Olivet Discourse

The Olivet Discourse or Olivet prophecy is a biblical passage found in the Synoptic Gospels in Matthew 24 and 25, Mark 13, and Luke 21. It is also known as the Little Apocalypse because it includes the use of apocalyptic language, and it includes Jesus’ warning to his followers that they will suffer tribulation and persecution before the ultimate triumph of the Kingdom of God.[1] The Olivet discourse is the last of the Five Discourses of Matthew and occurs just before the narrative of Jesus’ passion beginning with the Anointing of Jesus.

In all three Gospels, this episode includes the Parable of the Budding Fig Tree.[2]

It is unclear whether the tribulation Jesus describes is a past, present or future event.[3]:p.5 Some believe the passage largely refers to events surrounding the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem [4] and as such is used to date the Gospel of Mark around the year 70.[4][5] Many evangelical Christian interpreters say the passages refer to what they call the Second Coming of Jesus. They disagree whether Jesus describes the signs that accompany his return.

Biblical narrative


In the Gospels of Matthew and Mark, Jesus spoke this discourse to his disciples privately on the Mount of Olives,[6] opposite the Temple. In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus taught over a period of time in the Temple and stayed at night on the Mount of Olives.[7] The discourse is widely believed by scholars to contain material delivered on a variety of occasions.[4] The setting on the Mount of Olives echoes a passage in the Book of Zechariahwhich refers to the location as the place where a final battle would occur between the Jewish Messiah and his opponents.

Destruction of the Temple

The destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans in 70AD —
a painting by David Roberts (1796-1849).

According to the narrative of the synoptic Gospels, an anonymous disciple remarks on the greatness of Herod’s Temple.[8] Jesus responds that not one of those stones would remain intact in the building, and the whole thing would be reduced to rubble.[9]

The disciples asked Jesus, “When will this happen, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?” Jesus first warns them about things that would happen:

  • Some would claim to be Christ (see also Antichrist).
  • There would be wars and rumours of wars.

Then Jesus identifies “the beginnings of birth pangs”:

  • Nations rising up against nations, and kingdoms against kingdoms.
  • Earthquakes
  • Famines
  • Pestilence
  • Fearful events

Next he described more birth pangs which would lead to the coming Kingdom:

  • False prophets
  • Apostasy
  • Persecution of the followers of Jesus
  • The spread of Jesus’ message (the gospel) around the world

Jesus then warned the disciples about the Abomination of desolation “standing where it does not belong”.

Great Tribulation

Great Tribulation

After Jesus described the “abomination that causes desolation”, he warns that the people of Judea should flee to the mountains as a matter of such urgency that they shouldn’t even return to get things from their homes. Jesus also warned that if it happened in winter or on the Sabbath fleeing would be even more difficult. Jesus described this as a time of “Great Tribulation” worse than anything that had gone before.

Jesus then states that immediately after the time of tribulation people would see a sign, “the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light; the stars will fall from the sky, and the heavenly bodies will be shaken”.[Matt. 24:29–30] [Joel. 3:15]

The statements about the sun and moon turning dark sound quite apocalyptic, as it appears to be a quote from the Book of Isaiah.[Isa. 13:10] The description of the sun, moon and stars going dark is also used elsewhere in the Old Testament. Joel wrote that this would be a sign before the great and dreadful Day of the Lord.[Joel 2:30–31] The Book of Revelation also mentions the sun and moon turning dark during the sixth seal of the seven seals, but the passage adds more detail than the previous verses mentioned.[Rev. 6:12–17]

Two opposing interpretations

Within conservative, evangelical Christian thought, two opposite viewpoints have been expressed in a debate between theologians Kenneth L. Gentry and Thomas Ice.[3]:197–99

Tribulation as a past event (Dr. Gentry)
  • The Great Tribulation occurred during the 1st century.
  • Those events marked the end of God’s focus on and exaltation of Israel.
  • Jesus’ prophecies marked the beginning of the Christian era in God’s plan.
  • The Tribulation is God’s judgement on Israel for rejecting the Messiah.
  • The Tribulation judgements will be centred on local events surrounding ancient Jerusalem, and also somewhat affecting other portions of the former Roman Empire.
  • The Tribulation judgements are governed by Jesus as the Christ to reflect his judgement against Israel, thus showing that he is in heaven controlling those events.
Tribulation as a future event (Dr. Ice)
  • The Great Tribulation is still to come and is rapidly approaching prospect.
  • Those events marked the beginning of God’s focus on and exaltation of Israel.
  • The prophecy says the Christian era will be concluded just after the church is taken from the world.
  • Rather than being God’s judgement on Israel, it is the preparation of Israel to receive her Messiah.
  • The judgements involve catastrophes that literally will affect the stellar universe and impact the entire planet.
  • The coming of Christ in the Tribulation requires his public, visible and physical presence to conclude those judgements.

Coming of the Son of Man

In the Olivet Discourse, Jesus states that after the time of tribulation and the sign of the sun, moon and stars going dark the Son of Man would be seen arriving in the clouds with power and great glory. The Son of Man would be accompanied by the angels and at the trumpet call the angels would “gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other”.(Matthew 24:31)

Although most scholars, and almost all Christians, read this as meaning that the gathering would include people not only from earth but also from heaven, a few Christians, mostly modern American Protestant Premillennialists,[10] have interpreted it to mean that people would be gathered from earth and taken to heaven—a concept known in their circles as the rapture. Most scholars see this as a quotation of a passage from the Book of Zechariah in which God (and the contents of heaven in general) are predicted to come to earth and live among the elect, who by necessity are gathered together for this purpose.[Zech. 2:10]


In the Olivet Discourse, Jesus stated that when all these signs are seen, the coming of the Son of Man would be imminent. He went on to say “this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place.” (Mark 13.30)

Historically, this has been one of the most difficult passages to resolve with a literal interpretation of the text. At face value it would seem to imply that the disciples would still be alive today. Awkward legends arose suggesting that the disciples to whom Jesus was speaking did not die but remain alive, eventually developing into legends like those of the Wandering Jew and Prester John. C. S. Lewis called this “the most embarrassing verse in the Bible”.[11]

The fourth-century church father John Chrysostom held this interpretation:

After this, that they might not straightway return to it again, and say, “When?” he brings to their remembrance the things that had been said, saying, “Verily I say unto you, This generation shall not pass, till all these things be fulfilled!” All these things. What things? I pray thee. Those about Jerusalem, those about the wars, about the famines, about the pestilences, about the earthquakes, about the false Christs, about the false prophets, about the sowing of the gospel everywhere, the seditions, the tumults, all the other things, which we said were to occur until His coming. How then, one may ask, did He say, “This generation?” Speaking not of the generation then living, but of that of the believers. For He is wont to distinguish a generation not by times only, but also by the mode of religious service, and practice; as when He saith, “This is the generation of them that seek the Lord. ”

— John Chrysostom[12]

In the earliest known Christian document, the First Epistle to the Thessalonians, Paul seems to envisage that he and the Christians to whom he was writing would see the resurrection of the dead within their own lifetimes: “For this we declare to you by a word from the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will not precede those who have fallen asleep. (ESV)”[4:15-17] Some argue that the Second Epistle to the Thessalonians was forged, essentially for the sole purpose of contradicting the first epistle.[13]

In modern times, a popular (but far from unanimous) opinion is that Jesus in the Olivet Discourse is using the apocalyptic language of his time symbolically, as did many Jewish prophets. Nevertheless, throughout history there have been many groups who read the discourse literally. Christian thought continues to include groups who say that the end of the world is near, some even giving exact dates which have since come and gone without an intervening end of the world.[14] Some Christians believe that predictions of several events are related: the second coming of Jesus, the war of Armageddon, the arrival on earth of the Antichrist, the Tribulation, the Rapture, some horrendous natural disaster, etc. Jewish, Islamic, psychic and occult predictions have also been offered as well. Some very prominent individuals have been consistently wrong when they predicted the end of the world. End-of-the-world predictions have been common throughout Christianity and other religions for almost 2000 years.


There are four quite different interpretations of Matthew 24. By far the more prominent are futurism and preterism. Futurism dominates the more conservative theological viewpoints at present, though preterism is seen in a resurgence.

One view (Futurism) is that the future Jesus predicted is the unfolding of events from trends that are already at work in contemporary human society.[15] Another prophetic view (Preterism) is that all of these predictions were fulfilled by the time Jerusalem fell in 70 AD.[16]


The Idealist (timeless) sees no evidence of timing of prophetic events in the Bible. Thus they conclude that their timing cannot be determined in advance. Idealists see prophetic passages as being of great value in teaching truths about God to be applied to present life.

Idealism is primarily associated with liberal scholarship, and is not a major factor in current evangelical Christian deliberation over when prophecy will be fulfilled.[3]


Preterism[3] considers that most, if not all, prophecy has been fulfilled already, usually in relation to the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans in 70CE.

  • Partial preterism says that most (but not all) Bible prophecy, including everything within Matthew 24, Daniel, and Revelation up to chapters 19 or 20, has already been fulfilled when Jerusalem was destroyed.[17] Since it still includes belief in a future physical Second Coming of Christ, the resurrection of the dead, and the last judgment, partial preterism falls within the parameters of orthodoxy because it conforms to the early Christian creeds.
  • Full preterism says all biblical prophecy was fulfilled by 70CE. It does not hold to a future judgment, return of Christ, or resurrection of the dead (at least not for non-Christians). Due to the belief that all biblical prophecy has been fulfilled, it is sometimes considered “radical” and usually described as “unorthodox” because it goes against the ecumenical creeds of early Christianity.


Historicism considers that most prophecy has been or will be fulfilled during the present church age. It was the chief view of Protestants from the Reformation until the mid-19th century. Only among Seventh-day Adventists is historicism applied to current conservative Christian interpretation of Tribulation understanding.[3]


Futurism typically holds that all major unfulfilled prophecies will be fulfilled during a global time of catastrophe and war known as the Great Tribulation, in which many other prophecies will be fulfilled during or after the Millennium Reign of Jesus Christ. According to many futurists, many predictions are currently being fulfilled during the Church Age, in which lawlessness and apostasy are currently plaguing secular society. This is seen as a major sign of the approaching fulfillment of all other prophecies during the Tribulation. Within evangelical Christianity over the past 150 years, futurism has come to be the dominant view of prophecy. However, around the 1970s evangelical preterism—the polar opposite of futurism—was seen as a new challenge to the dominance of futurism, particularly within the Reformed tradition. Yet, futurism continues as the prevalent view for the time being.[3]:p.7

Futurists anticipate many coming events that will fulfill all eschatological prophecy: the seven-year period of tribulation, the Antichrist’s global government[18] the Battle of Armageddon, the Second Coming of Jesus, the millennial reign of Christ, the eternal state, and the two resurrections.

  • In his popular book, The Late Great Planet Earth, first published in 1970, evangelical Christian author Hal Lindsey argued that prophetical information in Matthew 24 indicates that the “generation” witnessing the “rebirth of Israel” is the same generation that will observe the fulfillment of the “signs” referred to in Matthew 24:1-33—and that would be consummated by the second coming of Christ in approximately 1988. He dated it from the “rebirth of Israel” in 1948, and took a generation to be “something like forty years. ”[19] Lindsey later stretched his forty-year timetable to as long as one hundred years, writing that he was no longer certain that the terminal “generation” commenced with the rebirth of Israel.[20]
  • Another detailed analysis, one written by theologian Ray Stedman, calls it the “Olivet Prophecy: The most detailed prediction in the Bible”. According to Stedman: “There are many predictive passages in both the Old and New Testaments, but none is clearer or more detailed than the message Jesus delivered from the Mount of Olives. This message was given during the turbulent events of the Lord’s last week before the cross”.[15]


  1.  “Frontline” TV series. PBS. Accessed: 14 May 2018.
  2.  Mary Ann Getty-Sullivan (2007). Parables of the Kingdom: Jesus and the Use of Parables in the Synoptic Tradition. Liturgical Press. p. 46. ISBN978-0-8146-2993-2.
  3.  Gentry, Kenneth L.; Thomas Ice. The Great Tribulation—Past Or Future?: Two Evangelicals Debate the Question. Kregel Academic & Professional, 1999. ISBN978-0-8254-2901-9
  4.  Ben Witherington The Gospel of Mark: A Socio-rhetorical Commentary page 340.
  5.  Morna Hooker, The Gospel According to St. Mark(Continuum, 1991) page 8.
  6.  Matthew 24:3; Mark 13:3
  7.  Luke 21:37
  8.  Kilgallen, John J. A Brief Commentary on the Gospel of MarkPaulist Press, 1989. ISBN0-8091-3059-9.
  9.  “Mark 13”Oremus.
  10.  Rosen, Christine (2004). Preaching Eugenics. Oxford Press. p. 17.
  11.  C. S. Lewis The World’s Last Night and Other Essays
  12.  http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/npnf110.iii. LXXIV.
  13.  Without agreeing with this theory, biblical scholar Leon Morris reports it in his book The First and Second Epistles to the Thessalonians. Eerdmans, 1991. ISBN978-0-8028-2512-4
  14.  Ravitz, Jessica. “Road trip to the end of the world”. [1]Accessed 6 May 2013
  15. Stedman, Ray C. What on Earth Is Happening? What Jesus Said About the End of the Age. Discovery House Publishers, 2003. ISBN1-57293-092-6
  16.  Jackson, Wayne. “A Study of Matthew Twenty-four”November 23, 1998. Christian Courier. Contains in-depth discussion of the significant of the chapter and the signs that have come to fruition.
  17.  Gentry, Kenneth L. Jr. (November 1998). “Falsely Declaring ‘The Time’: The Great Tribulation in Progressive Dispensationalism (Part 5)”Dispensationalism in Transition: Challenging Traditional Dispensationalism’s ‘Code of Silence’. Archived from the original on 26 July 2016. Retrieved 26 October 2018.
  18.  http://www.deeptruths.com/articles/rise_reign_ac.html
  19.  Lindsey, Hal. The Late Great Planet Earth. Grand Rapids, MI. Zondervan, 1970.
  20.  Lindsey, Hal. 1977. Eternity, January 1977

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