The Olivet Discourse in Mark 13, Matthew 24, and Luke 21 is an incredibly misunderstood passage among most Christians today. Take the time to read it right now, and I can guarantee you that, if you grew up within Evangelicalism, you will think that Jesus is talking about the “End Times,” complete with references to (A) a future 7-year tribulation, (B) the future one world antichrist declaring himself to be God in a rebuilt, third temple, and (C) the second coming of Christ.
Now, if you have just taken the time to read those chapters, you will have no doubt realized that there actually is no reference to “seven years,” or of any “antichrist declaring himself to be God.” And although you may still think there is a reference to the “second coming” of Christ from heaven back down to earth…well, we’ll get to that.
But the first thing I want to point out is how easily we tend to read into passages things that really aren’t there—and that is due in large part to what the various “End Times experts” of the last 50 years have been telling people, over and over again. As I mentioned in Part 1, these “experts” are very adept at cutting and pasting together random verses from random books in the Bible, without any consideration for the original context of those passages, and then coming up with very elaborate and fanciful timelines and claims that, in all honesty, are ultimately false and unbiblical.
Let me put it to you straight: the things that men like Hal Lindsey and Tim LaHaye (as well as many others) have been feeding to American Christian over the past 50 years are flat out wrong. They are not true. The Bible doesn’t say the things they claim it says.
A simple study of the Olivet Discourse will bear this out.
Context and History…They are Wonderful Things
There are two basic things you must bear in mind when trying to understand the Olivet Discourse. The first thing is that Matthew, Mark and Luke are all related to each other—they are called the Synoptic Gospels for a reason.
- The Gospel of Mark was the first one written, probably around the late 60s or the early 70s AD. It is considerably shorter than the others, and often times tends to be somewhat ambiguous. It doesn’t spell everything out. (For example, in Mark 13:14, Jesus states, “When you see the abomination of desolation standing where it out not to be,” and then Mark adds “the let reader understand.” WHAT? What is the “abomination of desolation?” What’s the place it shouldn’t be standing? I’m the reader, and I DON’T understand!)
- The Gospel of Matthew and the Gospel of Luke are dated shortly after Mark, probably still somewhere in the 70s AD. Now the Gospel of Matthew is addressed to Jews, and basically uses Mark’s storyline/book structure outright. But Matthew adds a number of passages, as well as expands and elaborates on those passages in Mark that seem ambiguous. (For example, in Matthew 24:15, he takes Mark 13:14 and provides two added details: “When you see the abomination of desolation spoken of by the prophet Daniel standing in the holy place (let the reader understand).” Now, that might see be pretty opaque to a 21st century American, but for a Jew in the first century, it those are significant details: (a) there is an allusion to Daniel (specifically Daniel 9:27), and (b) whatever this “abomination of desolation” is, it’s going to be in the Jewish Temple.
- The Gospel of Luke, though, is addressed primarily to a Gentile audience, and although Luke takes a lot of the material of Mark, he doesn’t follow Mark’s book structure at all. He completely re-arranges things, and he often times takes out specific things that only a Jew would be familiar with. Hence, in Luke 21:20, he doesn’t even mention “abomination of desolation,” because your typical Gentile wouldn’t catch the Old Testament allusion. Instead, Luke has Jesus say, “When you see Jerusalem surrounded by armies….” And that actually gives us readers in the 21st century an added clue as to what Jesus was talking about—he was obviously talking about some kind of war.
As a matter of biblical studies, the fact that we have these three Synoptic Gospels is just fascinating. By putting parallel passages side by side, one can see the specific things that each writer was choosing to emphasize, and how each writer was crafting and shaping his own gospel for his audience.
Now the second thing to bear in mind is something that, unfortunately, far too many Christians are horrible at: everything in Mark, and Matthew, and Luke is part of a well-crafted story. Therefore, if you just jump into Mark 13 and start trying to figure out what is going on, without first reading those first twelve chapters (and specifically chapters 11-12, when Jesus finally makes his way to Jerusalem), you aren’t going to understand the context that leads up to Mark 13 (or Matthew 24 and Luke 21).
Simply put, before you start trying to figure out all that confusing stuff in Mark 13, you’d better first read closely the chapters that lead up to it. Literary context is really, really important.
So, Jesus Shows Up in Jerusalem for Passover…
The Olivet Discourse takes place only a few days after he came riding into Jerusalem on a donkey, being hailed as the Messiah by many of the Jews, and only a few days before Jesus’ arrest by the Sanhedrin, his subsequent trials before both the Sanhedrin and then Pilate, and then his crucifixion. Simply put, the Olivet Discourse is smack dab in the middle of a really crazy week. So if you want to understand what Jesus is saying in Mark 13, Matthew 24, and Luke 21, you really need to grasp what had happened those few days before. I’ll sum it up for you:
First, Jesus rides into Jerusalem on a donkey, being hailed as the coming Messiah by many of the Jews at the Passover. Now it is vitally important to realize that the Jews were expecting that when the Messiah would come, he would (A) defeat their oppressors (i.e. Rome), and (B) cleanse the Temple (i.e. because they felt it had been defiled and corrupted by the like of Rome, Herod, and some of the Temple leadership who kind of sold out to Rome).
Then, when Jesus gets into Jerusalem, he doesn’t pick a fight with Rome; instead, he goes into the Temple and starts trashing the place. If your Bible has “Jesus Cleanses the Temple” as a subheading, cross it out. He did no such thing. The Jews wanted him to “cleanse” the Temple—but he doesn’t do that. He condemns it—his quoting of Jeremiah (who was famous for being the prophet who condemned Solomon’s Temple and declared it would be destroyed) is pretty much a dead giveaway.
And then, when the Temple leadership confront him about this, he proceeds to tell the Parable of the Tenants—go ahead and read it in Mark 12:1-12. The parable is pretty easy to figure out—Jesus is saying the evil tenants are the Temple leadership, and that God was going to destroy them. In addition to the Temple leadership, Jesus also has confrontations with the Pharisees (during which Jesus basically says, “Yes, pay your taxes to Caesar!” –that certainly doesn’t sound like he’s picking a fight with Rome!), the Sadducees, and the scribes. And all this happens in the Temple that the Jews were hoping Jesus would “cleanse.”
- Simply put, what you have is this: Jesus, whom many Jews were hoping was the Messiah, comes into Jerusalem for Passover—the great celebration of their liberation from oppression—and does the exact opposite of what they were hoping. He basically says, “Rome’s not the problem, the corrupt Temple and priesthood is the problem, and God is coming after them!”
And then Comes the Olivet Discourse…
And so, if you want to begin to understand the Olivet Discourse, you have to put out of your head all those Hal Lindsey/Tim LaHaye fantasies you’ve been told all your life, and you have to instead read it with what I just told you in mind. Read it in context of what is going on in Mark, or Matthew, or Luke (whichever one you’re reading).
And if you are having a hard time forgetting the “Lindsey/LaHaye” view, let me conclude this post by trying to help you do that by looking at just the opening few verses of Mark 13:3-4, Matthew 24:3, and Luke 21:7.
Each of those chapters begins with Jesus and his disciples leaving the Temple. The disciples are marveling at how beautiful the Temple is, and Jesus tells them plainly that the Temple is going to be destroyed: “Do you see these great buildings? There will not be left here one stone upon another that will not be thrown down” (Mark 13:2). In response to what they no doubt found to be a shocking statement, they ask Jesus, “When will these things be, and what will be the sign when all these things are about to be accomplished?” (Mark 13:4). Matthew 24:3 phrases it like this, “When will these things be, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?” And Luke 21:7 has, “When will these things be, and what will be the sign when these things are about to take place?”
So, what are the disciples asking? At the very least, we should see that they are basically asking Jesus when the Temple was going to be destroyed, like he just said it would. Now, since Matthew includes “the sign of your coming and of the end of the age,” you might be tempted to “go into Lindsey/LaHaye mode” and start speculated about the second coming—let me stop you. These phrases, along with a number of other specific details in the Olivet Discourse, will be discussed in the next two posts.
For now, let me just ask, “How likely is it that the disciples would be asking Jesus about the second coming at this point?” Seriously, think about it. Being typical Jews, they believed Jesus was the Messiah. Thus, they were expecting to see Jesus to (A) defeat their Gentile oppressors (i.e. Rome), (B) cleanse the Temple (of course, what he had just done in the Temple that very day probably had them confused!), and then (C) set up his kingdom.
Therefore, let me ask you this. If the disciples held the traditional Jewish Messianic hope, which they did, did they expect Jesus to be arrested and crucified? The obvious answer is no. Their desertion of him on the night he was betrayed clearly shows that is the one thing they did not expect. Jesus was supposed to reign as king, not be crucified as a criminal.
Therefore, if they did not expect him to be crucified, would they have had any inclination that he would resurrect from the dead? Again, the obvious answer is no. If they weren’t expecting him to be killed, they certainly wouldn’t be thinking he would need to be resurrected.
Therefore, if they did not expect him to be resurrected, would they have any idea he would ascend to heaven 40 days later? Again, the obvious answer is no.
Therefore, if they didn’t expect him to be crucified, or resurrected, or ascend to heaven, would they be asking him about when he would come again? Again, the obvious answer is no—they weren’t expecting him to “go away” in the first place.
Simply put, there was no way that the disciples would have had any concept of a “second coming” that day on the Mount of Olives when they asked their question in Mark 13:4, Matthew 24:3, Luke 21:7. How could they ask Jesus about his second coming if they didn’t even expect him to be crucified in the first place? Thus, before we even look at any specifics in the Olivet Discourse, we should probably acknowledge that they disciples weren’t asking about a “second coming,” but rather about what Jesus had just told them: When was the Temple going to be torn down?
I’ll give you a hint: Rome destroyed the Temple in 70 AD—right around the time Matthew, Mark, and Luke were written.