outset of the prophecy concerning “birth pangs”.
As the passage begins, the disciples had asked Jesus what would be the sign concerning the destruction of the Temple, his coming, and the end of the age. Jesus answered and said to them:
“See to it that no one misleads you. For many will come in My name, saying, ‘I am the Christ,’ and will mislead many. You will be hearing of wars and rumors of wars. See that you are not frightened, for those things must take place, but that is not yet the end. For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom, and in various places there will be famines and earthquakes. But all these things are merely the beginning of birth pangs.” —Matthew 24:4-8
The phrase “the beginning of birth pangs” is a translation of the Greek archē ōdin (ἀρχή ὠδίν). The meaning of the phrase, translated in the KJV as “the beginning of sorrows” is a direct reference to preliminary birth pangs that ultimately lead to the full scale contractions and travail, which leads to the actual birth. Recognizing the Old Testament reference that Jesus was hearkening to is an essential, but often overlooked key to determining the timing of the prophecy. Jesus was pointing his disciples to two key passages from the prophet Isaiah.
The first passage is Isaiah 26, a portion of Scripture found in the middle of what is sometimes referred to as “Isaiah’s little apocalypse”. There, the Lord speaks through Isaiah, specifically contrasting the expectations of the Jewish people regarding deliverance, redemption and physical resurrection with the reality of the pain, suffering and travail that they had corporately experienced. In verses 16-18, the complaint of Israel is raised that despite having endured the great suffering of labor, the expected “birth” of deliverance, redemption and resurrection had not arrived:
O LORD, they sought you in distress; they could only whisper a prayer, your chastening was upon them. As the pregnant woman approaches the time to give birth, she writhes and cries out in her labor pains, thus were we before you, O LORD. We were pregnant, we writhed in labor, we gave birth, as it seems, only to wind. We could not accomplish deliverance for the earth, nor were inhabitants of the world born. —Isaiah 26:16-18
Instead of giving “birth”, to a child, which would be the natural expected conclusion of labor pains, instead Israel only gives birth “to wind”. But then the Lord interjects and promises that despite the great pains of the past, the day is indeed coming when Israel will in fact give birth. The birth however is not merely a baby, (though a very special baby would indeed come), but instead, the “birth” is a reference to the physical resurrection of the dead, the judgment of the gentile nations, the deliverance of the Jewish people, and ultimately, the redemption of the whole earth. The promises of the Lord ring out:
Your dead will live; their corpses will rise. You who lie in the dust, awake and shout for joy, For your dew is as the dew of the dawn, and the earth will give birth to the departed spirits. —Isaiah 26:19
Next, the passage speaks of that time that Jesus refers to as “the Great Tribulation” (Matthew 24:21):
Come, my people, enter into your rooms and close your doors behind you; hide for a little while until indignation runs its course. For behold, the LORD is about to come out from His place to punish the inhabitants of the earth for their iniquity; and the earth will reveal her bloodshed and will no longer cover her slain. —Isaiah 26:20-21
Later, in Isaiah 66, the themes of birth and resurrection are emphasized once again. What is so interesting about this particular reference is that it specifically addresses the paradox that the Messiah would actually be born long before the labor pains even begin:
“Before she travailed, she brought forth; Before her pain came, she gave birth to a boy. Who has heard such a thing? Who has seen such things? —Isaiah 66:7
But then the Lord promises that unlike Israel’s former experiences, she would indeed give birth. Gone would be the days of labor pains without birth. The Lord promises that He will indeed bring about the messianic age. With it will come the redemption, resurrection, vindication and many comforts of that glorious age.
“Can a land be born in one day? Can a nation be brought forth all at once? As soon as Zion travailed, she also brought forth her sons. Shall I bring to the point of birth and not give delivery?” says the LORD. “Or shall I who gives delivery shut the womb?” says your God. Be joyful with Jerusalem and rejoice for her, all you who love her; be exceedingly glad with her, all you who mourn over her, that you may nurse and be satisfied with her comforting breasts, that you may suck and be delighted with her bountiful bosom. For thus says the LORD, “Behold, I extend peace to her like a river, And the glory of the nations like an overflowing stream; And you will be nursed, you will be carried on the hip and fondled on the knees. As one whom his mother comforts, so I will comfort you; And you will be comforted in Jerusalem. Then you will see this, and your heart will be glad, And your bones will flourish like the new grass; And the hand of the LORD will be made known to His servants, but He will be indignant toward His enemies. For behold, the LORD will come in fire And His chariots like the whirlwind, To render His anger with fury, And His rebuke with flames of fire. For the LORD will execute judgment by fire And by His sword on all flesh, And those slain by the LORD will be many. —Isaiah 66:9-16
In summary, after considering the most prominent references in the Old Testament to “birth pains” and the last days, we see that they are integrally linked to the following events:
The great tribulation.
The coming of the Messiah.
The judgment of the nations.
The vindication of Israel.
The resurrection of the righteous dead.
The redemption of creation.
The glories of the Messianic age to come.
In conclusion, the point in considering these two passages is to help us recognize how the disciples, all highly Old Testament literate Jews, would have understood the reference to “the beginning of birth pains”. Not only was Jesus’ reference clear, but so also is the analogy of a birth very simple and easy to understand. The initial labor pains begin, increasingly becoming worse, until finally, the birth takes place. When Jesus began his prophecy by speaking of a series of specific signs, and referred to these events as “the beginning of birth pains”, he was clearly contextualizing the remainder of the prophecy as referring to the last days that would include all of the specific events listed above. Obviously, because the events of 70 A.D. did not include the physical resurrection of the dead, any effort to tie Jesus’ prophecy to the events that surrounded the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple, is seen to be a clear distortion of the passage. When we simply acknowledge Jesus’ clear reference to Isaiah’s prophecy, there is no room for the Preterist view that Jesus was speaking of the events of 70 A.D. Jesus’ Olivet Discourse is a prophecy the entirety of which is concerning the last days, all of which are yet future.