Gospel of Mark
Chapter 13

Many scholars argue over the dating of Mark's gospel; some support an early date in the 40's CE while others hold to a time after the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE. I agree with the later date explained in greater detail in the "Dating of the Synoptics." Here, I would like to point out the unity of Mark's Eschatological Discourse, noting that we cannot argue over one verse taken out of context. We must place the question of the Temple's destruction within the evangelist's view of the end times.

To investigate the passage, we can divide it in the following manner:

A. Temple prophesy and disciples' question about the end time. (13:1-4)

B. The Tribulation

1. Warning of false Christs. (13:5-6)

a. Reports of wars and natural disasters. (13:7-8)

b. Persecution of the disciples

1) by officials. (13:9-11)

2) within their clans. (13:12-13)

c. The coming tribulation.

1) Sight of the "the abomination of desolation" and hasty escape from tribulation. (13:14-16)

2) Suffering under tribulation. (13:17-20)

2. Warning of false Christs. (13:21-23)

C. The cosmic signs of the end times and the coming of the Son of Man (answer to the disciples' question; 13:24-27)

Notice in the flow the discussion of the Tribulation, the mention of false Messiahs acted as bookends. Thematically, these pseudo holy men would appear throughout these tough times to tempt the faithful. Stylistically, these verses define 13:5-23 as a "step up, step down" structure; the verses highlight the message between them. Also notice the parallels between the political-natural dimensions and the personal dimension of the tribulation; political chaos and natural upheavals reflected persecution of the disciple; the pagan sign of the "the abomination of desolation" resulted in personal suffering. The end times would only arrive after the tribulation played out.

With these thoughts in mind, let's explore the text itself.

A. Temple Prophecy and
the Disciples' Question about the End Time

1 As HE departed from the Temple, one of his disciples said to him, "Teacher, look at the (great) manner of stones and buildings!" 2 JESUS said to them, "Do you see these great buildings? A stone will not lay atop (another) stone which will not be demolished."

3 As HE sat on the Mount of Olives directly opposite the Temple, Peter, James, John and Andrew asked HIM in private, 4 "Tell us when these things will be and what sign is about to fulfill all these (events)?"

Most scholars recognize 13:2 referred to the destruction of the Temple by the seventh Roman legion in 70 A.D., a result of the Great Jewish Wars. The statement itself was remarkable as the destruction of the Temple signaled the end times. Such a sentiment doesn't exist anywhere else in the Hebrew Scriptures or in Jewish apocalyptic writings. Indeed the opposite was true; Jews assumed the centrality of the holy site when the Messiah came to usher in the Kingdom. In his apocalyptic vision (chapters 40-48), Ezekiel saw the shekinah, the holy presence of YHWH, in the Temple (Eze 43:3-5; Eze 44:5), received instructions on sacrifices offered there (Eze 43:18-27; Eze 45:13-46:15), and witnessed a torrent of life-giving water from its foundation (Eze 47:1-12). While the Essences considered the priestly leadership in Jerusalem corrupt, they prepared to replace those leaders after the final battle of the end times, not the destruction of the Temple itself. Only one other gospel verse could be connected to Mark 13:2: "Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up" (Mark 14:58, 15:29, Matthew 26:61, John 2:19). While John's gospel interpreted the phrase as a prophesy for the Resurrection (John 2:21), the other instances used the phrase as an accusation against Jesus in his trial before Caiaphas. At the time, people assumed Jesus claimed that, if enemies destroyed the Temple, the Messiah would rebuild it within three days with the power of God. Accusing him of such a phrase implied messianic claims, hence justified the charge of blasphemy. Notice, however, even in this case, the Temple remained central to belief in the Apocalypse. Now, he disconnected the holy site from the final days.

The disciples' question in response was equally puzzling. Why would those who stood in awe of the great structure jump to the conclusion that its demise marked the beginning of the end times? If no reference existed before Jesus' remark in 30 CE, how did his followers "connect the dots" now?

B. The Tribulation

1. Warnings of False Messiahs

5 JESUS began to say to them, "Watch out that no one mislead you. Many will come (using) my name, saying, "I am (the ONE)" and (they) will mislead many."

13:5b "I am (the ONE)" is literally "I AM," the same language Jesus used in John's gospel to describe himself. While the author of the fourth Gospel employed the phrase to denote the divinity of the Christ, here Mark used it to simply communicate a false identity.

In 13:5-6 and 13:21-23, Mark couched the subject of the Tribulation in terms of pseudo-Messiahs. Here, he inferred the persuasive rhetorical power these charlatans would have. And he warned his disciples not only against following their leads but implicitly leaving the faith. His statement, then, challenged Christians to remain faithful, despite the flash of false Christs.

a. Wars and Natural Disasters

7 When you hear of wars (nearby) and reports of wars (far away), do not be afraid. It is necessary (for all these events) to happen (in this way), but the end (is) not yet. 8 For nation will rise up against nation and kingdom against kingdom; (there) will be earthquakes in different places; (there) will be famines; These (are) the beginning of birth pangs.

13:8a " For nation will rise up against nation and kingdom against kingdom..." This is an echo of Isaiah 19:2.

I will stir up the Egyptians against the Egyptians, and they will fight everyone against his brother, and everyone against his neighbor; city against city, and kingdom against kingdom.

13:8 "birth pangs" are the torments of tribulation before the coming of the Messiah.

b. Persecutions

1) By synagogues and civic courts

9 Beware (of the dangers you) yourselves (face). (First,) they will hand you over to the councils; (then,) you will be beaten in synagogues; (finally, in court) before governors and kings you will stand because of me as a witness to them. 10 It is first necessary to proclaim (as a town crier) the gospel to all nations. 11 When they arrest you and give you over (to the courts), do not be concerned beforehand what you should say, but whatever you should be given to you in that hour, say (it), for it is not you the (one) speaking, but the Holy Spirit.

13:9 "councils...synagogues" While these two nouns are in independent clauses, they are associated together. The council was a gathering of Jewish elders associated with a synagogue. The disciple would be judged, then punishment would be administered in the sight of the assembly.

"governors and kings" After disciples were judged and punished at the religious level in the synagogue, the elders would present them before secular officials and accuse them of impiety, along with other crimes.

13:9-10 Even persecution would become a vehicle to fulfill the prophecy of Jesus for a universal proclamation of the gospel. Notice the process began with Jewish Christians being dragged before the synagogue, then brought before civilian courts of the Gentiles.

2) Within clans

12 Brother will give over brother to death and a father (his) child; children will rise up against (their) parents and have them killed, 13 and (you) will be hated by all because of my name. But the (one) remaining to the end, this (one) will be saved.

13:12 This is an echo of Micah 7:6:

For the son dishonors the father, the daughter rises up against her mother, the daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; a man's enemies are the men of his own house. (WEB)

13:13 "because of my name" referred not merely to identity as a Christian, but to adherence and devotion to the Lord. In a sense, the disciple took the name of Christ and wore it proudly.

c. The coming Tribulation

1) Sight of "the abomination of desolation"

14 When you see 'the abomination of desolation' standing where is need not be, understand the (one) reading aloud (to the assembly), then the (ones) in Judea flee into the hill country, 15 the (one standing) on the (flat) rooftop come down, (definitely) do not enter (and) take anything out of his house, 16 the (one) in the field do not turn back (and) take his cloak.

13:14 "the abomination of desolation" The Greek phrase Mark employed was the Septuagint translation of the Hebrew "shiquc shomen" that is found in Daniel 11:31: "Forces shall stand on his part, and they shall profane the sanctuary, even the fortress, and shall take away the continual burnt offering, and they shall set up the abomination that makes desolate." (World English Bible) Most scholars agree Daniel referred to a pagan altar erected in the Temple by the order of Antiochus Epiphanes in 168 BCE (see 1 Maccabees 1:54-61). "Shiquc" referred to an idol or pagan god; "shomen" meant to appall or to cause horror.

13:15 This clause could be translated: "The person on the flat rooftop should neither come down nor enter and take anything out of his house." While this translation is literally true, it makes no sense in context. The driving imperative of the sentence can be found in 13:14, "flee." When the "abomination of desolation" occurred, the residents should flee Jerusalem for the hill country, leaving their homes with all haste, without retrieving anything of value. So the two negatives act emphatically with the verb imperatives "enter" and "take." They should definitely not enter the house and take anything of value.

2) Suffering under the Tribuation

17 Woe to the (ones) being with child and the (ones) nursing in those days. 18 Pray so that (it) might not be in winter. 19 For, in those days, (there) will be tribulation the like of which has neither been from the beginning of creation when God created (everything) until now nor might (ever) be. 20 If the Lord had not shortened the days (of the tribulation), all flesh would not be saved. But, because of the elect whom were elected (by God), (he) shortened the days.

13:18 "in winter" In Palestine, the winter was the rainy season with torrential rains and flooding, making escape more difficult.

13:19 "tribulation" In context, Jesus spoke to the immediate crisis the faithful faced, but he could have considered that crisis to be part of the end time scenario.

After the question about the destruction of the Temple, Jesus expounded on his Tribulation scenario with two predictions about suffering and a comment about the "shortness of days." First he warned his followers of personal persecution. Family members would denounce and reject believers; opposition to faith would tear families apart, destroying the building blocks of society, the clan.

Next would come the "abomination of desolation." As the comment above noted, this phrase referred to the presence of a pagan images in the Temple, ordered by the Greek king of Syria. What could replicate such blasphemy in the mind of Jews or Christians? They saw presence of the Roman standard on the Temple Mount in 70 CE as that abomination, but on a much larger scale. Titus ordered the capture of the Temple after the savage siege on Jerusalem. Whether the general intended to convert the holy site for pagan purposes, as Josephus recorded in his "Jewish Wars," or urged its destruction, as Sulpicius Severus recorded in his Chronicles (403 CE), the victory of the pagan legions and the looting of the Temple caused scandal among the faithful. The Romans made sure their enemies would not forget the conquest; they enshrined their victory in reliefs found on Titus' arch.

The history of imperial brutality might have inspired 13:14-18. Rome rewarded its friends, but butchered its enemies. The onslaught was coming; they faithful should get out while they could. The tactics and savagery of the legions painted such a bleak picture, people could not see anything worse (13:19). Only divine mercy could shorten the tribulation, for the sake of the disciples (13:20).

Certainly, the followers of Jesus knew Rome's reputation for bloody retribution, but could they imagine such as they stood in awe of the holy place, accompanied by the man they considered the Messiah? Wouldn't this great edifice serve as his Temple? Could they conceive of a scenario otherwise?

2. Second Warning about False Messiahs

21 Then, if someone says to you, "Look! The Christ" or "Look! There (he is)" do not believe (them). 22 (They) will rise up, pseudo-Christs and pseudo-prophets, and (they) will cause signs and wonders to appear to deceive, if possible, the elect. 23 Watch out! I told you everything beforehand.

Between his teaching on personal/political tribulation and cosmic upheaval, Jesus warned his followers against false Messiahs. We've already seen such figures in Theudas and the Egyptian; certainly more would appear on the scene. Yet, he flagged not individual leaders but the temptation to follow such men, either from the lack of commitment to the faith or social pressure from their Jewish brethren to abandon the Church and return to the safety of the synagogue (see the comments on Hebrews).

Of course, the Hebrew scriptures railed against false prophets and the Christian books warned against pseudo-Messiahs, but note the appearance of these men coincided with the end times, in the midst the Tribulation. These men appealed not only to sense of relief for their followers, they promised salvation. Of course, their message remained an illusion. Jesus did not promise an escape from the tough times, but an implicit perseverance through them.

C. Chaos in the Cosmic Order
and the Coming of the Son of Man

24 In those days, after that tribulation,

"The sun will be darkened and the moon will not give off its light 25 the stars will be" out of heaven "falling and the powers in the heavens" will be shaken.

26 Then (they) will see "the SON OF MAN coming on the clouds" with great power "and glory." 27 Then, HE will send out the angels and (they) will gather [his] elect from the four winds, from the (extreme) end of earth to the (extreme) end of heaven.

13:24-25. 13:24 quotes Isaiah 13:10:

"For the stars of the sky and its constellations will not give their light. The sun will be darkened in its going out, and the moon will not cause its light to shine." WEB

13:25 parallels Isaiah 34:4:

"All of the army of the sky will be dissolved. The sky will be rolled up like a scroll, and all its armies will fade away, as a leaf fades from off a vine or a fig tree." WEB

13:25 "the stars will be [out of heaven] falling and the powers in the heavens [will be shaken]" Two clauses in the verse refer to the same event. Since ancient people believed spiritual beings (called "powers") moved the constellations around the sky, falling stars (meteor showers) meant these spirits lost power. Ancients would see a massive meteor shower as chaos in the heavens (powers will be shaken).

13:26 "the Son of Man coming on the clouds (with) glory." See Daniel 7:13: "I saw in the night visions, and behold, there came with the clouds of the sky one like a son of man, and he came even to the ancient of days, and they brought him near before him" WEB

13:27 "from the (extreme) end of earth to the (extreme) end of heaven" Ancient Jews believed the earth sat flat, like a plate, while the sky was an inverted cone, like a bowl sat on top of the plate. (From their viewpoint, everyone lived underneath the "bowl.") They believed, at some point, the earth and sky met. The phrase above could have referred to that point of intersection. This is speculation since most scholars don't know what the phrase actually means.

The final phase of the Tribulation came with a cosmic upheaval that matched the political disruptions and personal persecutions. On this level, divine judgment cut through every segment of creation. The capstone would arrive with the Son of Man who would gather his disciples from the four corners of the world; implicitly, the remainder of humanity would face damnation. Note they saw Daniel's vision as a prophecy, fulfilled at the end of time.