The Olivet Discourse refers to Jesus’ teaching on the Mount of Olives, as recorded in Matthew 24-25, Mark 13, and Luke 21. In this discourse, Jesus responds to questions from his disciples about the destruction of the temple, the end times, and the signs of his second coming.
The setting of the discourse is important. As Jesus leaves the temple, his disciples point out the magnificence of the temple buildings. But Jesus responds that the temple will be destroyed, with “not one stone left upon another” (Matthew 24:2). The disciples then ask Jesus privately when this will happen, and what will be the sign of his coming and of the end of the age (Matthew 24:3).
Jesus’ response begins with a warning not to be misled by false messiahs, wars, famines, earthquakes and other catastrophes, since these are only “the beginning of the birth pains” (Matthew 24:4-8). He foretells great persecution of his followers, apostasy, and lack of love in society (Matthew 24:9-12). But those who stand firm to the end will be saved (Matthew 24:13). The gospel will be preached to all nations before the end comes (Matthew 24:14).
A key sign will be “the abomination of desolation” standing in the holy place, as spoken of by Daniel the prophet (Matthew 24:15; Daniel 9:27, 11:31, 12:11). This will precipitate a time of great tribulation worse than any before (Matthew 24:15-22). Many false messiahs and false prophets will arise to deceive people (Matthew 24:23-25). Jesus’ second coming will be sudden and visible to all, like lightning (Matthew 24:27). Wherever there is a carcass, vultures will gather, indicating God’s judgment (Matthew 24:28).
After the tribulation, cosmic signs will occur involving the sun, moon, and stars. The powers of the heavens will be shaken as Jesus comes on the clouds in power and glory to gather his elect (Matthew 24:29-31; Mark 13:24-27). This day and hour no one knows, so his followers must always be ready, keeping watch (Matthew 24:36-44). Jesus emphasizes being faithful and doing God’s will during the waiting time (Matthew 24:45-51).
Jesus then gives several parables to illustrate watchfulness and readiness for his return. The homeowner must be ready for the thief who comes unexpectedly to break in (Matthew 24:42-44). Servants must faithfully perform their duties not knowing when their master will return (Matthew 24:45-51). The ten virgins must have enough oil to meet the bridegroom when he comes or they will miss the wedding banquet (Matthew 25:1-13). The servants must use their talents faithfully until the master returns and settles accounts (Matthew 25:14-30). The sheep who serve the Son of Man by caring for those in need will receive eternal reward, while the goats who failed to serve will be condemned (Matthew 25:31-46).
There are several keys themes that emerge in the Olivet Discourse:
- The temple will be destroyed as judgment for rejecting the Messiah.
- There will be wars, disasters, persecution, apostasy, and lack of love before Jesus returns.
- The gospel will be preached to all nations before the end.
- A time of unparalleled tribulation is coming.
- False messiahs will arise to deceive many.
- Jesus’ return will be sudden, visible globally, in power and glory.
- The exact day and hour is unknown, so constant readiness is required.
- Faithfulness to Jesus until the end is essential.
- Judgment or reward will be based on people’s response to Jesus.
The Olivet Discourse highlights the coming destruction of the temple and Jerusalem along with Jesus’ future return in glory to judge all people based on their faith and works. It emphasizes hope, readiness, and faithfulness during the uncertain interval before Christ’s return. Jesus calls his followers to proclaim the gospel so people of all nations can know him before he comes back.
There is considerable debate among scholars about whether parts of the Olivet Discourse refer primarily to the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD and the end of the Jewish age, or to Jesus’ future second coming at the end of the world. Some see the tribulation and cosmic signs as symbolic language referring to the judgment on Jerusalem. Others take these passages more literally as end time events preceding Jesus’ final coming.
In 70 AD, the Roman armies under Titus destroyed Jerusalem and the temple after a horrible siege, fulfilling Jesus’ prophecy that “not one stone here will be left on another” (Matthew 24:2). The tribulation and invasion of Jerusalem echo Jesus’ descriptions of misery and desolation. So it seems Jesus’ words had partial fulfillment in that generation, as well as greater fulfillment regarding his future second coming.
The Olivet Discourse has been viewed from four main perspectives:
- Preterist: Most of it refers to the AD 70 destruction of Jerusalem.
- Historicist: It outlines the broad history of the church until Jesus’ return.
- Futurist: It focuses on end time events just before Jesus’ return.
- Idealist: It’s a symbolic portrayal of the cosmic conflict between good and evil.
Each view captures important aspects of Jesus’ eschatological teachings here. The discourse likely applies to AD 70, unfolding church history, end time tribulation, and the ongoing cosmic battle. So it has relevance to Jesus’ disciples throughout the ages awaiting his return.
In summary, the Olivet Discourse is Jesus’ most extensive teaching in the Gospels about his second coming and the end times. He gave this exposition in response to the disciples’ questions about the destruction of the temple and signs of his return. Jesus blends and interconnects events related to AD 70, future tribulation, and his final coming as King and Judge. He calls all believers to faithful discipleship, proclaiming the gospel, caring for others, and being constantly ready for his return at a day and hour unknown.
The Olivet Discourse rings with prophetic import that has sustained the hope of Christians for almost 2000 years as they await their Lord. While containing some puzzling imagery, the essence is clear – stay alert, proclaim Christ, love others, do God’s will, and be ready when Jesus the Son of Man comes back to establish his eternal kingdom.