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The Olivet Discourse - I
1Jesus left the temple and was walking away when His disciples came up to Him to call His attention to its buildings. 2“Do you see all these things?” He asked. “I tell you the truth, not one stone here will be left on another; every one will be thrown down.”
3As Jesus was sitting on the Mount of Olives, the disciples came to Him privately. “Tell us,” they said, “when will this happen, and what will be the sign of Your coming and of the end of the age?”
In this section begins the Olivet Discourse, which Jesus delivered to His disciples on the Mount of Olives (see vs. 3), concerning things future. In general, prophetical writings in the Bible can frustrate the reader. The reader would like that future events be laid out as in History Class: step-by-step; chronologically; with an accompanying time-line. This is not the way with prophetical writings in the Bible. Often, prophets in the Bible intertwine multiple, related events, such as when Isaiah spoke of both the first and second comings of Christ. Also, there are frequently multiple fulfillments of prophecies in the Bible. In the Olivet Discourse, Jesus delivers prophecy in the style of the Old Testament prophets, using the devices that they used. To our dismay, He does not lay out His prophecies with an exact time-line. On the contrary, it is somewhat difficult to figure out which prophecies go with which events, or even if they apply to multiple events. Obviously, Jesus purposely prophesied in this way. It causes us to approach His words humbly, earnestly seeking guidance by the Holy Spirit for a proper interpretation. The absence of a time-line for events such as the second coming of Christ encourage us to always be ready for His coming, for He could appear at any time.
Specifically, in this discourse, Jesus, in response to questions by His disciples, prophesies about the then-future destruction of Jerusalem, and His own bodily return to earth. “We should not approach these chapters with the conviction that everything in them applies to only one of these judgments. The intermingling of prophecies referring to the events leading up to AD 70 with those applying to the end of all things makes this discourse particularly difficult to interpret” [Morris, 594]. “Our Lord appears to have purposely mingled the prophecies concerning the destruction of Jerusalem and His own second coming, so that there should be nothing in His words to satisfy the idle curiosity, but everything to keep His disciples always on the watch for His appearing” [Spurgeon, 350].
This prophetic discourse was prompted by the admiration of the disciples for the construction of the Temple in Jerusalem: “Jesus left the temple and was walking away when His disciples came up to Him to call His attention to its buildings” (vs. 1). First note the opening phrase: “Jesus left the temple”. There seems to be symbolism in this phrase. Here, Jesus left the temple for the last time, as if to abandon it. The Messiah would no longer teach there. Moreover, the temple sacrifices were soon to be rendered meaningless by Jesus’ sacrifice. The entire significance of the Jerusalem Temple as the house of God was nullified when Jesus left it. All that was left was the earthly materials that made up its construction. These, the disciples marveled at, “calling [Jesus’] attention to its buildings.” “Jesus had said, in the close of the foregoing chapter, ‘Your house is left to you desolate’ (Matt. 23:38); and here He made His words good, ‘Jesus left the temple’. The manner of expression is observable; He not only went out of the Temple, but departed from it, took His final farewell of it; He departed from it, never to return to it anymore; and then immediately predicted its ruin” [Henry]
Jesus responded to the disciples’s marveling at the construction of the temple: “‘Do you see all these things?’ He asked. ‘I tell you the truth, not one stone here will be left on another; every one will be thrown down’” (vs. 2). “The disciples were doubtless moved by admiration for the magnificent building, and they probably expected some expression of appreciation from Jesus” [Morris, 595]. Rather than an expression of appreciation on the workmanship of the temple, Jesus gave the disciples a prediction of the destruction of the temple. The destruction of the temple was necessary to physically do away with the system of temple worship, which ceased to be valid when Jesus died on the cross, as the ultimate sacrificial Lamb. When the temple lost its spiritual significance, the beauty of its edifice became meaningless. Worse, the continued use of the temple for spiritual purposes would mislead the people into thinking that the temple rituals and sacrifices were still valid. “A believing foresight of the defacing of all worldly glory will help to take us off from admiring it, and overvaluing it. The most beautiful body will be shortly worms’ meat, and the most beautiful building a ruinous heap. And shall we then set our eyes upon that which so soon is not, and look upon that with so much admiration which ere long we shall certainly look upon with so much contempt?” [Henry]. “His supernatural vision enabled Him to see what could not have occurred to any human being, namely, that the overthrow of Temple worship was certain, and that the entire Jewish nation would find its future determined by its present relation to Himself” [Thomas, 345].
Jesus’ prophecy concerning the destruction of the temple induced some questions by the disciples: “As Jesus was sitting on the Mount of Olives, the disciples came to Him privately. ‘Tell us,’ they said, ‘when will this happen, and what will be the sign of Your coming and of the end of the age?’” (vs. 3). We can infer from their questions that the disciples assumed that the second coming of Christ, and the “end of the age”, would happen at about the same time that the destruction of Jerusalem occurred. The disciples lumped all these events together. The disciples thought that the chance that the temple would be destroyed was very remote; so much so, that they assumed that its destruction signified the end of the world. “We must note, since they had considered from childhood that the temple would stand to the end of time and had the idea deeply rooted in their minds, that they had not thought that the temple could fall down as long as the world’s created order stood” [Calvin, 75].
Jesus, in His answer to the questions, does nothing to divest the disciples of their mistaken notion that those events would occur very close to each other. On the contrary, in answering, Jesus speaks of the three events, without giving a delineation of which one He is speaking. This has caused countless hours of frustration over the years for interpreters of the Bible. It is best to take humble view when it comes to prophecy in the Bible, and assume that we cannot exactly correlate to its fulfilling event each and every prophetical statement. In any case, though, the words of Jesus are clear enough so that we can get a general sense of what He is prophesying.
One might ask, why didn’t Jesus make more clear the signs and times of what He was prophesying? It is a consistent theme in the New Testament that Christians are to live their lives in expectation that Jesus could return at any time (see Matt. 24:44; I Cor. 1:7; Tit. 2:13; Heb. 10:37; James 5:8; I John 2:28; et. al.). If Jesus had specified that His coming would be hundreds or thousands of years after the destruction of the temple, that would obviously have dampened the feeling of expectation for early Christians that He would return soon. “The main object of His answer was to establish His disciples in good hope, in case they should fail in courage at the ensuing chaos. For this reason He does not speak of His coming in simple terms but helps Himself to prophetic forms of speech, which the more men scrutinize, the harder they must struggle to understand the paradoxical character of events” [Calvin, 93]. “Christ wishes the day of His coming to be so hoped for and looked for that yet no one should dare to ask when it will come. He wants His disciples to walk in the light of faith and, without knowing times with certainty, to expect the revelation with patience. Beware then not to worry more than the Lord allows over details of time… It would be threefold, fourfold madness to grudge submission to the ignorance which even the Son of God refused to accept, for our sake” [Calvin, 98].
The great wisdom of Christ is demonstrated by the way He gave this prophecy. No Christian throughout the ages has been denied the feeling of expectation for His soon return. That is how God wants it. And certainly, this feeling of expectation is not wasted on anyone, even though Christ has not returned as we sit nearly two thousand years later. For though He has not bodily returned to earth in all these years, He could come individually for any of us, at any time. The fragile flame of our lives can be snuffed out at any time, and without any warning. So, the feeling of expectation of His soon coming is by no means wasted, for He may come at any time: either magnificently visible to all of the world as He ushers in the end of the age; or individually, as He calls us home at the end of our lives on earth.