By Michael J. Vlach
Jesus’ Olivet Discourse discusses future events from the standpoint of Jesus and the apostles shortly before Jesus’ death. The contents of Jesus’ discourse are found in Matthew 24, Mark 13, and Luke 21. Jesus addresses the destruction of the Jerusalem temple, the sign of His coming, and the end of the age (Matt. 24:3; Mark 13:4; Luke 21:5-7).
With this article I focus specifically on the Olivet Discourse as recorded in Luke 21:5-28. I present what I believe is the chronology of events that Jesus lays out ranging from the first century A.D. through the second coming of Jesus.
In doing this I understand that there is much debate on the chronology of the Olivet Discourse and it is rare for any two people to agree on all the details. This includes people who often agree on matters of eschatology, let alone those who disagree. So I suspect that many who read my understanding will differ with me, and that is fine. Below is not so much a full-blown defense of my understanding or a detailed interaction with other views, but a stating of how I view Luke 21 after studying this passage for years. In a nutshell, you can know how I interpret the events of Luke 21.
Below is my outline of Luke 21 and when I think the events within each section will be fulfilled:
Luke 21:8-11: Future Tribulation Period
Luke 21:8-11 states:
And He [Jesus] said, “See to it that you are not misled; for many will come in My name, saying, ‘I am He,’ and, ‘The time is near.’ Do not go after them. When you hear of wars and disturbances, do not be terrified; for these things must take place first, but the end does not follow immediately.” Then He continued by saying to them, “Nation will rise against nation and kingdom against kingdom, and there will be great earthquakes, and in various places plagues and famines; and there will be terrors and great signs from heaven.”
I view Luke 21:8-11 as being fulfilled in the coming seven-year Tribulation Period that is still future from our standpoint in history. During this period there will be wars and disturbances, nations and kingdoms in conflict, great earthquakes, plagues, famines, and terrors and signs from heaven.
Certainly there were earthquakes and wars in the first century, but what is discussed here is of a different nature and intensity—thus describing a future period. Part of the reason we know these events will be fulfilled in the future and were not fulfilled in A.D. 70 is because two things in particular did not occur in the first century. First, the first century did not witness many false messiahs. While there were false prophets in the first century there were not many serious claims to be the Messiah at that time, and certainly not of such a nature that Jesus’ followers needed to be warned not to follow them. In fact, the first major messianic claim after Jesus was from Bar Kochba (d. 135) whose messianic claim came in the second century. There simply were not many (if any) serious claims to be the Messiah in the first century A.D. (other than Jesus).
The second is that the first century did not witness “terrors and great signs from heaven” on a major global scale. The context of Luke 21:8-11 involves global matters (nations, kingdoms), but fearsome signs from heaven that people around the globe could see did not occur in the first century.
Luke 21:12-24a: First century fulfillment through the destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70
It may seem strange at first to claim that Luke 21:12-24 is about first century events after saying Luke 21:8-11 is about the future Tribulation Period. But this is easily answered when we notice the words of Luke 21:12a—“but before all these things” (21:12a). Thus, Jesus is telling us that what He discusses in Luke 21:12 and following occurs “before” what He just explained in Luke 21:8-11. I believe these events of 21:12-24a were fulfilled in the first century A.D. The main events of this period were:
1. Persecution of Jesus’ followers (21:12b–19)
2. Destruction of Jerusalem (21:20–24a)
Jesus’ followers were persecuted in the first century. And Jesus’ prediction of the destruction of Jerusalem was fulfilled in A.D. 70 when the Romans destroyed both the city of Jerusalem and the Jewish temple. Unlike Luke 21:8-11 which discussed global events, what is described in Luke 21:20-24 is specific to the land of Israel. Here Jesus mentions “Jerusalem” twice and “Judea” once. This is not the rescue of Israel but “vengeance,” “distress,” and “wrath” to the people of Israel (vv. 22-23) for rejecting the time of Jesus’ visitation (see Luke 19:41-44). The rescue of Israel will be described later in Luke 21:25-28.
Luke 21:24b: A.D. 70 through future Tribulation Period
Luke 21:24 is a pivot verse that applies both to the section above and this current section. In this context we are focusing on the latter part of the verse which deals with the dispersion of Israel as a result of the A.D. 70 destruction:
“and they [people of Israel] will fall by the edge of the sword, and will be led captive into all the nations; and Jerusalem will be trampled under foot by the Gentiles until the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled” (Luke 21:24).
Luke 21:24 not only predicts the A.D. 70 destruction of Jerusalem, but it has implications for the people of Israel and Jerusalem beyond this event. Israelites falling by the edge of the sword in the A.D. 70 destruction of Jerusalem is accompanied by being “led captive into all the nations.” The city of Jerusalem is also “trampled under foot by the Gentiles…” These two matters of (1) Israelites being dispersed and captive to the nations, and (2) Jerusalem being under Gentile control, have both occurred in the many centuries since A.D. 70. These occurred as a result of the A.D. 70 destruction but the effects of the A.D. 70 event stretch on through the centuries—even until today.
But this dispersion of Israelites and the trampling down of Jerusalem has an expiration date. They will end some day. The important word is “until” (achri ou) which indicates a pivot and a reversal of these circumstances. Captivity and trampling will occur “until the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled.” The “times of the Gentiles” refers to Gentile oppression of Israel and control over Jerusalem. The heavy implication here is that these will be reversed at some future point (see Matt. 23:37-39). The following verses of 25-27 indicate these conditions will end at the end of the future Tribulation Period with the return of Jesus the Messiah.
Important to understanding what follows Luke 21:24 is grasping that this period known as “the times of the Gentiles” is an extended and indefinite period of time. From our perspective it has continued for almost 2000 years. Thus, Luke 21:24b involves the time period from A.D. 70 onward even up until the present.
Thus there are two chronological indicators that sandwich the events of Luke 21:12-24:
1. “before all these things (12a)
2. “until the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled.”
This then takes the reader to the coming Tribulation Period which Jesus discusses next.
Luke 21:25-28: Future Tribulation Period
The end of Luke 21:24, with its discussion of an extended period of time when Israel and Jerusalem will be oppressed, leads us to the events of Luke 21:25-28 which describe the coming Tribulation Period and the return of Jesus the Messiah:
“There will be signs in sun and moon and stars, and on the earth dismay among nations, in perplexity at the roaring of the sea and the waves, men fainting from fear and the expectation of the things which are coming upon the world; for the powers of the heavens will be shaken. Then they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory. But when these things begin to take place, straighten up and lift up your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”
Like Luke 21:8-11, this section also describes the coming Tribulation Period and global conditions associated with this era. The following are the unique conditions of Luke 21:25-28:
1. Cosmic signs
2. Dismay among nations
3. Terror because of the sea and waves
4. Unparalleled global fear among nations
5. The personal bodily return of Jesus Christ in glory
Importantly, when these events occur the people of Israel can know that “your redemption is drawing near” (21:28). Note that in Luke 21:20-24 the message was that of “vengeance,” “distress,” and “wrath” to unbelieving Israel. But now there is coming “redemption” for Israel. This reveals that what occurs in Luke 21:25-28 is not the same event as that explained in 21:20-24. Wrath to the people of Israel occurs in Luke 21:20-24, but 21:25-28 discusses a positive deliverance.
There is another indicator that what is described in 21:25-28 is different from that in 21:20-24. The coming of Jesus in 21:27 is distinguished from the destroying armies of Rome discussed in Luke 21:20-24. This shows they are not the same event. They are also separated in time. To compare:
--Luke 21:20: “But when you see Jerusalem surrounded by armies” (A.D. 70)
--Luke 21:24: Jerusalem trampled “until the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled (long period of time after A.D. 70).
--Luke 21:27: "Then they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory." (future fulfillment)
Luke 21 is a great eschatological passage. To summarize, here is how I see the chronology of Luke 21:8-28:
1. Luke 21:8-11: Future Tribulation Period
2. Luke 21:12-24a: First century through the destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70
3. Luke 21:24b: A.D. 70 through future Tribulation Period
4. Luke 21:25-28: Future Tribulation Period
Follow Mike Vlach on Twitter @mikevlach Be sure to check out Michael's new book: He Will Reign Forever: A Biblical Theology of the Kingdom of God. Available in hardcover and Kindle format at LampionPress.com