Resolving the Olivet Discourse
Epistemology, Part 5:
It is ironic that Jesus’ opening imperative in His “Olivet Discourse” is “Take heed that no man deceive you.”1 This is His command, but it begs a question of means: “How do we avoid that?” There seems to be more conjectures and misunderstandings over this passage than almost any other in the New Testament.
The tools to avoid deception derive from a study of epistemology: the study of knowledge — its scope and limits. Our exploration of this passage will challenge more than simply our hermeneutics alone. It will challenge our grasp of the whole eschatological plan in its entirety.
For many students of eschatology — the study of last things — the so-called Olivet Discourse has proven to be a troublesome passage, with many finding it confusing and ostensibly self-contradictory; a hermeneutical battleground between the dispensationalists and the preterists, etc. The preterists insist that this passage — and the Book of Revelation — has been already fulfilled, and much of it is dismissed by them as simply allegorical. Yet even those who embrace a dispensational view have difficulty reconciling many of the Olivet Discourse passages.
In optics, the resolving power of a telescope determines its ability to distinguish between two close, but distinct, stars. An apparent single star viewed with a cheap telescope turns out to be a pair of distinctly separate stars when viewed with a telescope of better optical quality. This quality is known as the “resolving power” of its optics.
We seem to have an analogous situation here. In this case, we may benefit by setting aside our presumptions and presuppositions and let the several texts speak for themselves.
A Hazardous Tradition
The traditional “harmonization of the Gospels” is part of the problem. Ever since Augustine, scholars have attempted to meld the four distinct Gospels into a combined narrative. While this can be useful for a cursory review of the life of Christ, it can also result in a myopia of sorts and the Olivet Discourse (recorded in Matthew 24, Mark 13, and Luke 21) is a salient example.
Since Matthew was skilled in shorthand, we tend to lean on his detailed rendering. And yet there seems to be a substantial disparity between his record and that of Luke’s. Numerous elements appear identical in both accounts, so it has been fashionable — for 1700 years — to assume that they both deal with the same event. Attempts to “harmonize” them have continued to yield a treacherous minefield of confusion.
Trusting the Texts
It seems that setting aside all of our presuppositions, and simply trusting the integrity of the texts may improve our “resolving power” in addressing these passages.
Jesus called us to respect the details,2 so let’s take a closer look at each of them. They each may be focusing on different events from a different perspective and maybe even addressing different audiences on different occasions. The similarities of expression in the various accounts may have caused us to jump to premature conjectures, etc.
The Beginning of Sorrows
Matthew’s account opens with a series of ominous signs:
For many shall come in my name, saying, I am Christ; and shall deceive many. And ye shall hear of wars and rumours of wars: see that ye be not troubled: for all these things must come to pass, but the end is not yet. For nation shall rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom: and there shall be famines, and pestilences, and earthquakes, in divers places. All these are the beginning of sorrows [or “birth pangs”].
— Matthew 24:5–8
Luke’s account contains the ostensibly identical series of signs:
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. Then said he unto them, Nation shall rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom: And great earthquakes shall be in divers places, and famines, and pestilences; and fearful sights and great signs shall there be from heaven.
— Luke 21:9–11
It would seem that these, and many other similarities throughout the respective passages, appear to be a summary of the same teachings by our Lord on the same occasion. (Many scholars note that these specific signs also seem to parallel the same series of signs in the opening of the Seven Seals in Revelation Chapter 6. See graphic.)
Matthew’s account continues, “Then shall” (verses 9, 10, 11, et al.). The bulk of his record deals with events after these “sorrows” or birth pangs. He (as well as Mark) further introduces — and emphasizes — an additional sign that is omitted from Luke’s account:
When ye therefore shall see the abomination of desolation, spoken of by Daniel the prophet, stand in the holy place, (whoso readeth, let him understand:)
— Matthew 24:15
This proves to be a major verse for a number of reasons. Here Jesus saves us hours of boring library research by authenticating the authorship of Daniel, and his role as a prophet. Jesus also referred to a key historical event: the desecration of the Temple by Antiochus Epiphanes that had occurred two centuries earlier in 167 B.C.
This historical event was well known to every Jew, and the subsequent rededication of the desecrated Temple is still celebrated every year at Hanukkah. (This is even alluded to in John 10:22.)
The “Abomination of Desolation” refers to Antiochus’ establishing an idol to Zeus in the Holy of Holies that precipitated the Macabbean revolt, which ultimately threw off the Seleucid yoke and ushered in the rule of the Hasmoneans. It is referred to four times in Daniel.3
But here, Jesus is indicating that this desecration will happen again and that this time it will usher in a period that Jesus Himself labels “the Great Tribulation” (quoting from Daniel4 and which Jeremiah called “the time of Jacob’s trouble.”5 (Both Matthew’s and Mark’s renderings also include the parenthetical admonition to the reader for understanding!)
Luke’s account focuses on a siege of Jerusalem that is substantially divergent from the Matthew account. It is the presumption that they are both dealing with the same event that is the source of misunderstandings. Everyone seems to overlook what Luke says after mentioning the famed series of signs:
But before all these, they shall lay their hands on you, and persecute you, delivering you up to the synagogues, and into prisons, being brought before kings and rulers for my name’s sake.
— Luke 21:12
Luke then focuses on a desolation of Jerusalem that precedes the series of signs that earmark both passages! Matthew focuses on a desolation that follows that same series of signs. Luke’s rendering deals with the fall of Jerusalem that occurred 38 years later in 70 A.D. Matthew all but ignores it.
Luke notes that “this generation shall not pass away until all be fulfilled.”6 It is interesting that Jerusalem fell 38 years later, the very same duration that it took for that earlier generation to expire during the wanderings in the wilderness.7
In contrast, Matthew’s account deals with events that follow that same series of signs, including the Abomination of Desolation announced in Matthew 24:15.
(Some try to suggest that this event happened during the siege of 70 A.D., but that is contrary to the substantial eye witness accounts recorded. A war was going on and no idol was so established, “standing in the Holy Place,” etc. In fact, Titus was frustrated by the fire that broke out in the Temple8 and he later had to command his soldiers to dismantle it “stone by stone” to recover the gold that had melted, etc.9 This, too, was a fulfillment of our Lord’s prophecy.10)
It is important to note the details of the attacks of the Romans in 66–70 A.D. Vespasian and his son, Titus, were sent by Nero to make war with the Jews.11 However, the death of Nero delayed the siege, and subsequently Vespasian acceded to the throne of the empire and left his son Titus to complete the siege.12 Luke’s account had warned his listeners:
And when ye shall see Jerusalem compassed with armies, then know that the desolation thereof is nigh. Then let them which are in Judea flee to the mountains; and let them which are in the midst of it depart out; and let not them that are in the countries enter thereinto.
— Luke 21:20–21
Over 1,100,000 perished in the siege. Those who heeded Jesus’ warning apparently escaped. Some scholars infer that few, if any, Christians perished in the siege.
By contrast, Matthew’s account conspicuously terminates with the Second Coming of Christ and the cosmic upheavals incident thereto, which are alluded to in both accounts.
When we were in school, learning to diagram sentences was useful in understanding grammar: subject, predicate, adverbial phrases, etc. Here, too, a composite diagram may prove helpful (see graphic).
Matthew’s account, written for the Jews, seems destined to be a survival handbook for those enduring the forthcoming unprecedented time.
Luke’s, on the other hand, written for the Gentiles, seems to totally ignore the Great Tribulation. In fact, it would seem that his readers shouldn’t be concerned:
And when these things begin to come to pass, then look up, and lift up your heads; for your redemption draweth nigh.
— Luke 21:28
(The word for “redemption,” apolutrosis, appears nine times in the New Testament, and always is used to refer to the redemption of the Body.)
There are numerous complex issues that still emerge from these several accounts. It isn’t clear that they even occurred at the same time or place.
Matthew and Mark clearly identify a private briefing on the Mount of Olives to the “insider” group of disciples (see graphic). Luke, on the other hand, remarks:
And in the day time he was teaching in the Temple; and at night he went out, and abode in the mount that is called the Mount of Olives. And all the people came early in the morning to him in the Temple, for to hear him.
— Luke 21:36–38
Clearly, a side-by-side verse-by-verse study of these passages is essential. To facilitate a more detailed review of these much debated issues, see our briefing package: This Generation: Resolving The Olivet Discourse.