From the January/February 2017 issue of Discern Magazine

Understanding the Olivet Discourse

On the Mount of Olives Jesus answered His disciples’ questions about the temple and end-time events. Are Jesus’ prophecies in His Olivet Discourse relevant today?

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The Olivet Discourse or Prophecy, found in Matthew 24, Mark 13 and Luke 21, is so named because Jesus delivered this prophecy while He was with His disciples on the Mount of Olives. (The Mount of Olives is located to the east of the Temple Mount in Jerusalem.)

What is the biblical significance of the Mount of Olives?

The Mount of Olives plays an important role in history and prophecy. Jesus left earth from this location after appearing to His disciples for 40 days in His resurrected state (Acts 1:1-3, 9, 12), and He will return to the Mount of Olives when He comes again to rule the earth (Zechariah 14:1-4, 9).

The context of the Olivet Discourse

Let’s consider the background of the prophecy. Jesus’ disciples had shown Him the refurbished buildings of the temple, and He had made a shocking statement. The beautiful buildings they had just seen would be completely leveled! “Not one stone shall be left here upon another,” He said (Matthew 24:2).

Retiring to the nearby Mount of Olives where they had some privacy from the crowd, the disciples asked Jesus, “When will these things be? And what will be the sign of Your coming, and of the end of the age?” (verse 3). The answers to these questions are the primary subjects of this prophecy.

Often Bible prophecies can have dual or multiple fulfillments. Sometimes there is an initial fulfillment that foreshadows the main fulfillment. This is the case with the Olivet Prophecy.

As The Expositor’s Bible notes, “It will be observed that the lesser event—the destruction of Jerusalem—stands out in full prominence in the beginning of the prophecy, and the greater event—the Great Day of our Saviour’s appearing—in the latter part of it” (William Robertson Nicoll, ed., Vol. 29).

Herod’s temple

The rebuilding of the temple was the major building project in Jerusalem during the early part of the first century. Herod the Great began the restoration in 19 B.C., but it wasn’t completed until A.D. 63—just a few years before the Romans destroyed it in A.D. 70.

The work included the creation of a larger foundation (part of which remains today and is called the Western, or Wailing, Wall) and the enlargement and beautification of the temple itself. When Jesus visited the temple around the time of the first Passover of His ministry, it had been under construction for 46 years (John 2:20).

Historians recount that the gleaming white stones of the temple complex made quite an impact upon visitors as they approached Jerusalem. It was the pride of the city, and the Jews looked upon the temple as a source of divine protection. Unfortunately, this view would soon be proven wrong.

The destruction of Jerusalem

Given the magnificent beauty of the temple and its accompanying buildings, Jesus’ disciples were quite surprised to hear Him speak of its destruction. Jesus’ words came to pass in A.D. 70 as Roman troops under the command of Titus burned the temple on Aug. 10 and finished taking the city several days later on Sept. 8 (see Flavius Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, Book 20, chap. 10-11).

The Olivet Prophecy primarily focuses on the signs or indications of Christ’s return. “The siege of Jerusalem was one of the most terrible sieges in all history. Jerusalem was obviously a difficult city to take, being a city set upon a hill and defended by religious fanatics; so Titus determined to starve it out” (Barclay’s Daily Study Bible). By the time the city fell, the famine inside the city had become so severe that many had died of hunger and others had resorted to cannibalism.

For additional information on the Temple Mount, see “Temple Mount: Its History and Future” and “Third Temple: When Will It Be Built?

The first four signs of Jesus’ second coming

As already noted, the Olivet Prophecy primarily focuses on the signs or indications of Christ’s return. In addressing this subject, Jesus described a progression of events that mirror the six seals opened in Revelation 6.

The first four signs of Jesus’ return are found in Matthew 24:4-7:

  1. Religious deception.
  2. Wars.
  3. Famines.
  4. Pestilences.

These four signs correspond to the first four seals of Revelation 6, which are also called the “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.” As “the beginning of sorrows” (verse 8), these conditions have already been occurring for a long time. But as other prophecies show, these signs will increase in intensity—resulting in the deaths of vast numbers of people (Revelation 6:8)—even before the Great Tribulation begins.

The Great Tribulation

The Olivet Discourse then includes an extensive discussion of the next indicator of Christ’s return in the end times—tribulation (Matthew 24:9-28). The Greek word thlipsis “is rendered in the King James Version variously as ‘tribulation,’ ‘affliction,’ ‘persecution,’” and “is used generally of the hardships which Christ’s followers would suffer” (Vine’s Expository Dictionary, article “Tribulation”).

The Bible also shows this will be a time of suffering for the national descendants of Jacob or Israel (Daniel 12:1; Jeremiah 30:7; see also our article “Jacob’s Trouble: What Is It?”).

Jesus’ discussion of tribulation begins with the martyrdom of some of God’s faithful people and corresponds to the fifth seal in Revelation 6:9-11. This tribulation and the following Day of the Lord are prophesied to become so severe that all people will be endangered.

As Matthew 24:22 notes, “Unless those days were shortened, no flesh would be saved.” The terrible conditions in this tribulation will be even worse than those that occurred in the siege of Jerusalem in A.D. 70, for “there will be great tribulation, such as has not been since the beginning of the world until this time, no, nor ever shall be” (verse 21).

Consider several key points in this section of the Olivet Discourse:

First, the gospel of the Kingdom of God will be “preached in all the world as a witness to all the nations” before the end of this age of man occurs (verse 14).

Second, Jesus cited the “‘abomination of desolation,’ spoken of by Daniel the prophet, standing in the holy place” as a sign of His soon-coming return. This prophecy is one in which the temple is desecrated. The future fulfillment of this prophecy will actually be a sign that the Great Tribulation is beginning.

To read about this prophecy’s three fulfillments, including the one at the end of this age, see our article “What Is the Abomination of Desolation?

Third, false religious teachers will arise with miracle-working powers in the end times. Jesus’ warning was: “For false christs and false prophets will rise and show great signs and wonders to deceive, if possible, even the elect” (verse 24). To learn how to recognize false prophets—with four tests for determining whether a prophet is a true representative of God—see our article “False Prophets.”

For additional explanation, see our article “Great Tribulation.”

Heavenly signs and Jesus’ return

Jesus next spoke of cosmic indicators of His imminent return. He said, “Immediately after the tribulation of those days the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light; the stars will fall from heaven, and the powers of the heavens will be shaken.

“Then the sign of the Son of Man will appear in heaven, and then all the tribes of the earth will mourn, and they will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory. And He will send His angels with a great sound of a trumpet and they will gather together His elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other” (verses 29-31; compare Revelation 6:12-17).

Earth’s inhabitants will mourn because “the great day of His [Christ’s] wrath has come” (Revelation 6:17). Note that Jesus said in this Olivet Prophecy that all people will see Him coming. Speaking of His second coming, Revelation 1:7 adds that “every eye will see Him.”

Many people mistakenly believe that Jesus will first come secretly to earth to rapture people away and then appear to everyone. To learn why this popular notion is not true, see “Rapture: Will There Be a Secret Rapture?” and the Discern magazine article “Left Behind: The Truth.”

In this section of the Olivet Prophecy Jesus also noted that there will be “a great sound of a trumpet” (Matthew 24:31) at His return. Christians who follow the example of Jesus and His disciples continue to observe the Feast of Trumpets, which reminds us of His second coming and His promise to change His faithful followers—both those dead and alive—into spirit beings at His return.

Warning to watch and pray

After answering His disciples’ questions about the destruction of Jerusalem and signs that would precede His second coming, Jesus emphasized to His followers the importance of faithfully watching for these events and living in accordance with His teaching (Matthew 24:32-51).

Even though we may know by these signs the general time of His return, we won’t know the exact day and hour (Matthew 24:36). That makes watching very important. Jesus said, “Therefore you also be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect” (verse 44).

In Luke’s account Jesus succinctly summarized this teaching: “Watch therefore, and pray always that you may be counted worthy to escape all these things that will come to pass, and to stand before the Son of Man” (Luke 21:36).

For assistance in watching world events and for encouragement in living as Christ desires, subscribe free of charge to Discern magazine, the Daily Bible Verse blog, the Insights blogs and our Life, Hope & Truth Weekly Newsletter.

To learn more about end-time events, see our booklet The Book of Revelation: The Storm Before the Calm.

About the Author

David Treybig

David Treybig

David Treybig is a husband, father and grandfather. He and his wife, Teddi, have two grown children and seven grandchildren. He currently pastors the Austin, Texas, congregation of the Church of God, a Worldwide Association. He has served in the pastoral ministry for over 40 years, pastoring congregations across six states.

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