But when you see the desolating sacrilege set up where it ought not to be (let the reader understand), then those in Judea must flee to the mountains; someone on the housetop must not go down or enter the house to take anything away; someone in the field must not turn back to get a coat. Woe to those who are pregnant and to those who are nursing infants in those days! Pray that it may not be in winter. For in those days there will be suffering, such as has not been from the beginning of the creation that God created until now, no, and never will be. And if the Lord had not cut short those days, no one would be saved; but for the sake of the elect, whom he chose, he has cut short those days. And if anyone says to you at that time, “Look! Here is the Messiah!” or “Look! There he is!”—do not believe it. False messiahs and false prophets will appear and produce signs and omens, to lead astray, if possible, the elect. But be alert; I have already told you everything.
‘But in those days, after that suffering,
the sun will be darkened,
and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven,
and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.
Then they will see “the Son of Man coming in clouds” with great power and glory. Then he will send out the angels, and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven.Mark 13:14-27
Most contemporary readers of Mark’s Gospel tend to interpret the discourse in chapter 13 as a reference to what would happen prior to the “end of the world” (“the end times”). This is problematic because verses 1 to 4 clearly indicate the discourse is about the destruction of the temple which Jesus foretold, and verse 30 indicates that the generation of those listening to him would be alive to witness that. Given these verses, it is preferable to understand the words of Jesus’ discourse here not about the end times, but about the events of the first Jewish-Roman war of 66-73 AD. During this war, Judean towns were conquered, Jerusalem was besieged and the temple was destroyed (in 70 AD), thus fulfilling Jesus’ words in verse 2. Hence, our passage today is Jesus’s warning to his disciples to be watchful so that they may be able to escape the judgement that God would soon bring upon the region.
Why the judgement? That was because not only were the Jewish leaders unrighteous in their shepherding of the people, they would soon reject Jesus as the Messiah and kill him. Instead of receiving Jesus’ message of repentance they would choose to trust the message of false messiahs and prophets inciting rebellion against Rome. The destruction of Jerusalem and its temple by Rome would be both the judgement upon God’s people and at the same time vindication of Jesus and his message. It would prove Jesus as the true Messiah. According to New Testament scholar N. T. Wright, this is what seeing “the Son of Man coming in the clouds” means. Here, it is not a reference to Jesus’ second coming but God’s vindication (or perhaps also revelation) of Jesus as the Son of Man described in Daniel 7 who would receive dominion of the world from God. For Wright, the “language about such things as sun, moon, and stars falling from heaven was about what we would call political events,” and when “Mark has Jesus refer to the ‘son of man coming in the clouds’ and sending ‘his angels to gather his elect,’ this is classic apocalyptic language for Jesus coming in triumph to God and for the worldwide mission of his disciples.”
In view of the coming cataclysmic judgement, Jesus is telling his hearers to escape from their homes and hide themselves when the desolating sacrilege (or abomination of desolation) appears. This is an allusion to Daniel 12.11 and is thought to be a sacrilegious or idolatrous figure appearing in the temple. Something like that first happened in 168/7 BC, when the Seleucid king Antiochus Epiphanes erected an altar to a pagan god in the temple after invading Jerusalem and sacrificed unclean animals on it. Then in 40 AD, the Roman emperor Caligula ordered a statue of Zeus (with his face on it) to be set up in the temple. That was prevented by a mass protest from the Jews. What exactly the desolating sacrilege was in the first Jewish-Roman war is debated by scholars and no answers are satisfactory. It was probably known to the readers of Mark’s gospel, but unknown to us now.
In any case, the Romans committed many indignities on the temple and other sacred spaces of the Jews which constantly provoked their outrage. The final straw came in 66 AD when a Roman procurator stole vast quantities of silver from the temple. It incited a violent Jewish revolt that killed many Roman soldiers garrisoned in Jerusalem. That set the stage for a bloody retaliation by Rome leading to the first Jewish-Roman war.
If anyone heeded Jesus words, the events in Jerusalem should set off alarm bells. Most level-headed persons then would know the revolt bode ill for the Jews because of Rome’s military might. In fact, according to the Christian historian Eusebius, many Christian Jews sensed something was amiss and left from Jerusalem to seek refuge in another city (Pella) before the Romans came knocking. In doing so, they became “the elect” who escaped the massacre whom God will gather. Eusebius attributed this escape to an “oracle” given by God. However, scores of Jews living in the surrounding areas did the opposite and sought refuge in Jerusalem instead—most were massacred and about a million Jews died in the siege.
Did Jesus’ words come to pass? Yes, they did come to pass in the first Jewish-Roman war. What then can we learn from this intersection between Jesus’ words and history? I believe what is important here is to learn to heed Jesus’ words and not be swayed by the voices of the world. There are many attractive voices out there stoking to our disorderly desires, just as the messages of false messiahs and prophets stirred zealous Jewish hearts to rebellion. However, their end is death. The world is under judgement, and Christians must trust and obey Jesus to avoid being judged along with it. Even if his words may sound strange and counter-intuitive, to whom can we go? He alone has the words of eternal life. May we heed him and find life for ourselves.