This chapter of Mark’s Gospel is known as the 'Olivet Discourse', because Jesus gave this teaching to his disciples on the Mount of Olives. The chapter is parallelled in both Matthew and Luke’s Gospels (Mt 25, Lk 21). Some of the similarities and differences between these will be noted later in the article. However, in all three synoptic gospels it is included at the same stage in the ministry of Jesus, forming a bridge between the conclusion of Jesus’ public ministry in Jerusalem and the start of the passion narratives. The two previous chapters of Mark describe a series of conflicts with the temple authorities (11:11 - 12:12). One of the great themes in Mark is the call to discipleship. Jesus set his standards of discipleship, to, “take up their cross and follow me” (8:34), to give up everything to follow him (10:17-27). Jesus came into Jerusalem looking for people who would respond to him and his claims in committed discipleship. However, the great majority of people failed to respond in this way, but rejected him.
Some scholars have noted that the Olivet Discourse is in the form of a farewell address, where Jesus gives instruction and consolation to his disciples before his death. It contains both predictions concerning the future, including what his disciples should expect in their futures, as well as practical instructions for their conduct once their master has departed.
There is considerable debate among different people as to what these chapters are about, so there are a number of different interpretations. It appears that in the discourse, Jesus is speaking about two separate events, which are linked together in some way. One is thefall of the city of Jerusalem, which happened in the year AD 70, when the Romans besieged and destroyed the city and temple; and the other is the second coming of Christ, and certain events which may precede that. Because of this, interpretations range between the two extremes: from of all the discourse being about the events surrounding the second coming, to it all being already fulfilled in the first century.
The key to aid our understanding is try and put aside our preconceived ideas and to do thorough observation of the text, asking, “What does it actually say?”. There are some significant themes and key words to be noted. Firstly there are many commands to his disciples, practical steps they should take. However careful note should be taken of the sections of the text where there are no commands. A number of times Jesus tells his disciples to “beware”, or to “be alert” (v5,9,23,33).
We should also note that there is a consistent pattern of an exhortation followed by an explanation. The command to his disciples is followed by a description of future events, which are the reason for the command. For example, “Beware that no one leads you astray (command). Many will come in my name and say, “I am he!” and they will lead many astray (explanation) (v5-6). This pattern is significant because it shows that the so-called apocalyptic sections are not here to satisfy our curiosity about future events, but as supporting reasons for the commands to his disciples. This would indicate that the purpose of the Olivet Discourse is not just to give revelation of the future, but to promote faith and obedience in a time of coming distress which his disciples will experience themselves. We should be very careful not to turn passages such as this into the Christian alternative to fortune-telling, or crystal ball gazing! Instead we should see Jesus demonstrating his pastoral concern for his disciples, preparing them, and the church, for a future period which will involve the two apparent opposites of evangelism and persecution.
The text of chapter 13
v1-2 Prediction of the destruction of the temple
1 As he came out of the temple, one of his disciples said to him, "Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!" 2 Then Jesus asked him, "Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down."
These two verses form an introduction to set the scene. They are the only part of the chapter spoken in public, the remainder is spoken only to four of the disciples. In Mark’s narrative, Jesus had been in the temple since his triumphal entry into Jerusalem (11:27), and now comes out of the temple for the last time. One unnamed disciple, perhaps Peter, makes a comment about the temple, noting the large stones and large buildings.
Herod's temple was a magnificent building, being one of the wonders of the ancient world. It covered one sixth of the old city of Jerusalem, consisting of a series of courts, with the smaller buildings joined to the main temple by colonnades. It had an magnificent ornate facade. Herod the Great started to build it as an attempt to please the Jews, to replace the temple built after the exile in Babylon by Zerubbabel. It had already taken total of forty-six years to build (John 2:20), starting in 19 BC, and was still not completed during the lifetime of Jesus. The south-western view of the temple rose two hundred feet over Jerusalem (today's wailing wall). It cast an image of dazzling whiteness from its marble walls and blinding fire from its golden domes. Some of the marble stones weighed one hundred tons.
These are two quotations from the Jewish historian Josephus, who was familiar with the temple:
"Now the temple was built of stone that were white and strong, and each of their length was twenty-five cubits (37 feet), their height was eight (12 feet) and their breadth about twelve (18 feet)." (Ant 15.11.3)
"Now the outward face of the temple in its front wanted nothing that was likely to surprise either men's minds or their eyes; for it was covered all over with plates of gold of great weight, and, at the first rising of the sun, reflected back a very fiery splendour, and made those who forced themselves to look upon it to turn their eyes away, just as they would have done at the sun's own rays. But this temple appeared to strangers, when they were at a distance, like a mountain covered with snow; for, as to those parts of that were not gilt, they were exceeding white. ... Of its stones, some of them were forty-five cubits (67 feet) in length, five (7 feet) in height and six (9 feet) in breadth" (War 5.5.6)
The comment from the disciple was surely correct, this was certainly a wonderful building with huge stones. One Jewish Rabbi said this about the temple:
"He who has not seen Jerusalem in her splendour has never seen a desirable city in his life. He who has not seen the Temple in its full construction has never seen a glorious building in his life".
His comment could be thought of being rather biased, but Tacitus, the Roman historian, who was no friend of the Jews, described the temple as, "a temple of immense wealth" (History 5.8).
The Jews were extremely proud of their temple, as the place of the presence of God. It was considered blasphemy to speak against it. Jeremiah (Jer 7 & 26), Stephen (Acts 7:48-49) spoke against the temple, and suffered punishment for that. Jesus was finally charged with speaking against the temple (Jn 2:20, Mt 26:61), a charge which led to his death.
The destruction of the temple
In Jerusalem today, there is no temple, only the Temple Mount, so the prediction made by Jesus has been fulfilled. This happened in the year AD 70, after the fall of Jerusalem to the Roman armies. During the fighting the temple had been burned by fire, so Titus ordered the demolition of the temple, when all its buildings were levelled to the ground. This is recorded by Josephus:
"Caesar (Titus) gave orders that they should now demolish the entire city and temple ... but for all the rest of the wall, it was so thoroughly laid even with the ground by those that dug it up to the foundation, that there was left nothing to make those that came thither believe it had ever been inhabited" (War 7.1.1)
A number of other times during his ministry Jesus predicted the destruction of temple and city as a judgement on “this generation” for rejecting their Messiah. One example is this:
“They will crush you to the ground, they and your children within you, and they will not leave within you one stone upon another; because you did not recognise the time of your visitation from God” (Lk 19:44).
For more information about the dreadful events during the Jewish war from AD 66-70, and the fall of Jerusalem, please read the article AD 70.
v3-4 A question from the disciples
3 When he was sitting on the Mount of Olives opposite the temple, Peter, James, John, and Andrew asked him privately, 4 "Tell us, when will this be, and what will be the sign that all these things are about to be accomplished?"
For the rest of the chapter, Jesus was talking only to four of his disciples, two pairs of brothers, Peter and Andrew, James and John. This was not a public teaching like the Sermon on the Mount, but a private conversation with the inner group of three disciples, plus Andrew. They are sitting down on the Mount of Olives, looking directly at the front face of the temple. From where they were sitting they would be able to look right in to the veil before the Holy of Holies.
The disciples ask Jesus a question, wanting explanation of the prediction that Jesus had just made. We should note carefully what they actually ask. Their question has two parts, firstly, “When will this be?”, and secondly, “What will be the sign when all these things are about to be accomplished?” We should note carefully that their question is about the destruction of the temple, not the second coming, or signs of the end. They are asking for timing and for a sign for its immanent fulfilment. As we read the rest of the discourse, we need to observe carefully the use of the phrase “these things”, asking ourselves what it refers to.
When a comparison is made with the other two gospels: In Luke both parts of the question are similar (Lk 21:7), but in Matthew only the first part is the same. The second part looks more to the end, “What will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?” (24: 3). We see that a link is made between the destruction of the temple and the final consummation at the second coming. The destruction of the temple must come first, and in some way it foreshadows events of the end. We may well wonder whether the disciples were expecting both to come at the same time.
v5-8 Warnings about coming world events
5 Then Jesus began to say to them, "Beware that no one leads you astray. 6 Many will come in my name and say, 'I am he!' and they will lead many astray. 7 When you hear of wars and rumours of wars, do not be alarmed; this must take place, but the end is still to come. 8 For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be earthquakes in various places; there will be famines. This is but the beginning of the birth pangs.
In the first part of his reply, Jesus does not immediately answer their question, but warns his disciples about events that will take place in the world, and instructs them how to respond to them. We should note the use of the pronoun, “you”, implying that his disciples will live to experience these things. He begins by warning them about false Messiahs (v5-6). He predicts that many false Messiahs will come, making claims of divinity, and that many people will believe them and become their followers. But he tells his disciples not to be deceived by them.
His second warning is about wars and rumours of wars, telling his disciples not to be alarmed by them (v7-8). These things will take place, but they can trust that God is still in control. Today we often hear that wars and rumours of wars are signs of the end, but Jesus declares the complete opposite. These wars, earthquakes and famines, are not signs of the end, but merely the beginning of the birth-pangs. When they happen, we are not expect that the end is soon, and not be alarmed by them. In this paragraph Jesus is strongly discouraging a false sense of imminence of his second coming, but instead is he is urging vigilance during the period of turmoil and stress preceding the fall of Jerusalem.
The forty years that followed these predictions made by Jesus, was a time of great turmoil, which certainly fulfilled these warnings.
There were numerous false messiahs. One well-known one was Simon the Magician, who tried to buy the power of the Holy Spirit from Peter (Acts 8:9-24). Justin Martyr reports that, during the reign of Claudius, Simon was worshipped as a god in Rome because of his magical powers. Jerome quotes Simon as saying, "I am the word of God, I am the comforter, I am almighty, I am all there is of God" (Mansel in The Gnostic Heresies p.82). Irenaeus said that Simon claimed to be the son of God and the creator of angels. Josephus describes the time of Felix, the governor of Judea:
"Now as for the affairs of the Jews, they grew worse and worse continually, for the country was again filled with robbers and impostors, who deluded the multitude. Yet did Felix catch and put to death many of those impostors every day, together with the robbers".
There were plenty of wars and rumours of wars. The forty years after AD 30 were a time of unparalleled turmoil and wars. AD 69 is known as "The year of the four emperors", when there was civil war in Rome, and four Roman emperors came to violent deaths within eighteen months. There were several invasions by the Parthians, from the eastern frontiers of the Roman empire. There was an uprising against the Jews in Seleucia, when 50,000 Jews were slain. In Caesarea, 20,000 Jews were killed in battle by Syrians. The hostility between Jews and Syrians divided many towns and villages into armed camps. Constant rumours of wars kept the Jews in an unsettled state, some even fearing to plough and plant the land.
Just before AD 70, there were earthquakes in many places including: Crete, Smyrna, Miletus, Chios, Samos, Laodicea, Hierapolis, Colossae, Rome and Judea. The city of Pompei was devastated by the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius. Earthquakes are usually followed by famine. But we do know that there was a severe famine in Judea and over a wide area of the Roman Empire during the days of Claudius predicted by Agabus (Acts 11:28).
These sort of events have continued down through history. Whether or not there have been more in recent years is debatable. These events described here are only the beginning of the problems, not signs of the end.
v9-13 Warnings about what will happen to his disciples
9 "As for yourselves, beware; for they will hand you over to councils; and you will be beaten in synagogues; and you will stand before governors and kings because of me, as a testimony to them. 10 And the good news must first be proclaimed to all nations. 11 When they bring you to trial and hand you over, do not worry beforehand about what you are to say; but say whatever is given you at that time, for it is not you who speak, but the Holy Spirit. 12 Brother will betray brother to death, and a father his child, and children will rise against parents and have them put to death; 13 and you will be hated by all because of my name. But the one who endures to the end will be saved.
Jesus then moves on from coming world events, making his warnings more personal for his disciples, warning them about the rejection and persecution they will experience. The main theme of most of the second half of Mark’s Gospel is that his disciples will have to suffer, yet he encourages them with advice and promises of what to do in that situation. This would also act as a word of encouragement to Mark's original readers, who were probably currently suffering in Rome during Nero's persecution. Three times he says that they will be “handed over”, or “betrayed” (v9,11,12). Just as Jesus was about to be betrayed, his disciples will also experience that. They will be handed over to councils, the Jewish courts, which will include the main Sanhedrin in Jerusalem, and minor courts in each town. They will be beaten in synagogues (Jn 16:2), and will stand before governors, the Gentile Roman authorities. This is exactly what was about to happen to Jesus (Mk 14-15), and later happened to nearly all of his disciples, including those who were listening. James was the first to killed by Herod Agrippa (Acts 12:2). Peter and John were imprisoned and beaten (Acts 4-5). As far as we know, Andrew was martyred in Greece, and Peter was martyred in Rome, both in the sixties AD. Only John out of the original disciples died a natural death. Paul also experienced all these things, living a life of suffering (2 Cor 11:23-26), and bearing testimony of Jesus to Jewish courts, was well as Gentile rulers, including Felix, Festus and Agrippa.
The reason for the persecution is the preaching of the good news to all nations (v10). The preaching of the Gospel brings persecution, but persecution will not stop the spread of the Gospel. Before the end, the Gospel must be preached to all nations. This has been God’s plan right from the beginning, that all nations (the Gentiles) will learn about the One True God, and how to come into relationship with him. Even though it brings persecution, the church has the commission from Jesus to bring the Good News to all nations. Obviously it has not happened yet, and it will be impossible for us to determine when it has. Only God will know when the Great Commission has been completed.
After these warnings, Jesus gives encouragement to disciples (v11). They are not to worry, as the Holy Spirit will give them words to say in their defence if they are brought to trial. Just as Jesus experienced during his ministry, his disciples will face rejection and betrayal by their families (v12). Today, as in all time, families are often divided by the gospel. People will hate them only because they hate Jesus (v13). Saul (later Paul) was asked why he was persecuting Jesus (Acts 9:1,4). He persecuted the Christians because he hated Jesus. They are encouraged to persevere through the persecution, maintaining a faithful witness to Jesus to the end (v13).
In Matthew’s Gospel, the contents of this paragraph are dispersed elsewhere in his book, mostly in the context of the mission of the seventy (Mt 10:17-22).
v14-23 Call to flee when you see the sign
14 "But when you see the desolating sacrilege set up where it ought not to be (let the reader understand), then those in Judea must flee to the mountains; 15 the one on the housetop must not go down or enter the house to take anything away; 16 the one in the field must not turn back to get a coat. 17 Woe to those who are pregnant and to those who are nursing infants in those days! 18 Pray that it may not be in winter. 19 For in those days there will be suffering, such as has not been from the beginning of the creation that God created until now, no, and never will be. 20 And if the Lord had not cut short those days, no one would be saved; but for the sake of the elect, whom he chose, he has cut short those days. 21 And if anyone says to you at that time, 'Look! Here is the Messiah!' or 'Look! There he is!'--do not believe it. 22 False messiahs and false prophets will appear and produce signs and omens, to lead astray, if possible, the elect. 23 But be alert; I have already told you everything.
Now, at last, be begins to answer their original question, but in the reverse order, first speaking about the sign that will come before the destruction of the temple. His message is again very practical, when they see the sign, GET OUT QUICKLY! We should notice the large number of imperatives, practical instructions for this disciples. When they see the desolating sacrilege (whatever that is), they must flee as quickly as possible, because the destruction of the temple is immanent. In the this paragraph Jesus predicts that something is going to happen and gives the practical instructions to his disciples about what to do when it does. This cannot describe the end of history because of the command to flee. It will be impossible to flee from the second coming of Christ (Rev 6:12-17), and no need to try if you are a Christian.
The big question is what the desolating sacrilege is, or was. The wording here is rather cryptic. Mark must have added the, “let the reader understand”. It would not have been part of the original words spoken by Jesus. He is calling his readers to think about this, to exercise their minds. A desolating sacrilege is an abomination so detestable that causes the temple to be abandoned by the people of God. It would be something that would cause the temple to become ritually unclean, and therefore rejected by God and his people.
At this point it can be helpful to consider the parallel passages in Matthew and Luke: “When you see the desolating sacrilege standing in the Holy Place, as spoken of by the prophet Daniel (let the reader understand)” (Mt 24:15), and “when you see Jerusalem surrounded by armies, then know that its desolation has come near” (Luke 21:20). Matthew makes reference to the prophet Daniel, which predicted the desecration of the temple by Antiochus Epiphanes. Luke refers to the Roman armies besieging Jerusalem. Both make the same point though - when you see the sign (whether the temple being made unclean, or the armies surrounding the city), flee as quickly as possible.
To understand what will happen, it is necessary to look back at Daniel’s original prediction and its fulfilment in Israel’s history. In chapter eleven Daniel was given a detailed prediction of the events of the inter-testamental period: the conflict between the Ptolemies of Egypt (the king of the south), and the Seleucids of Syria (the king of the north). He introduces the “contemptible person” (11:21-39), who will set his heart against the holy covenant (v28) and take action against the holy covenant (v30). His forces will profane the temple and take away the continual burnt offering. And they shall set up the abomination that makes desolate (v31). Daniel was also told that the regular burnt offering will be taken away and the desolating sacrilege set up for 1290 days, which is 3½ years (Dan 8:9-14).
The fulfilment of this prediction is described in the apocryphal book of 1 Maccabees (1 Macc 1:10-64). In 168 BC, Antiochus IV Epiphanes, the Selucid king, who believed that he was an incarnation of the Greek god Zeus, decided that his kingdom should be one people, without any individual customs (1:41), so he attempted to wipe out Judaism. He abolished all distinctive aspects of the Jewish religion, forbidding circumcision, all the offerings and sacrifices and the keeping of the feasts (1:41-50). In December of 167 BC, he re-dedicated the temple in Jerusalem to Zeus and sacrificed a pig on the altar of burnt offering (1:54). He set up a statue of Zeus before the Holy Place and made the Jews worship it. This became known as Baal Shammon (in Hebrew), translated as “the desolating sacrilege”, or “the abomination of desolation”. This action led to a Jewish revolt, led by Judas Maccabeus, who finally expelled the Seleucids. The burnt offering was stopped for 3½ years (167-164 BC). Finally, the temple was rededicated to God, and the annual Feast of Purification (Hannukah or Feast of Lights) celebrates this (1 Macc 4:44-59).
In his teaching Jesus re-uses the symbolism originally used to describe the defilement of the temple by Antiochus Epiphanes. The events of 167 - 164 BC would be very familiar to the Jews, including his disciples. But now he predicts that there will be another abomination which will profane the temple, and when they see it, the Christians should flee to escape the coming destruction.
He tells them to flee to the mountains (v14b), to get away from the city as quickly as possible (v15-16). They will not have time to take anything with them. Houses normally had flat roofs and outside staircases, so if they were on the roof of the house, they should go down the staircase, and not enter the house, as there will not be time.
Some will find there are hindrances to fleeing (v17-18). Pregnant and nursing mothers will find it harder to travel fast enough. They should pray that it will not be necessary to flee in the winter, when it is colder, and the rivers are flowing fuller and faster through the wadis after heavy rain. They will need to flee to escape the dreadful suffering of that time (v19-20). During the siege of Jerusalem tens of thousands of people died, whether in battle, or crucifixion. The suffering was so dreadful that the starving people resorted to cannibalism.
Jesus has now answered the second part of their original question, “what will be the sign that all these things are about to be accomplished?” (13:4). He calls them to be alert because he has told them everything (13:23). They now have all they need to know. When they see “these things”, the desolation of the temple, they need to flee, because that is the sign that its destruction is about to happen (13:14).
The historical desecration of the temple
The temple had been on the brink of being desecrated in AD 40. The mad emperor Caligula (Gaius) thought he was a god and planned to have an image of himself set up in the Holy Place of the Jerusalem temple. His advisers begged him not to do it, knowing that it would cause civil war in Judea. However, Caligula died in AD 41, before the desecration was done.
The desecration of the temple took place during the Jewish wars from AD 66-70. The historian Josephus, who described this, was as an eye-witness during the Roman siege of Jerusalem. The uprising was sparked by the zealots, who were nationalistic Jews determined to expel the Romans by force. Competing groups of zealots occupied Jerusalem, including the temple area (War 4,3,7) and defiled the temple even before the Romans captured the city. The zealots allowed criminals to roam freely in the Holy of Holies, and they even committed murder within the temple itself (War 4,5,4). These acts of sacrilege were climaxed in the winter of AD 67-68 by the investiture of a clown called Phanni as High Priest (War 4,3,6-8). In response to this action, Ananus, the retired High Priests lamented with tears, "Certainly, it had been good for me to die before I had seen the house of God full of so many abominations, or these sacred places that ought not to be trodden upon at random, filled with the feet of these blood-shedding villans" (War 4.3.10).
In his account, Josephus said that the temple was destroyed because the Jews themselves had created the desolating sacrilege, repeating the one predicted by Daniel.
"... our nation suffered these things under Antiochus Epiphanes, according to Daniel's vision (Dan 8), and what he wrote many years before they came to pass. In the very same manner Daniel also wrote concerning the Roman government, and that our country should be made desolate by them" (Ant 10.11.7)
"For there was an ancient saying of inspired men that the city would be taken and the sanctuary burned to the ground by right of war, when it should be visited by sedition and native hands should be the first to defile God's sacred precinct. This saying the Zealots did not disbelieve, yet they lent themselves as instruments of its accomplishment" (War 4,6,3)
The flight of the Christians to Pella
After the Roman armies started to surround the city, there was a break in the siege, when Vespasian was recalled to Rome after the death of Nero. During this break, the Christians in Jerusalem fled to Pella in the Transjordan. When the city fell, there were no Christians there. God had miraculously preserved his "elect" (v20). This was recorded by the fourth century church historian, Eusebius:
"But before the war, the people of the Church of Jerusalem were bidden in an oracle given by revelation to men worthy of it to depart from the city and to dwell in a city of Perea called Pella. To it those who believed in Christ migrated from Jerusalem. Once the holy men (Christians) had completely left the Jews and all Judea, the justice of God at last overtook them, since they had committed such transgressions against Christ and his apostles. Divine justice completely blotted out that impious generation from amongmen" (Ecclesiastical History III.v.3).
The Christians had been told to flee when they saw the temple desolated, as it would be impossible to flee when the city was under siege. Probably the Christians in Jerusalem recognised Phanni as "the desolating sacrilege set up where it ought not to be", the sign that the temple was about to be destroyed. In response to Jesus's warning in the Olivet Discourse, they fled to Pella before the Romans resumed the siege of the city. Jesus had told them to flee to the mountains, and the nearest mountains, except those which surround Jerusalem, are in the Transjordan. This is why the Christians fled to Pella, in the foothills of those mountains.
Josephus may be referring to the departure of the Christians, as he wrote:
"... many of the most eminent of the Jews swam away from the city (Jerusalem), as from a ship when it was going to sink" (War 2.20.1)
"There were many of the Jews that deserted every day and fled away from the Zealots, although their flight was very difficult, since they had guarded every passage out of the city, and slew every one that was caught at them, as taking it for granted they were going over to the Romans" (War 4.6.3)
v24-27 The Son of Man coming in the clouds
24 "But in those days, after that suffering,
the sun will be darkened,
and the moon will not give its light,
25 and the stars will be falling from heaven,
and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.
26 Then they will see 'the Son of Man coming in clouds' with great power and glory. 27 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.
In this paragraph, the focus changes completely. We should notice that there are no commands and no warnings to the disciples. This describes the second coming of Christ, when the Son of man comes in great glory. There is a strong contrast from the previous paragraph; this is a new situation.
In those days, after that tribulation, an indefinite time after the destruction of the temple, the Son of Man will come. This is an allusion to the Son of Man in the clouds (Dan 7:13). Throughout all the Bible, there is an association between God’s glory and clouds.
We should notice the change in pronoun from “you” to “they. He says, “Then they will see the Son of Man” (v26). In contrast to the previous paragraphs, he is no longer referring to the disciples, but to those will be living at the time of his return. When Jesus came the first time, he came in humility, people missed it, but when he comes a second time, he will come in glory, and everyone will see him (Rev 1:7). He will gather his elect (v27), at the time of the final harvest (Rev 19).
Some interpreters claim that this paragraph is still describing the fall of Jerusalem, using apocalyptic language, but that is hard to justify. In Matthew’s account, he says, “Immediately after the suffering of those days” (24:29), making it more uncertain whether it refers to the Fall of Jerusalem or the second coming.
The discourse concludes with two stories, which Jesus used to illustrate his teaching. The first is the fig tree (v28), and the second, a man going on a journey (v34).
v28-31 The fig tree
28 "From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near. 29 So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that he is near, at the very gates. 30 Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place. 31 Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.
The Mount of Olives is famous for its fig trees. Fig trees are one of the few trees in Israel that loose their leaves in the winter. In the springtime, at the time of the Passover, the leaves start to sprout, so the disciples would see this around them as Jesus spoke. The sprouting of leaves on the fig tree is a sign that spring is here, summer is coming and figs will soon grow. The sprouting of the fig tree is a sign of what is happening in Jerusalem. He again refers to "these things" (v29, as in v14), this being the sign that the destruction of temple is about to happen. Jesus's lesson is that when you see “these things” taking place the time is soon. The “he” at the end of verse 29 can just as well be translated “it”, so it could refer to a person or an inanimate object. In the context, it is likely that he is saying that when you see “these things”, the sign, you know that destruction (by the Roman armies) is very near.
The cursing of the fig tree was because it had not fruit (11:12-14), and should be parallelled to the destruction of Jerusalem, also because it had no fruit. The fruits of discipleship that Jesus looked for were not found there.
Jesus promises that “this generation will not pass away” (v30), before all “these things” have taken place. If we accept that “these things” refers to the events of destruction of the temple and the fall of Jerusalem (13:4), then Jesus is saying that those people currently living at the time of his public ministry will witness their fulfilment. Throughout the gospels, without exception, the phrase, “this generation” refers to the unbelieving Jews who rejected Jesus during his ministry (Mt 11:16, 12:41,42, 23:36, Mk 8:12,38, 9:19, Lk 11:31-34,50-51, 17:25).
Jesus has now answered the first part of their original question, “when will this be?” (13:4). It will happen during the lifespan of the current living generation. Jesus gave this discourse sometime around AD 30, and the temple was destroyed in AD 70, forty years later, forty years being the normal length of one generation in the Bible. This first illustration, therefore, refers back to the events surrounding the destruction of the temple described in 13:5-23, not to the immediately preceding paragraph about the second coming (13:24-27).
This passage causes problems for people to claim that the events are still to be fulfilled in the future, so they suggest that “this generation” refers to the Jewish people as a whole. This goes against all the other uses of this phrase in the gospels, where it consistently refers to the physical generation of Jews alive during the ministry of Jesus, who rejected him as their Messiah.
Now we have the answer to both parts of the question the disciples originally asked (v4): “when will this be?”, and, “what will be the sign that all these things are about to be accomplished?”. As noted before, the disciples were asking about his prediction of the destruction of the temple (v2). He first answered the question about the sign: the sign is the desecration of the temple, when they must flee quickly (v14). Then he told them the timing: within the lifetime of this generation (v30).
v32-37 The man going on a journey
32 "But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. 33 Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come. 34 It is like a man going on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his slaves in charge, each with his work, and commands the doorkeeper to be on the watch. 35 Therefore, keep awake--for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn, 36 or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly. 37 And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake."
The second story is to illustrate Jesus’ teaching about his second coming (v24-27). The main message is to watch and be alert because no one knows the time of, “that day or hour”. Not even the Son knows the timing of his coming, only the Father. Three times he repeats that “no one knows” (v32,33,35). This gives a great emphasis, which we need to take careful note of. The second coming could be at any time (after AD 70), therefore he calls us to be alert, and to keep awake. There will be no sign for the second coming. This is in contrast to the sign and the timing that was given for “these things”, the destruction of the temple. He refers to “that day”, in contrast to “those days”, when he refers to the events of AD 70.
This illustration of the man going on a journey is only found in Mark’s Gospel. The man represents Jesus, going away and leaving his people in charge, waiting for his return, which could be at any time. We do not know when the master will return (v35), therefore both the disciples, and us, need to keep awake (v37). His words apply both to his original disciples, and to all who follow them. Because only God knows the time of "that day", his disciples are called to vigilance and watchfulness, not calculation of the date!
It is interesting to note that Mark refers to the Roman system of time-keeping. They had four watches during the night: evening, midnight, cockcrow, and dawn.
It is quite likely that the disciples thought that the destruction of the temple would happen at the same time as Jesus’ second coming. The question in Matthew’s gospel gives this impression (Mt 24:3), where they link the destruction of the temple with Jesus’ coming and the end of the age. Jesus did not want his disciples to confuse the preliminary events with the end of the age. The destruction of the temple must happen before the second coming, but it does not in anyway determine the timing of the second coming.
Structure of Mark chapter 13
Jesus gave two short stories to illustrate the teaching: The fig tree (v28) illustrates v14-23, and the man going on a journey (v34) illustrates v24-27. This shows us that Mark is using a law of composition called interchange, where two topics are interweaved:
A. Fall of Jerusalem (v5-23)
B. Second coming (v24-27)
A. Fall of Jerusalem (v28-33)
B. Second coming (v34-37)
Matthew chapter 25
Following the Olivet Discourse in Matthew’s Gospel there are a series of four parables showing that there will be a delay before Jesus' return, and teaching us how we should live during that delay. We should remember that the delay is because of the mercy of God (2 Pet 3:8-13), because God does not wish that any should perish. The delay gives an opportunity to share the gospel and see more people saved.
In the parable of the faithful and unfaithful servants (Mt 24:45-50), the unfaithful servant takes selfish advantage of the master's delay, but gets caught out by the master's sudden return. In the parable of the wise and foolish virgins (Mt 25:1-13), the foolish virgins not prepared for the delay of the bridegroom. The parable of the talents (Mt 25:14-30) shows us what we should be doing during that delay - doing good deeds, and using the gifts that God has invested in us. The series ends with the parable of the sheep and goats (Mt 25:31-46), portraying the final judgement.
In the Olivet Discourse, Jesus spoke about two separate events. He was asked when the temple will be destroyed. His answer was withing the lifespan of the current living generation. They will see the sign of the armies surrounding Jerusalem and the temple being desecrated, when they should flee to escape the suffering.
He also spoke about his second coming. For this there are no signs, and no date. We have to live with both a sense of immanence and delay. He can come at any time, like a thief in the night, so we have to be ready and watchful, ready to meet him. However there will also be a delay, during which we have to live our lives in service of him, knowing that we will be accountable to him at the end of our lives.