The Olivet Discourse
1 And as he came out of the temple, one of his disciples said to him, “Look, Teacher, what wonderful stones and what wonderful buildings!” 2 And Jesus said to him, “Do you see these great buildings? There will not be left here one stone upon another that will not be thrown down.”
3 And as he sat on the Mount of Olives opposite the temple, Peter and James and John and Andrew asked him privately, 4 “Tell us, when will these things be, and what will be the sign when all these things are about to be accomplished?” 5 And Jesus began to say to them, “See that no one leads you astray. 6 Many will come in my name, saying, ‘I am he!’ and they will lead many astray. 7 And when you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed. This must take place, but the end is not yet. 8 For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be earthquakes in various places; there will be famines. These are but the beginning of the birth pains.
9 “But be on your guard. For they will deliver you over to councils, and you will be beaten in synagogues, and you will stand before governors and kings for my sake, to bear witness before them. 10 And the gospel must first be proclaimed to all nations. 11 And when they bring you to trial and deliver you over, do not be anxious beforehand what you are to say, but say whatever is given you in that hour, for it is not you who speak, but the Holy Spirit. 12 And brother will deliver brother over to death, and the father his child, and children will rise against parents and have them put to death. 13 And you will be hated by all for my name’s sake. But the one who endures to the end will be saved.
14 “But when you see the abomination of desolation standing where he ought not to be (let the reader understand), then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains. 15 Let the one who is on the housetop not go down, nor enter his house, to take anything out, 16 and let the one who is in the field not turn back to take his cloak. 17 And alas for women who are pregnant and for those who are nursing infants in those days! 18 Pray that it may not happen in winter. 19 For in those days there will be such tribulation as has not been from the beginning of the creation that God created until now, and never will be. 20 And if the Lord had not cut short the days, no human being would be saved. But for the sake of the elect, whom he chose, he shortened the days. 21 And then if anyone says to you, ‘Look, here is the Christ!’ or ‘Look, there he is!’ do not believe it. 22 For false christs and false prophets will arise and perform signs and wonders, to lead astray, if possible, the elect. 23 But be on guard; I have told you all things beforehand.
24 “But in those days, after that tribulation, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, 25 and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken. 26 And then they will see the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory. 27 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.
28 “From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts out its leaves, you know that summer is near. 29 So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that he is near, at the very gates. 30 Truly, I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all these things take place. 31 Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.
32 “But concerning that day or that hour, no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. 33 Be on guard, keep awake. For you do not know when the time will come. 34 It is like a man going on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his servants in charge, each with his work, and commands the doorkeeper to stay awake. 35 Therefore stay awake—for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or when the rooster crows, or in the morning— 36 lest he come suddenly and find you asleep. 37 And what I say to you I say to all: Stay awake.”
In 1988 ministers across America received in their mailboxes a free copy of a book that would create quite a stir in the church. About 4.5 million copies of this book would be sold in bookstores that year. The thesis of the book, published by a former NASA engineer, is evident from the title that is etched in my memory: 88 Reasons Why the Rapture Will Be in 1988. I was eleven years old in 1988, but I’ll never forget the feeling I had when I saw this book. “The world is coming to an end this year.” It doesn’t take much to scare an impressionable young boy.
But what frightened me the most was how many adults believed it, too. As the predicted day approached, the Trinity Broadcast Network interrupted regular programming to provide special instructions on how to be prepared for the Rapture and the return of Christ. Of course the day passed with little fanfare. Undaunted by his failed prediction, the author revised his book to guess that the rapture would occur in 1989. And then again in 1993 and 1994 and all the way to 1997.
The author passed away in 2001, so his publications finally ceased. But interest in the end times has not faded at all. Something like 63 million copies of the books in the Left Behind series have been sold as people continue to be fascinated by the belief that Jesus is going to return to the earth. And while, thankfully, many Christians have spoken out against the multitude of false predictions about the return of Christ, and the questionable theology suggested in the Left Behind books, it is true that Christians have always believed that Jesus will in fact return to earth. Both the Apostles’ and Nicene Creed affirm that Jesus will come again “to judge the living and the dead.”
Christians believe this because Jesus himself predicts it. One of the places he does so is here in Mark 13. This passage is often called the Olivet Discourse because Jesus is said to have delivered this teaching “as he sat on the Mount of Olives.” The next few weeks we will examine the Olivet Discourse in more detail. Today I would like us to take a look at this discourse as a whole. We will consider first the occasion for the discourse, and then we will take a survey at its individual parts. We will conclude with some thoughts about the significance of the discourse.
THE OCCASION FOR THE DISCOURSE
Jesus had been making daily trips to the temple ever since he arrived in Jerusalem, but here at the beginning of Chapter 13 we see him leaving the temple for the final time. He will not return. As he leaves one of his disciples comments, “Look, Teacher, what wonderful stones and what wonderful buildings” (v. 1). Jesus’ reply in verse 2 is what sets off the teaching in this chapter. “Do you see these great buildings? There will not be left here one stone upon another that will not be thrown down.”
It is this predicted destruction of the temple in Jerusalem that brings four of Jesus’ disciples to him for an explanation.
And as he sat on the Mount of Olives opposite the temple, Peter and James and John and Andrew asked him privately, “Tell us, when will these things be, and what will be the sign when all these things are about to be accomplished?” (Mark 13:3-4)
The disciples sense that if Jesus is right, if the temple really is going to be totally destroyed in the manner he has predicted, then this will be a significant event, for at least two reasons.
The Impressiveness of the Temple
The first reason why the destruction of the temple would be a significant event is because the temple was an impressive structure. Actually, in Jesus’ day, the temple was not complete, though it had been under construction for about fifty years. Herod the Great began the construction around 20 B.C. He wanted to satisfy his Jewish subjects by building a temple as magnificent as the original one that Solomon had built.
So he enlarged the temple from its original size. It had a circumference of nearly a mile, enclosing an area roughly the size of twelve football fields. The stones that were used in the foundation are almost beyond comprehension. You can still see some of them to this day, measuring up to 42 feet long, 11 feet high, 14 feet deep and weighing over a million pounds! There simply was no other temple in the ancient world that could be compared to Herod’s temple. According to the Jewish historian Josephus, it was “a striking spectacle.”
The Importance of the Temple
It is not surprising then that one of Jesus’ disciples, awe-struck with the magnificence of the temple, pointed out the massiveness of the temple to Jesus. But even more significant than how the temple was constructed was what the temple represented. Herod may have been politically motivated to build it, but for the Jews the temple had great religious significance. This was their place of worship. And for a people with a national religion, the importance of what the temple stood for was even more significant than the impressiveness of the temple’s construction.
Imagine hearing news that the White House had been toppled. As beautiful a building as the White House is, it is what the White House stands for and what it symbolizes that gives it even more significance. If we were told that within a few years the White House would no longer be standing at all, we would rightly assume that with the destruction of the White House comes a significant change in life.
That’s why Peter, James, John, and Andrew approach Jesus as he sat on the Mount of Olives across from the temple. They want more insight into this bold prediction about the temple’s destruction. They want to be prepared for the turmoil that would surely ensue with its destruction.
Destruction of the Temple and the End of the World
This is the occasion for Mark 13 and the so-called Olivet Discourse. But what makes the discourse so intriguing is the possibility that Jesus was predicting much more than the destruction of the temple. You see, no one disputes that what Jesus predicted literally came true, for in A.D. 70 the Romans defeated the Jewish rebellion and destroyed the temple. But there are several reasons to suggest that Jesus was not only talking about the end of the temple but that he was also predicting the end of the world.
First, we go back again to the meaning of a destroyed temple. The original temple was destroyed by the Babylonians in the 6th century B.C. Writing about the destruction of the first temple, the Old Testament prophets explained that the reason the temple was destroyed was not primarily because of the military might of foreign invaders. It was due primarily to God’s abandonment of the temple in response to the rebellion of his people (Jer 7; Ezek 9–11). So when Jesus leaves the temple in Mark 13:1 never to return, it looks awfully similar to how God abandoned the first temple, leaving it to destruction. Jesus is not just predicting the destruction of a building; he is casting judgment upon the nation that worships there. The Olivet Discourse is not just a prediction of historical events. It is a prophecy about the judgment of God.
In Matthew’s account, this becomes even more explicit. Matthew reports the disciples’ question to Jesus as including much more than an inquiry into the timing of the temple’s demise.
As he sat on the Mount of Olives, the disciples came to him privately, saying, “Tell us, when will these things be, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the close of the age?” (Matt 24:3)
For the disciples the destruction of the temple could only mean the close of the age signaled by the “coming” of Jesus to inaugurate the kingdom in the age to come. The present age and the age to come were understood to be separated only by the final judgment. So when Jesus starts pronouncing judgments and when Jesus starts predicting the destruction of the temple, the disciples start calculating that the “end of the age” must be near.
Indeed there are other indications in this text that eschatology (teaching on the last days) may be in view here:
- In verses 7 and 13 Jesus speaks of the “end.”
- Verses 19-20 speak of a great tribulation that threatens the existence of all human life.
- Verses 24-25 contain apocalyptic language: sun and moon darkened, stars falling from the sky, the “powers in the heavens” being shaken.
- Verse 26 speaks of the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory.
So it seems likely that the Olivet Discourse is occasioned by the predicted destruction of the temple but that the prediction itself reaches beyond the historical event that happened 40 years later.
A SURVEY OF THE DISCOURSE
This is why the Olivet Discourse is notoriously difficult to interpret. At what point is Jesus predicting events that will happen in A.D. 70 and at what point is Jesus predicting events that will happen at his return and at the final judgment? Entire books are written to address that question. Let’s begin by taking a quick survey through the chapter to see the parts that constitute it.
Preliminary Signs of the End
Remember that the question Jesus is asked is when the destruction of the temple will occur and what signs will signify that the destruction of the temple is about to happen. In verses 5-13 Jesus begins to answer the question. He says that there will be those who will lead many astray by claiming to be the Messiah. There will be widespread wars as well as natural disasters like earthquakes and famines in various places. These are not the signs of the end, however; they are only “the beginning of the birth pains” (v. 8).
And yet the disciples are to be on their guard because they will endure great persecution because of their connection to Jesus. They will be beaten in the synagogues and they will stand on trial. These will be intensely difficult days to be a Christian for sure, and yet it appears to be part of God’s sovereign plan. Notice verse 10, “the gospel must first be proclaimed to all nations.” So disciples are encouraged to persevere: “the one who endures to the end will be saved” (v. 13).
The Great Tribulation
We finally get what appears to be the sign the disciples are looking for in verse 14. When the “abomination of desolation” stands where he ought not to be, then the Jews are urged to “flee to the mountains.” In those days, Jesus says, there will be “great tribulation” that has never been seen on the earth before (v. 19). Again there will be false Messianic claims. And again the disciples are encouraged to persevere through it all. “Be on guard; I have told you all things beforehand” (v. 23).
The Second Coming
Following these days of tribulation is the Second Coming of Jesus, described for us in verse 26. But then Jesus returns to the original question the disciples asked him. When will these things take place? In verses 28-31 he suggests we can know when the time is near. But then in verses 32-37 he says that we cannot know the day or the hour. Indeed, not even he knows the day or the hour! Instead we are to remain vigilant, “for you do not know when the time will come” (v. 33).
THE SIGNIFICANCE OF THE DISCOURSE
Now let me close today by reflecting a bit on the significance of the Olivet Discourse. To put it bluntly, who cares? What significance is there in the destruction of an Israeli temple nearly 2,000 years ago? It may have been significant to the Jews, but what part does this all play in the story of God? Even if the discourse includes predictions about what is coming in the future, how are we to be helped by that when we seem to be too easily tempted to look for prophetic fulfillments in tomorrow’s news headlines? Here are three thoughts to consider.
The Reliability of Jesus and the Gospel
First of all, Mark 13 presents a challenge to the reliability of Jesus’ claims. It is of course quite significant that Jesus was correct in his prophecy about the destruction of the temple. So precise was this prophecy that many insist that the Gospel writers must have written after A.D. 70, placing the prophecy in the mouth of Jesus after the fact. But if you want to find fault with Jesus’ prophecies in this chapter, you don’t have to depend upon that argument alone. Mark 13 contains what some might say is the most embarrassing statement in the Bible for the Christian faith. In verse 30 Jesus seems to predict that the events he is describing throughout the chapter will take place within the same generation. And since he is obviously referring to some degree to the destruction of the temple in A.D. 70, it appears that we have here an erroneous pronouncement from the lips of Jesus.
Some commentators explain away the problem by contending that verse 30 does not describe a literally return to earth by Jesus but simply describes the vindication of the Son of Man following his death. The second coming is seen as “a symbolic representation of the triumph of the messianic kingdom.”
If Jesus predicted his return sometime around the year A.D. 70 then this casts doubt on the possibility that he will ever return. But that is his promise to us. The gospel is not complete without a final restoration, a return of Jesus to earth to consummate his kingdom and bring about the end of this fallen age. Now we see why eschatology matters to us. It matters because the gospel is not good news if it does not restore the world back to Eden. This is what the Second Coming of Jesus is all about.
The Fanatic Jesus
Taking this a step further, another reason why the Olivet Discourse is significant is because, assuming it does predict a literal return of Jesus to earth, this is a fantastic belief to hold. We Christians are a strange lot, aren’t we? We believe that a man named Jesus was crucified, killed, and buried, and that he rose from the dead three days later!
But we believe more than that. We also believe that this same Jesus who lived 2000 years ago is coming back. Indeed this is what Jesus himself believed! The German theologian David Strauss called this the fanaticism of Jesus. He mocked the idea that Jesus claimed not only his future return, but his future return as judge.
What gives us offense in all these sayings is simply the one factor that Jesus . . . claimed that he himself was that one who is to come with the clouds of heaven, accompanied by angels, in order to waken the dead and to hold the judgment. To expect that for himself is something quite different from expecting it in a general sense. Whoever expects it of himself and for himself not only appears to us as a fanatic; we see therein an unallowable self-exaltation that a man . . . should let it get into his head to divide himself off from all others and set himself over against them as the future judge.”
George R. Beasley-Murray points out that for Strauss and many others after him, the real offense of the Second Coming is “that it unveils the glory of the divine Son.” If Jesus is coming back at all, he is coming back as the final judge. This is a different picture of Jesus than many people want to envision. The lowly Jesus who was born in a feeding trough and who died a criminal’s death is coming back, and with a vengeance!
Then I saw heaven opened, and behold, a white horse! The one sitting on it is called Faithful and True, and in righteousness he judges and makes war. 12 His eyes are like a flame of fire, and on his head are many diadems, and he has a name written that no one knows but himself. 13 He is clothed in a robe dipped in blood, and the name by which he is called is The Word of God. 14 And the armies of heaven, arrayed in fine linen, white and pure, were following him on white horses. 15 From his mouth comes a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations, and he will rule them with a rod of iron. He will tread the winepress of the fury of the wrath of God the Almighty. 16 On his robe and on his thigh he has a name written, King of kings and Lord of lords. (Rev 19:11-16)
The Second Coming and Christian Conduct
If this is all true, if Jesus is indeed coming back as the final judge then of course this has huge implications for how we ought to conduct our lives. This “application” of Mark 13 seems to be the very point of the chapter itself. Four times in this chapter Jesus urges his disciples to “watch out” or “be on your guard.” The purpose of this chapter “is not primarily to provide a timetable or blueprint for the future so much as to exhort readers to faithful discipleship in the present.” In light of Jesus’ return, how then shall we live?
First of all, we are not to get caught up in speculations about the timing of the end. Too much enthusiasm about deciphering prophetic clues only distracts Christian disciples from the reason God has us here, namely, to proclaim the gospel to all nations (v. 10). People do wacky things when they think the end of the world is near. Jesus does not want to exhort us to irrational behavior but to steadfastness as we move toward the end of this present age. Legend has it that when Martin Luther was asked what he would do today if he knew Jesus would return tomorrow he replied, “I would hoe my garden.” End of the world speculations should not distract us from doing the work God has given for us to do now, however mundane that work may seem.
Second, we are exhorted to embrace suffering as we wait for Christ’s return. The Olivet Discourse demonstrates that the trials and hardships that are sure to come to disciples of Jesus are not anomalies but part of the divine plan. Why? Because disciples of Jesus are called to suffer like their Master. The Messiah had to suffer, but he also proclaimed that if anyone wanted to be his disciple, he must deny himself and take up his cross (Mark 8:34). This is the calling of discipleship, and Jesus exhorts us to accept this period of tribulation as the calling of his church until he returns.
Finally, we are to continue on in our Christian discipleship, embracing the suffering and tribulation that is part of this present age, because of our certainty that he will indeed come and bring all things to a glorious end. Jesus assures us in verse 31, “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.” This is our hope, and not one that ends with death and the passing away of one generation after another. It is our hope in death too! “For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep” (1 Thess 4:14). Revelation 6:10 informs us that even martyred Christians yearn for the return of Christ. “O Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long before you will judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth?”
CONCLUSION: We all want Eden
You see everyone wants this world to be restored. We all believe that things are not now the way they should be. But what is our hope that this earth will be made right again? Is it a better educational system? Is it a fairer distribution of resources? Is it winning the next political election? Or is our only hope that we humans get eradicated off the earth and let natural processes “reset” our planet?
The Christian hope is set on the promise of Jesus, that he will return one day as the final judge to consummate the kingdom he inaugurated at his first coming. Until that day we are called to persevere in this age of tribulation knowing that God is accomplishing his purpose of gospel proclamation even through, or especially through, our suffering for his name’s sake. A glorious future lies ahead of us. And we believe this because our hope is set on Christ and not on our selves.
 This was the view of C. A. Hase as cited in George R. Beasley-Murray, Jesus and the Last Days: The Interpretation of the Olivet Discourse (Vancouver: Regent College Publishing, 1993), 5.
 David Strauss, Das Leben Jesu für das deutsche Volk bearbeitet (Leipzig, 1864), 242, cited in Beasley-Murray, Jesus and the Last Days, 21.
 James R. Edwards, The Gospel According to Mark, The Pillar New Testament Commentary, ed. D. A. Carson (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2002), 384.