The Olivet Discourse

I love the so-called "Olivet Discourse." For a forthcoming book on the restoration of Israel, I finally had the chance to put my thoughts in print and wanted to share them here:

Many interpreters view this chapter as Jesus’ teaching about the end of the world but I hope to show that this is actually about the judgment and restoration of Israel, which makes it relevant for our purposes.[1] Before turning to it, we must clear some ground. First, consider audience relevance. Jesus is speaking to his disciples in the first century. The Bible was written for us but most of it was not written to us. The “you” found throughout the chapter is referring to the disciples Jesus was speaking to. Another thing to keep in mind before we look at this chapter is the clear teaching of Mark 13:30, where Jesus says: “Truly, I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all these things take place.” So Jesus clearly says that all that he talked about in chapter 13 would take place during that generation, which is roughly 40 years. The last thing to keep in mind is, as should be clear by now, the OT must be kept in mind when interpreting this knotty chapter. With these three truths in mind, let’s dive in.

Matthew’s Gospel, being longer, includes a bit more detail than Mark’s account of the Olivet Discourse. In Matthew’s account, after Jesus has pronounced those bone-shivering woes to the Jewish leaders, he laments over the state of Jerusalem:

"O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing! See, your house is left to you desolate. For I tell you, you will not see me again, until you say, ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord’." (Matt. 23:37-39)

Jerusalem was in for judgment. Jesus says to Israel, “your” house is now desolate. As Amos said, “O house of Israel: Fallen, no more to rise, is the virgin Israel; forsaken on her land” (Amos 5:2). It was time for judgment to begin in the household of God. As Jeremiah had said, “Thus says the LORD of hosts: So will I break this people and this city, as one breaks a potter’s vessel, so that it can never be mended” (Jer. 19:11).

Akin to the glory of the Lord leaving the temple in Ezekiel (Ezek. 10:18-19, 11:22-23), Jesus leaves the temple and one of his disciples, probably Peter, comments on how wonderful the temple was. Jesus does not share his enthusiasm, saying, “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). Jesus is asked when this will happen and Jesus teaches them what they can expect. There would be false teachers, wars, earthquakes, and famine. The Jewish unbelievers would deliver them over to councils and they would be beaten in synagogues. When they see the abomination of desolation standing where he ought not to be, which refers to the Roman army desecrating the temple (Dan. 9:27, 11:31, 12:11, Luke 21:20, Matt. 24:15), the disciples who are in Judea should flee to the mountains. Clearly this is a local judgment, for at the final judgment all are in danger, not just those in Judea and on that day the mountains will be no refuge from the wrath of God.

Then we read in Mark 13:24-27: "But in those days, after that tribulation, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken. And then they will see the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory. And then he will send out the angels and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven."

Let’s look at these verses line by line. After the tribulation in those days the sun and moon will be darkened, stars will fall, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken. Taken literally, this does sound like the end of the world, but these verses should not be taken literally but literarily. Jesus was employing a common literary convention of his day and the days before him. We now refer to it as “apocalyptic language.” It is the use of exaggerated de-creation language to signal major political shifts. The OT is full of the stuff. Notice the similar language used when various empires were defeated in space-time history:

· Isaiah 13:10 – “For the stars of the heavens and their constellations will not give their light; the sun will be dark at its rising, and the moon will not shed its light.”

· Isaiah 34:4 – “All the host of heaven shall rot away, and the skies roll up like a scroll. All their host shall fall, as leaves fall from the vine, like leaves falling from the fig tree.”

· Ezekiel 32:6-8 – “I will drench the land even to the mountains with your flowing blood, and the ravines will be full of you. When I blot you out, I will cover the heavens and make their stars dark; I will cover the sun with a cloud, and the moon shall not give its light. All the bright lights of heaven will I make dark over you, and put darkness on your land, declares the Lord GOD.”

Many more passages could be listed, but you get the point.[2] These verses are referring to the down falls of Babylon, Edom, and Egypt respectively. Clearly, in these cases the world did not end. Were the prophets wrong? No, they are not referring to the end of the space-time universe, but used de-creation language to describe these events because the change was that significant. The world would never be the same. “The destruction of earthly kingdoms is portrayed in terms of a heavenly shaking.”[3] The prophets find themselves reaching for terminology of cosmic disorder to describe how theologically significant this transition is.

We still do this in a sense. For example, if in 200 years a man is reading the history of the NBA and comes across a sentence that says, “In the early 2000’s, Shaq was known for his earth-shattering dunks,” he would be missing the point if he turned to his wife and said, “Wow, honey, this fellow called Shaq used to shatter the globe when he dunked a basketball. I wonder how they managed to put it back together after the games?” No, it is figurative language. The “literalist” reader misses the intended point.

In Mark 13 and elsewhere, this is figurative language employed to indicate the downfall of seemingly permanent political and social orders. Jesus, in prophetic form, is using this complex mixture of metaphors to describe this massive event that was about to happen: the center of Jerusalem was about to be reduced to rubble. Remember that for Jews, the temple was viewed as the center of the creation. The world as it was is coming to an end. The Jewish people would never be the same again. Jesus is saying something big is about to happen. Something apocalyptic.

But what about the Son of Man coming in clouds (Mark 13:26)?. Surely, this is referring to the second coming of Jesus, right!? Not so fast. Again, as we have seen over and over, the OT is informing what Jesus is talking about. Any Jew in Jesus’ day who heard “Son of Man coming” would immediately think of the book of Daniel, which was a first century favorite. Jesus is quoting from Daniel 7:13-14:

I saw in the night visions, and behold, with the clouds of heaven there came one like a son of man, and he came to the Ancient of Days and was presented before him. And to him was given dominion and glory and a kingdom, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him; his dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away, and his kingdom one that shall not be destroyed.

As mentioned above in our discussion of the Great Commission, this is a vision from heaven. The son of man “comes” from earth to the Ancient of Days. This is ascension not descension. The son of man ascends to the Father and is given all authority so that all nations would serve him forever. So Jesus is making quite a statement about himself! He is the one Daniel saw. He will be vinidicated. He will be given a kingdom that will include all peoples.

But from the surrounding context we know this “coming” will include judgment, which is why Jesus includes a reference to “clouds.” The Lord coming on clouds is frequently used in the OT to refer to his coming in judgment. For example, Isaiah 19:1 says, “Behold, the LORD is riding on a swift cloud and comes to Egypt; and the idols of Egypt will tremble at his presence.” Ezekiel 30:3 says, “For the day is near, the day of the LORD is near; it will be a day of clouds, a time of doom for the nations” (cf. Joel 2:2, Psa. 97:2-3). In the OT, God would often use pagan nations, like Babylon and Assyria, to judge and punish his wayward people and that is what happening here, just as he said he would in the curses of Deuteronomy 27-29, Leviticus 26, and Isaiah 6:11-13. Jesus, through the Roman army, will come and judge the temple and its leadership and all would know that he was right and Jerusalem was wrong.[4] “The Temple is dethroned. Jesus is enthroned.”[5]

So what does all this have to do with the church and Israel? Verse 27 says this son of man will send out his messengers (aggelous) and gather his elect from the four winds, and from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven. This is “regathering” language from the OT promises of when God would return to rescue and unite his scattered people. Listen to the words of Deuteronomy 30:4-6:

"If your outcasts are in the uttermost parts of heaven, from there the LORD your God will gather you, and from there he will take you. And the LORD your God will bring you into the land that your fathers possessed, that you may possess it. And he will make you more prosperous and numerous than your fathers. And the LORD your God will circumcise your heart and the heart of your offspring, so that you will love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul, that you may live."

Isaiah had spoke of that day as well: “In that day the Lord will extend his hand yet a second time to recover the remnant that remains of his people, from Assyria, from Egypt, from Pathros, from Cush, from Elam, from Shinar, from Hamath, and from the coastlands of the sea” (Isa. 11:11, cf. Isa 49:12, Hab. 2:5). Later God promised, “Fear not, for I am with you; I will bring your offspring from the east, and from the west I will gather you. I will say to the north, Give up, and to the south, Do not withhold; bring my sons from afar and my daughters from the end of the earth” (Isa. 43:5-6). Zechariah had promised this gathering and the inclusion of the Gentiles within the people of God:

"Up! Up! Flee from the land of the north, declares the LORD. For I have spread you abroad as the four winds of the heavens, declares the LORD. Up! Escape to Zion, you who dwell with the daughter of Babylon. For thus said the LORD of hosts, after his glory sent me to the nations who plundered you, for he who touches you touches the apple of his eye: “Behold, I will shake my hand over them, and they shall become plunder for those who served them. Then you will know that the LORD of hosts has sent me. Sing and rejoice, O daughter of Zion, for behold, I come and I will dwell in your midst, declares the LORD. And many nations shall join themselves to the LORD in that day, and shall be my people. And I will dwell in your midst, and you shall know that the LORD of hosts has sent me to you" (Zech. 2:6-11).

Then Jesus says, “Truly, I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all these things take place.” (Mark 13:30). Jesus was a prophet if there ever was one. A generation was considered 40 years and right at 40 years after Jesus spoke these words, the Roman army sieged Jerusalem and destroyed the temple. Not one stone was left on another. When Jesus uses Rome to judge the temple, he sends out his messengers to tell of the good news and as the church grows, the promises of a regathered Israel are being fulfilled. So the expansion of the church is the fulfillment of the promises to Israel.[6]

[1] For further exposition, see R.T. France, The Gospel of Mark. NIGTC (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002), 497-546; Sam Storms, Kingdom Come, 229-81; N.T. Wright, Jesus and the Victory of God (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1996), 339-69; Thomas R. Hatina, “The Focus of Mark 13:24-27: The Parousia, or the Destruction of the Temple?” Bulletin for Biblical Research 6 (1996), 43-66.
[2] E.g. see Isa. 24:1-6, 19-23, Joel 2:10, 30-31, 3:15-16, Hab. 3:6-11, Jer. 4:23-28, Amos 8:9, Zeph. 1:14-16, Mal. 4:1-5. See Caird, Jesus and the Jewish Nation, 17-22; G.K. Beale, The Temple and the Church’s Mission: A Biblical Theology of the Dwelling Place of God (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2004), 212-16; Wright, Jesus and the Victory of God, 360-65.
[3] Storms, Kingdom Come, 265.
[4] Caird writes, “Here, as in the book of Daniel, from which the imagery is drawn, the coming of the Son of Man on the clouds of heaven was never conceived as a primitive form of space travel, but as a symbol for a mighty reversal of fortunes within history and at the national level.” Jesus and the Jewish Nation, 20; R.T. France, Divine Government: God’s Kingship in the Gospel of Mark (Vancouver: Regent College Publishing, 1990), 81.
[5] Storms, Kingdom Come, 281.
[6] “Israel’s story is retold so as to reach a devastating climax, in which the present Jerusalem regime will be judged, and the prophet and his followers vindicated. The covenant god will use the pagan forces to execute his judgment on his people, and a new people will be born, formed around the prophet himself.” N.T. Wright, Jesus and the Victory of God, 325.