Every so often, I run across people who pick up on a certain verse in the Olivet discourse and are troubled by it. The occasion for these troubles appears when Jesus shares a message about the destruction of Jerusalem and the end of the world and is questioned about it by His disciples on the Mt. of Olives—hence the title ‘Olivet discourse’. The sermon is found in all three synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke) and one verse within it seems to give the impression that Jesus says He’s returning within the lifetime of the apostles. At first glance it can sound problematic:
“Truly I tell you, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away” (Luke 21:32-33).
It seems as if Jesus is telling the twelve disciples that before the people of His present generation die, He will return and the world will enter into judgment. Without any surrounding context we could be forgiven for assuming this idea. However, if one practices good hermeneutics (the science of interpretation) than the aforementioned explanation encounters some serious difficulties in itself. But before they are discussed let’s look at the passage in general.
The discussion starts when Jesus walks away from the Temple in Jerusalem and says to His disciples that this famously hallowed monument of Jewish life will be utterly destroyed. Later, his inner three, Peter, James, and John approach him privately and ask when this will happen. What is also forgotten however, is that they also ask Him when the final judgment will happen: “Tell us,” they said, “when will this happen, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?” (Matthew 24:3b). The first thing to note here then, might be that there are two events in question that aren’t necessarily one and the same—the first being the destruction of Jerusalem, the latter Jesus’ second coming and end of the age. Prophecy in the Bible is sometimes called ‘telescopic’ meaning that major future events that span large time gaps can be compressed into one passage, just like viewing a landscape of mountains and simultaneously viewing peaks together that are in fact miles apart. The Olivet discourse might be a good case in point.
In Jesus’ answer to the question, He lays out a harrowing description of events, ranging from a a coming city siege where women will find themselves worse off if pregnant or nursing, global mass deception, widespread lovelessness, natural catastrophes like earthquakes and perhaps tsunami’s, and finally the universal vision of His coming—”as lighting strikes in the East and is visible in the West.”
The prophecy is startling and His ultimate point is to paint a picture of what world conditions will be like before His return. So, is this multi-pronged prediction telling us that Jesus should have returned long ago? In a word, no, there are several reasons, both within and outside the prophecy that eliminate this from being the case.
The Olivet discourse in Luke (which includes the passage in question) is found in chapter twenty-one, but just four chapters earlier, Jesus is having a clear discussion about His Second coming with the Pharisees and His disciples. He’s questioned as to when the Kingdom of God, in the form of God’s visible reign, is going to manifest. He responds by saying that it is already present among them, in that He, the King of God’s coming Kingdom is presently speaking to them (vs. 21). But then He goes on to address the full meat of their question by telling His disciples that they will soon long for the full manifestation of His Kingdom to come, the time when God will make all things right, but that none of them will see ever see it because there is a time gap between when that will happen and their present generation:
“Then he said to his disciples, “The time is coming when you will long to see one of the days of the Son of Man, but you will not see it. People will tell you, ‘There he is!’ or ‘Here he is!’ Do not go running off after them. For the Son of Man in his day will be like the lightning, which flashes and lights up the sky from one end to the other. But first he must suffer many things and be rejected by this generation.” (Luke 17:22-25).
They will yearn to see His return but their hopes will not be fulfilled. Also important to note is his description of the last day here parallels what He’s saying in the Olivet prophecies. Examine Luke 17- “People will tell you, ‘There he is!’ or ‘Here he is!’ Do not go running off after them. For the Son of Man in his day will be like the lightning, which flashes and lights up the sky from one end to the other,” alongside another common (among all three gospels) Olivet passage, “At that time if anyone says to you, ‘Look, here is the Messiah!’ or, ‘There he is!’ do not believe it … For as lightning that comes from the east is visible even in the west, so will be the coming of the Son of Man.” (Matthew 24:23,27). The event in question seems to be the same in both passages, but in Luke 17, Jesus explicitly tells the disciples that they belong to a different generation than the one which will see it.
Now let’s look at the Olivet discourse itself, there are several parts which preclude it from having an immediate fulfillment. In Luke 21, when Jesus is describing the destruction of the Temple, He also adds some further details that tell us there will be a considerable span of time between its destruction and His second coming:
“There will be great distress in the land and wrath against this people. They will fall by the sword and will be taken as prisoners to all the nations. Jerusalem will be trampled on by the Gentiles until the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled” (vs. 22-24).
Here Jesus tells us that the destruction of Jerusalem will be a part of God’s wrath against the nation and that its people will be put to the sword or taken captive to all nations. This is precisely what happened in 70 A.D. when the Roman ruler Titus destroyed and burned the Temple, killed over a million Jews and took thousands into slavery throughout the Roman empire. Jesus’ words were fulfilled with devastating accuracy. But He also mentions that Jerusalem will be run afoot by Gentiles (non-Jewish people) until their “times” would be fulfilled. This means they would only have control of the city for a certain period before it would be given back to the Jewish people. A hundred years ago the idea of Jewish people re-inhabiting Jerusalem would have seemed preposterous, but today, in the reborn state of Israel where Jerusalem is under Jewish authority, we know that the times of the Gentiles are over and done with. The main point here is that It would have been impossible for the Jewish people to have been conquered, sold into slavery throughout the various nations of the world and then somehow return and re-inhabit Jerusalem with authority in a single generation. To make matters clearer, Jesus speaks of “times,” indicating different eras.
The idea that Jesus is telling His disciples that their contemporaries were going to see His second coming is eliminated by the prophecy itself. Other passages also imply the need for an alternative explanation. Aside from His declaration in Luke 17 there are parts of the Olivet prophecy which also imply large time gaps between the present generation and that of the second coming, such as the worldwide distribution of the His message. Jesus probably knew the earth was larger than the Roman Empire, and to reach even those inhabitants would require more than a single generation. So how should we respond to Jesus’ statement that seems to imply an immediate fulfillment?
Others have answered this question by reminding us that the word ‘generation’ could refer to the Jewish nation in general (since it can also mean “people” in Greek) or to the people who would first be witness to these cataclysmic events, as in the reborn Jewish nation and surrounding world. It’s also important to remember the idea of telescoping in prophecy, seeing as how Jesus is answering the question about when two distinct events will occur. They may not be entirely distinct in the minds of the disciples (we don’t know) but Jesus is responding to a question about two different things and certain seam lines in the Olivet discourse may point to Jesus describing different time periods. For instance, He says that wars and rumors of wars are only the beginning of birth pains, and that before all this His message must first be preached to all nations; then describing the persecutions they’ll face when communicating it. He doesn’t seem to be giving a precise chronology of how things will play out. There’s also the possibility of a kind of “double fulfillment,” where the passage applied both to His and future generations. He gives an accurate description of what happened in 70 A.D. but other prophecies also paint similar pictures of a future destruction of a rebuilt Temple. The Olivet discourse is likely foreshadowing the immediate and final destruction of Jerusalem. Finally, some aspects of Bible prophecy are only intelligible after the fact. This doesn’t mean that we conform vague predictions to current events, but sometimes in clear predictions, there are other elements that only make sense within the immediate time context of their fulfillment.
I think all of the above have a part to play in understanding the Olivet discourse and its apparently difficult section. Jesus has already made clear there will be a time gap between His contemporaries and the second coming in various places, so it would be very presumptuous of us to think He’s trying to say something that He explicitly denies elsewhere. Perhaps a grain of humility is needed, along with an eye for the mystery of God’s revelation. Furthermore, Bible prophecy is still playing out before the world’s eyes today. God’s ultimate purpose and plans, displayed through such prophetic writings as Daniel, Zechariah, Ezekiel, the Gospels, Epistles, and especially the book of Revelation (written after the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D.) still are doing a fairly good job at foretelling world scenarios. At the moment we appear to be on the precipice of seeing many last events come into play. How long it will take to see these end time occurrences is anyone’s guess but what we can be sure of is that the stage is being set for God’s final scenes. During that time, aspects of the Olivet prophecy, as well as many other predicition’s will be brought to life before the globe’s eyes in cataclysmic ways. Let us be ready for the return of our God and Savior, keeping our eyes on Him in the midst of any temporal troubles.
“…in the last days scoffers will come, scoffing and following their own evil desires. They will say, “Where is this ‘coming’ he promised? Ever since our ancestors died, everything goes on as it has since the beginning of creation … But do not forget this one thing, dear friends: With the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day. The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. Instead he is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance” (2 Peter 3:3-4,8-9).