Jesus has just told the disciples that the temple in Jerusalem will soon be destroyed and so they ask him how they will know when the day is close at hand. In our passage for study Jesus tells his disciples of the sign that will herald that terrible day, and what they should do when confronted by it.
v14a. Jesus answers the disciples' question in prophetic language by quoting from the prophet Daniel. When the disciples see "the desolating sacrilege" then they will know that the time has come. Readers of Mark's gospel in the first century knew exactly what this meant, but Luke actually goes to the trouble of spelling it out for us; "but when you see Jerusalem surrounded by armies, then you know its desolation has come near", Lk.21:20. The Jewish rebellion against Rome in 66AD brought the Roman legions against Jerusalem and ultimately caused the destruction of the temple in 70AD.
v14b-17. Jesus goes on to explain to his disciples what they need to do when faced with this terrible event. The answer is flee; don't wait around to pack up the house, don't even go back for something left behind. Pity help pregnant and nursing mothers in that terrible day, in fact, pity help anyone who can't get away quickly. Tradition has it that the believers in Jerusalem read the signs and left for Pella across the Jordan before Jerusalem was set upon by the Roman legions.
v18-20. Of course, the disciples need not think they are facing a situation which is out of God's hand, as though he is bound by the blind brute force of circumstance. Divine judgment on the temple is inevitable, but for the sake of the believing community the days will be shortened, and prayer will be powerful.
v21-23. In times of great distress there are always those who claim they have secret knowledge about the coming day. So, Jesus warns his disciples of the ongoing threat of those who, with charismatic powers (signs and wonders), are constantly linking the return of Christ with the current events of history. When Christ does return it will be evident to all, not just those who claim prophetic insight. So then, perseverance in faith is the path for a believer.
Given the increasing threat of terrorism, world-wide financial problems, war and natural calamities, people feel less confident for the future and wonder if the end is near. Even New Age devotees are uneasy, especially those who follow the Mayan calendar. A neighbor of mine is so concerned he has started setting up his property so it can be totally self-sufficient. When society, as we know it, collapses, he is making sure that his family will be able to survive. I have pointed out to him that when the Roman legions left England there were no self-sufficient Roman villas functioning after the Saxons had finished with their rape and pillage policy. If and when the tribulation does come, the whole of our town will know were they can get free fuel and food, so unless he is willing to take on the role of Mad Max he could face some difficult moments.
Jesus explained to his disciples that when the days of tribulation come upon them, the days leading up to the day of judgment, they will be able to read the signs of the times and respond accordingly; they will not be left by God to their own devices. The terrible day for the early Christians was the move by Rome against the Jewish rebels that culminated in the destruction of the temple. When Jesus spoke of that day he did so in prophetic language because he was not just speaking about the destruction of the temple, but also of another day, his coming in judgment in the last day.
So, what Jesus says to his disciples he says to us. We will be able to read the signs when the day of tribulation comes upon us, and we will be able to respond accordingly. Above all, our Lord will not leave us alone during those terrible days; he will support us through them, powerfully answering our prayers. Meanwhile, perseverance in faith is the path we must follow.
1. Jesus, quoting from Daniel, speaks of "the abomination that causes desolation." What does this represent for Jesus' first disciples and what does it represent for us?
2. Why should we be alert but not alarmed when it comes to the days of tribulation?
3. How should we respond to those with secret insights into the signs of the times?