Jesus’ most explicit teaching on the end times is found in the so-called “Olivet Discourse,” which is found in all three Synoptic Gospels, Matthew, Mark, and Luke. The main interpretive challenge in studying the Olivet Discourse is that of determining which sections relate to the events of the year 70 and which relate to the second coming.
In our book Jesus and the Future: Understanding What Jesus Taught about the End Times, Alexander Stewart, Apollo Makara, and I argue that Mark 13:5–23 and its Matthean and Lukan parallels relate to the destruction of the temple, while 13:24–27 refers to the future second coming of Jesus. Mark 13:28–31 then provides a parable about the destruction of the temple, and 13:32–37 includes a parable about the second coming.
This understanding of the Olivet Discourse seems to be the best interpretation of all the available evidence. In this belief, we are not alone; noted commentators such as William Lane, Larry Hurtado, Ben Witherington, and Robert Stein have argued similarly. (See William L. Lane, The Gospel According to Mark, NICNT [Eerdmans, 1974], 455–84; Larry W. Hurtado, Mark, NIBC [Hendrickson, 1983], 222–25; Ben Witherington III, The Gospel of Mark [Eerdmans, 2001], 348–50; Robert Stein, Jesus, the Temple, and the Coming Son of Man [IVP, 2014], 122.)
The Olivet Discourse
In the Olivet Discourse, Jesus thus focuses on two future events. One of these events, the destruction of the temple, was in Jesus’ near future (his current generation) and is in our past. The other event, Jesus’ return, has not yet taken place and is still future. Every generation of Christians must remain vigilant and be active in the Father’s work because that day will come unexpectedly, and when it comes, there will be no time to prepare.
The Imminent Future: The Destruction of the Temple
Several conclusions arise from this reading of the Olivet Discourse. First, readers who view the Olivet Discourse as referring exclusively to events associated with a seven-year period of tribulation between the rapture and Jesus’ second coming may want to reconsider their view of Jesus’ reference to “this generation” and the way in which the Olivet Discourse is a specific answer to a question from the disciples about when the temple would be destroyed. Jesus didn’t ignore their question or give them an entirely unrelated answer. Nothing in the Olivet Discourse indicates that Jesus taught a future rapture of believers that would be followed by a seven-year period of tribulation centered on the Jewish people and Jerusalem. Jesus’ comments about the tribulation and destruction of Jerusalem and the temple relate to the terrible judgment of the year 70. This, of course, doesn’t mean that there won’t be a rapture, an end-time tribulation, or a second coming, just that this portion of Scripture does not pertain to these end-time events.
The More Distant Future: The Second Coming
Second, conversely, readers who seek to interpret all of the Olivet Discourse as referring to the destruction of the temple in the year 70 unduly minimize the importance of Matthew’s expanded question at the beginning of the discourse and the way in which Jesus’ words in the discourse about cosmic upheaval and the coming of the Son of Man were understood by the earliest Christians (or at least by Paul and Matthew).
Jesus answered both questions at the beginning of Matthew’s Gospel concerning when the temple would be destroyed and when Jesus would come and the current age would come to an end. Luke guides us in knowing when Jesus transitioned from speaking about the destruction of the temple to his future coming. An indefinite period, “the times of the Gentiles,” separates the two events (Luke 21:24). This is the period in which we continue to live as we wait for Jesus’ return to establish his kingdom fully and finally on earth.
While we don’t know exactly when Jesus will come back, we do know that he will return, albeit after an apparent delay. We should therefore cling to the hope of his coming and be on the alert at all times so we will be ready whenever he does return. Being ready means being busy doing the Lord’s work and living in the center of his will. As we are filled and led by the Spirit, both individually and as a believing community, God will do his work through us and advance his kingdom.
As Jesus foretold, “The gospel must first be preached to all nations” (Mark 13:10). Then, the final events of human history will ensue, climaxing in Jesus’ triumphant return, God’s final judgment, and eternity spent in fellowship with God for those who trusted in Christ or in separation from God for who didn’t. If you’re a believer, serve him faithfully all your days. If you haven’t trusted Christ yet, seek him while he may be found, before it is too late and you face the prospect of being separated from him for all eternity.
Note: This post adapts the conclusion to part 1 of Jesus and the Future: Understanding What Jesus Taught about the End Times by Andreas J. Köstenberger, Alexander E. Stewart, and Apollo Makara.