Mark 13: When Will These Things Be?
This passage and its parallels in the synoptic gospels (Matt. 24-25 and Luke 21) are very often misinterpreted passages. We have simultaneously become biblically illiterate, and have imbibed a great amount of popular ‘end times’ theology without discernment.
The disciples are clearly asking a question about a particular event: the destruction of the temple. They want to know how they will know it’s happening (the sign of its occurrence), and they want to know when it will happen (v. 3). They are not asking about the end of the world (the return of Jesus, the final resurrection and the final judgment). And Jesus very clearly gives them instructions regarding these basic things. There will be religious and political strife, wars and rumors of wars, and many will claim to be messiahs. The disciples will be persecuted and Christian families will be torn apart. But there will be a great desecration of the Temple, and when that happens, Jesus instructs his disciples to run (vv. 14-18). If they run, the implication is that while it will be hard, they will escape the worst of it (vv. 20-23). Then a great cosmic event will occur which will be like the old heavens collapsing, and the Son of man will be seen coming in the clouds of heaven. All these things will take place during the generation of the disciples (vv. 30-31). This is why it is most important for them to watch (vv. 33-36).
Jesus tells His disciples that the “abomination which causeth desolation” which Daniel foretold will appear in the temple during this time as well (Dan. 11:31, 12:11). While it is a little difficult to follow Daniel’s prophecy in every detail as he appears to be sketching an apocalyptic vision of the last few hundred years of Judaism, it is clear that the abomination interrupts the regular daily sacrifice and probably also includes some mandate to allow gentiles in to the temple or to at least sacrifice unclean animals on the altar or to other gods or all of the above. Regardless, it is some kind of abomination performed which empties the temple. It is a wickedness that causes the Spirit to leave (cf. Ez. 10:4-18, 11:23, 43:4-5).
The Sun Darkened
These couple of verses and the one following are perhaps the most difficult for moderns to understand biblically. In an age where science has been enthroned as god, and one which even many Christians pay homage, it is difficult for us to imagine what this could mean other than the science fiction novel it seems to present. But this is because we are biblically illiterate. Isaiah 13 presents very similar images regarding the destruction and end of Babylon. The text is very clearly not referring to the end of the cosmos. People are not dying from global freezing or a gigantic asteroid or stars exploding. They are dying from the effects of war (cf. Joel 3:9-21). The collapsing solar system is a repeated motif throughout Scripture that indicates the destruction of a great city or nation (e.g. Ez. 32:1-8, Joel 2-3, Mic. 3). Remember, the sun, moon, and stars are rulers (Gen. 1:16-18).
The Son of Man Coming
This verse has also been a stumbling block for many Christians who want to read this passage in a straightforward way (e.g. about the temple) but just can’t reconcile “the Son of Man coming on the clouds of glory.” This just sounds like the Second Coming to our biblically illiterate and sensationally conditioned minds. But this promise is also language echoing a prophecy found in Daniel. Some of the problem is the ambiguity of the Greek and Hebrew words that can mean either ‘coming’ or ‘going’ depending on the context. But Daniel 7:13 makes it clear that the destination of the Son of Man is not earth. He is coming to the Ancient of Days to receive His authority and power and dominion. In short, what Jesus is foretelling is His own enthronement, His ascension to the right hand of God, the Father. What do kings do from their thrones? They judge. And the first judgment of Jesus, enthroned as King of the world is to judge His own household (cf. 1 Pet. 4:17). The disciples will know and see that Jesus has been enthroned by the fact that the Temple is destroyed. This view that much of the NT apocalyptic language refers to events that took place during the generation immediately following Jesus’ death and resurrection, is usually referred to as “preterism” (as opposed to “futurism”—the view that we are still awaiting for these prophecies to be fulfilled). This is the only view that really makes sense of the command to watch and that promise that Jesus is coming quickly and soon. He did come quickly; He came within 40 years and destroyed Jerusalem and not one stone was left on another.
Conclusion & Application
Some have concluded that since these prophecies have already been fulfilled they can hardly have much significance for us any more (except for maybe confronting the ‘end times’ hysteria). But this quite mistaken.
First, we should remember that the very same God who covenantally cursed the Temple and destroyed it, is the same God we serve today. While God will not desolate the Church as a whole, individual churches can turn their worship into abominations and be left desolate and destroyed.
Secondly, the fact of these events occurring some two thousand years ago indicates that we live in the new age, the new world, the new heavens and the new earth. John saw the holy city coming down out of heaven, and that is what we continue to pray and work for.
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen!