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Mark 13:14-23 Biblical Commentary:
MARK 11-16. THE CONTEXT
We are tempted to plunge into Mark 13 as if it stands alone, but we can really understand it only in context. Chapters 11-14 take us from the triumphal entry of Jesus into Jerusalem (11:1-11) through a series of conflicts between Jesus and the religious leaders (chapters 11-12) and this apocalyptic chapter (chapter 13) to the betrayal of Jesus (14:43-51) and Peter’s denial (14:66-72), the crucifixion (chapters 14-15) and the resurrection (chapter 16).
Chapters 11 and 12 are filled with Jesus’ thinly veiled and very negative assessments of Israel’s religious establishment. He curses an unproductive fig tree, a symbol of Israel’s unproductive religious system (11:12-14, 20-25), and cleanses the temple (11:15-19). In the Parable of the Wicked Tenants (12:1-12), he recounts Israel’s rejection of the prophets and the Son—and prophesies that the vineyard will be taken away from Israel and given to others—and says that the rejected stone will become the cornerstone (12:10). He speaks clearly enough that the religious leaders want to kill him, but are afraid to do so because of the crowd (12:12). Jesus’ teaching about the widow’s offering puts into perspective the larger offerings of the well-to-do, most of whom are the religious elite (12:41-44).
Chapters 11 and 12 are also filled with direct conflict between Jesus and the religious leaders. They question his authority (11:27-33). Then they try to trap him with questions about paying taxes (12:13-17), the resurrection (12:18-27), and David’s son (12:35-27). Matthew and Mark report the question about the first commandment in this same entrapment vein (Matthew 22:34-40; Luke 10:25-28), but Mark’s version (12:28-34) does not. Jesus concludes these conflicts by denouncing the scribes (12:38-40).
Then we come to our Gospel lesson, where Jesus prophesies the destruction of the temple (13:2). Quite clearly, the events of chapters 11-12 lay the foundation for Jesus’ teachings in chapter 13. The religious system in Israel is corrupt to the core (chapters 11-12) and the disciples can expect that corruption to issue forth in the cataclysmic events of chapter 13. Those events will be capped by the coming of the Son of Man (13:24-27), who will put all things right, so the disciples need to be watchful (13:32-37).
However, unlike most apocalyptic literature, chapter 13 is NOT concerned with signs that provide clues to the timing of future events. When the disciples ask Jesus for “the sign that all these things are about to be accomplished,” (v. 4), Jesus tells them of wars and natural calamities, but then says, “but the end is not yet” and “These things are the beginning of birth pains” (vv. 7-8). In other words, these are NOT really signs of the end but are simply events that they must endure before the end comes. He cannot help them to know when these events will occur, because “But of that day or that hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father” (v. 32).
R. H. Lightfoot takes exception with scholars who label Mark 13 as “The Little Apocalypse,” and proposes that this chapter functions in much the same way as the Parable of the Sower (Mark 4:1-20). That parable tells of much wasted seed—seed that falls on the path or among rocks and thorns. However, it concludes with the vision of good soil and a bountiful harvest—thirty and sixty and one hundred fold. It serves to encourage Christians who might otherwise focus on the waste and miss the blessing of the harvest.
In like manner, chapter 13 portrays great tribulation, but holds out the promise of the coming of the Son of Man (vv. 24-27) (Lightfoot, quoted in Jensen).
Chapter 13, therefore, serves as an introduction to the Passion narrative (chapters 14-15)—a terrible time, but one that culminates in the resurrection (chapter 16) (Lightfoot, Juel, Jensen). Such a message is of particular value to Mark’s church as it suffers persecution, but it is also of great value to Christians of all times who suffer difficult circumstances—and who does not suffer difficult circumstances.
“Mark 13 is not about signs and timetables. It is about discernment, not being fooled by people with timetables and signs. It is about allegiance to Jesus” (Hare, 166).
MARK 13:14-23. A WARNING TO FLEE
Prior to giving this warning to flee, Jesus said that the Temple was to be destroyed. (Mark 13:1) Four of his disciples asked “When?” (Mark 13:4). In verse 14 Jesus answers their “When?” with his “Then.”
The interpretation of this passage depends upon one’s understanding of the time when these words were spoken and/or written, and of the sources of the material in the passage. The two issues are interrelated.
Three historical events shed light upon and suggest questions about this passage:
• In 167 B.C. Antiochus Epiphanes desecrated the Jerusalem Temple. This appears to be the event referred to in Daniel 9:17, 11:31 and 12:11. Jesus’ words, “the abomination of desolation” (Mark 13:14) are a direct quotation from Daniel.
• Caligula, Roman Emperor, attempted in 40 A.D. to have his statue installed in the Temple and worshiped as god. However, his intention was never fulfilled.
• In 70 A.D., Titus, at war with Jewish Zealots, destroyed the Temple, but not until it had been desecrated.
Clearly the words of Mark 13:14-23 reflect on the first of these events. The critical question is whether they also reflect on either of the other two events, or whether Jesus’ words anticipate either of those events. Another possibility is that these words have to do with events that have not yet occurred. One idea is that the words of Mark are related to the language about the “man of lawlessness” mentioned in 2 Thessalonians 2:3ff.
Much of the work of interpretation revolves around the connection, if any, between the text and the historical events mentioned above.
MARK 13:14. WHEN TO FLEE—WHO MUST FLEE—AND WHERE TO FLEE
14“But when you see the abomination of desolation, spoken of by Daniel the prophet, standing where it ought not (let the reader understand), then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains,“
Earlier, Jesus said, “when you hear” (v. 7). Now he says, “When you see” (v. 14A). It is impossible to know exactly what “the abomination of desolation standing where it ought not” (v. 14b) means. The language is a direct quotation from Daniel, and thus calls to memory the desecration of the Temple in 167 B.C. Jesus appears to be warning of another similar, if not even more dramatic event.
The event is to be local, in Judea. This supports the idea that it has to do with the Temple.
“standing where it ought not.” A literal translation would be, “set up where he ought not to be.” We would expect the word, he, to refer to a person. The two likely candidates are Caligula and Titus. There are problems with each of them, although Titus is the more common choice of scholars.
During the conflict with Caligula the Jews did not flee, but, according to Josephus, presented themselves with their wives and children as candidates for martyrdom. Caligula’s plan did not succeed because the general in charge of the operation, Pretonius, refused to carry out Caligula’s plan, and Caligula was assassinated the following year. The conflict with Caligula was in 40 A.D., a date clearly after the time of Jesus, but before the writing of Mark. Thus, if these words refer to Caligula, Mark would be writing about a past event and there would be little reason for his language to be as cryptic as it is.
The Temple was destroyed in 70 A.D. There are two proposals about how the events surrounding its destruction would fulfill the words of Jesus:
• One is that when Titus entered the Temple in September of that year, he desecrated it. This is the prevailing viewpoint.
• Lane, however, gives an alternate view–that Jewish zealots permitted criminals and criminal activities within the sacred precincts of the temple (Lane 469). He sees these acts of sacrilege on the part of Jewish zealots to be those that consigned the Temple to destruction.
Objections to both of these views and to the general idea that the “the abomination of desolation”refers to the Temple’s destruction in 70 A.D. center on the flight of Jews that took place at that time. Some people fled, not from Jerusalem, but to it. There was flight from Jerusalem to Pella, in the foothills of mountains of the Transjordan. Flight from Jerusalem would have been possible only in anticipation of the fall of Jerusalem, not “when you see the desolating sacrilege” (v. 14). Once Jerusalem had been taken, flight would have been impossible. One cannot say with certainty that the events are 70 A.D. fulfill the statement of Jesus in Mark 13:14.
It is best, perhaps, to understand these words of Jesus both as an historical reference and also as having a final fulfillment. This is consistent with the apocalyptic and eschatological nature of Mark 13. The prophetic tradition often speaks of both the short-term future and of the end of time. Thus, for us, regardless of how first century events may have fulfilled Jesus’ words, there is still a fulfillment to come. Our lack of knowledge about how and when requires us to be alert, to watch and wait.
The one who stands “where (he) ought not” in any age, denying God’s holiness and claiming God’s place, invites disaster. One must flee either from the effects of God’s wrath or from the one who defies God. Faith in God establishes boundaries—holy places, prohibited actions, reserved times—but our human sinfulness naturally despises any “Thou shalt not.” From time to time a person arises whose ambition or greed recognizes no limits. When that happens, danger is imminent and we must flee from it. At the end of the age there will occur a final, cataclysmic judgment, and God will defeat the one who has come, personifying the profanation of all that is holy.
“(Let the reader understand)” (v. 14c). As Jesus would not have considered himself to be addressing a reader, these words must be taken as Mark’s own interjection. This suggests the possibility of knowledge within the church not available to outsiders. Scholars, however, can only speculate about the meaning behind these words.
MARK 13:15-16. THE URGENCY FOR FLIGHT
15“and let him who is on the housetop not go down, nor enter in, to take anything out of his house. 16Let him who is in the field not return back to take his cloak.”
“and let him who is on the housetop not go down, nor enter in, to take anything out of his house”(v. 15). In Palestinian homes of that era, houses had flat roofs accessible by an outside staircase. The roof was used for sleeping at night or prayer. In the field a worker would lay aside the outer coat while working. The danger would be so compelling that neither the person on the rooftop nor the person in the field could stop even to retrieve a coat or other small article. Their lives would depend their quick response.
When the time comes, people must not hesitate for any purpose, but must flee directly to the hills. The scene is reminiscent of Ezekiel 7:15 “The sword is outside, pesitlence and famine are inside; those in the field die by the sword; those in the city—famine and pestilence devour them”
There is no possession more important than life itself. There is no commitment or desire more important than flight from that which evoke’s God’s wrath. We must go to the safety of the hills—to the place God has directed us. In a sense we flee both from God and to God; from God’s judgment to God’s grace.
MARK 13:17-18: HINDRANCES TO FLIGHT
17“But woe to those who are with child and to those who nurse babies in those days!18Pray that your flight won’t be in the winter.”
“But woe to those who are with child and to those who nurse babies in those days” (v. 17). Quick movement would be difficult or impossible for pregnant women and those carrying infants. In winter, food might be scarce, shelter hard to find, and streams impossible to cross. Jesus shows his concern for those who would be helpless when the crisis arises.
“Pray that your flight won’t be in the winter” (v. 18). The injunction to pray urges his followers to share in that compassion.
In the time of overpowering crisis there might be no refuge but prayer. Whether the crisis is personal or social, the Christian might always, and must always, turn to prayer.
MARK 13:19-20. REASONS FOR FLIGHT
19“For in those days there will be oppression, such as there has not been the like from the beginning of the creation which God created until now, and never will be. 20Unless the Lord had shortened the days, no flesh would have been saved; but for the sake of the chosen ones, whom he picked out, he shortened the days.”
“For in those days there will be oppression, such as there has not been the like from the beginning of the creation which God created until now, and never will be” (v. 19). These verses incorporate powerful eschatological language. The events to come will be catastrophic—without precedent. Their magnitude will shake the whole world. This is hyperbole—exaggerated language—language characteristic of that time and place. It speaks not only to the significance of what is imminent, but also to what is to come in yet another, final time, at the end of the age.
“A specific tribulation period, one of unprecedented proportions, will characterize those days. What is not made specific is which days are meant” (Geddert 313).
“The creation which God created” (v. 19b) is an odd redundancy. The emphasis here is not on Judea, as in verse 14. The crisis described here is universal. The focus is not on a crisis that will come and then wane so that life can return to normal, but to a suffering that has never been before and never will be again.
“Unless the Lord had shortened the days, no flesh would have been saved” (v. 20a). The thought here is not that God has changed the original plan, but that God, from the beginning, shortened the time of suffering for the sake of the elect.
“but for the sake of the chosen ones, whom he picked out, he shortened the days” (v. 20b). This is another odd redundancy. The “chosen ones” carries forward into the Christian community the earlier notion of the remnant of Israel that would be saved.
The Church, in times of prosperity and peace, has had a limited interest in eschatology, but the Church, in times of persecution and suffering has drawn comfort and hope from eschatological passages like this one. Through these passages the Church is reassured that the Lord, in his mercy, limits the suffering of the elect, and that redemption is not in lieu of suffering, but through suffering, with suffering, and in suffering.
MARK 13:21-23. A WARNING
21“Then if anyone tells you, ‘Look, here is the Christ!’ or, ‘Look, there!’ don’t believe it.22For there will arise false christs and false prophets, and will show signs and wonders, that they may lead astray, if possible, even the chosen ones. 23But you watch. “Behold, I have told you all things beforehand.”
“Then if anyone tells you, ‘Look, here is the Christ!’ or, ‘Look, there!’ don’t believe it” (v. 21). Throughout this chapter, Mark describes a number of events and signs. In the early part, the disciples are told that the signs do not signal the end (vv. 7-8). But, as the narrative continues, the signs seem more and more to be signals of the end, which the faithful are called to endure.
“For there will arise false christs and false prophets, and will show signs and wonders, that they may lead astray, if possible, even the chosen ones” (v. 22). The coming of false messiahs appears as the last of the signs, nearest the end.
At the end, there will be signs in the heavens and the Son of Man will be seen coming in clouds with great power and glory (v. 26—not part of this Gospel lesson).
The injunction has been to flee, and people must not turn aside because voices call them toward a messiah, or to turn aside because of wonders that they might see. There is no deliverance apart from the Son of Man himself. False messiahs will produce signs and omens. The Son of Man, in contrast, will be seen directly.
“Behold, I have told you all things beforehand” (v. 23). This is a call not to try to name the year, the day or the hour of the end, but to remain watchful and ready. The sign of faith is watchfulness.
The Church is often tempted to follow flamboyant leaders and public figures who seem to have a special gift or power. The world is tempted to follow those who produce results, and to put their faith in such persons. In the end, those who persevere in spite of crises, suffering, misdirection and even upheavals in the heavens will see the Son of Man coming, and they will be saved.
SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible. The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensa Old Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament. The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated.
Donahue, John R. and Harrington, Daniel J., Sacra Pagina: The Gospel of Mark (Collegeville: The Liturgical Press, 2002)
Edwards, James R., The Gospel According to Mark (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2002)
Geddert, Timothy J., Believers Church Bible Commentary: Mark (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 2001)
Hare, Douglas R. A., Westminster Bible Companion: Mark (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1996)
Hooker, Morna D., The Gospel According to Saint Mark (Hendrickson Publishers, 1991)
Lane, William L., The New International Commentary on the New Testament: The Gospel of Mark (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1974)
Williamson, Lamar Jr., Interpretation: Mark (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1983)
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Copyright 2008, 2012, Richard Niell Donovan