Mark 13 has often been used to teach about the second coming of Jesus. It may surprise you to know that ¾’s of this chapter is Jesus teaching about the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem.
The temple in Jerusalem in Jesus’ day was a wonder. Theologically it represented the very presence of God and throne-room throne of God. Architecturally it was awesome. Josephus, a Jewish historian at the time, wrote that some of the individually fashioned stones used to build the temple were 13m in length, 4m in height and 6m wide! These stones were probably fashioned out of white marble and overlaid in gold. One commentator writes: “This complex of stone was one of the most impressive sights in the ancient world, and was regarded as an architectural wonder”. Aesthetically it was unrivalled. Religiously is symbolised Israel’s special relationship with God. It was at the temple that you met with God, prayed, offered sacrifices and atoned for your sins. In contrast, the disciples were mostly poor, blue-collared fishermen who lived in insignificant houses in small villages and they were hugely impressed with this great building. That’s why they said in v1, “Look, Teacher! What massive stones! What magnificent buildings!” I speculate, but perhaps part of their sentiment was to comfort Jesus: “Never mind how bad things get, we still have the Temple!”
Destruction of temple
To understand this passage correctly I think there are two interpretive keys. The first is key is the disciples question in v4.
Jesus says in v2, “Do you see all these great buildings? Not one stone here will be left on another; every one will be thrown down.” The disciples then ask, ““Tell us, when will these things happen? And what will be the sign that they are all about to be fulfilled?” (v4). The disciples are asking about the temple destruction.
However, here is an important insight: to the original readers and disciples the destruction of the temple would have meant that the end of the age had come, the Messiah would come in power. Matthew’s account of the disciples question ties these thoughts together more clearly, “Tell us,” the disciples said, “when will this happen, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?” (Matthew 24v3). The Old Testament prophets had prophesied that the “great day of the LORD” would come, when God would come to judge his enemies, restore his people and usher in the end of the age.
The second interpretive keys in Jesus’ words in v30, “says I tell you the truth, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened.” The plainest, simplest and clearest meaning of the words of Jesus is that “all these things” spoken of before v30 would happen in the lifetime of the disciples.
In v5 Jesus says be careful not to be deceived as there will be many pretending to be Messiahs, Christs and Prophets. In v7 Jesus says life will largely go on as normal until the destruction of the temple. There will be wars and rumours of wars –nothing special about that. In v8 Jesus says there will be earthquakes and famines. Earthquakes and natural disasters have always been around, we just know about them now because of CNN. Jesus says life will continue as life does in a fallen world.
According to v9 the disciples would be forced to defend themselves to civil and religious leaders because of their faith in Jesus. According to v10 the gospel must be preached to all nations. How could this have happened in the lifetime of disciples? Remember that Jesus was a descendent of Abraham and therefore part of the Hebrew nation, a Jew. Jesus’ ministry was largely based in Judea, ministering to Jewish people. Yet God had promised in Old Testament that the gospel would go to all nations, Jews and Gentiles, all people would have access to God, no matter their culture, ethnicity, tribe or language. It’s therefore interesting that in Acts 2 when the Holy Spirit came down at Pentecost it says that there were “devout men from every nation” in Jerusalem who heard the followers of Jesus declare “the mighty works of God” i.e. the gospel. About 30 years later Paul could write in Colossians 1:6 “All over the world this gospel is bearing fruit and growing.” The gospel was indeed preached to people from the non-Jewish world in the lifetime of the disciples.
According to v11 in times of great distress and persecution the Holy Spirit would give the disciples words to say. According to v12-13 the gospel would even cause tension in families as Christ calls us to a higher allegiance and superior loyalty.
Abomination that causes desolation
Jesus says in v14, “When you see ‘the abomination that causes desolation’ standing where it does not belong–let the reader understand–then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains. The abomination that cause desolation is a phrase that was used in the book of Daniel. It referred to someone or something that would bring dishonour to God, desecrate the temple and defile a sacred place with false worship. This prophecy was first fulfilled by the Greek leader Antiochus Epiphanes who invaded Jerusalem, set up a statue of Zeus in the temple, sacrificed a pig in the holy place and turned the temple chambers into a public brothel. Finally the ultimate “abomination that cause desolation” would come when the Gentile Roman invaders in 70AD marched their flag standards into the temple and into the Holy of Holies and proceeded to worship their god Caesar’s image that was emblazoned on their standards.
When the Romans finally entered Jerusalem, there was a great slaughter to celebrate their victory. (Josephus wrote that 1.1 million Jews were killed.) Of those sparred from death, 97 thousand more were enslaved and sent to toil in the mines of Egypt, while others were sent to arenas throughout the Empire to be butchered for the amusement of the public. The temple’s sacred relics were taken to Rome where they were displayed in celebration of the victory. One historian wrote: “The legionaries had to clamber over heaps of dead to carry on the work of extermination.”
Jesus tells his followers that when they see that abomination they should flee from Jerusalem as fast at they can to escape the slaughter. According to v15 the exit will be so urgent there will not be time to pack bags. According to v17 it will especially difficult for pregnant mums or mums with young babies. V18 says pray that it does not happen in winter, as it gets cold in the mountains surrounding Jerusalem! V19 is typical exaggeration or hyperbola to say that is would be really, really bad – and it was. v20 says that God actually shortened the period of the Jewish Wars because of his kindness. And v23 Jesus sums it all up: “So be on your guard; I have told you everything ahead of time.” The temple would be destroyed. Jesus, the new temple, had come and God was acting in judgment against those who rebelled against his son.
Planets falling and sun darkening
Bear in mind we are still before v30, “all these things” must happen in the lifetime of the disciples. Jesus said in v24-25, “But in those days, following that distress, “‘the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light; the stars will fall from the sky, and the heavenly bodies will be shaken.’ This language of the sun being darkened, the moon fading, stars falling and planets shaking is not to be taken literally. This is picture (apocalyptic) language indicating a time of great importance and judgment. This type of Language comes from passages like Isaiah 13 where God speaks of coming down in judgement against his enemies. This type of language emphasises and pictures the enormity, seriousness and greatness of God’s coming judgment. V24-25 therefore refers to the great judgment of God on his own people when he used the Romans to ransack Jerusalem.
Jesus says in v26, “At that time men will see the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory”. Round about time, says Jesus, you will see the Son of Man coming in clouds. Again it’s important to understand this verse as the original hearers and readers would have understood it. The original listeners would have known that the term “son of Man” comes from Daniel 7. Daniel sees a vision of one like a son of man, someone who looks like a human being, approaching God (the “Ancient of Days”) and “coming on the clouds of heaven.” This son of Man is not coming to earth, but coming to heaven. Once he gets to heaven he is given all the authority of God: all power, dominion, authority and all the nations worship him. This human being is treated like God! Of course this is a prophecy of Jesus who often referred to himself as the “son of Man”andthevision pictures Jesus’ ascension into heaven where as God the Son he has been given all power and authority. (cf. Philippians 2:5-11)
Mosque, not a temple
What Jesus is saying is this that when his listeners see the temple destroyed they will “see” or know or perceive that he is exalted in heaven. The fact that there is a mosque not a temple on mount Zion is a sign, an indication, a confirmation that the Son of Man has come on the clouds of heaven into God’s presence, from where he now reigns and rules.
The New Testament teaches us that the temple was just a signpost to Jesus. Now that the true temple has come, the signpost is done away with.
The four winds
Jesus adds that the son of Man “will send his angels and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of the heavens.” (v27). Word for angels here is the word “aggelos” which is also the word used for human messengers. When Jesus gets to heaven he will call, raise up and send out men and women to preach, teach and share the gospel. In this way all his elect will be gathered from all the nations of the world. This is Mark’s equivalent of Matthew 28:18-19, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations.”
Finally, the second coming
V32 starts literally like this: “But concerning that day…” or if you like, “On the contrary, concerning that day…” God’s great purposes would culminate on that great day of judgment when Jesus will return in his Father’s glory with the holy angels. There would be signs to indicate the nearness of the destruction of the temple, but of “that” great day “no-one knows the day or hour, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father (v32).
How are to live not knowing the date of Jesus return?
Jesus said in v34, “It’s like a man going away: He leaves his house and puts his servants in charge, each with his assigned task, and tells the one at the door to keep watch”. We are the servants, our master has gone away, and to each of us an assigned task is given. We are to be faithful in what God has given us. May be the task of being a father or mother or accountant or politician or missionary or pastor. Whatever it is, be faithful! Jesus then highlights the role of the doorkeeper who keeps watch and remains vigilant for the master’s return. Five times in v33-37 Jesus says stay alert and keep vigilant.
Don’t be tempted to think that life will continue as is forever. Don’t be fooled into thinking there is no judgment, or no accountability, or no reward. The temple is destroyed, Jesus is enthroned in heaven, the gospel is going out with God’s messengers to all nations, and Jesus will return – not as a humble baby, but as the powerful Son of Man. Jesus will establish his final kingdom here on earth. We, who belong to him, will live in the renewed earth with him and each other. Therefore, dear Christian: Keep watch, don’t give in, don’t go to sleep, don’t falter, keep being faithful, keep being godly, and keep fighting the good fight.
What I say to you, I say to everyone: ‘Watch!’”
– Jesus (v37)