If we believe, by the time we are done, that God has given us an understanding of this chapter, our response should be one of humility and gratitude. The apocalyptic sections of the gospels have been the occasion of no end of confusion and dispute within the Church, and so we must watch our step.
“And as he went out of the temple, one of his disciples saith unto him, Master, see what manner of stones and what buildings are here! . . .” (Mark 13:1-37).
The disciples marvel at the Temple, as well they might (v. 1). What stones! What buildings! We should consider this passage as a prophecy our Lord made about the immediate future of Jerusalem, a prophecy which authenticates Him in the first aspect of His three-fold office — prophet, priest, and king. The standard applied to a true prophet fits Him well (Dt. 18). What He predicted came to pass in astonishing detail. This means that we should take the entire chapter as having been fulfilled in the first century in the destruction of Jerusalem. But in order to do this well, we have to fix three anchors in our minds.
First, Jesus was answering specific questions. In response to their admiration, Jesus tells the disciples that the Temple will be leveled (v. 2). In response to this, they ask Him, “When? What shall be the sign that these things shall be fulfilled?” (vv. 3-4). This discourse is an answer to these questions, and Jesus explicitly says (v. 30) that these things shall be fulfilled within one generation. Either that happened or it did not, and history shows us that it did.
Second, Mark expects his readers to understand him. When Mark introduces the abomination of desolation, he expects the reader to understand what he himself understands (v. 14). The abomination is a man doing what he should not, and it occurs shortly after Jerusalem is surrounded by armies (Luke 21:20).
The third anchor is how the Old Testament is quoted. Two of the main answers for Christians who have trouble applying this to the first century are found in Old Testament references (vv. 24-27). In the Bible, collapsing solar system terminology, decreation language, always refers to a judgment upon nations (e.g. Is. 13: 10). And second, in Daniel 7:13, where does the son of man come? Note how Jesus speaks of this in the next chapter (14:62). And what follows His enthronement? The answer is universal dominion, and His elect gathered. The son of man who appears in the clouds of heaven is not coming down to earth, but rather is approaching the Ancient of Days in heaven. This refers, not to the Second Coming, but to the Ascension.
In the early part of “this generation,” various attacks would come upon the disciples. First, attempts at deception (vv. 5-6). The occasion of such deceptions will be political and physical turmoil, which Jesus says is not the end (vv. 7-8). The saints will also be persecuted (vv. 9,12-13). Nevertheless, the gospel will be preached among the nations (v. 10; cf. Col. 1:23). The Holy Spirit will be with them, and give them words to say as they stand trial (v. 11). The one who perseveres through these trials will be saved (v. 13).
Jesus then told His disciples to flee Jerusalem when they saw certain things come together. Luke describes it as Jerusalem surrounded by armies (21:20). Matthew and Mark describe it in similar terms, with Mark saying it is a man standing where he ought not. Some interpret the abomination as the Roman idolatrous standards at the Temple’s end. But Jesus points to the abomination as a sign to flee. If it were the Roman sacrilege in the Temple, it would be too late to flee. The desecration is most likely the abominations committed by the Jewish fanatics who occupied the Temple during the War, and who were guilty of enormous crimes there, including the consecration of some hayseed as their “high priest.” When this was seen, it was time to flee. Interestingly, the early Christians did just this, and according to Eusebius and Epiphanius, Jerusalem Christians fled to Pella in the Transjordan. Jesus said that if you fled at that time, you would have barely any time left (vv. 15-16). The trial would be severe (vv. 17-19), worse than any in the history of the world. God would shorten the days for them (v. 20), but the disciples were not to look for false escapes (vv. 21-22).
Learn another lesson from another fig tree (v. 28). These things signal the approach of summer. Or, to use the image used earlier, the beginning of birth pangs. When these things happen, everything will come suddenly. It is at the door, within one generation (vv. 29-30).
“Within one generation” is all the detail on timing that will be provided (vv. 32). The injunction that follows is watch. But since this is watch and pray, it means watch your hearts, not watch the sky, or the newspaper (v. 33). The master of the house is going to leave for a while (vv. 34-36). And there is a lesson for all Christians here (v. 37), not just those Christians in the first century who saw all this fulfilled in 70 A.D..