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The Olivet discourse is a biblical passage found in the Synoptic Gospels of Matthew,[chap. 24] Mark[chap. 13] and Luke.[chap. 21] It is known as the "Little Apocalypse" because it includes Jesus' descriptions of future events, the use of end times language, and Jesus' warning to his followers that they will suffer tribulation and persecution before the ultimate triumph of the Kingdom of God.[1] It occurred just prior to the narrative of Jesus' passion beginning with the Anointing of Jesus. In the narrative is a discourse or sermon given by Jesus on the Mount of Olives, hence the name. The versions of the discourse in Matthew and Luke are thought to be based on the version in Mark.

A major challenge to theologians is to determine the timing of the fulfillment of prophecy. Of considerable relevance is the determination of whether Jesus' description of tribulation is a past, present or future event.[2]:p.5 In each of the three gospel accounts, the sermon contains a number of statements which at first glance seem predictive of future events. There is general agreement that Jesus prophesies about the future destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem. However, modern Christian interpretation diverges as to the meaning of the additional topics in the discourse. Most interpreters say the passages refer to the coming of Jesus. They disagree whether or not Jesus describes the signs that accompany his return.

The setting on the Mount of Olives is also thought by some scholars not to have been incidental, but a quite deliberate echo of a passage in the Book of Zechariah which refers to the location as the place where a final battle would occur between the Jewish Messiah and his opponents.




Destruction of the Temple

According to the narrative of the synoptic Gospels, an anonymous disciple remarks on the greatness of Herod's Temple, a building thought to have been some 10 stories high and likely to have been adorned with gold, silver, and other precious items (Kilgallen 245). However, the narrative goes on to state that Jesus says that not one stone would remain intact in the building, and the whole thing would be reduced to rubble.

Following this the disciples asked for a sign, "When will this happen, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?" The disciples likely assumed that the destruction of the temple, and the end of the world, would occur at the same time. The Master sought to correct that impression, first, by discussing the Roman invasion,[Matt. 24:4-34] and then by commenting on his final coming to render universal judgment.[24:35-51]

Jesus first warns them about things that would happen that should not be interpreted as signs:

Then Jesus identifies the beginning of birth pangs (some older translations read sorrows):

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

Jesus then warned the disciples about the Abomination of Desolation "standing where it does not belong." The Gospels of Matthew and Mark add "—let the reader understand—". This is generally considered to be a reference to two passages from the Book of Daniel.[Dan. 9:27] [11:31]

Some consider these declarations to be unlikely or implausible. However, there also are noted Christian theologians who believe that each of Jesus' declarations were prophesies. One view is that the future Jesus predicted is the unfolding of events from trends that are already at work in contemporary human society.[3] Another prophetic view is that all of these predictions were fulfilled by the time Jerusalem fell in A.D. 70.[4]

Although the passage in the Book of Daniel internally claims to be a prophecy dictated to Daniel by Gabriel during the Babylonian captivity, some modern scholars believe that the Book was pseudepigraphically written in the mid-second century BC, and that rather than being a genuine prophecy the passage was a postdiction, written as a polemic against the shrine to Zeus set up in the temple in 168 BC by Antiochus IV Epiphanes, which had a pagan altar added onto the Altar of the Holocausts[5] (Brown et al. 624 and Miller 44). Exactly how the synoptics meant it to be reinterpreted or interpreted, however, is a matter of debate among Christian scholars:

Great Tribulation

Jesus' biblical prophecy

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" (NIV).[Matt. 24:29-30]

The statements about the sun and moon sound quite apocalyptic, 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 described by 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]

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.[2]:pp.197-199

Tribulation as a past event (Dr. Gentry)
  • The Great Tribulation occurred during the first 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 judgment on Israel for rejecting her Messiah.
  • The Tribulation judgments will be centered around local events surrounding ancient Jerusalem, and also somewhat affecting other portions of the former Roman Empire.
  • The Tribulation judgments are governed by Jesus as the Christ to reflect his judgment 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 judgment on Israel, it is the preparation of Israel to receive her Messiah.
  • The judgments 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 judgments.

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. Jesus would be accompanied by the angels and at the trumpet call the angels would gather the elect (God's chosen) from the heavens and the four winds of the earth.[Matt. 24:31]

Some Christians have seen this as a prediction of Roman tyranny being overcome by Christianity. Christianity did eventually become the official religion of the Roman Empire. The Eastern Roman Empire remained Christianized until its fall to the Turks in 1453, although large portions of its former territory, such as Greece, remain largely Christian to this day.

For the Christians who read the text more literally, this is taken to refer to the Second Coming. In modern times, supporters of the more literal readings tend to also be politically conservative, and argue that it is the UN, or the EU, or that some Middle Eastern confederacy is the fourth empire of Daniel 7:23-24 that will "devour" the world.[10]

The synoptics also describe Jesus as stating that "the elect" would be gathered together from across the earth and heaven. His actual wording is that they would be gathered "from the four winds, from the furthest part of the earth to the furthest part of heaven." 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,[11] 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] According to the ancient gnostics, this passage was to be interpreted as implying that the teachings of the son of man would automatically bring those who heard and fully understood them (the elect) together.


In the Olivet Discourse, Jesus stated that when all these signs are seen, the Kingdom would be imminent. He went on to say that this generation would not pass until all these things had happened.

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 that of a Wandering Jew and of Prester John. C. S. Lewis called this "the most embarrassing verse in the Bible".[12] More scholarly explanations for how this could be justified have concentrated on the fact that, in Koine Greek, the word used for generation can also be used to mean race, "type", or "sort." For example, Jesus spoke about an "evil and adulterous generation" that would seek after a sign. The Bible also speaks of the "generation of the righteous", "the generation of them that seek Him", etc. Clearly the meaning of these expressions is not that all people living at one time or of a certain race were upright or evil, etc. "Generation" is used to express the common type, "genesis," or root. Under this interpretation, the verse may mean that Christianity, the "generation" to which the disciples belonged, would still be in existence; or alternatively, the human race.

Another adherent to this position is the 4th century Father, Saint John Chrysostom:

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[13]

Some of the disciples themselves misunderstood this point. In the earliest known Christian document, the First Epistle to the Thessalonians, Paul seems to envisage that he and the Christians he was writing to 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.[14]

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 world (see also Second Coming).

Idealism, preterism and futurism

There are three 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.


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

Idealism is seldom applied to Bible prophecy except in liberal scholarship. It is not a factor in current mainstream conservative deliberation over when prophecy will be fulfilled.[2]


Preterism[2] (from Latin for "past") considers that most, if not all, prophecy has been fulfilled already, usually in relation to the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans in A.D. 70. This doctrine differs on some important points:

  • Standard preterism, or more specifically, 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.[15] It still includes belief in a future physical "Second Coming" of Christ, the resurrection of the dead, and the last judgment. Some preterists believe in a physical millennial kingdom known as "postmillennialist."
  • Full preterism says all biblical prophecy was fulfilled in A.D. 70. It does not hold to a future judgment, return of Christ, or resurrection of the dead (at least not for non-Christians). Because of these claims it is sometimes considered "radical" and usually described as "unorthodox" because it goes against all of the early Christian creeds.
  • Historicism (present) 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-nineteenth century. Only among Seventh-day Adventists is historicism applied to current conservative Christian interpretation of Tribulation understanding.[2]


Futurism typically holds that virtually no prophetic events are occurring in the present church age. 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.[2]:p.7

Futurists anticipate four coming events will fulfill prophecy: the Tribulation of seven years, the Second Coming of Jesus, the Millennium (1,000 years), and the eternal state.

  • In his popular book, The Late Great Planet Earth, first published in 1970, 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.”[16] 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.[17]
  • 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."[3]

See also


  1. ^ "Frontline" TV series. PBS. Online: Accessed: 19 September 2008
  2. ^ a b c d e f Gentry, Kenneth L.; Thomas Ice. The Great Tribulation—Past Or Future?: Two Evangelicals Debate the Question. Kregel Academic & Professional, 1999. ISBN 978-0825429019
  3. ^ a b Stedman, Ray C. What on Earth Is Happening? What Jesus Said About the End of the Age. Discovery House Publishers, 2003. ISBN 1-57293-092-6
  4. ^ 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.
  5. ^ Souvay, Charles. "Altars (in Scripture)." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 1. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1907. 5 Sept. 2009 <>.
  6. ^ Craig Blomberg, Jesus and the Gospels, Apollos 1997, pp.322-326
  7. ^ N. T. Wright, Jesus and the Victory of God, Fortress 1996, p. 348ff.
  8. ^ Gospel of Mark
  9. ^ Brown 144; H.H. Ben-Sasson, A History of the Jewish People, Harvard University Press, 1976, ISBN 0674397312, pages 254-256: "The reign of Gaius Caligula (37-41) witnessed the first open break between the Jews and the Julio-Claudian empire. Until then—if one accepts Sejanus' heyday [19-31] and the trouble caused by the census after Archelaus' banishment [6]—there was usually an atmosphere of understanding between the Jews and the empire ... These relations deteriorated seriously during Caligula's reign, and, though after his death the peace was outwardly re-established, considerable bitterness remained on both sides. ... Caligula ordered that a golden statue of himself be set up in the Temple in Jerusalem. ... Only Caligula's death, at the hands of Roman conspirators (41), prevented the outbreak of a Jewish-Roman war that might well have spread to the entire East." See also Zealots.
  10. ^ Rast, Jennifer. "Is the E.U. the Revived Roman Empire?" Contender Ministries.
  11. ^ Rosen, Christine. Preaching Eugenics. Oxford Press, 2004.
  12. ^ C.S. Lewis The World's Last Night and Other Essays
  13. ^
  14. ^ Without agreeing with this theory, biblical scholar Leon Morris reports it in his book,The First and Second Epistles to the Thessalonians. Eerdmans, 1991. ISBN 978-0-8028-2512-4
  15. ^ Gentry, Kenneth L. Jr. "Falsely Declaring 'The Time.' The Great Tribulation in Progressive Dispensationalism (Part 5)." Dispensationalism in Transition: Challenging Traditional Dispensationalism's 'Code of Silence.' Nov. 1998. Online: Accessed: 13 Dec 2008.
  16. ^ Lindsey, Hal. The Late Great Planet Earth. Grand Rapids, MI. Zondervan, 1970.
  17. ^ Lindsey, Hal. 1977. Eternity, January 1977


  • Brown, Raymond E An Introduction to the New Testament Doubleday 1997 ISBN 0-385-24767-2
  • Brown, Raymond E. et al. The New Jerome Biblical Commentary Prentice Hall 1990 ISBN 0-13-614934-0
  • Kilgallen, John J. A Brief Commentary on the Gospel of Mark Paulist Press 1989 ISBN 0-8091-3059-9
  • Miller, Robert J. Editor The Complete Gospels Polebridge Press 1994 ISBN 0-06-065587-9
  • Blomberg, Craig. Jesus and the Gospels, Apollos 1997.
  • Wright, N. T. Jesus and the Victory of God, Fortress 1996.

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