The Olivet Discourse
Jesus had just pronounced woes on the religious leaders and lamented over Jerusalem. He began with the temple, in all its glory and beauty. The temple was the centerpiece of Jerusalem, the center of Jewish culture, and the symbol of the Jewish God.
TheTemple was built between 537 BCE and 516 BCE, when the Jews began their return from Babylonian captivity. It was made of limestone under the direction of Zerubbabel at the time and was later renovated and expanded under Herod the Great. The Temple the disciples admired was 150 feet high (12-15 stories), covered in white marble and gold with bronze entrance doors. The courtyard of the temple was large enough to hold 300,000-400,000 people during the pilgrimages, particularly of Passover. Colorful tiles from the floors were discovered in 2007 and put on display in 2016. The stones were imported from Italy, Greece, Tunisia and Asia Minor and the layout likely resembled the design motifs of Herod’s palaces in Masada, Herodium, and Jericho, not random patterns underfoot. The top of the temple had gold spikes on it to prevent birds from sitting and nesting there.
However, when Jesus said that the temple would be completely destroyed, he was talking about more than an impressive building; he was talking about a way of life. First century social values revolved around loyalty to the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob and then to the extended family. Identity was less individualized and more associated with groups; there is a reason why the Scribes and Pharisees were largely unnamed. Society was built on a definitive hierarchical structure that began and ended in the temple and the rituals of the Old Covenant. It was the one thing that every Jew had in common. From the lowest day-laborer to the chief Pharisee, the Abrahamic covenant and the requirements of sacrifices and offerings were the same for all. The Jews were people of “one temple, for the one God.” To destroy the temple would disrupt a system in place for hundreds of years. The system was corrupt in many ways, but it was familiar to all and it represented something larger than individuals.
The disciples were understandably perplexed by Jesus’ words about the temple, but they didn’t ask about it immediately. Mark noted that the inner circle of disciples, Peter, James, John, and Andrew, were the ones who approached Jesus after they had reached the Mount of Olives. Jesus was sitting, so they had probably been there a little while. Based on what we know about the disciples from other passages, it is within the realm of plausibility that they had already discussed and debated the issue amongst themselves before deciding to ask directly. Still, it was up to the four closest to Jesus to approach him. It hadn’t been so long that Jesus had chastised them for their lack of faith almost immediately after the transfiguration (Matthew 17). I’m sure they figured they had some level of protection from correction if only those four went as representatives. Looking across the Kidron Valley from the Mount of Olives to Jerusalem, the Temple would have reflected the late afternoon sun in full radiant glory. How could such a magnificent place be utterly destroyed? And more importantly, when?
Before Jesus starts to describe the signs of the end, he issues a warning to the disciples that he repeats throughout the discourse: Do not be deceived; you do not know everything. Jesus speaks of events that will take place, but the focal point is not the events themselves; they are mere preludes to the One Important Thing. More than anything, Jesus wants his followers to be aware and alert (vv 42, 46). In v 8, Jesus compares the events he describes as the beginning of the birth pangs. The metaphor of childbirth is apt.
A full-term pregnancy is 37-42 weeks, and many women experience what is commonly called “false labor.” From the moment of conception, a woman’s body changes to accommodate the new life. Morning sickness gives way to a brief reprieve that turns into increasing discomfort as the pregnancy progresses. Somewhere in that 37-42 weeks the mother can reasonably expect the arrival of the child, and the more uncomfortable she becomes, the more she hopes the birth is sooner rather than later. True labor progresses gradually, but contractions become increasingly painful as the body prepares the path for delivery. Even then, no one can predict the actual moment of birth.
Applied to this passage, there are signs that point to the general time for multiple events: the destruction of the Temple, the Tribulation, and the return of the King, but no actual time is given.. Wars and rumors of wars, nations in conflict, and natural disasters are reminders that the justice of God will prevail, but we don’t know when exactly that judgement will occur. God is outside the bounds of time. Peter wrote, “The heavens and earth that now exist are stored up for fire being kept until the day of judgement and destruction of the ungodly. But do not overlook this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day” (2 Peter 3:7-8).
The purpose of Jesus’ prophecy here is to alert us to false prophets and false teachers. Speculation about details is divisive. Paul wrote to Titus, “Avoid foolish controversies and genealogies and arguments and quarrels about the law, because these are unprofitable and useless” (Titus 3:9). This passage lends itself to foolish controversies and arguments, not so much about the law, but about specific events and the timing thereof. So, in your groups, talk about persecution, the great tribulation, the second coming, and the sign of the fig tree, but keep in mind that NO ONE knows –not even angels–the day and the hour of the King’s return. Focus on truth teaching and faithful service so that you will be blessed at the hour of his coming.
The Olivet discourse has been called one of the most difficult passages in the Bible, mostly because it is unclear what generation Jesus was talking about when He said “This generation will certainly not pass away until all these things take place (Matt 24:35; Mark 13:30-31; Luke 21:32). That all three authors of the synoptic gospels record the exact same words means the words matter. But what generation and which things? Some choices:
- The fall of Jerusalem and destruction of the temple in 70 AD
- Partly the fall of Jerusalem (vv 4-35) and partly his second coming (vv 36-66)
- Mostly the second coming
- Generation may refer to race. There will be Jewish people until the end of time.
- Generation may refer to a type of people. Sinful humans will roam the planet until it is replaced
- Generation may be the generation that sees the signs unfold (Isaiah 13: 9-11)
- Generation may be the disciples and early church. The destruction of the temple serves as a metaphor for the final judgement and times.
Part of what makes this passage hard to understand is the fact that we look back at the whole of Scripture, while the original hearers had the ancient prophets only. We can compare this discourse of the synoptic gospels to the prophecies of Daniel, Isaiah, Ezekiel, and Revelation. We can also see 2000 years of historical events that seem to meet some of the criteria for the end times, from the destruction of Jerusalem through the Crusades, the 100 years war, world wars of the 20th century, genocides on every continent (except Antarctica), and pandemics that decimated the world’s population through smallpox, tuberculosis, bubonic plagues, leprosy, measles, cholera, and influenza. The earth still turns, and we are all still here, so none of those events signaled the final end of the earth and judgement. However, there is sufficient scholarship to believe that Jesus was answering the disciples specifically about the destruction of the temple by Rome in 70 AD and telling them to be prepared for it to happen soon. Luke wrote his account after the fall, possibly to add weight to Jesus’ divinity: his prophecy had come true by the time Luke’s readers read the text. It seems evident that the first part of the discourse refers to 70 AD, but the coming of the Son of Man is still to come.
The final answer? I don’t know. No one does.
HOWEVER, what we do know is that Jesus exhorted his followers (and us) to continue to do the work of the kingdom. We don’t need to know when He is returning, only that He WILL return. Luke expanded Matthew’s words by telling believers to be on guard, echoing Peter’s admonition to be sober-minded and alert. The adversary “the devil is prowling around like a roaring lion, looking for anyone he can devour” (1 Peter 5:8). We can be aware of the signs of labor without neglecting the work before us. When the time comes, Jesus will return. And we will rejoice.
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Second Temple Facts for Kids. Kiddle Encyclopedia. CC BY-SA 3.0
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