Mark tells us in verse 1 of today’s passage how the Lord was leaving the temple where he had been teaching the people; and one of his disciples couldn’t help but do what we do whenever we visit a big city. You know, you’re on holiday — perhaps you’re visiting London or Rome or New York or some other place — and you can’t help but be impressed by some of the buildings you see. Perhaps in New York it’s the height of the skyscrapers. In Rome, it’s the sheer number of ancient buildings which have stood there for centuries. In London, it’s all these stately buildings which have been so important in the history of Great Britain: Buckingham Palace; the Houses of Parliament; the Royal Albert Hall. And you walk around, with your head back, looking up at this marvellous building and that marvellous building. And it’s all so impressive:
Look at that one. Look at that one.
That’s what one of the Lord’s disciples was doing. They’ve come in from the country to the capital city; and this disciple can’t help but be impressed by the size and scale and grandeur of the temple in Jerusalem. And so, he voiced his sense of wonder:
Look, Teacher! What massive stones! What magnificent buildings!
And they were massive stones and they were magnificent buildings. The temple at that time was magnificent. One of the commentators tells us that a stone from the western foundation wall was found and it was 42 feet long and 14 feet wide and 11 feet tall and weighed something like 600 tons. Two other stones found nearby were 40 feet long and 25 feet long. And, of course, the temple was decorated magnificently with gold so that with the white stones and the golden decorations, it gleamed in the sun. And this disciple — in from the country — looked at them temple and couldn’t help but be impressed.
And yet, look at the Lord’s response in verse 2, because in verse 2 the Lord replied by telling the disciple that the time would come when not one stone will be left on another, but every one of them will be thrown down. That magnificent building would one day become rumble.
We’ve all seen — whether in person or on TV or in the papers — the remains of the Primark Building after the fire this week. And many people are distressed and upset because of what has happened: some because they worked there; others because they shopped there; others are upset because that historic building has been destroyed and who knows whether it can be restored? But the importance of the Primark building for us is nothing, absolutely nothing compared to the importance of the temple in Jerusalem for the Jewish people. Of all the nations of the world, the Lord had chosen the Israelites to be his special people; and he had chosen to dwell among them in this temple in Jerusalem. This temple was God’s dwelling place on earth. So, the temple was a magnificent building, made with massive stones. But what made it truly special was the fact that it was the place where God dwelt among them; it was the place where the people met the Lord and worshipped him; and it was the place where they offered sacrificed to take away their sins. But here’s the Lord Jesus saying to his disciples that the time was coming when it would be destroyed. And, of course, what he predicted came to pass, because the temple was destroyed in the year AD70 after the Romans besieged and conquered the city and the temple was burned to the ground.
Now, if you were an Israelite and heard that the temple was going to be destroyed, it would be as if you had heard the world was going to end. They couldn’t imagine a world without the temple in it. And sure enough, after hearing what the Lord said about the temple, Peter and James and John and Andrew went to him privately and they asked him:
Tell us, when will these things happen? And what will be the sign that they are all about to be fulfilled?
They wanted to know when it would happen, because it seemed to them that he was predicting the end of the world. And sure enough, if you look at Matthew’s account of this passage, you’ll see that in their minds they did indeed connect the destruction of the temple with the end of age. So, they were saying to the Lord Jesus:
Tell us when these things will happen, because it seems to us that you’re predicting not only the end of the temple, but the end of the world.
And the Lord began his answer to them in verse 5 and he continues to answer their question right up to the end of the chapter at verse 37.
Now, there are at least two main interpretations of this passage. The first interpretation — the most common interpretation — is summarised by the title the NIV gives this chapter: ‘Signs of the end of the age.’
According to this interpretation, in verses 5 to 23 the Lord is referring not only to the destruction of the temple in AD70, but he’s also referring to what we can expect to see throughout the rest of history. And there are certain signs which we can look out for which will signal the end of time. And then, in verses 24 to 27 the Lord is referring to his second coming when he will come to raise the dead and to gather his people in to everlasting life. And then he goes back in verses 28 to 31 to referring to the destruction of the temple before mentioning his second coming once again in verses 32 to 37.
That’s one interpretation. The other — and it’s less common — is that the whole of verses 5 to 31 is about the destruction of the temple in AD70. It’s all about the destruction of the temple; and the Lord doesn’t refer to his second coming until verses 32 to 37. And that’s the interpretation I think is the correct one; and it’s the one I’m going to explain today.
Verses 5 to 23
So the Lord begins his reply with a warning. Do you see that in verse 5? He said:
What do they need to watch out for?
Watch out that no one deceives you.
When momentous events happen in the world, you can be sure that there will be people who will appear who will claim to know what’s going on and who will call on men and women to follow them. And the Lord was warning his disciples not to be taken in by such people. And so he warned them that people will come in his name, claiming ‘I am he!’ In other words:
I’m the Messiah. I’m the Christ. I can save you from this danger. Follow me!
But don’t be deceived by them, the Lord Jesus was saying. Don’t be deceived, because they are not what they claim to be. And sure enough, Josephus, an ancient historian, records the names of several people who emerged in those days, claiming to be prophets sent from the Lord. What the Lord predicted happened just as he said it would.
And then, the Lord went on to say to his disciples that when you hear of wars and rumours of wars, don’t be alarmed. He’s warning his disciples that in the years before AD70 there will be terrible times of uncertainty and doubt and fear and upheaval. Nation will rise again nation and there will be earthquakes and famines. And sure enough, in the period of history leading up to the destruction of the temple in AD70 the Romans went to war against other nations; and there was an earthquake in Jerusalem in 67AD; and, of course, in Acts 16 we read about an earthquake in Philippi when Paul and Silas were in prison. What the Lord predicted happened just as he said it would.
The Lord was warning his disciples that terrible things would happen in the world before the destruction of the temple. And terrible things would happen to them, because according to the Lord’s words in verses 9 to 13, Christians would be persecuted. They’ll be handed over to the religious authorities and they’ll be flogged in the synagogues. Because of their faith in the Lord, they’ll have to stand trial before governors and kings. And look at verses 12 and 13 where he warns that families will divided in those days. All men will hate you because of me, he warned.
So, he was predicting a terrible time of persecution for his people in those days. However, despite the opposition they’ll face, and despite the persecution they’ll suffer, the gospel message will still be proclaimed to all the nations. That’s in verse 10. And when they’re brought to trial, they don’t need to worry about how to make their defence, because the Holy Spirit will help them to answer their accusers. That’s in verse 11.
Don’t we read about these things in the book of Acts? In the book of Acts we read how the apostles were beaten by the religious authorities, who warned them not to preach about Christ. The Apostle Paul was flogged and he had to stand trial before Felix and Festus and Agrippa. But whenever he stood trial, the Lord came to his aid and helped him to make his defence. And do you remember what happened on the day of Pentecost? Do you remember how Jerusalem was filled at that time with God-fearing Jews who had come from every nation under heaven.
And so, when Peter got up and preached the gospel in the power of the Holy Spirit, he was — in a sense — preaching the gospel to all the nations. And afterwards, after the day of Pentecost, and through the rest of the book of Acts, we read how the apostles went out from Jerusalem to all the nations of the known world to preach the good news of Jesus Christ. The Lord predicted times of uncertainty and persecution and trial before the destruction of the temple. He also predicted that the gospel would be preached everywhere. And everything happened as he said it would.
All of these things will come, but they’re not the end. Do you see that in verse 7? The end is still to come. They’re not the end, but only the beginning of birth-pains. That’s in verse 8. And when the Lord refers in these verses to ‘the end’, he’s not talking about the end of the world. He’s talking about the end of the temple. The disciples wanted to know when the temple would be destroyed. And so, the Lord explained to them that they will hear of wars and earthquakes and they’ll suffer persecution in the coming years. However, those things are not signs of the end of the temple.
And so, when those things happen, there’s no need to be alarmed. There’s no need to panic when you hear of wars and earthquakes and persecution. However — and I’m looking at verse 14 now — when you see the ‘abomination that causes desolation’, standing where it it does not belong, then that’s the time to be alarmed and to flee for your lives. And when it happens, flee quickly, so that if you’re on the roof of your house, don’t go down or enter your house to gather your stuff. It’s like the warnings we receive on an aeroplane to leave our personal belongings if the plane crashes. When you see this abomination that causes desolation, there’s no time to collect your belongings. Run! If you’re in the field, don’t go back home for your clothes, but run! And pity the woman who is pregnant or who is nursing children, because they won’t be able to flee as quickly as others. And pray it won’t happen in the winter, when travelling is hard. You need to run and run quickly. And the reason they’ll have to flee quickly is because those days will be days of distress unequalled from the beginning. They was never and there will never be a time like the time the Lord was predicting.
So, when there are wars and rumours of war, don’t be alarmed. When there are earthquakes, don’t be alarmed. When you’re persecuted for my sake, don’t be alarmed. Don’t be alarmed by those things. But be alarmed and run whenever you see this abomination that causes desolation. That’s the sign that the end of the temple is about to happen and you need to flee from Jerusalem.
So what does the Lord mean by this ‘abomination that causes desolation’? The phrase itself comes from Daniel 11. So, the Lord was using Old Testament language to refer to something that was soon to happen. No one is entirely sure what the Lord is referring to, though we know that before the Romans besieged the city, the temple was taken over by Jewish Zealots who had rebelled against the Romans and caused the Jewish War at that time. And those Zealots desecrated the temple and appointed a clown as high priest. And because of the way they made a mockery of the temple worship, fighting broke out in the temple among the Jews. The appointment of a clown to the priesthood might be what the Lord was referring to. In any case, not long after that happened, the Roman armies surrounded Jerusalem and besieged it. Josephus, an ancient historian, describes what the siege was like. And he refers to the horrors of the siege and describes the things the people did to one another because they were so desperate for food. It was a terrible time, just as the Lord said it would be.
But here’s the thing: another ancient historian tells us that before the siege took place, Christians in Jerusalem left the city. They left the city and made for the mountains where they were kept safe. You see, they paid attention to the Lord’s warning and they fled for their lives while there was still time.
And so, in verses 5 to 23 the Lord was referring to the events that would lead up to the siege of Jerusalem and to its destruction and to the destruction of the temple in AD70.
Verses 24 to 27
We come now to verses 24 to 27. And normally when we read these words it seems to us that the Lord is jumping forward in time to the day when he will come to earth in the clouds and with great power and glory to raise his people from their graves and to gather them from the corners of the earth to enter the new creation.
However, one of the problems with that interpretation is how then to understand the Lord’s words in verse 30 where he says that the generation he was talking to would be alive to see these things. He can’t be talking about his second coming; he must be talking about something else. And so, it’s more likely that he’s referring again to the destruction of the temple in AD70.
And since the destruction of the temple was so shocking for the Jews, the Lord uses Old Testament prophetic language to describe it. He says that the sun will be darkened and the moon will not give its light; stars will fall from the sky and the heavenly bodies will be shaken. We tend to assume he’s talking about the end of the world, but Old Testament prophets used that kind of language when they wanted to warn the people about disasters which were about to befall them. For instance, in Joel 2:10, the prophet uses the same kind of language when describing how a plague of locusts was going to come against the Israelites.
And then in verse 26, we read how the Son of Man will come. We normally assume he’s referring to his second coming, when he will come to raise the dead. But given the context of this passage, it’s more likely that he’s referring to the way he was going to come to the Jews in Jerusalem in judgment; and he was going to use the Romans to punish them for their unbelief and their hardness of heart, because instead of believing in the Saviour, they despised him and rejected him and they refused to believe in him and they refused to believe the apostles who preached in his name. Again, in the Old Testament we read about the Lord who comes in judgment on his enemies. And so, here’s the Lord Jesus, announcing the same thing: he will come to judge the people in Jerusalem.
And what about verse 27? We should note that the Greek word translated ‘angels’ in verse 27 can be translated in one of two ways. It can either mean ‘angels’ or it can also mean ‘messengers’. And so, the Lord isn’t saying he will send his angels; he’s saying he will send his messengers. In other words, he will send his preachers who will go out into the world to preach the good news of the gospel in the power of the Holy Spirit. And by means of the preaching of the gospel, by messengers sent by the Lord, the Lord’s elect people will be gathered into his kingdom where they will receive forgiveness and peace with God and the hope of everlasting life.
The Lord was announcing to his disciples that he was going to come in judgment against the people of Jerusalem who had rejected him as their King and Saviour. He was going to use the Romans to come against them in judgment. And so, the end he was predicting was the end of the temple and the end of the temple worship. But, of course, after the Lord’s death and resurrection, there was no need to maintain the temple worship. They was no need to offer any more animal sacrifices on the altar in the temple, because the Lord Jesus offered himself on the cross as the once-for-all, perfect sacrifice to take away our sins forever. But the Jews kept the temple worship going, because they did not believe that Christ’s death was the perfect sacrifice for sins. And so, because of their unbelief and their hardness of heart, the Lord was going to come to destroy the temple and bring those animal sacrifices to an end.
Verses 28 to 31
And then, in verses 28 to 31, he tells his disciples to learn a lesson from the fig-tree. What lesson can they learn from the fig-tree? Well, when its leaves come out, you know summer is near. Well, in the same way, when they see the abomination that causes desolation — when they see the terrible things the Zealots did in Jerusalem; and the advancement of the Roman armies on Jerusalem — know that the destruction of the temple is near. And so, run for your lives.
In the verses which follow, the Lord will go on to speak about his second coming. But in verses 5 to 31 he’s referring exclusively to the destruction of Jerusalem. And the destruction of Jerusalem was a foretaste of the great day of judgment that is coming on the whole world, when the Lord Jesus will come to judge the living and the dead. And on that day, all those who refused to believe in him will be judged by him for their unbelief and their hardness of heart; and they will be condemned and sent away to be punished forever.
The destruction of Jerusalem was a terrible event. The ancient historian Josephus refers to ‘the horrors’ of the siege. It was a terrible event. But it was nothing compared to the judgment that is coming on the world and on all those who refuse to submit to Christ the King. And so, while there is still time, we all need to turn from our sins in repentance and turn with faith to the Saviour, confessing our sins and asking for mercy. Whoever repents and believes need not fear the day of his coming, but can look forward to it, because his coming for those who believe will be a day of joy and happiness, for he will come to bring us at least into that perfect peace and rest he promises to all who trust the Saviour.
And if you already believe, then rejoice and give thanks, because though the Lord predicted the destruction of the temple, he also predicted that he would send his preachers into all the world to gather his elect people into his kingdom. And so he sent his preachers to you, to tell you the good news, so that you would repent and believe and receive the promise of sins forgiven and the hope of everlasting life. The Lord was announcing judgment on the people of Israel who refused to believe in him, but salvation for all those in every nation who believe in him. And so, give thanks to the Lord for his kindness to you in choosing you and bringing you into his kingdom to receive forgiveness and peace with God and the hope of everlasting life.