Part 2: A Closer Look at the Olivet Discourse
In this series of blogs, we are investigating Jesus’ teaching on the future. One of Jesus’ key prophecies is contained in a section of the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew 24–25, Mark 13, and Luke 21) known as the Olivet Discourse. In the previous blog, we looked at the context of this discourse. In this blog, we’ll take a closer look at the actual discourse itself.
Jesus’ Prophecy and the Disciples’ Questions
Jesus opens his discourse on the Mount of Olives with an alarming prophecy: the temple will soon be destroyed (Matt 24:1–2 and parallels). The temple was the epicenter of Jerusalem. It was about 1,550,000 square feet, the equivalent to thirty-five acres. It towered over the surrounding landscape. Josephus, an ancient Jewish historian, notes that the temple was covered on all sides with gold, and on sunny days (of which there were many in Jerusalem), it would shine like the sun itself. How could this temple be destroyed? Indeed, many of Jesus’ Jewish listeners would have deemed this impossible.
As we think about Jesus’ opening remark, three key points rise to the surface: first, Jesus’ prophetic ministry fulfills Moses’ prediction of a greater prophet to come (Deut 18:15–18). Second, since none of the Gospel writers mentions the fulfillment of Jesus’ prophecy (except for John, who may obliquely refer to it), we can safely assume that Matthew, Mark, and Luke, at least, were likely written prior to AD 70. Third, this prophecy sets the stage for the rest of the discourse: “Any interpretation of Matthew 24, Mark 13, and Luke 21 that doesn’t relate in some way to the historical destruction of the temple is on the wrong track” (p. 37).
Possible Signs, the Abomination of Desolation, and the Destruction of the City
As mentioned earlier, the chief interpretive difficulty of the Olivet Discourse centers on timing: When does Jesus refer to events fulfilled in AD 70 and when does he refer to his future coming? By way of overview, everything in Mark 13:5–23 (and parallels) “makes good sense as Jesus’ description of the time before, during, and immediately after the destruction of Jerusalem in the year 70” (p. 40). In this section, Jesus explains that there will be false messiahs, wars, famines, and earthquakes, but that Christians don’t need to be overly concerned about these earthly upheavals. These events are not signs of the end, and Jesus distances “these ordinary but destructive events of human history from ‘the end’” (p. 46).
But what about the abomination of desolation (Mark 13:14 and parallels)? We get clarity here when we let Scripture interpret Scripture. The Gospel writers appear to be appropriating Daniel’s reference to the “abomination of desolation” in two key ways. First, they acknowledge that Antiochus IV Epiphanes (a despotic Greek ruler) erected an abomination of desolation in the Jerusalem temple in 167 BC. Second, Matthew and Mark both use the editorial comment “Let the reader understand” in order to point to a future abomination of desolation where the temple would be ritually polluted again. Luke 21:20 clarifies this situation: “When you see Jerusalem surrounded by armies, then know that its desolation has come hear.” Luke “retains the key word ‘desolation’ but tells us what Jesus meant by it: all that will transpire during the siege of Jerusalem by the Romans” (p. 56).
Mark 13:19 sounds like it is referring to the great tribulation that has not yet happened: “For in those days there will be such tribulation as has not been from the beginning of the creation that God created until now, and never will be.” While this interpretation is possible, it is more likely that “Jesus is using common hyperbolic language to describe a disaster for which any lesser description would be inadequate” (p. 57). Other examples of such hyperbolic language can be found in Exodus 9:18; 11:6, and Joel 2:2.
Cosmic Upheaval and the Coming of the Son of Man
We have seen that Mark 13:5–23 and parallels refer to events surrounding the destruction of the temple in AD 70. In contrast, Mark 13:24–27 and parallels refer to Jesus’ coming at the end of the age. This point will be developed by answering four key objections to this interpretation. These objections come from two eminent scholars, N. T. Wright and R. T. France, and are often associated with the preterist view (which holds that all events mentioned in Jesus’ end-time discourse were fulfilled in or around the year 70, hence the name “preterist,” “past”).
The first objection points to Jesus’ words in Matthew 24:34: “Truly, I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all these things take place” (cf. Mark 13:30; Luke 21:32). Why would Jesus shift to referring to distant future events? The key to answering this objection comes from the phrase “these things.” Remember the disciples’ original questions: “Tell us, when will these things be, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?” (Matt 24:3). There are two separate questions here, and Jesus uses the phrase “these things” to answer the first question (the destruction of the temple in AD 70). Only after this point does he answer the second question (his future return).
The second objection comes from Matthew 24:29: “Immediately after the tribulation of those days ….” How can distant future events be “immediately after” the tribulation? Answer: “The great tribulation of the year 70 is part of the broader tribulation that will characterize the time until Jesus returns” (p. 68).
Third, the language of cosmic upheaval that Jesus uses is often used in the OT to refer to the destruction of major cities. Why can’t this language simply refer to the destruction of Jerusalem? Answer: Many of Jesus’ listeners “understood that physical and literal cosmic upheaval would characterize the final day of judgment, and it is not at all evident that such language should be understood figuratively when applied to Jesus’ second coming” (p. 68).
Finally, since the “son of man” language is drawn from Daniel 7:13, shouldn’t it refer to Jesus’ enthronement at the right hand of God and not his second coming to earth? Answer: Yes, sometimes the “son of man” language refers to Jesus’ enthronement, but not necessarily every time. It is more common in the New Testament to connect the coming of the Son of Man to Jesus’ future return to earth (Matt 13:40–41; 16:27; 25:31; Mark 8:38; Acts 1:11; 1 Cor 11:26; 15:23, 52; 1 Thess 4:15; 2 Thess 2:1; Tit 2:13; 2 Pet 3:4; Rev 1:7).
Concluding the Olivet Discourse
The next section, Mark 13:28–31 and parallels, contains the parable about the fig tree. Careful readers of this section will notice two key phrases back to back in verse 29: “So also, when you see these things taking place ….” Both the phrase “when you see” and the phrase “these things” were used in the first section to refer to the destruction of the Jerusalem temple. These narrative markers provide evidence that Jesus is returning to his first topic of discussion, namely the events that will happen within one generation.
The following section, Mark 13:32–37 and parallels, resumes Jesus’ teaching on his second coming. These two sections provide a stark contrast: “The destruction of Jerusalem would be preceded by warning signs that could be heeded to avoid the danger and would take place within a generation. In contrast, the second coming would be sudden, take the world by surprise, and occur at a distant, unknown time” (p. 79).
Matthew 24:37–51 (cf. Luke 17:26–36) provides an ending that is unparalleled in Mark. Here Jesus uses the example of Noah to refer to his second coming. In Noah’s day, the wicked were going about their normal lives and were quickly swept away in the floodwaters of God’s judgment. Only Noah and his family were left behind in the safety of the ark. Contrary to the theology of the Left Behind series, you and I want to be left behind—those who are “taken” will be swept away with the wicked, rather than being taken to heaven in a pre-tribulation rapture (note: we realize that this is disputed by scholars who believe that the Bible teaches a pre-tribulation rapture, that is, a removal of believers to be with Jesus prior to the tribulation).
Finally, this section should end with this warning ringing in our ears: “How are we responding to the reality that Jesus will come again and we’ll all have to give an account for our actions? Are we ready for Jesus’ return?” (p. 81).
Note: This blog is based upon Jesus and the Future: Understanding What He Taught about the End Times by Andreas J. Köstenberger, Alexander E. Stewart, and Apollo Makara. It was written by Mark Baker and Jimmy Roh and edited by Andreas Köstenberger.