The Olivet Discourse was a prophetic conversation that Jesus had with his closest followers. From where they would have been sitting, they faced one of the most beautiful buildings in the world at the time, the Temple that had been reconstructed by Herod the Great. Jesus noticed that they were impressed by the structure and He said:
As he was leaving the temple, one of his disciples said to him, “Look, Teacher! What massive stones! What magnificent buildings!”
“Do you see all these great buildings?” replied Jesus. “Not one stone here will be left on another; every one will be thrown down.” (Mark 13:1-2, NIV)
In the above passage, Jesus predicted that the Temple in Jerusalem would be destroyed. The center of all religious and cultural life for the Jewish people was about to be flattened. As the disciples gazed upon the glory of the Temple, two questions came to mind that would spur on Jesus to begin to speak prophetically. The first question was: When will these things be? The second: What will be the sign of their fulfillment? Matthew, Mark, and Luke all contain a version of this discourse, however only Matthew contains the added idea of Christ’s coming and the end of the age.
Many theologians over the years have assumed that Jesus’ answer to the above two questions deal mostly with yet unfulfilled prophecies about the end of the world. In older translations of Scripture, the word aion and kosmos (cosmos) are often used interchangeably. This is a mistake and has been corrected in most translations of modern versions of the Bible. The word that is used in the Olivet Discourse is aion, and therefore the question that concerned the disciples had to do with their current age coming to a close rather than the current world coming to an end. Keeping that in mind, one must discern if this teaching has more to do with the future of the world, or was Jesus pointing to some other event?
In the past few hundred years, the narrative that follows the disciple’s questions has had to do with our future. What this means is that Jesus was speaking of things that did not directly affect the lives of the disciples, but rather of cataclysmic events that in our future would lead to the end of the space-time cosmic universe. John MacArthur, for instance, believes that Jesus’ statements were fulfilled in regards to the destruction under the invading Romans in the first century; however, the “…most important aspects of His prophecy were not fulfilled in the destruction in AD 70.” Other evangelicals have understood this discourse as Jesus’ commentary on some first century events (those that led to the destruction of the Temple), but that they were a foreshadowing of the great tribulation that corresponds to the futurist perspective of other apocalyptic literature. Andrew Perriman comments:
So, here is what I want to discuss. Who is being addressed by the questions the disciples pose to Jesus? What have you thought or been taught in your tradition? Does Mark chapter 13 (and corosponding passages) speak: 1) mostly about the future tribulation leading to the destruction of the present heavens and earth, 2) [both/and] Jesus uses the question about the Temple as a springboard to also talk about the ‘End Times,’ or 3) Jesus uses images familiar to his hearers to depict the coming destruction of the Temple in 70 AD? Can our view of this passage affect how we view our world in the present?
John MacArthur, The Second Coming:: Signs of Christ’s Return and the End of the Age (Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway Books, 1999), 69.
R.C. Sproul, The Last Days According to Jesus: When Did Jesus Say He Would Return? (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1998), 31.
MacArthur, The Second Coming: Signs of Christ’s Return and the End of the Age, 69.
Sproul, The Last Days According to Jesus: When Did Jesus Say He Would Return?, 31.
MacArthur, The Second Coming: Signs of Christ’s Return and the End of the Age, 78.
Andrew Perriman, The Coming of the Son of Man: New Testament Eschatology for an Emerging Church (Waynesboro, Georgia: Paternoster Press, 2005), 18-19.