Insights on the “Olivet discourse”

March 9, 2015

The Mount of Olives

Yesterday, I preached on the notoriously difficult “Olivet discourse,” which is found in Mark 13, Matthew 24-25, and Luke 21. My text was Mark 13:24-37, whose focus is on the Second Coming.

But it’s not completely focused on the Second Coming, which is why it’s so difficult. As I pointed out, possibly the most controversial verse in the entire Bible, verse 30 (“Truly, I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all these things take place.”), refers not to the Second Coming but to events leading to the destruction of the Temple in A.D. 70.

How do I know? As I argued in my sermon, the disciples’ original question to Jesus in verse 4 (“Tell us, when will these things be, and what will be the sign when all these things are about to be accomplished?”) related to Jesus’ warning that there will “not be left here one stone upon another that will not be thrown down” (verse 3).

In verses 3-23, then, Jesus talks specifically about signs and events leading up to the Roman siege of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Temple. Notice in two other places (besides v. 30) he refers to “these things” (verses 23 and 29), and they refer to the events leading up to 70. His main message to his disciples living in Jerusalem in those days is simple: Flee. Don’t be distracted, for example, by reports of false messiahs or people claiming to be Christ—which we know from history happened during the revolutionary fervor that led to the events of 70.

This is why, I think, it becomes necessary for Jesus to address the coming Day of the Lord in verses 24-27: the Son of Man won’t reappear, Jesus emphasizes, until after the events of 70 take place. Without this clarification, it seems likely that Christians would be confused and stay behind in Jerusalem and be killed.

As William L. Lane points out in his commentary on Mark, quoting the fourth-century historian Eusebius, Christians didn’t stay behind. However confusing these words are for us today, Christians living in Jerusalem back then got the message: they heeded Christ’s warning and fled:

“But before the war, the people of the Church of Jerusalem were bidden in an oracle given by revelation to men worthy of it to depart from the city and to dwell in a city of Perea called Pella. To it those who believed in Christ migrated from Jerusalem. Once the holy men had completely left the Jews and all Judea, the justice of God at last overtook them, since the had committed such transgressions against Christ and his apostles. Divine justice completely blotted out that impious generation from among men” (Ecclesiastial History III. v. 3).[1]

All that to say, verse 30 refers to the events of 70 and verse 32 (“But concerning that day or that hour, no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.”) refers to the Second Coming. Lane writes:

In order to understand the relationship of this affirmation [that no one knows the day or the hour of the Second Coming] to the assurance given in verse 30 that the events preliminary to the destruction of the Temple will occur within the experience of that generation, it is necessary to give full force to the adversative particle in verse 32: “I say to you solemnly, this generation shall not pass away… As for that day and that hour, on the contrary, no one knows…”[2]

Unlike the first event, which included signs by which Christians would know it’s going to happen, the second event won’t. Thus Jesus tells the parable about the master returning at an unexpected hour.

I don’t pretend this solves every problem with the Olivet discourse. At the very least, however, it clarifies that Jesus wasn’t mistaken when he said that “these things” would take place within a generation of his words.

1. William L. Lane, The Gospel of Mark (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1974), 468.

2. Ibid., 482.

12 Responses to “Insights on the “Olivet discourse””

  1. Tom Harkins Says:

    Good post. I think the Olivet discourse is particularly difficult because it seems to me to “skip around” between 70 and the end of time without clearly delineating “which is which.” Also there is substantial use of hyperbole.

    In a similar vein, do you think the restoration of Israel as a political/geographical nation has any significance as to “end times” prophesy in general? It is certainly an “unexpected event” given the 1800+ years “in between.” Also, are there other prophesies which have to be fulfilled for Christ to come so that, despite not knowing the day or the hour, we can nonetheless know “not yet”? (I.e., whether there must be an “Antichrist” at the end of the age, as opposed to, for example, identifying him with Nero as some do. Or whether some from “every tongue and tribe” must be saved before the Second Coming as well, whatever that means.) I would like to hope Jesus could come “any minute,” but I also don’t want to give myself any “unwarranted” false hope.

    • brentwhite Says:

      I need to hope for it more, myself. I think an Antichrist (“man of lawlessness” in 2 Thessalonians) is yet to come and there will be great tribulation, but I guess it won’t be clear who that is or how bad the tribulation is. You know? So, yes… Signs, but nothing determinative. As for the nation of Israel, I’m inclined to say no. The truth is, however, I haven’t studied enough eschatology to say with any strong conviction. I don’t want to simply dismiss my many smart Christian brothers who have studied it extensively and arrived at that conclusion.

      How do you deal with Jesus’ words (“immediately” in Matthew’s gospel) about the time between the events of 70 and the Second Coming? That seems to be the biggest challenge. The commentator I quoted, Lane, seemed unconcerned about the time.

  2. victorgalipi Says:

    Jesus did what the OT prophets often did: He talked about the near future and a more distant future. Because these are interrelated and intertwined, it is not always clear which He is talking about, and sometimes it’s both.

    1 Jn 2:18 says there are many antichrists and 1 Jn 4:3 talks about a spirit of antichrist. I don’t see anything certain in the Bible that says there is just one antichrist.

    Likewise I don’t see anything in Scripture that indicates a particular time period called a great tribulation. Jesus just says there will be great tribulation. Certainly Christians in many countries today are going through great tribulation, just as Christians in different places have from the beginnings of The Church.

    Jesus Christ will return when He is good and ready. As Brent says the signs are nothing determinative; they are general. In my opinion trying to figure out the signs and the times is a waste of time, though it does sell a lot of books.

    What is clear is that Jesus says the Gospel will be preached to the whole world and the the end will come. Exactly what that means I don’t know and I’m not sure we can know. What I’m sure of is that we are nowhere near accomplishing that, we have a long way to go.

    So IF there is anything we can do to hasten the coming of Christ, it is to get busy fulfilling the Great Commission.

    • Tom Harkins Says:

      Victorgalipi, I certainly agree with your last point–the only thing WE can do to “hasten the day” is to preach the gospel throughout the whole world. (As well as pray?)

      Also, I agree that there are a lot of books on “end times” which are largely pure speculation and which do little more than rip off a substantial portion of the Christian community.

      Third, I agree that many prophesies have an “immediate” and an “ultimate” fulfillment, like Isaiah’s prophesy of a “virgin” giving birth.

      However, I don’t think that it is necessarily illegitimate to consider the question of when the Lord may come. Jesus gave the example of the fig tree. (Of course, it may be that he was only talking about 70 A.D. events when he said that; or, maybe he meant in the “end times”; or, maybe both.) Jesus said to his disciples that they were “fools and slow of heart” because they did not recognize fulfillment of prophesies about his first coming. I think there are certainly some prophesies about the second coming as well. If there are signs and we can come close to discerning them, that may operate to give some comfort to believers. I believe there is a verse on that–“comfort one another with these words.” (1 Thessalonians, I believe.) Consider the Jews in Egypt. God had revealed how long they would be slaves there. Then at that time they began crying out to God due to how badly they were being treated, and God sent Moses to deliver them. Maybe it will be time for Christ to come to deliver us when the days get as dark as they can (and maybe we are approaching that now). I know I pray regularly for his “soon return.”

      Finally, as to the “Antichrist” as perhaps being a harbinger of the end, I agree with you that John says that there were then many “antichrists,” but he did also say, “You have heard that Antichrist is coming.” Also, there are other passages speaking of what appears to be some end times figure of great evil. The “man of sin” (KJV) in 2 Thessalonians 2, and the beast of Revelation. It may be debatable, but there is at least some indication about that. If I see somebody who appears to match up to what Thessalonians suggests such a person might be like, then I will be looking forward to deliverance in those “dark days.” “The darkest hour is just before dawn.”

      • brentwhite Says:

        Victor, your words about near-term fulfillment and distant-future fulfillment combined with Tom’s example of Isaiah’s virgin giving birth are helpful to me. Thank you, gentlemen.

      • victorgalipi Says:

        Tom, I agree, I don’t think it is wrong to consider the coming of The Lord in the sense of looking at the signs, and then taking hope rather than despairing. What I’m talking about is trying to figure out the time.

        Even when trying to figure out the time of Christ’s return in a broader sense, we should remember that the signs are rather broad and general themselves. People have been seeing these signs since Jesus spoke these words.

        Indeed, as I understand it, the last days began with the first Coming of Christ to earth (Acts 2:1-21), and will continue till He comes again.

        Even in the case of looking for the man of lawlessness–and it does seem that there could be just one in particular–how do we know which of many antichrists he will be?

        There have been signs through the ages, and in different places. Christians in other countries see signs, for example great tribulation, that we don’t see in the USA. The signs are general, and I believe they are deliberately general. They are signs pointing the way, lighting the way, giving us hope along the way.

        Whenever we see antichrists claiming Christ has not come in the flesh, whenever we see people of lawlessness promoting disobedience to the law, especially the law of God, it should give us hope.

        And that, in light of the current state of our denomination and much of the church in the western world, really gives me something to think about, and take heart.

      • brentwhite Says:

        Tom is Southern Baptist, Victor. The liberals left his denomination a while ago. I’d be happy for ours to do the same!

  3. victorgalipi Says:

    You’re welcome Brent, and thanks for raising a very interesting discussion, and a cause for hope. We really don’t think about the return of Jesus Christ enough, in spite of all the Biblical exhortations to do just that.

    Sometimes I wonder if that doesn’t make us too earthly minded to be of much heavenly good. Certainly something I need to think about. Thanks.

  4. victorgalipi Says:

    If only, indeed, Brent! As if being heavenly minded was a problem!

    The Southern Baptist Church is where my roots are, as I lived in a Baptist Children’s Home in FL for my teenage years till graduation, and was first exposed to the Gospel and to church there.

    The SBC is proof that a denomination can start tending toward Biblical revisionism and yet turn things around and remain true to the word of God.

    My concern is that things are too far gone in TUMC, but nothing is impossible with God. I hope we are not too far gone because there is so much I love about Methodist doctrine and practice, at its best, though I admit we haven’t seen much of that for awhile.

    Actually, the Southern Baptists may be more Methodist than the UMC.

    Way off topic I know, but it’s something I’ve been thinking about, as I have recently gotten back in touch with my old Florida home of late.

    • brentwhite Says:

      What a story, Victor! Wow! My roots are also in the SBC. But you’re right: the SBC successfully changed course (and now its so-called “moderate” offshoot, the CBF, has predictably become more and more liberal—although they have a congregational polity, so it varies by local church).

      The SBC serves as a successful test-case of a denomination that moved back to orthodoxy (by reforming its seminaries) and hasn’t veered back. UMC liberals say that this can’t work because, you know, even us Bible-thumpers end up having gay kids, and then what do we do? They say our convictions are so shallow, you know?

      • victorgalipi Says:

        Yes, our convictions are shallow; we create too many shadows and gray areas and middle grounds where there are none. The so-called middle ground is just a breeding ground for Biblical revisionism.

        Having gay relatives is not an excuse to change our convictions much less what the Bible says. I have some very close lesbian and bisexual relatives. They know where I stand and they know that I love them.

        My re-involvement with my old Children’s Home is due to my learning of their involvement in pro-life ministries and ministry to those who had been sex trafficking victims. I am very proud of them, and very ashamed of what is happening in this area in the UMC.

        Wow, we are just jumping all over the place here aren’t we Brent? 🙂

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