How can I understand the prophecies of the Olivet Discourse?
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As we are making our way through our Bible reading plan, we will continue to come to portions of Scripture that are harder to understand than others. Over the last week, we have been in another part of the New Testament that can be very hard to understand called the “Olivet Discourse.” I don’t even know when I learned that is what it is typically called. I looked at the ESV, KJV, NASB, NIV, and CSB translations and their headings over chapter 24, and none of the editions I looked at called it that. I looked at the MacArthur Study Bible (MSB) and the ESV Study Bible (ESVSB) and they both introduce this chapter in their notes as being called the Olivet Discourse (Matthew 24-25).
Today’s article will be a rather extensive introduction to this portion of Scripture. People are often confused when they read it - even folks who are more studied in the Scriptures. There are several reasons why this happens. I will attempt to touch on these in this article and the next. Since struggles are common, we need to give extra care introducing this passage.
We don’t really use the word “discourse” much these days. A term we would use is “lecture” or “sermon.” The Gospel of Matthew is broken up into five sermons (discourses). The MacArthur Study Bible outlines it this way:
Matthew records 5 major discourses: the Sermon on the Mount (chaps. 5–7); the commissioning of the apostles (chap. 10); the parables about the kingdom (chap. 13); a discourse about the childlikeness of the believer (chap. 18); and the discourse on His second coming (chaps. 24, 25). Each discourse ends with a variation of this phrase: “when Jesus had ended these sayings” (7:28; 11:1; 13:53; 19:1; 26:1).
So the first key to understanding the Olivet Sermon is to understand that this is in fact a sermon that Jesus gave, and it is the last of the five sermons that Matthew records for us.
Next we need to consider what prompted this sermon. The chapters preceding the Olivet Discourse (Matthew 21-23) are detailing the week leading up to Christ’s death, and the Olivet Discourse is right in the middle of that week.
The week began with the Triumphal Entry (Matthew 21). Jesus ended that day by cleansing the temple (an insulting action to the Jews) and a brief exchange with some of the religious leaders (Matthew 21:12-17). He then retires to a little town called “Bethany” 1.5 miles east of Jerusalem on the slope of a mountain called the “Mount of Olives” (Baker Encyclopedia of the Bible).
The next day Jesus walked a mile and a half from Bethany returning to Jerusalem. Luke 19:47-48 tells us what Jesus did next:
Every day he was teaching in the temple. The chief priests, the scribes, and the leaders of the people were looking for a way to kill him, but they could not find a way to do it, because all the people were captivated by what they heard. (Christian Standard Bible)
The atmosphere in the temple must have been electric! The true, incarnate Messiah teaching, the people were captivated, and the Jewish leaders in utter discust. Then there were moments when a Jewish leader would ask Jesus a crafty question that would have caused any other person to discredit themselves with their answer. Jesus would answer as only God himself would - with power, complete truth, and thoroughly dealing with the corrupt heart of the Jewish leaders.
Here is a skeleton outline of Jesus’ time in the temple these few days:
- The chief priests, scribes, and elders of the people confronted Jesus asking by what authority he would do these things (Mark 11:27-33)
- Jesus tells three parables in a row directed at the Jewish leadership: The parable of two sons (Matthew 21:28-32), The parable of the tenants (Matthew 21:33-46), and the parable of the wedding banquet (Matthew 22:1-14) which you can see an article on there here.
- “Then the Pharisees went and plotted how they might entangle Him in His talk” and asked Jesus what was to them a tricky question (Matthew 22:15-22). “When they had heard [Jesus’ answer], they marveled at His answer and kept silent. And [they] left Him and went their way. (Matthew 22:22; Luke 20:26)
- The Sadducees (another sect of the Jewish leaders who had some different beliefs than the Pharisees) then asked Jesus a trick question of their own. (Matthew 22:23-33)
- “But when the Pharisees heard that He had silenced the Sadducees,” the Pharisees sent them one of their lawyer experts to “test Jesus” (Matthew 22:34-40; Mark 12:28-34)
- It has been a while since Jesus put something to these Jewish leaders, and so Matthew 22:41-45 records Jesus asking the Pharisees (since they were gathered together with their lawyer expert) a question that they could not answer. Matthew 22:46 says, “and no one was able to answer him a word, nor from that day did anyone dare to ask him any questions.
- What happens next must felt very awkward for many people and it was assuredly very tense in the room. Jesus in Matthew 23 gave a very detailed and embarrassing description of the hypocrisy and corruption of these Jewish leaders that had been trying to discredit him. He also pronounced seven “woes” (foretelling of disaster and judgement) on the these Jewish leaders.
- Jesus concludes Matthew 23 mourning over Jerusalem as “the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it” (ESV). Jesus says he wanted to take care of them but they were not willing. He ends by saying, “you shall see Me no more till you say, ‘Blessed is He who comes in the name of the LORD!’ ”” This is a prophecy of his yet second coming when they will be joyous at his coming.
- Jesus leaves the temple after a few days of teaching there. He had been teaching his disciples and the crowds while also interacting with the hostile Jewish leaders (Matthew 24:1). His disciples as they are leaving point out the impressive buildings of the temple (Herod’s temple was very impressive). Jesus gives them another prophecy saying, “You see all these, do you not? Truly, I say to you, there will not be left here one stone upon another that will not be thrown down.” (Matthew 24:2). Jesus’ words must have been disturbing to those who heard them. The temple area was large, ornate, and had been years in the making.
Now at Matthew 24:3, Jesus begins what we call the Olivet Discourse. As he and his disciples were leaving Jerusalem they made their way east through the Kidron Valley over to the Mount of Olives to spend their evening there. This mountain was (2,684ft) high and stood accords the valley from the Temple Mount area.
Matthew 24:3 says, “As he sat on the Mount of Olives, the disciples came to him privately, saying, “Tell us, when will these things be, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?” Jesus delivers a discourse (sermon or lecture) here sitting somewhere on this mountain, and thus we get the name “The Olivet Discourse.” Jesus had just told these men a little while ago as they were walking out of Jerusalem that “there will not be left here one stone upon another that will not be thrown down” of the temple, and the disciples (understandably) wanted to know what he was talking about and when it would happen.
This rather extensive introduction to the Olivet Discourse will help us properly understand its meaning. I will conclude with a key point for our understanding. I will take this point up next time and explain furthur.
It is critical to understand that this lecture was delivered to a Jewish audience. These men were still struggling with the fact that Jesus was not going to establish his earthly kingdom at his first coming (Luke 19:11; Acts 1:6). The subsequent destruction of Jerusalem, the dispersion of the Jews (Acts 8), and the mystery of the church (Acts 8, 10; Ephesians 3) is all yet future. The reality of what we know to be the church today was still an unrevealed mystery to the disciples. Jesus was only recorded as speaking the word “church” twice in the gospel accounts of his earlthy ministry (Matthew 16, 18).
There are statements in Jesus’ Olivet sermon that sound like he is describing events that will happen for the church. If we fail to make the distinctions, we will be very confused about what these Scriptures mean. Jesus had been teaching in their Jewish temple to Jewish people at a time when it was unthinkable for gentiles to have the same status of Jews within the church.
We will pick up with this key point next time and then we will make our way through the discourse explaining Jesus’ words.