10 August 2019

Geographic Range of the Olivet Discourse

World Map by brett-zeck-eyfMgGvo9PA-unsplash
In popular interpretations of the Olivet Discourse of Jesus is presented as a description of catastrophic events that transpire in the final years just prior to the return of Jesus, events that dramatically impact the entire planet.
Thus, during History’s final years earthquakes, famines and wars increase in frequency and intensity, believers are severely persecuted, the Temple is rebuilt in Jerusalem, the Anti-Christ makes a dramatic appearance in the Temple, Jerusalem is besieged by pagan armies and Christ suddenly appears in the nick of time to save the Jewish people.
The “stage” on which all this takes place is portrayed as global if not cosmic in scale. But does this picture fit the evidence? Jesus was asked two questions: when will the Temple that was THEN standing be destroyed, a destruction Jesus had just predicted, and what will be the sign of his coming and the End of the Age? He proceeded to answer both questions in what is now his ‘Olivet Discourse.’ The geographic settings he lays out dovetail nicely with the two questions.
Regional
In Mark 13:9b, Jesus warns that his disciples “will be delivered up to councils and in synagogues, they will be flogged.” The Greek word for “councils” is Sanhedrin, here plural. It refers to local Jewish councils in towns and villages. Such assemblies had the authority to make judgments and mete out punishment on matters of Jewish law and practice, but they had no legal standing with the Roman government or authority over surrounding Gentile populations. The Book of Acts provides examples of this predicted form of persecution (Acts 4:15ff, 5:21-41, 6:12-15, 22:30, 23:1-6).
“Synagogue” refers to the building in a town or villages 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 (Acts 6:9, 9:1-2).
For example, Acts 9:1-2 describes how 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.”
“Flogging” likely refers to the Jewish punishment of forty lashes (Deuteronomy 25:2-3). The whip was commonly applied thirty-nine times to avoid exceeding the designated maximum of forty lashes. Paul referred to his subjection several times to this form of Jewish punishment in 2 Corinthians 11:24 (“five times I have received at the hands of the Jews the forty lashes less one”). In view is a Jewish form of punishment administered by Jews to Jews perceived to be in error.
The reference to “leaders and kings” in Mark 13:9 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 such as Festus and King Agrippa (Acts 25:13ff).
Jesus warns his disciples in Mark 13:14 of a coming “abomination of desolation.” When they see this then “let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains.” This phrase locates the predicted event in Judea. It is disciples of Jesus who are in Judea that must flee to the mountains, not those located in Rome, Alexandria or other parts of the Empire. The geographic range of this event is highly localized.
The Gospel of Luke is more specific. In Luke 21:20-21, Jesus warns, “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, but Luke also links it directly to the City of Jerusalem. Luke calls it “her desolation,” using the same Greek word translated abomination of “desolation” in Matthew 24:15 and Mark 13:14 (erémōsis). This Greek noun appears in the New Testament only in these three verses. This is the same word used in the Greek Septuagint version 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 instructs 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 expresses his wish that the flight from Jerusalem does 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 may be prevented from fleeing the city.
Luke 21:22-23 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 the entire planet. The designation of Palestine as “the land” is common enough 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” (ethnos). Compare Matthew 2:4, Acts 10:2, 15:14, Romans 9:25-26. Luke qualifies this further with the demonstrative pronoun, “this people.” This brings to mind the references of Jesus to “this generation” (e.g., Matthew 23:34-39, 24:34).
In Luke 21:24, Jesus predicts that the people of Judea will “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 judgment transpires in Judea and is centered on Jerusalem. The description of captivity and the city being trodden down for a period indicates that the destruction of the city occurs sometime before the coming of the Son of Man. How long this period known as the “times of the Gentiles” is, is not stated.
Universal
In Mark 13:24-25, Jesus describes a period “after” the time of tribulation referred to in the preceding section. Then “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 portrays 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 time.
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 universal in extent.
In Mark 13:26, Jesus predicts that when this cosmic upheaval occurs, “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 in scripture 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 much larger than the area 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 to seek refuge elsewhere means the event does not constitute the End when Jesus comes, otherwise, why flee? Some amount of time will remain following the “abomination of desolation.”
However, in Mark 13:24-27 there is no instruction to flee. Instead, when the Son of Man comes, he sends out 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,” will mourn because there will be no escape for them from the consequences of the Son’s arrival, while the elect is gathered to be with 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 are centered on Jerusalem. Their effects are regional; 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 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 and Jerusalem, the second concerned things universal, indeed, cosmic in scope.

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