The Olivet Discourse

Excerpt from ‘A Study of the Life of Jesus from The Gospel of Luke’ by Michael L. Gowens

Chapter 41

Lu 21, together with Mt 24 and Mr 13, records our Lord’s prophetic sermon to His disciples on the Mount of Olives. The variations in the three accounts of the Olivet Discourse are complementary not contradictory. Each records different parts of the same sermon and a comparison of the three reveals a comprehensive picture of Jesus’ message. Luke’s account is arguably the most conducive to a Gentile audience.

Background {Lu 21:5-7}

As Jesus and His disciples walked the streets of Jerusalem, some expressed awe at the magnificence of the temple. This second temple, rebuilt after the Babylonian captivity, had been remodeled and enlarged several times within the past five hundred years. It was an impressive structure.

The Lord’s reply is startling. He predicts the complete destruction of this magnificent temple: “As for these things which ye behold, the days will come, in the which there shall not be left one stone upon another, that shall not be thrown down”. {Lu 21:6}

Later on the Mount of Olives, the disciples privately asked Him three questions: {Lu 21:7} (1) When shall these things be? (2) What will be the sign of thy coming? (3) What will be the sign of the end of the world? {cf. Mt 24:3} Jesus answers by addressing the last two questions first. {Lu 21:8-11} Next, he answers the question concerning the destruction of the temple and the city of Jerusalem. {Lu 21:12-24} Finally, He returns to the first two questions as He concludes His discourse. {Lu 21:25-38}

Signs of His Coming {Lu 21:8-11}

Jesus highlights three categories of signs, each of which speak of motion toward His return, but do not indicate the imminence of that event (see Lu 21:9b). Just as a “sign” points the way or gives direction, so these signs signal potential changes on the historical landscape-changes that when taken together indicate the approaching event of His coming.

The first category has to do with an increase of false christs. {Lu 21:8} As the coming of Christ nears, there will be a proliferation of Messianic imposters, each claiming to possess the solution to world conflict. The parallel between Re 6 (the “four horsemen of the Apocalypse”) and the prophecy of Lu 21 is uncanny. The “white horse” speaks of false christ’s promoting a false peace. This also corresponds to the “rebellion” led by the “man of sin” in an attempt to deceive the multitudes spoken of in 2Th 2.

The second category concerns “wars and commotions”: “But when ye shall hear of wars and commotions, be not terrified: for these things must first come to pass; but the end is not by and by”. {Lu 21:9} The “red horse” of Re 6 represents war, corresponding to this second sign.

Jesus is not speaking about ordinary wars, however, but “world wars”, a phenomena unknown prior to the 20th Century: “Nation shall rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom”. {Lu 21:10} An ordinary war would not be a “sign” for there would be nothing unusual about it. War is waged somewhere in the world every day. A “world war”, however, is a “sign”. Of course, we have witnessed two such global conflicts within the past century. Such wars are not an indication that the end is nigh, {Lu 21:9} but they are “the beginning of sorrows”. {Mr 13:8}

The third category of tribulation concerns natural catastrophes. {Lu 21:11} First, there will be “great earthquakes in divers places.” Within the past century, the frequency of earthquakes is greater than ever before in human history. Second, there will be “famines and pestilences disease epidemics”. The past century has seen numerous famines: the Ukraine (1930’s), Ethiopia (1980’s), as well as current famines in North Korea, the Sudan, Afghanistan, and many others. Diseases such as the Spanish Flu, an epidemic after WWI that killed 30 million people, and AIDS have taken a toll on the modern world.

The “black horse” of Re 6 corresponds to these catastrophes. The rider of the black horse is rationing wheat at the rate of a day’s supply for a day’s wage. It is evidently a time of shortage and want.

The Destruction of Jerusalem Foretold {Lu 21:12-24}

In Lu 21:12, Jesus shifts the focus from the last two questions to the first question, saying, “But before all these, they shall lay their hands on you, and persecute you…” At some point prior to this time of great tribulation (perhaps as much as 2000 years “before”), the Lord says, the saints will be persecuted and Jerusalem will be destroyed. This occurred in A. D. 70.

Josephus, the noted Jewish historian, and Tacitus, the Roman historian, record the siege of Jerusalem by Titus and the Roman army. The Romans literally leveled the city to the ground – not one stone was left on another. 1.1 million Jews were killed and 98,000 were literally scattered across the inhabited world. {Lu 21:24} The Jews did not possess Jerusalem again for almost 1900 years, a period referred to as “the times of the Gentiles”. It was “trodden down of the Gentiles”, occupied first by the Romans, then by the Ottoman Empire, and finally by the Palestinians. Not until the Balfour Declaration of 1917, the recognition of Israel as a “nation-state” in 1948, and Jewish occupation of Jerusalem in 1967 were “the times of the Gentiles fulfilled.”

More Signs of the End & A Practical Application {Lu 21:25-38}

With the reference to the return of Jews to Jerusalem, Jesus revisits the original issue concerning “signs of the end”. The subject is no longer the destruction of Jerusalem in Lu 21:25.

These are more immediate signs than those of Lu 21:8-11.

What are some of these signs? First, there will be strange and unique signs in the heavenly bodies: “There shall be signs in the sun, and in the moon, and in the stars” (Lu 21:25a; cf. Mt 24:29-30). Such language is always associated with a coming judgment. {Isa 13:10; 34:4; Joe 2:10; 3:15} These disturbances in the heavenly bodies {Lu 21:26b} will spawn great “distress, perplexity, and fear” in the hearts of men as their sense of world security is increasingly threatened. {Lu 21:26} It will be at this time of great upheaval and uncertainty that the Lord Jesus will return: “And then shall they see the Son of man coming in a cloud with power and great glory”. {Lu 21:27}

In Lu 21:28-36, the Lord Jesus Christ makes practical application of His sermon in terms of living expectantly and watchfully: “And when these things begin to come to pass, then look up, and lift up your heads; for your redemption draweth nigh”. {Lu 21:28} To illustrate the importance of living in expectation of His return, Jesus gives the Parable of the Fig Tree. {Lu 21:29-33} Just as the budding of leaves on a fig tree signals that summer is near, so these events will signal that “the kingdom of God is nigh”. In Lu 21:32, Jesus teaches that the generation that sees these signs will be the generation that witnesses the fulfillment of redemptive history.

Instead of living haphazardly and mindlessly then, Christian people should “watch and pray always” that they may be delivered from the “snare” that these troubles will prove to be to others. {Lu 21:35-36} Paul’s words in 1Th 5:1-11 are an important commentary on these verses.

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