From the day of his triumphal entry into Jerusalem where he saw everything that was happening in the temple through his cleansing of the temple and confrontation with temple authorities to his exit from the temple in disgust has led Jesus to this moment in Mark 13. Instead of sitting on the Mount of Olives and facing the temple to announce its deliverance (which many rebels and prophets, in the dark days of 66-70 C.E., thought Zechariah promised [Zechariah 14:4-6]), Jesus announces divine judgment and the temple’s destruction.
The “great buildings” of the temple will become rubble—“every one of them will be thrown down” (Mark 13:3). When several of the disciples from the intimate core of Jesus’ life—Peter, James and John with the addition of Andrew, Peter’s brother—spoke privately with Jesus, they asked: “when will these things happen? And what will be the sign that they are about to be fulfilled?”
In response, the Markan narrative uses an apocalyptic sermon to transition the story from the end of Jesus’s ministry to the beginning of the passion of Jesus. The sermon about the destruction of Jerusalem is the final word of Jesus on the temple authorities (which was prefigured in the parable of the vineyard owners in Mark 12:1-12). But more importantly it is an exhortation for Mark’s readers who are tempted to align themselves with the Jewish rebels in 66-70 C.E. As Ched Myers heads a section in his Binding the Strong Man (p. 331), “The revolt is not the kingdom.” Jesus-followers do not buy into the kingdom (nationalistic) aspirations of the rebels or their violent methods. Rather, to subvert Roman oppression, disciples follow Jesus to a cross rather than take up take up a sword. Disciples, Jesus urges, do not listen to the war rhetoric of nationalism but embrace the peacemaking of the kingdom of God.
Mark utilizes apocalyptic imagery and language, drawn from the Hebrew Scriptures (particularly Daniel) and other apocalyptic literature (good vs. evil dramas portrayed in symoblic imagery) that had emerged in the previous century, to picture this divine judgment and the chaos in which nations and sin involve humanity. This “little apocalypse” (also known as the Mt. Olivet discourse) describes God’s judgment of Jerusalem by the Romans but also envisions God’s deliverance of his elect. There are (apparently) two vistas in the text—the vision of Rome’s defeat of the Jewish insurrection and the vision (promise) of divine salvation from all oppression, violence and injustice.
Though highly contested, it appears that Jesus’ apocalyptic sermon falls into two distinct sections. The first (Mark 13:5-23) is focused on the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 C.E. The second (Mark 13:24-37) seems to look beyond the immediate crisis to an eschatological (“last days”) one. Consequently, the first section references a cataclysmic event (destruction of Jerusalem) which, however, is not the end. The second section announces the end of the “last days” as an eschatological reality that follows the destruction of Jerusalem. The destruction of Jerusalem, as a significant event within God’s history with Israel, becomes a historical anticipation of the eschatological end (“last days”) itself. At least, this is one way of reading. Others, like N. T. Wright and preterists of different sorts, read the whole of Mark 13 in the light of the destruction of Jerusalem.
The fervor, excitement and fear that surrounded the Jewish revolt in 66-70 C.E. is perhaps beyond our imagination. Nevertheless, it is important to situate ourselves in that historical moment in order to appreciate the language Jesus uses in this apocalypse. Here is a summary of some of the significant events:
- The revolt began in Jerusalem in June 66 C.E.
- Cestus Gallus, the Roman Legate of Syria, marched on Jerusalem in November 66 C.E. to put down the revolt. Though he occupied parts of the northern city, he could not take the Temple Mount itself. He retreated to the coast and his army was decimated by Jewish guerilla activity.
- Jewish rebels declared the liberation of Jerusalem and Palestine. Many interpreted this as a sign of God’s favor and the coming of the kingdom of God.
- Rome (Nero) sent Vespasian, with several legions, to put down the revolt. Beginning in Galilee in May 67 C.E., he marched to the walls of Jerusalem in June 68 C.E. But his campaign suddenly ended when he returned to Rome due to potential civil war in the capital city (Nero had died and there were competing Emperors).
- Jewish rebels saw this as a divine intervention—God had saved the temple once again.
- When Vespasian became Emperor, he sent Titus to lay siege to Jerusalem which began in April 70 C.E. and was successful by October 70 C.E. Throughout the siege, many “prophets” interpreted various phenomenon as signs of God’s imminent deliverance of the city, but it never came. Jerusalem fell and the temple was destroyed.
Understanding the historical moment brings Mark 13:4-23 alive. The text not only breathes the atmosphere of 66-70 C.E. but it also contains guidance for believers living in the midst of those trying days—a tribulation which had not been seen previously except in the days of Jeremiah when Nebuchadnezzar destroyed the Solomonic temple. Jesus uses apocalyptic (and hyperbolic) language to describe how horrible those days would be–nothing like it before or after. This language is not intended to convey a fact (that is, no other day is so terrible as this one) but to ev0ke emotion, awe and watchfulness.
The structure of Mark 13:4-23 illuminates Jesus’ intent and functions as an exhortation or paransis. His disciples are called to “watch” and they are expected to act when they hear or see something. This section is tied to the experience of the disciples regarding the destruction of the temple. The following structure indicates the tightness of the literary unit.
Watch (blepete)! There are false Christs who deceive (13:5)
“When you hear….” (13:7) about wars, earthquakes and famines….
Watch (blepete)! They will persecute you (13:9)
“When you see…” (13:14) the abomination that causes deslotion…
Watch (blepete)! There are false Christs who deceive (13:23).
The Jewish insurrection generated an ardent expectation that the Messiah would appear. This gives teeth to Jesus’ warning that others would come and claim to be the Messiah (“I am he”). They are deceivers. Myers (p. 332) is correct to understand these deceivers in the context of “wars” where “nation will rise against nation.” Jesus is not warning against false miracle workers or diviners but rather against revolutionary militarists. When the disciples “hear” about “wars” (revolts, revolutions), those voices anticipate the first rumblings of the Jewish revolt. The deceivers will interpret the earthquakes and famines as signs of the final battle for the end. But Jesus assures them that this is not the end but only “birth pains” that shake the world prior to the “end.” The disciples should not fear or “be alarmed.” While the events “must happen,” disciples do not participate in them nor do they fear them or worry about them.
Yet their very non-participation endangers them. Jesus told his disciples to “watch” (literally, see) for the deceivers (13:5) but also “watch” (see) for the persecutors (13:9). Jewish rebels and those who support the rebellion will pursue peacemakers and disciples will suffer for their opposition to violence. The disciples do not proclaim a “gospel” that serves Jewish nationalism but rather is good news for all nations. This is the “gospel of Jesus Christ,” the good news of the kingdom that characterized Jesus’ ministry. The kingdom of God is good news, but the Jewish revolt is not and neither is the Roman claim that the Emperor is “gospel” for the Empire. Only the ministry of Jesus, which embodies the kingdom of God, secures redemption, peace and justice.
Yet, the disciples, like John the Baptist and Jesus, will be handed over to persecuting and executing authorities. The disciples will not be saved in this moment but they will find themselves arrested, tried, flogged and potentially executed. As Jesus-followers, they follow him to the cross. And this proclamation of the gospel will bring the good news to all nations. “The blood of the martyrs,” as Tertullian wrote in the late second century, “is the seed of the church.”
This political and external pressure on the Christian community will create internal dissension. Families will be torn apart as children rebel against their parents who are then executed; brothers will betray brothers and some will die. “Everybody” will “hate” the disciples because they do not participate in the nationalistic fervor of the Jewish rebellion and they Romans suspect they are Jewish insurrectionists.
“When you hear” about wars, Jesus counsels calm, determination and faith. “When you see” the abomination of desolation, Jesus counsels them to act, that is, to flee to the mountains. They are to flee rather than fight! Disciples should leave Jerusalem because what is about to happen is so cataclysmic that it is incomparable or unimaginable. The counsel to flee is urgent—leave without your cloak and don’t enter the house to take anything. The counsel to flee is desperate—pregnancy will be a hindrance rather than a blessing in that moment. Pray that this will happen in the summer because swollen streams and cold in the winter rainy season would hinder their flight.
But what is it that they might “see”? What is the trigger for flight? Mark is not explicit; he is intentionally cryptic. The reader must discern his meaning which assumes some context, narrative or worldview that informs interpretation. Further, there is a reason Jesus and Mark are not very explicit—their language was treasonous. Too explicit and Mark’s Gospel would have created extra difficulties for believers with a copy.
The “abomination of desolation,” dependent upon Daniel 9:26, 11:30-32 and 12:11, triggers flight. In Daniel this language describes the destruction of the sanctuary by pagans (Gentiles) along with the cessation of sacrifices. It appears that Jesus counsels his disciples to flee Jerusalem when they see Roman armies approaching who will actually fulfill the words of Jesus that not one stone of the temple buildings will be left upon another.
Though cataclysmic and devastating on an unimaginable scale, Jesus assures the disciples that it will be brief. God will shorten those days for the sake of the elect. When the Roman armies arrive to lay siege to Jerusalem, the end of the temple is near and it won’t take long.
But will not God intervene, perhaps at the last moment, to save the temple? False messiahs and false prophets will interpret signs and claim miraculous interventions to that effect, but the words of Jesus remain—the temple will be destroyed. Consequently, Jesus again (the third time!) tells them to “watch” (see). The disciples have been properly warned and now they must “watch and pray” for the coming trial.
Don’t be deceived. The temple will fall. Don’t join the ranks of the rebels but suffer the hardship of a Christ-follower. Jerusalem will fall. Watch but don’t be afraid and don’t worry. God has shortened the days so that the trial will be brief.
I wonder what Jesus might counsel today when many of his disciples are urged to embrace nationalism, participate in war-making, and submit the good news of the kingdom to the good news of an empire. It has happened repeatedly thorughout the history of the church–from Constantine to Nazi Germany. The agenda is often still the same though the players, purposes and circumstances change.
May God have mercy.