The Olivet Discourse

This discourse was triggered by questions from the disciples in response to Jesus’ statement about the destruction of the temple. It is one of Christ’s longest discourses, and one of the most challenging to interpret.

This account, known as the Olivet discourse, is most fully given by Matthew. Mark’s account parallels much of what Matthew records, but Luke provides very important material not found in the other two synoptics. Luke’s account of Jesus’ discourse answering the disciples’ question of v. 7 is essential for distinguishing what is now history and what is still future.

Considering the Olivet discourse as revealed in the three Synoptic Gospels, the events addressed by the disciples’ inquiry are two: (1) the judgment upon Jerusalem, involving the destruction of the temple, and (2) the return of Christ, ending this age (cp. Matt 24:3; Mark 13:4 with Luke 21:7).

Difficulty surrounds identifying what parts of Jesus’ discourse deals with these two particular events. Some make no attempt; some apply it all to Christians in this age; others understand the entire passage as fulfilled in A.D. 70. While this passage is a challenge to interpret, Luke provides the solution in 21:12-24, which must be understood in its own context and in comparison with the other synoptics.

Each of the synoptics begin the discourse similarly:

  • Warning of false Christ’s; wars, and rumors of wars; nation rise against nation, kingdom against kingdom; famines and earthquakes (Matt 24:4-8; Mark 13:5-8; Luke 21:8-11)
  • All three warn that these things do not mean the end of the age but are only the beginning (Matt 24:8; Mark 13:8; Luke 21:9)

It is precisely at this point in Jesus’ discourse that Luke records a section that Matthew and Mark did not, namely 21:12-24. This section is a parenthesis that begins in v. 12, “but before all these things,” in other words, the things already referred to which will mark the beginning of the “end.” Luke’s parenthetical section ends with the words “and Jerusalem will be trampled under foot by the Gentiles until the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled” (v. 24).

This section that only Luke records provides the answer to the disciples’ question about the judgment of Jerusalem and the temple. Here Jesus identifies the events that will occur from the time of his ascension to the destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70. The only hint of what will occur between A.D. 70 and the arrival of the “end” is that Jerusalem will be under the Gentile heel until the end of Gentile world supremacy (v. 24).

It is important to note that while Luke describes desolations and tribulations (vv.12-24), he does not put those in connection with either “the abomination of desolation” (Matt 24:15; Mark 13:14) or the incomparable “great tribulation” (Matt 24:21; Mark 13:19). Instead, Luke connects these desolations and tribulations with Jerusalem’s destruction (v. 20), Israel’s dispersion (v. 24) and the rule of the Gentiles (v. 24).

This parenthesis Luke records in chapter 21 is clearly seen to be such by joining v. 11 with v. 25—“…there will be great earthquakes, and in various places plagues and famines; and there will be terrors and great signs from heaven. There will be signs in sun and moon and stars, and on the earth dismay among nations…” Without vv. 12-24 the account flows smoothly, and this demonstrates this pericope’s parenthetical quality.

All three synoptics record Christ’s teaching about his Second Coming and the end of the age, but only Luke clearly identifies and records what Christ specifically said about the judgment that would fall on Jerusalem in A.D. 70. Those who have tried to harmonize Luke 21:12-24 with Matthew and Mark’s accounts do so because of similar wording, not the overall subject matter (cf. v. 21—fleeing to the mountains would be good advice anytime Jerusalem is threatened with destruction).

Regarding the section that Luke does not record but Matthew (24:9-26) and Mark (13:9-23) do, here Jesus answers the second event the disciples’ inquired about, those signs marking the return of Christ, ending this age. Though some attempt to apply this to the church age or see it applicable to both the church age and the future, the context of Jesus’ discourse is specifically addressing the future of Israel (cf. Matt 24:1-2; Mark 13:1-2; Luke 21:1-6).

Jesus’ answer of this second event corresponds to the last week of Daniel’s prophecy of the seventy weeks, the period of time in which God will fulfill His promises to the nation of Israel, culminating with the ushering in of the millennial kingdom (cf. Dan 9:24–27). Much prophecy deals with Daniel’s 70th week, which refers to the tribulation, the judgment portion of the “Day of the Lord.” These tribulation judgments are vividly described by John in Revelation 6:1–19:21.

The portion of the Olivet Discourse describing the Tribulation period can be outlined thus:

  1. Matt 24:5-14 and Mark 13:5-13 correspond closely with the seals in Revelation 6, which describe events during the first half of the Tribulation.
  2. Matt 24:15-28 and Mark 13:14-23 describe conditions during the second half of the Tribulation. This period will begin with the antichrist breaking his covenant with Israel, halting the daily sacrifices in Jerusalem, and setting up an image of himself in the temple to be worshipped as God (cf. Dan 9:27; 12:11; 2 Thess 2:4; Rev 13:14–15).
  3. Matt 24:29-31 and Mark 13:24-27 set forth the coming of Christ following these judgments, gathering Israel from around the world, raising the Tribulation martyrs and OT saints (Dan 12:1-3), and establishing his kingdom.
  4. Matt 24:32-25:13 and Mark 13:28-37 are illustrations of watchfulness.

All three synoptics describe conditions “immediately after the tribulation” (Matt 24:29 Mark 13:24) before the Son of Man appears in the sky and descends with power and glory (Matt 24:30; Mark 13:26; Luke 21:27). Luke again provides unique material, specifically noting that when these events occur, those alive at that time (“this generation,” Matt 24:34; Mark 13:30) should “recognize that the kingdom of God is near” (Luke 21:31). The kingdom of God is clearly identified with the future and contemporaneous with Christ’s Second Advent.

Thus, while Luke says little about the details of the end of the age, under the direction of the Spirit he gives the fullest account of the fall of Jerusalem.

The following sources were utilized: J. Dwight Pentecost, Things to Come (pp. 275-85), Alva J. McClain, The Greatness of the Kingdom (pp. 362-69), R. Bruce Compton, Syllabus on the Gospels (pp. 92-95, 177-78), and John A. Martin, “Luke” in the Bible Knowledge Commentary (pp. 256-58).


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Author: Dan Greenfield

I am an undeserving sinner saved by God's grace through Jesus Christ, a happy husband, proud father of 6 great kids, pastor of Orwell Bible Church, Executive Secretary of the American Council of Christian Churches, and member of the Ohio Bible Fellowship .

4 thoughts on “The Olivet Discourse”

  1. Who are you following here? Any specific eschatological work or commentary? Or is this a DAG special?

    This seems reasonable to me. At the very least it is tenable. The question is could a pre-trib position produce a more likely interpretation?

    Chris? You preached through this not long ago, right? What’s your take?

  2. “Who am I following?” Why, Matthew, Mark, and Luke of course. 🙂

    When I came to this passage, before I consulted anyone, I compared the three synoptic accounts in an attempt to see how parallel they were. Matt & Mk are practically identical; I was having significant problems making Luke fit in with them, however.

    I read several commentaries, but I saw no exact parallel in Mt and Mk for Lk 19:20 & 24, especially v. 24–no mention of the “abomination of desolation,” and the phrase “will be led captive into all the nations.”

    So I pulled down Pentecost, he helped some, as well as Compton’s syllabus. McClain’s handling of the three texts helped me understand the whole deal, so I’m afraid it’s not “a DAG special.” The eye-opener was right before my eyes, viz., Lk 21:12–“but before all these things…,” in conjunction with the “anomalies” of 21:20 & 24.

    IMO, this interpretation is the result of a consistently literal interpretation of Scripture, and such a hermeneutic results in a pre-trib rapture. Perhaps you mis-spoke with “could a pre-trib position…”?

  3. Yes, I mis-spoke, typed, wrote. I meant could a post-trib position produce a more likely interpretation. Thanks, Mr. Editor.

  4. Out of curiosity, what would be the controlling, distinguishing aspect of a post-trib interpretation of the Olivet Discourse?

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