Mar 11, 2007

The Olivet Discourse (Part 1)

Mark 13:1–8

While they were in Jerusalem, Jesus told His disciples that the city and its temple would soon be destroyed. In this sermon, R.C. Sproul continues his exposition of Mark's gospel to examine a passage that proves the credibility of Christ’s predictions.


Let us turn our attention now to the Word of God as we continue our study of the gospel according to Saint Mark. Today we begin chapter 13, and I will be reading from Mark 13:1–8, with no guarantee that I will be able to cover all eight verses in this morning’s sermon. I will ask the congregation to rise for the reading of the Word of God:

Then as He went out of the temple, one of His disciples said to Him, “Teacher, see what manner of stones and what buildings are here!”

And Jesus answered and said to him, “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone shall be left upon another, that shall not be thrown down.”

Now as He sat on the Mount of Olives opposite the temple, Peter, James, John, and Andrew asked Him privately, “Tell us, when will these things be? And what will be the sign when all these things will be fulfilled?”

And Jesus, answering them, began to say: “Take heed that no one deceives you. For many will come in My name, saying, ‘I am He,’ and will deceive many. But when you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be troubled; for such things must happen, but the end is not yet. For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. And there will be earthquakes in various places, and there will be famines and troubles. These are the beginnings of sorrows.

What you have just heard is the unadulterated Word of God involving Jesus’ teaching on matters critical to the content of the Christian faith. May God grant you ears to hear and hearts that are willing to embrace what our Lord has taught in this passage. Please be seated. Let us pray.

O Lord, again we cry unto You that You would send help, for as we begin to deal with this most complex and difficult text, we need Your help. We pray that You would guard us from error and help us through the much confusion that attends this text. For we ask these things in Jesus’ name. Amen.

Jesus’ Predictive Prophecy

I am about to sail my ship into troubled waters, to say the least. As we come to Mark 13, we approach our Lord’s longest discourse in this gospel, which is replicated with small differing details in Matthew and Luke’s gospels. It is Jesus’ lengthy discussion about the future destruction of the temple, the destruction of Jerusalem, and His coming in glory at the end of the age.

On the one hand, this text represents the most amazing prediction of future events that we find in the New Testament. If there is any text that should prove the divine claims of Jesus, it is this text. He predicts, without any doubt, the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple years before that event took place. This is predictive prophecy of the highest magnitude. You would think that this text more than any other would vindicate and authenticate Jesus’ claim to be the Son of God, who speaks only those things that the Father has authorized.

At the same time, there is no text in the New Testament that bears more dramatic witness to the inspiration of sacred Scripture than this text because of its uncanny accuracy for predicting the future about the destruction of the temple and Jerusalem. However, there is no New Testament text that has been used more often for higher critical purposes and from the pens of skeptics both with respect to the identity of Christ and the trustworthiness of the New Testament.

On the one hand, it is the most powerful apologetic we have for our Christology and Scripture. On the other, it is the most controversial text that is utilized against the truth claims of Christianity.

When Bertrand Russell wrote his book Why I Am Not a Christian, he cited a portion of this discourse as being one of the chief reasons for his rejection of Christianity. I do not think a week went by in my seminary experience without some biblical scholar seeking to rub our noses in the difficulties of the Olivet Discourse and trying to use it to disprove the truth claims of the Bible.

How can that be, when what Jesus said would take place clearly did take place with the destruction of the temple and Jerusalem? The problem is that in addition to His prophecy of the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple, incorporated in this discourse was His prediction about His own coming in clouds of glory at the end of the age.

The Problem of Jesus’ Return

The problem, as we will see when the disciples asked for the time reference of these things, is that Jesus in this text and in Matthew’s gospel makes the assertion that this generation would not pass away until all the things included in this discourse came to pass, which would include His coming in clouds of glory.

Bertrand Russell said: “Jesus said that He would come back within the course of one generation, and He failed to do it. So, as amazing as the destruction of the temple and Jerusalem was, the credibility of Jesus and the credibility of the New Testament collapses with the time frame reference by which Jesus predicted His coming in glory.”

I have to say that, in my estimation, conservative Christians and evangelical scholars who have struggled with the tension of this text mostly fail to feel the real weight of this problem. I think it is the weightiest problem we have in the New Testament with respect to the truth claims of the nature of Christ and Scripture.

So, when I say we are sailing into troubled waters, we are sailing into troubled waters indeed, and I am not sure—I have to say this upfront—how to handle all the difficulties that present themselves in the Olivet Discourse. I have written an entire book on the matter titled The Last Days According to Jesus, in which I present a minority report on how I approach this portion of Scripture.

As we look at this text in the weeks to come, let us understand that we are dealing with a very complicated matter that touches the heart of the church’s confession. Both the Apostles’ Creed and the Nicene Creed affirm that we believe not only in the death and resurrection of Christ but we also believe in His future coming: the return of Christ in glory to consummate His kingdom. So, given those professions of faith, what do we do with this portion of Scripture?

In the critical theories of our day, much attention has been given to “postponement theology,” or the story of the parousia delay, or the delay of Jesus coming in glory. Critical scholars say that later in the New Testament, in Paul’s epistles for example, you already begin to see the church falling back to punt. It is fourth down and Jesus has not come in the timeframe that everybody expected Him to come, so the New Testament had to revise its future expectancy of the return of Christ, according to critical scholars.

All of that is background for the problem, and I want us to take the time now to look at the text itself. As we go through the coming weeks, when we see these problems that are so painful, I will endeavor to point them out and, by God’s grace, give some options for ways to resolve the difficulties.

The Magnificent Herodian Temple

Chapter 13 begins, “Then as He went out of the temple, one of His disciples said to Him, ‘Teacher, see what manner of stones and what buildings are here!’” As they left the place where Jesus had seen the widow give her mite in the treasury, a place where so many debates had taken place, they began to make their way to the Mount of Olives, opposite the temple complex.

One of the disciples turned and looked at the magnificent temple structure, which was truly one of the wonders of the ancient world. Still in amazement at this building, which he had probably seen hundreds of times, he said to Jesus: “Look at that. Isn’t that something?” He directed the gaze of Jesus not to the temple built by Solomon in the Old Testament, which was destroyed, but to the temple that was being rebuilt by Herod the Great. The construction of this temple by Herod had begun fifty years before this occasion. It still was not finished.

To give you some idea of the Herodian temple, the outer court measured five hundred by three hundred yards. The outer court was five football fields by three football fields. The temple itself took up thirty-five acres of ground. The building we are in this morning is situated on slightly less than six acres. If you multiply the whole acreage six times you get some idea of the size of the temple.

Herod was known throughout the world for his incredible construction products and for the development of what have been called “Herodian stones.” Josephus tells us that some of the stones making up the temple were sixty feet long. We are talking about one stone: sixty feet long, eleven feet high, eight feet deep, each one weighing over a million pounds. Some historians of antiquity said the temple of Herod in Jerusalem looked like a mountain of marble decorated with gold.

We heard in our Old Testament reading this morning of the instructions for the building of the furniture for the tabernacle in the wilderness. We read, for example, how the poles inserted in the exterior of the ark of the covenant were made of acacia wood and covered with pure gold. We listened to the descriptions of the design of the mercy seat, made from pure gold.

So now, with Herod’s massive temple being almost finished at this point, it was considered a mountain of marble and gold. The wall of the temple and the sanctuary itself were 150 feet high. Our building’s walls are around thirty-three feet. Go up more than five times that, and you get an idea of the height of the temple sanctuary’s interior in Jerusalem.

If you go to Jerusalem today, it is an incredible sight to see the walls of Jerusalem rising out of the desert floor. At night, they are illuminated with giant searchlights, and you can see the wall that surrounds the old city is seventy-five feet high. It takes your breath away when you look at it. Then you go inside and see that archeologists have dug down below the wall seventy-five feet more to the base of the wall that surrounded Jerusalem at the time of Jesus. It is staggering when you realize that what you are looking at today is only half of what was there at the time of Jesus.

The columns that held up the portico were so large that it would take three men expanding their arms to the fingertips to barely put their arms around one column. I do not need to tell you much more. This was an incredible building.

The disciples were looking at the temple, standing in awe of what seemed to be an impregnable structure that nothing imaginable could destroy. As the disciples were in awe at this magnificent edifice, Jesus said: “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone shall be left upon another, that shall not be thrown down.” In other words: “Do you see those sixty by eight by eleven feet stones that weigh one million pounds? They’re going to be crushed into dust.”

Sometimes we can make future prognostications based upon current trends. But there were no trends in the ancient world that would allow somebody to make a natural prediction of the destruction of this magnificent building such that the stones themselves would be cast down. Indeed, in future history, it would take the full measure and magnitude of the power of the Roman armies to bring this prophecy to pass.

Signs of the Times

They reached the Mount of Olives, and as Jesus sat on the Mount of Olives opposite the temple, Peter, James, John, and Andrew asked Him a question privately. This is where we begin to get into some trouble, because the questions the disciples brought to Jesus about His prediction of the destruction of the temple were: “Tell us, when will these things be? And what will be the sign when all these things will be fulfilled?”

There is a phrase here we must take note of because it occurs throughout the Olivet Discourse, and it is “these things (tauta)” in the phrase, “When will be the sign that all these things (tauta panta) shall come to pass?” There are two questions here: “When?” and “What will be the sign that it’s about to happen?”

As we read Jesus’ response to their questions, let me ask you to do something. Try to imagine that you are one of the disciples who has just asked that question. Jesus has made a specific prediction about the destruction of the temple, and now you say, “When?” That is a straightforward question, is it not? Then you ask, “What will be the sign, the outward manifestation that all of this is about to happen?”

The disciples were asking about the signs of the times. They were asking about the signs of the fulfillment of Jesus’ prophecy, which as we will see later includes Jesus’ prediction of His return on the clouds of glory. We will see later in the text that the phrase “all these things” encompasses Jesus’ prediction of His return at the end of the age and the destruction of Jerusalem.

Let me telescope for a moment. Jesus said: “Three things are going to happen: one, the temple is going to be destroyed; two, Jerusalem is going to be destroyed; three, I’ll be coming on the clouds of glory at the end of the age.” The first question out of the disciples’ mouths is, “Well when will that be?”

When Will These Take Place?

The standard view among Christians today is that these things will happen soon, especially since so many things are happening in Israel and Jerusalem today. So many Christians think that maybe we are nearing the point when finally, Jesus will return, and all these prophecies in the Olivet Discourse will be fulfilled.

It has been a long time since the demise of that first generation, but imagine yourself in the disciples’ shoes. They asked Jesus, “When are these things going to take place?” Jesus said to them, “Not one generation will pass away until all of these things are fulfilled.”

What would you think He meant? Would you imagine He was talking about something that was going to take place more than two thousand years later? Or would you think He was talking about something that would take place in the near future, at least within the framework of one generation, which in Jewish terms measured forty years?

Elsewhere, in similar predictions, Jesus says, “You will not go over all of the cities of Israel until you will see the kingdom of God coming in power.” Elsewhere, He says, “Some of you will not taste death until all of these things are fulfilled.”

If you look at those three texts together—as critical scholars do and as Bertrand Russell did—you might say, “It’s clear that Jesus taught and expected the consummation of His kingdom to occur within a timeframe of forty years.” It did not happen, so we have people now trying to dig up His bones and the bones of Mary Magdalene.

False Messiahs and Rumors of War

Let us look at how Jesus answered the disciples’ very straightforward question. The text says: “And Jesus, answering them, began to say: ‘Take heed that no one deceives you.’” The first thing He warned them about was deception. They asked, “When are these things going to take place?” He answered, “First of all, you must be careful because there will be attempts to deceive you about these matters.” He continued, “For many will come in My name, saying, ‘I am He,’ and will deceive many.” The first sign of the fulfillment of Jesus’ prophecy was false messiahs that would come.

Those looking for a fulfillment of this prophecy point to people in our day who claim to be God incarnate and the false prophets that abound. However, the first century experienced significant false messiahs who claimed to be the return of Jesus. Those are documented in Jewish history, particularly in the writings of Josephus. So, Jesus predicted false Messiahs would come, and false Messiahs did come before the temple was destroyed. Let us keep that in front of us.

Second, “When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be troubled; for such things must happen, but the end is not yet.” I see people reading the paper today, and every time a war breaks out in Iran or Iraq or wherever, they say: “See, this is a sign of the time. Jesus is coming right around the corner because we’re hearing all about these wars and rumors of wars.” But of course, there are wars and rumors of wars in every generation.

Meanwhile, you are sitting there as one of the disciples, asking Jesus, “What will be the sign when these things will happen?” He said: “Be careful, don’t be deceived. There will be rumors of wars and wars before these things take place.” You are a disciple of Jesus, and you are thinking that these rumors of wars and wars will be a harbinger before the destruction of the temple and Jerusalem. So, you will pay attention to wars and to rumors of wars.

In AD 40, the mad emperor Caligula tried to establish a statue of himself in the sacred precincts of the temple in Jerusalem. Rumors were rife that war was about to break out and the Romans were going to invade the Jews to try to stop their protests against Caligula’s profound sacrilege. But as it were, they were just rumors, and war did not break out until the Jewish revolt in AD 66, which ended in the destruction of the temple and Jerusalem in AD 70.

Signs in the First Century

Jesus said: “You’ll hear about wars and rumors of wars, but don’t be troubled. Such things must happen, but the end is not yet. For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. And there will be earthquakes in various places, and there will be famines and troubles. These are the beginnings of sorrows.”

Modern prognosticators, who are looking for the return of Jesus any time in the next few weeks, call attention to the serious famines that affect the world in our day. Famines have broken out in Armenia and have taken a tremendous toll in Ethiopia and other nations in Africa in our time.

At the same time, between the years AD 41 and 54, during the reign of Claudius, who came after Caligula and before Nero, there were several serious famines that affected Near Eastern communities. A tremendous earthquake hit the region of Phrygia in AD 61, and the city of Pompeii was leveled in AD 63. In that timeframe of the first generation, terrible famines, wars, rumors of wars, and earthquakes all took place during the lifetime of the surviving disciples and Apostles.

The ancient historian Tacitus records manifold disasters in great detail during the time between Jesus’ prediction of destruction and the actual destruction of the temple in AD 70, which leads me to conclude that when Jesus talked about the signs to take place before the end actually occurs, those signs are just the beginning of sorrows. I believe our Lord was calling attention to things that would happen in the first century, which did in fact happen in the first century.

The reason we transfer and transpose these disasters to the yet unfulfilled future is because what did not happen apparently was His return in the clouds of glory. So, do you see how this squeezes and puts pressure on our brains as we seek to understand it? If we are going to look for the signs of the times, let us look first at the first generation.

The Credibility of Jesus

Let me say one thing to anticipate how we will resolve this problem. I remember walking down a street in Wenham, Massachusetts, forty years ago. I was on a long, leisurely stroll with Dr. William Lane, who spent more than ten years researching scholarly work on interpreting the gospel of Mark. Dr. Lane, at that very time, was working on chapter 13 and thinking about the problem this text presents.

As we were talking, he became almost giddy because he felt he had an epiphany that explained these difficulties in the Olivet Discourse, tied into the phrase I have already mentioned, “all these things.” When his commentary was completed, he set forth that epiphany in it. I remember being very excited and thinking, “I think you have something here, and this may be the solution to this awful problem.” I do not believe that anymore. I am not satisfied with that solution.

What scholars often do is talk about predictive prophecy that will have an immediate fulfillment as a type and then a later fulfillment in its full magnitude. That is maybe what we have here in chapter 13. Others have squeezed the text about “this generation,” and we will look at that further when we get to it.

I have yet to find an explanation for all these difficulties that totally resolves them, at least to my satisfaction. I hate to stand up here before you as your pastor and preach sermons on a particular text of Scripture where I end up saying: “I don’t know. I can give you some ideas.”

Before we try to solve a problem, it is essential that we understand the full measure of that problem. We are dealing with something of the highest magnitude of importance for the credibility of Jesus and Scripture. I am much more concerned about that than I am to defend any particular eschatology or millennial view. As you know, there are many of those views that seriously divide Christians. But we will look at these issues more thoroughly as the text progresses.

This transcript has been lightly edited for readability.