Most Christians interpret this passage as eschatological, referring to the Second Coming of Christ at the end of time. As a result of this interpretation, a series of further assumptions result: futurists (those who believe this passage refers to the end of time) say that the Jewish Temple must be rebuilt, a new world power come to order, widespread Christian persecution occur, a war in Israel, natural disasters, and Jesus coming back in a visible way from heaven.
I will argue that these conclusions are incorrect, and instead the contextual and necessary interpretation of the passage indicates that this is a prophesy which was amazingly accurate and already fulfilled nearly 2000 years ago. (Note: this does not mean that I think all of Revelation was fulfilled in the past; only the Olivet Discourse).
The Olivet Discourse is a sermon Jesus gave near the end of His life, on the Mount of Olives, and is recorded in Mark 13, Matthew 24, and Luke 21. All three are nearly identical, so we will simply use Mark 13 as our passage. (We will use the ESV version in all quotes below).
Two Contextual Keys
Before we dive into the text, let us begin our interpretation with stating two contextual keys which must be considered. I will ask you to keep these in mind as we move forward through the text.
The first contextual key is 13:1-2: “And as He came out of the temple, one of His disciples said to Him, ‘Look, Teacher, what wonderful stones and what wonderful buildings!’ And Jesus said to him, ‘Do you see these great buildings? There will not be left here one stone upon another that will not be thrown down.’ “
This passage sets the focus of the entire passage. Jesus is being asked about the destruction of the Temple, and as we read we must be careful not to remember that this is the question He is answering.
The second contextual key is 13:30: “Truly, I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all these things take place.”
So here, Jesus clearly and definitively states that these things will happen within the lifetime of His listeners (sometime before, say, 100 AD).
We will address each of these as we move through the passage, but they are good to keep in mind as you study the passage.
The Passage (Mark 13)
Let us dive into the Scripture and see what Jesus says here.
And as he came out of the temple, one of his disciples said to him, “Look, Teacher, what wonderful stones and what wonderful buildings!” And Jesus said to him, “Do you see these great buildings? There will not be left here one stone upon another that will not be thrown down.” (v.1-2)
After King David unified the tribes of Israel into a coherent nation, his son Solomon built a Temple to God, and placed the Ark of the Covenant inside it. The Temple became the center of religious life for Judaism: it was the location where all of the key sacrifices for sin occurred. Solomon’s Temple was destroyed in 587 BC when the Babylonians invaded.
Starting in the sixth century under Persian rule, the Temple started being rebuilt. In 19 BC, Herod the Great renovated the Temple, making an elaborate and beautiful temple. It was one of the largest construction projects in the entire world, and the Temple was considered magnificent. It was an amazing feat of engineering, made from massive stones varying in size from 25 to 600 tons. Construction was constant for nearly fifty years (John 2:20), building an absolutely stunning structure of white marble that rose above the walls of Jerusalem to be seen from miles around.
The Temple was again the center of religious life, with Jews traveling from around the world to celebrate Passover in the massive structure.
Like many other Jews, one of Jesus’ disciples is in awe of the structure, and remarks on its beauty to Jesus. Jesus then shocks them by saying that all of these massive stones will be overturned and thrown down.
We cannot underestimate the importance of this statement. In the thousand years since David had united the tribes, the Jews were completely without a Temple for only about 50 years, during the Babylonian Captivity. At all other times, a temple was under construction. That small period of the Babylonian Captivity was thought of by ancient Jews in perhaps similar terms to the Holocaust to a modern Jew: the worst period of their history to that point.
So for Jesus to say that all of these massive stones would be overturned was a shocking prophesy! Instead of being in awe of the permanence of the magnificent structure, He is saying that the whole thing will be thrown down and completely destroyed.
And as he sat on the Mount of Olives opposite the temple, Peter and James and John and Andrew asked him privately, “Tell us, when will these things be, and what will be the sign when all these things are about to be accomplished?” (v.3-4)
When Jesus sits down on the Mount of Olives, his “inner circle” of disciples (Peter, James, and John), accompanied by Andrew, approach Him. Clearly they are disturbed by the prophesy of the overthrowing of the Temple: such a prophesy undoubtedly indicates that Jerusalem is under siege and Judaism is again under great persecution.
So they come to Him, and ask Him to tell them when the Temple will be overthrown, and what signs to expect when it happens.
And Jesus began to say to them, “See that no one leads you astray. Many will come in my name, saying, ‘I am he!’ and they will lead many astray. And when you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed. This must take place, but the end is not yet. For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be earthquakes in various places; there will be famines. These are but the beginning of the birth pains. But be on your guard. For they will deliver you over to councils, and you will be beaten in synagogues, and you will stand before governors and kings for my sake, to bear witness before them. And the gospel must first be proclaimed to all nations. And when they bring you to trial and deliver you over, do not be anxious beforehand what you are to say, but say whatever is given you in that hour, for it is not you who speak, but the Holy Spirit. And brother will deliver brother over to death, and the father his child, and children will rise against parents and have them put to death. And you will be hated by all for my name's sake. But the one who endures to the end will be saved. (v.5-13)
I find it intriguing here that Jesus refers to this list of signs as “birth pains”—for indeed, birth pains are sufferings which signal the end to one thing (pregnancy) and the beginning of a new life. These birth pains, He says, are:
• False messiahs
• Wars and rumors of wars
• Earthquakes and famines
• Persecution of His believers
As we see later, Jesus says that all of these things will happen within the generation of His listeners. So let us test His prophesy: did it come true?
False messiahs – after Jesus, at least five people claimed Messianic status that we know of, during the lifetime of Jesus’ listeners: Menahem ben Judah, Theudas, Vespasian, and John of Gischala, and Simon bar Kosiba. So clearly this is the case.
Wars and rumors of wars – despite the fact that this period was known as the Pax Romana, and much of the world was at peace, the lifetime of Jesus’ listeners was not at all peaceful in Jerusalem. In particular, the First Jewish-Roman War (66-73 AD) was a massive revolt and graphic war, which we shall cover more in detail.
Earthquakes and famines – unfortunately these types of natural disasters are frequently and happen in nearly every generation.
Persecution of Christians – after Jesus’ death, the persecution of Christians has been well-documented. I will not spend time here discussing this, but suffice it to say that Christians were spread throughout all of the Empire through persecution, and 11 of the 12 disciples’ lives would end in martyrdom. So clearly this occurred as well.
But when you see the abomination of desolation standing where he ought not to be ( let the reader understand), then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains. Let the one who is on the housetop not go down, nor enter his house, to take anything out, and let the one who is in the field not turn back to take his cloak. And alas for women who are pregnant and for those who are nursing infants in those days! Pray that it may not happen in winter. For in those days there will be such tribulation as has not been from the beginning of the creation that God created until now, and never will be. And if the Lord had not cut short the days, no human being would be saved. But for the sake of the elect, whom he chose, he shortened the days. And then if anyone says to you, ‘Look, here is the Christ!’ or ‘Look, there he is!’ do not believe it. For false christs and false prophets will arise and perform signs and wonders, to lead astray, if possible, the elect. But be on guard; I have told you all things beforehand.
Here, Jesus gets much more specific in His prophesy. He says:
• The abomination of desolation will stand where he ought not to be – this is a reference, alluding to Daniel’s prophesies, which implies that someone will defile the Temple in a horrible way (an “abomination”).
• When this happens, Jesus says it is time to get out of town, and not waste any time doing it.
• The desecration and destruction of the temple will occur in a horrible way
• Many will die, and if the timeframe continued no one would have survived.
So now again, let us search history and find out when the destruction of the Temple happened, and under what conditions, and see if it is sufficient to fulfill Jesus’ prophesy before.
Earlier, I alluded to the First Jewish-Roman War. Let us take some time to go through that, for I will now argue that this war fulfills Jesus’ entire prophesy on the Olivet Discourse.
THE FIRST JEWISH ROMAN WAR (66-73 AD)
During the Pax Romana, the province of Judea was notably one of the few places which consistently revolted against Roman rule. The Romans generally gained the acceptance of the local people whom they assimilated by adding their local gods into the Roman Pantheon and by giving lavish gifts to the local populace (temples, bath-houses, etc.). But for the Jews, this was never acceptable: God was the only God in their eyes, so the Roman pantheon was not acceptable. The Romans thus made an exception and allowed the Jews—and only the Jews—to avoid worshipping the Imperial cult. They even allowed the Jews to count their Temple Tax as being in place of the Imperial cult tax.
This was not well-received by most other Romans at the time. They saw the Jews as superstitious, backwater troublemakers. They felt that they were doing the Jews a favor, and yet still the Jews constantly rebelled against Roman authority, often violently. By the time of Jesus, Roman patience for the Jews was growing thinner and thinner. Indeed, it was likely this fear of yet another Jewish rebellion that caused Pilate to allow Jesus to be crucified, in the hopes of quelling an uprising.
In 66 AD, the Jews mounted the most extensive rebellion against Rome to date, called the Great Revolt. According to the historian Josephus, it began in Caesarea. Outside of a local synagogue, some Greeks sacrificed birds to a pagan god, in an attempt to mock and insult the Jews. The Jews reported this to the Roman garrison of Caesarea, but they failed to intervene. The Jews were outraged. The son of the High Priest of Judaism banned anyone (including Gentiles in the Court of Gentiles) from making any offerings to the Roman Emperor at the Jewish Temple. (Which, frankly, should have been outlawed the entire time…). Protests over taxation also joined the increasing anger of the Jewish people, and the Jews began randomly attacking foreigners and pro-Roman Jews. The rebellion got so violent that the Jewish King, Agrippa II, fled Jerusalem. A Roman legion of troops was sent in to Jerusalem. But they were driven back, ambushed at Beth Horon. The battle at Beth Horon was a rout, with the entire legion being completely destroyed by the Jews—a over 5,000 well-armed soldiers.
Emperor Nero was furious, and sent the general Vespasian (a future Emperor himself) to quell the rebellion. Instead of the standard 5,000 troops that were sent to a rebelling province, Vespasian amassed an army of 60,000 troops, and began marching through northern Judea in 68 AD. In the same year, as Vespasian began clearing the coast of Judea in his march toward Jerusalem, Nero was ousted by the Senate and committed suicide. A civil war erupted to determine the next emperor, and Vespasian returned to Rome in 69 AD to begin his assent to the throne. His son, Titus, was left in charge of the Roman army as it closed the noose around Jerusalem.
For the two years that Vespasian was clearing the rest of Judea of rebels, Jerusalem was isolated from the world. A trench was dug around the city, and anyone crossing into the trench was crucified. Inside the city, the Zealots were fractured and fought among themselves; in addition, the cut-off city was unable to feed its populace properly, and people began to starve to death. So many people attempted to flee the city that up to 500 per day were being crucified for attempting to cross the trenches.
In 70 AD, the unthinkable happened for the Jews. Titus and four battle-hardened legions laid siege to the city. They surrounded the city early in the spring, and allowed pilgrims into the city for Passover—but did not allow them back out. Thus the already dwindling food and water supplies quickly ran out. Some reports say that suicides were common, women killed their children, and some even refer to children being boiled and eaten as food.
In summer, the Romans broke through the walls and set fire to the Temple. They destroyed the entire Temple and all of Jerusalem was quickly overthrown.
According to Josephus, about 1.1 million Jews died during the siege (Tacitus tells us that 600,000 were killed by the Romans, the rest presumably by starvation), and 97,000 put into slavery: it stands as the largest mass-killing of Jews until the Holocaust some 1900 years later. Josephus says that the bodies began to pile so high that “the legionaries had to clamber over heaps of the dead to carry on the work of extermination.”
The entire city was destroyed. Josephus said that while it had once been filled with gardens and trees, every tree in the city was cut to the ground, and burned. Nearly nothing was left of the city when the Romans were done: it was a wasteland.
The Romans left the devastation behind, robbing the Temple of its fineries. Some sources even say that he slaughtered pigs and sacrificed them to pagan gods inside the Temple—a horrible insult to the Jews. Some of the stones from the Temple were shipped back to Rome to use in the building of the Coliseum, and Titus carried home massive loot from the Temple. The Arch of Titus, which still stands in Rome today, shows Roman legions carrying the Menorah from the Temple during a parade celebrating the victory.
The walls surrounding the Temple Mount were demolished, except for the Western Wall—Titus had it spared as cover for his troops and because he found it aesthetically pleasing. Today, that wall still stands, the last relic to the ancient faith of the Jews.
Titus, interestingly, refused to accept the laurel victory wreath—he claimed that he was simply an instrument of the gods’ wrath on Jerusalem. He said that he “lent his arms to God”.
It was, for all intents and purposes, the end of Judaism. The Jews were nearly wiped out. The remaining ones were nearly all enslaved. The Temple was destroyed, never (so far at least) to have been rebuilt. The sacrificial requirements of Mosaic Law would never again be fulfilled.
It was the end of the Jewish Age.
So, does this war fit the requirements of Jesus’ prophesy? I argue so, definitively. As Jesus said, if the time had not been shortened no one would have survived: and indeed, few did! If 1.1 million were slaughtered and only 97,000 sold into slavery, this means that perhaps 90% of the Jews in Jerusalem failed to survive the siege. Certainly Jesus was right when He said that the Jews should flee when the Romans arrived, and that women will wish that they were not pregnant or having small children. (Interestingly, Jesus asked His listeners to pray that it would not happen in winter—and it did not. It happened in spring and summer.) He was also right that the Temple would be overthrown and the stones knocked completely over. Certainly, the actions of Titus robbing from and defiling the Temple fit the requirements of “abomination of desolation”.
So, in conclusion, we have a phenomenally accurate prophesy here: a great evidence of Jesus’ divinity and an explanation of the destruction of the Temple.
So why, then, do so many Christians ignore this and place the entire event as a future fulfillment? The reason is because of the next section of Scripture:
But in those days, after that tribulation, 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. And then they will see the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory. And 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. (v.24-27)
These three verses, which I argue are generally misinterpreted, give rise to the whole act of applying the Olivet Discourse to the future. After all, it certainly seems to say things which are not clearly applicable to the Jewish-Roman War: eclipses, stars falling from heaven, powers of heaven shaking, Jesus coming down in power and glory, and the gathering up of the Elect. Surely, this refers to the Second Coming, right?
Due to this passage, people generally interpret the Olivet Discourse in one of 3 ways:
1. Properly understood, this passage is symbolic of the fall of Judaism in the aftermath of the siege, as we already discussed.
2. The fall of the Temple being prophesied occurs in the future, as this clearly references the Second Coming of Christ.
3. Both: Verses 1-23 refer to the fall of the Temple in 70 AD, but this refers to the future Second Coming, as the eventual conclusion of the destruction of the Temple.
Now to me, we must throw out the most commonly-held belief (#2 above), because of verse 30—clearly Jesus promises that ‘all these things’ will happen within one generation. So you cannot ignore the fact that verses 1-23 refer to the destruction of the Temple.
I can accept theory #3: that verses 24-27 refer to the future Second Coming, while verses 1-23 refer to the fall of the Temple. However, this is not my preferred interpretation because it is not necessary from the text. I argue that this text is completely fulfilled within the context of Jesus’ prophesy in 70 AD, so while it is possible that this could refer to future events, the safest conclusion is that it does not—for the text does not require that He is combining two prophesies into one in this case.
But for me personally, I espouse theory 1 above.
So you may ask—how in the world can I agree with this, when Jesus clearly says He returns? I am not a full preterist, who will argue that Jesus’ Second Coming did in fact occur in 70 AD and that we are in the Millennial Kingdom. No, I do not find that satisfying theologically with the rest of Revelation.
The key is that you must interpret this passage in the context within which it is written: as Jewish apocryphal prophesy. Apocryphal prophesies all use this same common terminology—indeed it is used throughout the Old Testament about events that happened centuries before Jesus!
Read what the Old Testament says about Babylon’s siege of Jerusalem in 585 BC: “the great day of the Lord is near…a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and thick darkness, a day of trumpet blast and battle cry” (Zeph 1:14,15); “I looked on the earth, and behold, it was without form and void…the heavens and they had no light…on the mountains, and behold they were quaking” (Jere 4:23,24). So we see that Babylon’s siege was also described as being a day of eclipses and trumpets and destruction and earthquakes and darkness from the skies—yet none of us think that strange.
Consider also what the Old Testament says about the fall of Egypt in 480 BC, in Isaiah 19:1: “The Lord is riding on a swift cloud and comes to Egypt”. Ezekiel 32:7-8, discussing the same event, says that the stars will go dark and the moon and sun will be blotted out.
When Edom falls around 400 BC, Isaiah 34:4 says that “all the host of heaven shall rot away, and the skies roll up like a scroll. All their host shall fall as leaves fall from the vine.”
So you can see that when Jewish prophets speak of the fall of a civilization, they generally use the same symbols: stars falling, the skies rolling up like a scroll, the sun and moon going dark, God riding in on a cloud.
So Jesus is using the standard apocalyptic language. The heavens are used to symbolize the political powers: the sun is the kingship, the moon is the queen, the stars are the princes. God “riding in on a cloud in glory” means that it is His power and control which brought the destruction. Not just that He allowed it, but that it was His wrath being demonstrated.
So you see that Jesus says what is happening to Judea is exactly what happened to Edom, and Egypt, and Israel pre-Babylon: their rulers will be destroyed, the land will be barren, the civilization is wiped out. Completely overthrow—and at the hands of God.
(Is it not now more intriguing that Titus, evil pagan and anti-Christ that he may have been…even he himself admitted that he was doing nothing but God’s work and thus refused the victory wreath?)
I argue that there is absolutely no reason to attribute this section to the Second Coming, unless you also think that God the Father showed up personally in a cloud when Egypt fell in 480 BC.
From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts out its leaves, you know that summer is near. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that he is near, at the very gates. Truly, I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all these things take place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away. But concerning that day or that hour, no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. Be on guard, keep awake. For you do not know when the time will come. It is like a man going on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his servants in charge, each with his work, and commands the doorkeeper to stay awake. Therefore stay awake—for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or when the rooster crows, or in the morning— lest he come suddenly and find you asleep. And what I say to you I say to all: Stay awake.” (v.28-37)
Here Jesus explains the parable of the fig tree from the day before: the fig tree had leaves out so one should expect fruit as well. Here Jesus says that the warnings He has given—the approach of the abomination, wars erupting, widespread persecution of the Christians (which really became bad under Nero, just before the Jewish-Roman war, when Nero executed Paul and Peter, among others), and the rise of false messiahs—are like the leaves of a fig tree. When you see these things, know that “he is near, at the very gates”; that is, Titus and his armies approach. The Temple is about to be thrown down.
Then Jesus says our second key verse, promising that “all these things” will happen within a generation. He said that He does not know the day or hour that His Father will come and destroy the Temple, but that it will happen within the generation. And it will be bad. “Stay awake”, Jesus cautions His disciples: do not get caught in Jerusalem when this is going down.
So again I ask: if Jesus said that “all these things” are going to take place within a generation, what did He mean? Was He wrong? Was He lying?
Or is it possible that He was actually dead-on right? And the entire Olivet Discourse was fulfilled in 70 AD?
That is what I believe to be the most contextual and the most necessary interpretation from the text, and I find it an amazing proof of Jesus’ divinity: for this prophesy was made and distributed in Mark’s Gospel well before the fall of the Temple, and it is exceptionally specific in its predictions.
The Olivet Discourse is a fascinating passage, which is interpreted in different ways. Some (like the Left Behind series) say that the passage is about the Second Coming, and thus expect the Temple to be rebuilt again before Jesus comes in Rapture (which also gives a false sense of timing…”He can’t be coming today, because there isn’t a Temple…”). Regarding Jesus’ prophesy that it would happen within this generation, they assign to Him an attempt to “keep us all on our toes” – but that makes Jesus out to be a liar, to be blunt.
Others have a better reading of the text, and admit that v.1-23 refer to the Temple but believe that the second half does still refer to the Second Coming. This is not denied by the text or logic, but neither is there any particular reason to accept such a thought.
I wish to apply the same standard that I normally do: my interpretation must fit the context and it must be necessary from the text. I do not find it necessary to move part of this passage to the Second Coming, because it contextually fits well within Jewish apocalyptic literary standards. It is a fascinating prediction of the fall of the Temple, and it need be nothing else for Jesus’ words to all be true.
Recall at the beginning that Jesus said that all of these things were “birth pains”? What a great analogy. For indeed, the end of the Temple gave birth to something completely new: the New Covenant Era. The destruction of the Temple ended, in a very real and physical way, the sacrificial Mosaic system, and the Old Covenant with God. Jesus’ death tore the Veil of the Temple, giving us all direct access to God. Jesus’ bloodshed replaced the need for sacrifice. And then, in 70 AD, God’s power came down in a terrible and mighty and dramatic way, and the period of Temple sacrifices was ended forever.