Reading the Olivet Discourse

(Mark 13; Matthew 24; Luke 21)

As the Prophet of God, Jesus pronounced devastating judgment against the Temple and city of Jerusalem (Mark 11:12-20; 13:1-2; see also Matthew 23:37-39; Luke 19:41-44). Naturally, his disciples inquired about this cataclysmic event (Mark 13:3-4), and Jesus’ famous response is known as the Olivet Discourse.

Evidently in the minds of the disciples, the destruction of God’s Temple was “apocalyptic,” signaling the violent ending of the age (note the phrasing of their question in Matthew 24:3). Interpreters throughout the history of the church have overwhelmingly agreed that Jesus answers accordingly, addressing both the looming “desolation” of the Temple in the First Jewish-Roman War some 40 years later, and the end of the world as we know it, with the “coming of the Son of Man in clouds with great power and glory” (Mark 13:26; see also Luke 21:27, 34-36; Matthew 24:30-31, 36-44). 

More specifically, it has been broadly held by believers from the early church until today that Jesus describes not just the tribulations of Israel under Rome in AD 70 (Luke 21:21-24?), but a future, unprecedented tribulation of God’s people (Mark 13:15-20?) instigated by the coming Antichrist, who would then suddenly succumb to his demise at the glorious return of Christ (note 2Thessalonians 2:1-12).

But just how Jesus addresses both of these events, and which descriptions apply to which events (or whether some apply to both at the same time, such as Daniel’s “abomination of desolation”), remains much debated. Below are some helpful resources demonstrating different approaches taken by students of Scripture in reading Jesus’ “little apocalypse”:

            A good summary from a South Carolinian (but don’t hold that against him)

            Andreas Köstenberger (a CIU alum!)

            The Gospel Coalition

There are other difficult questions raised in the Discourse. Two are worth special mention. 

First, Jesus solemnly states that “all these things will take place” before “this generation” passes away (Mark 13:30). This has been called “the most difficult phrase” in an already complicated passage. Some insist that Jesus’ statement requires that the substance of all his preceding predictions, from 13:5 to 13:27, must have been fulfilled by AD 70. But this is unnecessary. It is also most unlikely, since “the coming of the Son of Man on the clouds” to “gather his elect … from the ends of the earth” (13:26-27) plainly refers to his triumphant, visible return (compare Matthew 24:27, 30, 37, 39; 25:31; 26:64; Luke 17:22-37; Acts 1:9-11; Revelation 1:7). This future hope is the great confession of the historic church:

            He will come again with glory
            to judge the living and the dead.

Jesus appears to be addressing the “these things” the disciples inquired about regarding the impending destruction of Herod’s Temple (Mark 13:4), and stating that “all these things” will take place within a generation (40 years). This seems to be the sense of Jesus’ very similar words in Matthew 23:36, before predicting Jerusalem’s imminent destruction (23:37-39). Alternatively, it is possible that Jesus is addressing the relatively short span of the great tribulation to come, and that he speaks of the generation of “that day” (rather than his day). It is also possible that Jesus uses “this generation” qualitatively, rather than quantitatively, to speak of a kind of people (i.e., unbelieving Israel). This usage of “generation” is apparent in the Gospels (ex. Mark 8:38; Matthew 16:4) and is found in the Old Testament (ex. Psalm 12:7-8; 14:5; 24:6).   

Secondly, Jesus famously says that “concerning that day or that hour,” referencing the coming of the Son of Man in glory (see 13:26, 33-37; also Matthew 24:36-44), “no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.” But how is it that the Son doesn’t know?  Is He not God?  Is He less than God? 

Here’s a mystery. In the incarnation, the Son added to his divinity a “less than divine” nature.  While remaining “very God of very God,” he took on human limitations. The human nature of the Son is not omnipotent (all powerful), nor omnipresent (everywhere present), nor omniscient (all knowing). Jesus experienced our limited knowledge as a human, undergoing our psychological and physiological development as a child (Luke 2:52), as well as a unique receiving of knowledge from the Father (John 15:15) as “he learned obedience” (Hebrews 5:8). But if the Son was ignorant of “that day” during his earthly “humiliation,” is the exalted Son still limited in this knowledge? Read here for more.