Eschatology Outlines: No. 3A The Olivet Discourse 

Posted by R. Fowler White

Getting Our Bearings on the End from Jesus:
Overview of the Olivet Discourse

I. As others have noted, for many the study of the Olivet Discourse specifically and eschatology (aka the future, last things) generally is overwhelming and ought to be avoided because it’s daunting, divisive, and leads to some to bizarre and kooky conclusions. After all, experienced and mature Christians, even after considerable study, differ over even the basic approach to these subjects. Can we expect to reach a settled conviction on these matters when such differences exist? Isn’t it best perhaps to leave the subject alone? In short, no. The better approach is to keep studying, proceeding methodically.

II. It is vital, for example, to consult the church’s historic creeds, confessions, and catechisms composed over the centuries by the shepherds and teachers whom Christ has given to His church. We consult those documents not as rules for our faith, but as helps in our faith. From them we learn where consensus and differences have existed. We also learn which conclusions are novel or new, thus requiring weightier evidence than usual to convince others.

III. Turning to Scripture as our rule of faith, we should reckon with the way Jesus responds to the disciples’ questions about the future. His response should forever silence the notion that the study of last things ought to be avoided. The disciples came to Jesus after His words regarding the future (see, e.g., Matt 23:37–24:3), even if we still find ourselves asking, “the future of exactly what?” The disciples asked Jesus questions about the temple’s destruction, about the end of the age, and about His coming, questions showing that they already had knowledge of certain future events and that they were still curious about those events, questions requiring detailed responses from Jesus. One important thing to notice is that Jesus considered their questions to be legitimate concerns. He did not discourage or chide His disciples for asking questions about the future. In fact, the Discourse that Jesus gave following their questions is the longest answer that He ever gave to any of the questions they asked. We ought, it appears, to be very interested in the topics related to last things.

IV. Three interpretations of the Olivet Discourse: Jesus answers His disciples’ questions by connecting the temple destruction, the end of the age, and His coming to either 1) the judgment of Jerusalem, or 2) the judgment of the world (the present creation), or 3) the judgment of both Jerusalem and the world. For our purposes, option #3 accounts for more of the evidence than the others.

V. General orientation to the Olivet Discourse: Jesus teaches His disciples to compare the days of His coming with the days of Noah and of Lot. See Luke 17:22-37 and its parallels.—In Scripture God has not left us without guidelines and boundaries by which to understand and anticipate the future. He has given us examples, patterns, shadows (foreshadowings), and types of the future. In fact, it is the past that is a predictor of the future: the past tells us the shape of things to come. From episodes of divine judgment in biblical history, we discern that divine judgment has a patterned character, and from it we can learn what God wants us to know about the future. As we see in our “Eschatology Outlines: No. 2 Noah and Lot,” divine judgment followed the discernible pattern narrated in Genesis 6–7 (cf. Jesus’ words, “as in the days of Noah”; see also 2 Peter 3). We get our bearings on our questions about the future by noticing that in His Olivet Discourse Jesus instructs us to compare the day of His coming, the days of Noah, and the days of Lot.

A. As we suggested above (under IV.), in the Olivet Discourse Jesus presents the judgments on both Jerusalem and the present creation side by side, the former judgment being a microcosmic version that foreshadows the latter, macrocosmic judgment to come. We might use the word stereoscopic (cf. stereophonic) to describe this presentation of the two judgments in the one context of the Discourse. (Aside: arguably, a similar stereoscopic presentation of these two judgments is at work in Revelation.)

B. Presuming for the sake of this post that Jesus presents both judgments in the Discourse, one thing that makes discerning the distinction between the two judgments challenging is the fact that they both follow the paradigm of the flood judgment. (Recall that the days of Lot followed the pattern of the days of Noah.) Generally, though, we can distinguish the two by giving careful attention to temporal markers and geographical markers in the text (e.g., the beginning vs. the end of birth pains; in Judea vs. from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other).

C. Given the markers of time and place in the Discourse, Jesus’ intent seems clearly, in part, to get the disciples to disconnect Jerusalem’s destruction from creation’s destruction: that is, He wants them to understand that the two judgments won’t happen contemporaneously. Jesus bases that disconnection on, among other things, this observation: both judgments take for granted that the remnant, whether in the nation or in the world, has come to salvation through gospel preaching. So, before creation’s destruction but separate from Jerusalem’s destruction, the gospel must go to all the nations so that, once the destruction of creation arrives, the elect remnant from all those nations might be gathered from the four winds of the earth. 

D. In other words, Jesus would have the disciples to keep this straight: whether they’re thinking about the destruction of the nation’s temple or of creation’s temple, the destruction of either temple presupposes that the populations associated with each have been evangelized and that the elect remnant in each has been saved. This observation doesn’t answer every question, of course, but it seems to help.

VI. Periodization in the Discourse: Jesus answers their questions by describing what He calls a period of birth pains, a period with a beginning, Matt 24:8, and an end, Matt 24:6, 13-14.

A. The beginning of birth pains is linked historically with the Great Commission because gospel witness, tribulation, and persecution among all the nations are all linked with the birth pains.

B. The end of birth pains comes at the end of the age, Matt 24:3. As such, it ushers in the regeneration (of heaven and earth), Matt 19:28, a situation otherwise known as the eternal state that follows the Day of Judgment, Matt 25:31-32, 46; 13:40-43, 49-50. (Interestingly enough, the word regeneration encourages us to compare the emergence of the new heavens and earth with the creation of the world, Gen 2:4.)

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