Mark 13 is rife with material that forms part of the popular Christian imagination about “the end times.” By “the end times,” of course, I mean, the vision of the future era that will precede the coming of Jesus from heaven to earth.
But the passage is set up so that readers will view it as a prophetic warning about being a follower of Jesus in the face of the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple as occurred in AD 70.
Mark 13:1 reads, “As Jesus left the temple one of his disciples said to him, “Teacher look! What awesome stones and buildings.” Jesus replies to this awe-struck observation of the temple by saying that not one stone will be left on another.
This is not the first time Jesus has had something to say (or do) about the temple. The temple-clearing incident in ch. 11 is sandwiched within the story of Jesus’ cursing the fig tree. The point? Jesus is enacting judgment. The fruitless temple will go the way of the fruitless temple: it will be destroyed.
When the religious leaders subsequently approach Jesus and ask by what authority he does such things, he shrugs off their question–but then tells the parable of the vineyard, which speaks of God visiting destruction on those left in charge of the vineyard and then handing it over to others.
Moving into a series of debates, Mark 12 culminates with Jesus speaking words of judgment on the religious leadership of Israel–including the fact that they devour widows houses. This devouring is made manifest in the final story of ch. 12, in which a widow puts her whole life in the temple coffers.
So when Jesus speaks a word of judgment on the temple in ch. 13, it is not out of the blue, but part of the prophetic ministry he enacts throughout his time in Jerusalem. The leadership of Israel is lacking; they are about to reject the son of God who was sent to bring near the reign of God, and the result will be judgment on the leadership and concomitant destruction of the temple and city.
The disciples point to the great Temple, Jesus says not one stone will be left on another. This is how ch. 13 begins. Then, from the Mount of Olives, the disciples ask, “When will these things happen, and what what sign will show that all things are at an end?”
The question Jesus is answering throughout ch. 13 has to do with when the temple building will be thrown down, not one stone left on another.
The details of this speech can get convoluted, to be sure, but verses 14-20 are a good place to go in order to see the relevance of this prophecy to a people who would be faced with the Roman siege and destruction of Jerusalem.
Verse 14 includes a parenthetical comment to the reader of Mark’s Gospel, “Let the reader understand.” The point is that what Jesus speaks of as future, Mark’s readers should be able to recognize as either occurring or just about to occur.
What is it that they are to be attuned to? “The desolating sacrilege” standing where it shouldn’t. This is an allusion to Daniel, who writes about the pagan king Antiochus IV Epiphanes desecrating the altar by erecting an altar to Zeus on top of Israel’s altar to Yhwh. A pagan king defiling the temple courts is the sign of warning. Perhaps Titus’ invasion counts?
Note, also, that when this happens the people who have to take immediate action are the people in Judea. This is the region in which Jerusalem is located.
What are they supposed to do? Flee to the mountains. People on the roof shouldn’t grab anything, nor people in the fields return home (Mark 13:14-17).
All of these are indications that what we’re dealing with in this chapter is an earthly catastrophe that people are being warned to escape. Don’t be deceived by anyone saying, “I am the Christ”–as though such a person might lead you into victory against Rome. No, this destruction is going to happen.
This is a time of great suffering and tribulation, before a cataclysmic shift in the world’s narrative. But is it the end of the world?
The last verse in the paragraph I’ve been walking through, 13:20, tells us that these days are shortened because had they not been, no one would be saved. Here it might be tempting to hear the language of “saved” as some equivalent to entering eternal life.
But really, a significant component to the Christian story is that even people who suffer and die are able to enter eternal life. This cutting short is not to effect eternal salvation, but to rescue people from the hour of earthly distress. For the sake of God’s own people, God shortens the time. The war comes to an end.
There are some challenges to this interpretation. We will take those up tomorrow. Mostly they are located in verses 26-27. Can the cosmic language of darkened skies and the splendor of the coming Son of Man be fit into this grid?