Geographic Range of the Olivet Discourse

SYNOPSIS:  The Olivet Discourse describes events set in two different geographic settings – regional and universal.

Globe Photo by Juliana Kozoski on Unsplash
Juliana Kozoski on Unsplash

In popular interpretations, the Olivet Discourse is a description by Jesus of catastrophic global events that will transpire in the final years prior to his return in glory. Supposedly, earthquakes, famines and wars will increase in frequency and intensity across the planet.  The Temple will be rebuilt in Jerusalem in which the Anti-Christ will make a dramatic appearance.

The “stage” on which all these future events are to unfold is global, according to his popular understanding. But does this picture fit the geographic references made by Jesus in his final teaching discourse? He was asked two questions by the disciples; first, when will the Temple standing at that time be destroyed? Second, what will be the “sign” of his coming and the “end of the age”?

Jesus answered his disciples in what has become known as the ‘Olivet Discourse.’ Often overlooked is how the geographic references he included alternate between the local and the universal.

Regional

Jesus warned that his disciples would be “delivered up to councils and in synagogues, they will be flogged.” The Greek word used for “councils” is sanhedrin, the term used in the gospel accounts for the ruling council of religious authorities in Jerusalem. But here he puts it in the plural or “sanhedrins” (Mark 13:9).

In his discourse, “sanhedrins” refers to local Jewish councils in the towns and villages of Judea that had the authority to make judgments and mete out punishment on matters of Jewish religious law. But they had no legal standing with the Roman government or any authority over local Gentile populations. The Book of Acts provides examples of this predicted form of persecution against disciples of Jesus (Acts 4:15, 5:21-41, 6:12-15, 22:30, 23:1-6).

Synagogue” refers to the building in a town or village where Jews gathered for prayer and Scripture reading. The Book of Acts also gives examples of conflicts between Christian and non-Christian Jews that took place in such synagogues, for example:

For example, Saul was “breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, and went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues at Damascus so that if he found any belonging to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem” (Acts 9:1-2).

Flogging” refers to the Jewish punishment of forty lashes. The whip was commonly applied thirty-nine times to avoid exceeding the designated maximum of forty lashes. Paul referred to his subjection to this form of Jewish punishment on several occasions in 2 Corinthians 11:24 - “Five times I have received at the hands of the Jews the forty lashes less one” (Deuteronomy 25:2-3).

In view is a Jewish form of punishment administered by Jews to Jews who were judged to be in violation of the Law of Moses or, at least, the interpretations of it preserved in the oral tradition of the “elders.”

The reference to “leaders and kings” is generic. It could refer to Jewish or Gentile political leaders, kings and governors, or both. The Book of Acts provides several examples of Christians examined by Gentile rulers, including Paul examined before Festus and King Agrippa (Mark 13:9, Acts 25:13ff).

Jesus warned his disciples of a coming “abomination of desolation.” When they saw this, then “those who are in Judea must flee to the mountains.” This phrase locates the predicted event in Judea. Disciples there must flee to the mountains, not ones located in Rome, Alexandria, or other parts of the Empire. The geographic area affected by the event would be regional, not global.

The Gospel of Luke is more specific. “When you see Jerusalem encompassed by armies, then know that her desolation has drawn near. Then they who are in Judea, let them flee into the mountains.” Not only will this event take place in Judea, Luke also links it to the city of Jerusalem. He calls it, “her desolation,” using the same Greek word translated abomination of “desolation” elsewhere or erémōsis (Matthew 24:15Mark 13:14Luke 21:20-21).

This Greek noun appears in the New Testament only in these three passages (Matthew 24:15Mark 13:14Luke 21:20-21). It is the same word used in the Greek Septuagint version of the book of Daniel for the “abomination of desolation” (Daniel 8:13, 9:27, 11:31, 12:11).

Luke connects this “abomination of desolation” to the desolation of Jerusalem. According to his account, it occurs when Jerusalem is “surrounded by armies.” When that happens Christians in Jerusalem and Judea must flee to the mountains.

In Mark 13:18, Jesus instructed his disciples to pray that, “it may not happen in winter.” In Palestine, the rainy season came in winter. A wadi or gully that was dry most of the year could become a swollen river. Flash floods often made such streams impassable.

In Matthew 24:20, Jesus expressed his wish that the flight from Jerusalem would not occur on a “Sabbath Day.” Travel was severely restricted in Judea on the Sabbath day and the gates of Jerusalem were customarily closed to prevent anyone from entering or leaving. If this event occurs on the Sabbath believers could be prevented from fleeing the city.

The account in Luke Chapter 21 describes a time of “great distress upon the land and wrath against this people.” As the context demonstrates, “the land” refers to the region of Judea (verses 21, 24), not to the entire planet. The designation of Palestine as “the land” is common in scripture.

This will be a time of wrath against “this people.” Luke employs the Greek term laos for “people.” In the Greek scriptures, laos normally refers to the “people” of Israel in distinction from other “nations” or ethnos (Luke 21:22-23, Matthew 2:4, Acts 10:2, 15:14, Romans 9:25-26).

Luke qualifies this identification further with the demonstrative pronoun, “this people.” This echoes the references of Jesus to “this generation” (e.g., Matthew 23:34-39, 24:34).

In Luke 21:24, Jesus predicted that the people of Judea would “fall by the edge of the sword and be carried away captive into all the nations, and Jerusalem will be trodden down by the Gentiles until the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled.” This violent judgment was to transpire in Judea and center on Jerusalem. The description of captivity and the city being trodden indicates the destruction of the city would occur during a period of time before the coming of the Son of Man. How long this period would be (the “times of the Gentiles”), Jesus did not state.

Universal Scope

In Mark 13:24-25, Jesus described a period “after” the time of tribulation referred to in the preceding section when the “sun will be darkened and the moon will not give her brightness, and the stars will fall out of the heavens and the powers which are in the heavens will be shaken.” This portrayed an event or events distinct from those depicted in verses 5-23. The two sets of events may be related, but they are separated by a period of some duration.
The events detailed in Mark 13:5-23 are localized in the land of Palestine and centered on the city of Jerusalem. Those predicted in verses 24-25 include cosmic upheaval and are global if not universal in extent and effect. 

In Mark 13:26, Jesus predicted that when this cosmic upheaval occurred, “then will they see the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory.” Who are the “they” in the clause?

In Matthew 24: 30, “they” are identified as “all the tribes of the earth” who “mourn” when they see the Son of Man coming. “Tribe” or phulé most often refers to different ethnic groups. It is the same term used for the twelve “tribes” of Israel. In this verse, phulé includes “all the tribes of the earth” and the predicted events encompass something far larger than the territory of Judea.

In Mark 13:27, when these cosmic events occur, the angels of heaven “gather together the elect out of the four winds, from utmost bound of the earth unto the utmost bound of heaven.” The range of the described events is universal, not local. The angels gather all of God’s elect from all corners of the globe.

The highpoint of Mark 13:5-23 is the arrival in Jerusalem of the “abomination of desolation.” This brings in a time of unparalleled affliction for those in Judea, including God’s “elect.” When Christians in Jerusalem see this “abomination of desolation” they must flee to the mountains. The instruction to flee and seek refuge elsewhere means this event does not constitute the end when Jesus arrives in glory, otherwise, why flee? Some amount of time must remain following the “abomination of desolation” before history reaches its consummation.

In contrast, in Mark 13:24-27, there is no instruction to flee. Instead, when the Son of Man comes, he dispatches his angels to gather his “elect” from all regions of the earth. Since the arrival of Jesus causes cosmic upheaval and is universal in effect, fleeing is pointless. At that time, those not of the “elect,” the “tribes of the earth,” mourn because there will be no escape for them, while the elect will be gathered to the Son (cp. Revelation 6:12-17 ["...fall on us and hide us from the face of him who is seated on the throne, and from the wrath of the Lamb; for the great day of their wrath has come and who can stand before it?"]).

Conclusions

The Olivet Discourse describes events set in two different geographic settings. In Mark Chapter 13, the events in verses 5-23 occur in the region of Judea and center on Jerusalem. Their effects are regional, and the geographic range is limited.

The events detailed in Mark 13:24-27 include cosmic upheaval and are universal in scope. The two sets of predicted events may be related but they are separated by a period of time, however long or short, and the extent of their geographic effects differs.

In sorting this out, the reader should always bear in mind the questions that prompted this discourse of Jesus. After his prediction of the destruction of the Temple then standing, the disciples asked, “When will these things be?”

This query referred to the destruction of Herod’s Temple, which Jesus had just foretold (and nowhere in the Olivet Discourse does Jesus predict a future rebuilt Temple). They then asked, “What will be the sign of your arrival and the conclusion of the age?” The first question was about events localized in Palestine, the second concerned things global and even cosmic in scope.

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