When he predicts the Temple’s destruction the disciples want to know when. This launches a famous and, in my view, widely misunderstood, discourse on this (Mk.13). Many think the disciples want to know and Jesus instructs them on what will happen at the end of history, the end of the space-time universe. This mistaken, I believe, and radically so. He is speaking about “the end of the world” to be sure. He tells them
-they must not be misled by false teachers and leaders (13:5-8),
-they must be prepared for persecution and betrayal and to persevere to the end (13:9-13),
-they must flee to the hills when they see the “desolating sacrilege set up where it ought not to be” (13:14-23), and
-wait for the return of the Son of Man accompanied by all manner of astral upheaval.
Thanks to the kind of theology that inspired the Left Behind franchise, called Dispensationalism, many believe Jesus is describing events at the very end of human history. Without debating the particular of this interpretation, a closer look at the details of Mk.13 will show us how far-fetched it is.
In vv.5-13 Jesus warns about all the kinds of things that must precede the demise of the Temple. Wars, earthquakes, false prophets, persecutions and betrayal all come before this cataclysmic event. Jesus’ disciples are to be prepared to stand firm and resist. He is apparently not physically present with them.
With v.14, though thing change. Now, on the proper cue, they are flee the city and head to the hills for safety and protection. The moment of doom for the Temple has arrived!
And the cue they are to watch for is “the desolating sacrilege.” What does this mean? We need to know our Old Testament to discover the answer. In Dan.11:31 and 12:31 we read of pagan hordes swarming the city, breaking off the sacrifices in the Temple and erecting “a desolating sacrilege.” Some visible pagan monument of some sort, most likely.
At this time false teachers will run riot. Indeed, Josephus tells us about just that during the Roman-Jewish War of 66-70 a.d. Rome had just gone through four emperors in 69 a.d., a year filled with civil war, violence, murder, and all kinds of skullduggery. The last of these, Vespasian, was making his way to Rome to accede the throne, when his adopted son Titus went in to Jerusalem, sacked the city, burned and razed the temple, and killed thousands of Jews by crucifixion. What other kind of language would describe this better than that of cosmic upheaval.
And this is just what language of darkening sun, a blighted moon, and falling stars describes in Israel’s prophets (see, for example, Isa.13:10; 34:4). Why, after all, would Jesus advise them to run away for safety if this was literally the end of the world. It wasn’t the end of the world in that sense. No Jew believed the world was going to end that way anyway. But it was the end of the world as the Jews had known it, their way of life and hopes for the future.
On the other hand, since Jesus had predicted this destruction of the Temple, this “end of the world” of the Jews, its occurrence would vindicate him as a true prophet and even the people’s Messiah. He lowers the boom, though, when he applies Dan.7:13 to this moment: “They will see ‘the son of man coming in clouds with great power and glory.’” This verse from Dan.7 does not refer to his returning somewhere or to some one but rather to his “coming” to YHWH after a period of suffering in vindication and triumph. This is the vindication of what he has always been about – God’s Abrahamic plan to bless the world through his people. Jesus has gathered and reconstituted that Abrahamic people in his ministry and death and resurrection.