Students of prophecy often pay more attention to Matthew's version of the Olivet Discourse because of its greater length and detail. But when we ignore Luke's account, we miss one third of the Lord's message. That's because the disciples asked the Lord three questions and in Matthew 24 He only answered the last two. And it's Luke's answer to their first question that confirms the whole message.
Here's why. When a prophet revealed events that would take place beyond the lifetimes of the people he was speaking to, the Lord often provided a short term partial fulfillment to validate the distant prophecy. This is because He had told the people that if what a prophet said didn't come true, then the people were not to fear him, for he hadn't spoken for the Lord. (Deut 18:21-22)
There are several of these partial fulfillments in Scripture that would serve as good examples but perhaps the clearest one comes from John 5:43. Speaking to Israel, Jesus said, "I have come in my Father's name, and you do not accept me; but if someone else comes in his own name, you will accept him." He was referring to the anti-Christ, who many in Israel will believe to be the Messiah when he comes on the scene at the start of Daniel's 70th week. But just before Jesus was handed over to be executed, Pilate offered to free Him as a sign of Roman mercy, traditionally expressed on Passover. He gave the people a choice, the innocent Jesus who came in His Father's name, or a convicted killer named Barabbas who came in his own. The people chose Barabbas. It was the partial fulfillment that validated the Lord's prophecy of Israel and the anti-Christ in the 70th Week.
As we'll see, the destruction of Jerusalem in 69AD was the partial fulfillment that validated the Lord's prophecy of the End Times. Let's take a look.
Some of his disciples were remarking about how the temple was adorned with beautiful stones and with gifts dedicated to God But Jesus said, "As for what you see here, the time will come when not one stone will be left on another; every one of them will be thrown down."
"Teacher," they asked, "when will these things happen? And what will be the sign that they are about to take place?" (Luke 21:5-7)
According to Mark 13:3, it was Peter, James, John and Andrew who asked. And in Matt. 24:3 we can read their complete question. "When will this happen, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?"
This is our first hint that things will be different in Luke's account. He only has the disciples asking the first question.
As we get started, it's important to understand that none of the gospel writers thought of themselves strictly as historians. Had the Lord only wanted to document history, one gospel account would have been sufficient. Instead, each writer was assigned a different audience, and under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, tailored his account to meet the needs of that audience. Each also portrayed Jesus a little differently to show a particular side of Him. Matthew wrote to the Jews showing them that Jesus was their Messiah-King, the Lion of Judah. Mark wrote to the Romans, describing Jesus as the humble Servant of the Lord. Luke wrote to the Greeks, portraying Jesus as the Son of Man, and John wrote to the Church identifying Jesus as the Son of God.
Among other things, this was the fulfillment of four Old Testament prophecies of a figure God called "The Branch", a messianic reference. In Jeremiah 23:5 the Branch is called the King. In Zechariah 3:8 He's the Servant. In Zechariah 6:12 He's the Man and in Isaiah 4:2 He's the Branch of the Lord. In each case the word Branch is capitalized. Early Christians were sometimes called Netzerim, the people of the Branch. OK, now let's get to the Lord's answer.
He replied: "Watch out that you are not deceived. For many will come in my name, claiming, 'I am he,' and, 'The time is near.' Do not follow them. When you hear of wars and revolutions, do not be frightened. These things must happen first, but the end will not come right away."
Then he said to them: "Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be great earthquakes, famines and pestilences in various places, and fearful events and great signs from heaven. (Luke 21:8-11)
In the beginning, His answer sounds a lot like those in Matthew and Mark. But that's about to change.
"But before all this, they will lay hands on you and persecute you. They will deliver you to synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors, and all on account of my name. This will result in your being witnesses to them. But make up your mind not to worry beforehand how you will defend yourselves. For I will give you words and wisdom that none of your adversaries will be able to resist or contradict. You will be betrayed even by parents, brothers, relatives and friends, and they will put some of you to death. All men will hate you because of me. But not a hair of your head will perish. By standing firm you will gain life." (Luke 21:12-19)
This chain of events clearly describes the lives of the Apostles in the earliest days of the Church. Peter and John testified before the Sanhedrin. Paul was on both sides of this prophecy, first attacking Christians with a vengeance and after his conversion bearing witness to leaders like Felix, Festus, and Herod Agrippa. Of the original disciples, only John died of natural causes, and all of them suffered through the most terrifying forms of torture without ever recanting a single word of their testimony.
"When you see Jerusalem being surrounded by armies, you will know that its desolation is near. Then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains, let those in the city get out, and let those in the country not enter the city. For this is the time of punishment in fulfillment of all that has been written. How dreadful it will be in those days for pregnant women and nursing mothers! There will be great distress in the land and wrath against this people. They will fall by the sword and will be taken as prisoners to all the nations. Jerusalem will be trampled on by the Gentiles until the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled. (Luke 21:20-24)
Although the bulk of this passage is identical to Matthew's account, there are two striking differences showing us that they're not describing the same event. First, in Matthew 24:15 the warning sign that it's time to flee is the Abomination of Desolation standing in the Holy Place. Here it's the positioning of the Roman army around Jerusalem.
Normally it would be too late to flee when a besieging army could be seen encircling a city. But in 68-69AD the political situation in Rome was unstable to say the least. The former general of the Roman armies in the Middle East was a man named Titus Vespasian. He had recently turned his command over to his son, also named Titus, so he could position himself to become the next Emperor. This came to pass upon the death of Nero in 68, and Vespasian was named Emperor on July 1, 69. He had been concerned that he'd need more military backing to make his claim good, so even though the legions now under his son's command had already begun their siege of Jerusalem, Vespasian ordered them to disengage and return to Rome. When they began pulling back to prepare for the journey, the believers in Jerusalem who had been taught the Lord's warning hastened to escape the city.
But before the Romans could leave, Titus Vespasian sent word to his son that the troops wouldn't be needed after all and ordered them to resume their siege of Jerusalem. By then all the believers had escaped.
In the month we call August of 69 AD the walls were breached and the Temple was captured. The interior furnishings caught fire and the heat caused the gold plating on the wooden ceiling beams to melt. As the liquid gold ran down the walls it flowed into the cracks between the stones. When the fire had gone out and the stones had cooled, the Roman soldiers tore the ruins apart stone by stone to get the gold the had flowed between them and solidified. Not one stone was left standing on another in fulfillment of the Lord's prophecy.
In 70 AD the Roman army completed its conquest of the Holy Land in the siege of Masada. Although over one million Jews had perished, according to tradition not a single believer died in the destruction of Jerusalem. (Some historical accounts place the fall of Jerusalem and the Temple one year earlier in 68AD but there's general consensus that it happened as I've described it.)
The second difference in the two accounts is that while Matthew's ends with the 2nd Coming and is world wide in its focus, Luke's describes the Jewish diaspora and the ensuing control the city by the Gentiles. In short Luke's account has so far been confined to describing events concerning the fall of Jerusalem. He was describing the short term partial fulfillment within the lifetimes of the Lord's audience that validates the total fulfillment at the End of the Age.
"There will be signs in the sun, moon and stars. On the earth, nations will be in anguish and perplexity at the roaring and tossing of the sea. Men will faint from terror, apprehensive of what is coming on the world, for the heavenly bodies will be shaken. At that time they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory. When these things begin to take place, stand up and lift up your heads, because your redemption is drawing near." (Luke 21:25-28)
Suddenly Luke expanded the vision to include the whole world and the End of the Age. Those who are alive on Earth when the signs he described begin to happen are to understand that the culminating event will be the Lord's return. And believers are told that when we first begin to see these signs, we should start looking at the sky in expectation, because the Lord's on His way for us. Notice how the narrative changes from the third person, "men will faint from terror" and "they will see the Son of Man coming" to the second person "lift up your heads" and "your redemption". And also how the focus changes from the end of the sequence, "they will see the Son of Man coming", to its beginning "when these things begin to happen". If you didn't already know it from Paul's teaching you couldn't recognize that He's hinting at two separate events, the Rapture and the 2nd Coming. But since you do, you can.
He told them this parable: "Look at the fig tree and all the trees. When they sprout leaves, you can see for yourselves and know that summer is near. Even so, when you see these things happening, you know that the kingdom of God is near.
"I tell you the truth, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away.
"Be careful, or your hearts will be weighed down with dissipation, drunkenness and the anxieties of life, and that day will close on you unexpectedly like a trap. For it will come upon all those who live on the face of the whole earth. Be always on the watch, and pray that you may be able to escape all that is about to happen, and that you may be able to stand before the Son of Man." (Luke 21:29-36)
As in Matthew's account, the fig tree parable is not meant to signify Israel, but the speed with which these events would unfold once they began. The fig was the last tree to get leaves in the spring, so they knew when they saw the fig leaves that summer was really close. In the same way, the span of time between the beginning of the End Times signs and the Lord's return will be relatively short.
I think this summary was meant both for the generation alive during the Fall of Jerusalem and the one that's here at the End of the Age. Thirty five years after the Lord spoke these words the Romans began their three year campaign to complete the overthrow of the Jewish nation. Many who were taught this prophecy by the very men who got it straight from the Lord's mouth were still alive when this happened. And at the End of the Age many who are alive as these signs begin to appear will still be alive at their conclusion.
The last sentence is especially meaningful. "Be always on the watch, and pray that you may be able to escape all that is about to happen, and that you may be able to stand before the Son of Man." By watching for the sign of the Roman armies encircling Jerusalem and praying for deliverance, the church's first generation was able to escape the death and destruction of Jerusalem's judgment. Just so, by watching for the End Times signs and praying for deliverance, the church's last generation will be able to escape the death and destruction of Earth's judgment. The partial fulfillment then confirmed the ultimate fulfillment of all that's about to happen now. You can almost hear the footsteps of the Messiah.