October 18, 2020

The Olivet Discourse, part 1

Passage: Luke 21

In Jerusalem, one of the main places to see is the Wailing Wall. This wall is just a small section of a large retaining wall, often called the Western Wall, that supports the temple mount, the place where the temple used to be. In the spot where the temple used to be is a Muslim shrine—the Dome of the Rock. The Jewish temple was destroyed in AD 70, and it was never rebuilt. The Muslims built a mosque on the temple mount in the late 8th century.

Going back in time, the temple in Jerusalem had been originally built by Solomon in about 900 BC. The Babylonians destroyed that temple about 300 years later. About 70 years after that, a very modest temple was rebuilt in the same spot under the leadership of Ezra and Nehemiah. Several centuries later, Herod the Great remodeled and expanded the second temple. When Jesus was in Jerusalem, the temple was a very beautiful and impressive structure.

In vs. 5, we find that Jesus’ disciples pointed out the grandeur of the temple, particularly noting its impressive stones and “gifts.”

In response (vs. 6), Jesus asserted that not one stone would be left standing on top of another; all would be thrown down. The entire city would be destroyed. I’m told that if you go to the temple mount today, you can still see the stones lying at the base of the Western wall, exactly where the Romans threw them when they destroyed the city nearly 2000 years ago.

Jesus’ statement led the disciples to ask (vs. 7), “When shall these things be? And what sign will there be when these things shall come to pass?”

Jesus then launches into a message often titled The Olivet Discourse. It’s called the Olivet Discourse because other Gospel writers tells us that the disciples asked these questions a bit later, as they were on the Mount of Olives looking down into the temple area.

The Olivet Discourse is all about the future, both the near future and the distant future. Some of the things that Jesus mentions would happen during the lives of the disciples, but some of these prophecies will not happen until Jesus returns. Some of these things have happened already, but some of them are still future to us.

The purpose of the Olivet Discourse is not merely to satisfy our curiosity about the future but to give practical, ethical teaching for the present time. In this discourse, Jesus combines eschatology (information about end time events) with exhortation. He is preparing his disciples—and that would include us—to live and to witness in a hostile world.

The meaning of the passage is closely tied in with the two major predictions in it: the destruction of the city of Jerusalem in AD 70 and the Tribulation at the end of the age. Probably the best way to understand the discourse is to realize that Jesus shifts back and forth between two viewpoints—near future and remote future. Some of the events seem to describe the destruction of the city in AD 70 (i.e., near future), while others describe end time events (i.e., remote future). The former event foreshadows the later event.

Besides warning us about future events associated with his Second Coming, the Olivet Discourse is a strong encouragement to persevere in the face of opposition and hostility. Christians must endure many difficulties on their earthly journey. But eventually, Jesus will return and establish his kingdom on earth. So as we look forward to that event, we must patiently endure the troubles of this life. We must watch and pray as we await Jesus’ return.

Before we get into the passage itself, we should recognize that over the history of the church, people have interpreted the eschatology (biblical predictions concerning the last days) in different ways. The Olivet Discourse, which is also found in Matt 24 and Mark 13, is notoriously difficult to interpret.

Regarding interpretation of eschatology, I am aware of four different approaches:

Historicist: the events of the Discourse cover the whole of church history. The Discourse is a kind of pre-written account of church history. I.e., these kinds of things will happen during the history of the church. Jesus is not referring to any particular event or set of events; he’s describing the kind of things that will happen before his second coming.

Spiritualist: the events are symbolic and allegorical, standing for spiritual conflicts the church will endure. The Discourse relates a great drama depicting spiritual realities, not actual events. On this view, we don’t take the words literally; it’s more like a parable.

Fulfilled/Preterist (comes from two Latin words praeter, “beyond,” and ire, “to go.”): all events described in the Olivet Discourse happened during the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70. Even Jesus’ 2nd Coming happened at that time. This viewpoint denies the future second coming of Christ and the future bodily resurrection of believers and unbelievers.[1]

Futurist/Dispensationalist: although some of the events obviously do refer to the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70, some of the events described will take place in the future. Dispensationalists are futurists. We see much of this material as future to us, primarily happening during the Tribulation period.

My approach is Dispensational. That is, I try to take the words at face value. The things that Jesus predicts will happen actually and literally. Thus, some of these things happened just a few decades after Jesus predicted them, and some of them have not happened yet, most significantly, the 2nd Coming of Christ.

So we should recognize that there is quite a bit of variety regarding how people have interpreted the Olivet Discourse, but I believe the futurist approach is best.

[1] Stanley D. Toussaint, “A Critique of the Preterist View of the Olivet Discourse.” Bibliotheca Sacra  October–December 2004.

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