Scriptural Quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version
The Olivet Discourse is a name which Biblical commentators often give to the prophecy that Jesus spoke to his disciples on the Mount of Olives. The prophecy is recorded in Matthew 24-25, Mark 13, and Luke 21, and it discusses the future of the world as it was known to Jews of that era. We will look at Matthew’s account first.
Jesus’ prophesy starts at the beginning of Matthew 24.
Matthew 24:1-3 – “As Jesus came out of the temple and was going away, his disciples came to point out to him the buildings of the temple. Then he asked them, ‘You see all these, do you not? Truly I tell you, not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.’ When he was sitting on the Mount of Olives, the disciples came to him privately, saying, ‘Tell us, when will this be, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?’”
There are several important things to note. The disciples were admiring the temple that was standing in their own day. Jesus then warned them not to get too attached to it by predicting that it would be destroyed. That must have worried the disciples, because they privately asked Jesus for more information about three things:
- When would the temple be destroyed?
- What is the sign of Christ’s return?
- How would they know when the end of the age was near?
If the disciples asked these questions, obviously they were familiar with the passages of Daniel that we looked at earlier. Daniel indicated that the destruction of the temple would happen near the end of the “seventy weeks,” which also meant the end of the Biblical age in which they were living. The tricky part is Christ’s return. Daniel’s writing appeared to say that the Messiah would come around the same time that the temple was destroyed and the seventy weeks concluded (Dan. 7:25-27, 12:9-12). That is why the disciples also asked about Christ’s second coming.
The critical points are that the disciples were staring at the temple of their own day and asking about it, and Jesus’ prophecy was given as a 2nd person narrative, indicating that the events prophesied were events that the disciples themselves would live to see (if they were not martyred first).
In Matthew 24:6-8, Jesus said,
“You will hear of wars and rumors of wars; see that you are not alarmed; for this must take place, but the end is not yet. For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom, and there will be famines and earthquakes in various places: all this is but the beginning of the birth pangs.”
The Roman Empire went into a state of unrest when Nero became emperor as described in the following commentary from Revelation Revolution,
“During Nero’s reign Rome went to war with the Parthians, there was a war in Britain and there were various other rebellious disturbances across the empire. All these uprisings and wars immediately preceded the Jewish War in fulfillment of vs. 6-7. Then in A.D. 66, toward the end of Nero’s reign, the province of Israel revolted against Rome. While the Israelites fought the Romans, they also turned their weapons against each other; and civil war broke out all over Israel between those wanting peace and those seeking sovereignty. Then in A.D. 69, the disease of civil war spread to the rest of the Roman Empire” (quoted from Matthew 24 Fulfilled)
The commentary also describes earthquakes and famines taking place in that era,
“During the reign of Claudius Caesar, the emperor immediately preceding Nero, a colossal famine struck the Roman world. Concerning this famine, James Stuart Russell writes, ‘In the fourth year of his [Claudius] reign, the famine in Judea was so severe, that the price of food became enormous and great numbers perished.’ One example of the earthquakes mentioned in v. 7 is the earthquake that struck Laodicea sometime between A.D. 60 and A.D. 64 during the reign of Nero. It is interesting to note that one of the churches addressed by John in the Book of Revelation was a church in this city (Revelation 3:14-22). Prior to A.D. 70 there were also earthquakes in Crete, Smyrna, Miletus, Chios, Samos, Hierapolis, Colossae, Campania, Rome and Judea” (quoted from Matthew 24 Fulfilled).
So far, everything seems to fit the first-century interpretation. However, the next part of the discourse creates a little difficulty. Consider verses 15-18:
“When you see the desolating sacrilege standing in the holy place, as was spoken of by the prophet Daniel (let the reader understand), then those in Judea must flee to the mountains; the one on the housetop must not go down to take what is in the house; the one in the field must not turn back to get a coat.”
The reason this is a bit difficult for the first-century interpretation is that, if this refers to Roman officials committing an abomination in the temple, such occurrences are not known to have happened until shortly before the temple’s destruction in 70 A.D., at which point the war was already near peak intensity. For many people, it would have been too late to evacuate as Jesus said to do. However, Luke’s account of the prophecy is a bit different and seems to resolve this issue.
Many Biblical historians think that Mark’s Gospel was written first, and that Matthew and Luke’s incorporated Mark’s writing in addition to other sources (Mark Introduction, Harper Collins Study Bible, p. 1724). In Luke’s introduction to his Gospel, he wrote that many accounts of Jesus’ life had been written and that his writing was a compilation of recorded events in Jesus’ life, based on Luke’s personal examination of many sources and discussion with eye-witnesses (Luke 1:1-4).
I bring things matters up because the stories of Jesus’ life circulated in oral tradition long before the Gospels were actually written. When a story is perpetuated via oral communication, it is natural for some variations of the same story to emerge. As a result, there is some variation in the accounts of certain events among the Gospels. If Luke’s Gospel was one of the later Gospels, then he would probably have selected versions of prophesies that best aligned with actual events that occurred. My theory, based on comparison of the Olivet Discourse among the Gospels, is that Matthew and Mark were written pre-70 or else very shortly after, whereas Luke was written well beyond 70.
Luke’s account of the Olivet Discourse in Chapter 21 starts out like Matthew and Mark, but there are a couple of key differences later on:
Luke 21: 21-24, “When you see Jerusalem surrounded by armies, then know that its desolation has come near. Then those in Judea must flee to the mountains, and those inside the city must leave it, and those out in the country must not enter it; for these are days of vengeance, as a fulfillment of all that is written. Woe to those who are pregnant and to those who are nursing infants in those days! For there will be great distress on the earth and wrath against this people; they will fall by the edge of the sword and be taken away as captives among all nations; and Jerusalem will be trampled on by the Gentiles, until the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled.”
In Luke’s Gospel, Jewish Christians were told to flee Jerusalem when they saw the city “surrounded by armies.” If they followed this instruction, they would have left in 66-67, before the worst of the violence. Historical records show that beginning in 66, many Christians who knew Jesus’ prophecy left Jerusalem.
A commentary from John Denton of PreteristArchive says that Roman armies appeared in Jerusalem around 66-70 A.D., but then largely withdrew. However, after the Roman withdrawal, different Jewish factions in Jerusalem broke out into civil war. Denton wrote,
“After the withdrawal of the Roman armies and for the following three years, those listening to ‘Jesus voice’ by means of his disciples, separated themselves from the inhabitants of Jerusalem and fled the city. According to Josephus’ historical account, during this time, internal anarchy within the city of Jerusalem was continually churning away. Civil war was continuing without let up within the walls of Jerusalem . . . Living in the city of Jerusalem had become a nightmare, it was so full of violence and misery, the citizens desperately wanted to get rid of these fanatics. Famine and food shortages had become an everyday problem, there seemed no let up or end to these factions burning hatred for each other. Daily the fighting continued and the casualties mounted.”
Several other prophecies of Jesus in the Olivet Discourse are reflected in the events just described, including famines, hatred of people toward each other, and anarchy.
Note that Jesus said that after the Jews saw Jerusalem surrounded by armies, those in the city must leave, and those in surrounding Judea must flee to the mountains. Even though, after an initial approach, Roman armies had withdrawn from Jerusalem during 67-70, historical records indicate that during this 3.5-year interval, Roman armies were still attacking surrounding regions, as described in the following commentary from Revelation Revolution,
“‘A time, times and half a time’ [Dan. 7:25] is three and a half years. This is the interval between the arrival of Titus and Vespasian in Israel to lead the Roman army during the Jewish War in March of A.D. 67 to the fall of Jerusalem in September of A.D. 70. Rabbinic tradition confirms the fact that Titus and Vespasian assaulted Israel for three and a half years. According to the Midrash Rabbah Lamantations 1:12, Vespasian was expected to be punished in Gehenna for three and a half years because that was the length of time in which he besieged Israel” (quoted from Daniel 7 Fulfilled).
Thus, it appears that the only way to be completely safe would be to hide in the mountains during this 3.5 year period.
Also, recall that Jesus said that during the Tribulation, false messiahs would arise (Luke 21:8). An example of such a false messiah was John Levi, an apostate Jew who claimed to be sent by God to help the Jews fight off the Romans. Larry T. Smith wrote that John Levi “took over the control of the Temple, set himself up in the Temple as the Jewish savior, looted the vessels of the Temple for their Gold, and caused the daily animal sacrifices to cease” (quoted from The 70th Week of Daniel).
Having considered all of the evidence for the first-century fulfillment of Jesus’ prophecies, we still need to address the “problem” of Jesus not returning to earth in 70 A.D.
Matthew wrote that Jesus would return “immediately after the suffering of those days” (Matt. 24:29). Luke, however, does not use the word “immediately.” This is what makes me think that Luke was written after 70. We do not know exactly what Jesus said, given that historians have not found any transcripts known to be written during His earthly lifetime. Early Christians who believed Christ would return in their lifetimes may have shaped their oral communications of Jesus’ prophecy in light of that expectation, and Matthew and Mark may have picked up those versions which conveyed a greater degree of imminence.
I think that Luke’s Gospel, on the other hand, conveys a hint of an extended interval before Christ’s return. Luke writes,
“For there will be great distress on the earth and wrath against this people; they will fall by the edge of the sword and be taken away as captives among all nations; and Jerusalem will be trampled on by the Gentiles, until the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled.”
This passage about the “times of the Gentiles” may be significant. Luke was a disciple of the Apostle Paul, and the era of the Gentiles is a theme in Paul’s epistle to the Romans.
Romans 11:25-27: “So that you may not claim to be wiser than you are, brothers and sisters, I want you to understand this mystery: a hardening has come upon part of Israel, until the full number of the Gentiles has come in. And so all Israel will be saved; as it is written, ‘Out of Zion will come the Deliverer; he will banish ungodliness from Jacob.’ ‘And this is my covenant with them, when I take away their sins.’”
In the Old Testament era, God’s working with humanity was centered on Israel. However, what Paul describes in Romans and Galatians is God’s new way of working with humanity in which “there is no distinction between Jew and Greek” (Romans 10:12). In the passage above, Paul wrote that Israel has been “hardened” during this era, but that when all the Gentiles called to salvation in this era are brought into the faith, Christ will return, and then Israel as a nation will be brought to faith in Him as the Messiah.
Paul writes in Ephesians 3:5-6, “In former generations this mystery was not made known to humankind, as it has now been revealed to his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit: that is, the Gentiles have become fellow heirs, members of the same body, and sharers in the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.”
Paul writes that the mystery of this age was not made known to previous generations, which could explain why the prophecies of Daniel (such as Dan. 7:23-27), and even Jesus’ prophecies during his earthly lifetime, seemed to skip over it. So, even though specific Tribulational prophecies were fulfilled in the first century, the era of the Gentiles has continued up to the present day, and in a general sense, the Tribulation has as well, if you consider the persecution of Jews which has been a grave problem throughout the past two millennia.
Before I close this article, I want to mention one more passage from the Olivet Discourse that has generated much debate. In Matthew 24:34 and Mark 13:30, Jesus said, “This generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place.”
However, Luke once again generalizes the statement: “Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all things have taken place” (Lk. 21:32).
In Luke’s account, the NRSV translation omits the word “these” from the phrase “all these things have taken place.” “These things” would specifically include the physical return of Christ to the earth, something that did not happen in the generation Jesus spoke to. The difference in wording is also reflected in the underlying Greek. Luke’s account does not have the Greek word “tauta” that was translated “these” in Matthew and Mark.
By saying that “this generation will not pass away until all things have taken place,” it is obvious that we cannot interpret the passage literally. Even if Christ had returned in 70, that would not have been the last thing that ever happened in the world!
So, I believe what the prophecy really means is that, in principle, all things would be fulfilled in that generation. In the case of Christ’s return, He returned on the day of Pentecost through the Holy Spirit’s indwelling of believers (Acts 2). Paul wrote in Ephesians 2:6 that God “made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved – and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus.”
Being made alive in Christ and seated with Him in the heavens is a spiritual fulfillment of the Rapture, and this came upon believers in the same generation that Jesus spoke about.
I want to tie this idea into the overarching theme of this series of posts, which is that, we should not approach Bible prophecy by getting fixated on events of the future (or the past, for that matter). All prophecy is, in some sense, true of the present. Thus, the goal of prophecy is not to predict the future, but rather, to understand the present. Seeing how certain prophecies were fulfilled in the past can help us understand what the same prophecies say about the present. If we live in light of what is true now, we will be prepared should prophecies that were fulfilled in the past play out again. The next post will examine how the prophecies we have been discussing apply to the present, and I will share some views on what implications these prophecies may hold for the future.
“Matthew 24 Fulfilled.” Revelation Revolution. n.p., n.d., Web. 18 July 2016.
“Daniel 7: A Preterist Commentary.” Revelation Revolution. n.p., n.d., Web. 18 July 2016.
Adela Yarbro Collins, Ph.D. The Gospel According to Mark Introduction. The Harper Collins Study Bible. Ed. Harold W. Attridge. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2006. 1722-1724. Print.
John Denton. “Prophetic Day or Year: Jerusalem’s Destruction and the Seventy Weeks.” The Preterist Archive. The Preterist Archive, n.d., Web. 26 July 2016.
Smith, Larry T. “The Seventieth Week of Daniel.” Rightly Dividing The Word. Rightly Dividing The Word, 2002. Web. 17 July 2016