The Abomination of Desolation | Mark 13:14-23

“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.

Mark 13:14-23 ESV

It might be helpful as we get into the latter portions of this chapter to talk a little about the different views of eschatology. When it comes to interpreting passages like this one, there are two terms worth noting: preterism and futurism. As the latter’s name would suggest, those with a futurist lens of interpretation will tend to read apocalyptic prophecies such as these as speaking of a still future event. Preterists, however, take the opposite view of seeing almost everything as having occurred in the past. Full preterists argue that that even Christ’s second coming has already been fulfilled, which makes that view erroneous and to be avoided. Partial preterists, however, recognize many events, the return of Christ being a chief one, as still awaiting fulfillment yet still view many prophesies as having already been fulfilled. As you may have picked up from the previous two sermons, I fall under the partial-preterist category.

Beyond views of interpretation, we can only discuss the different views of when Christ’s return will occur. There are four of them: dispensational premillennialism, historic premillennialism, postmillennialism, and amillennialism. They all involve the word millennium because they largely differ on when Christ will return in relation His thousand-year reign upon earth as described in Revelation 20. Both premillennialist views say that Christ will return before the millennium. They generally view the world as being in a gradual decline until Christ’s second coming. Postmillennialists believe that Christ will return after His millennial reign is established through the successful fulfillment of the Great Commission. They generally view the world as being on a gradual incline as the gospel goes into all the world. Amillennialists view the millennium as being symbolic of the present church age, meaning that Christ could return at any moment. They view the world with a more Ecclesiastes-ish lens, that there is nothing new under the sun. there is a constant rhythm of things getting better and things getting worse. If you have not already guessed, I belong to the amillennial category.

Yet we should also note that these differing views are not primary doctrines, such as the Trinity or the divinity of Christ, nor are they secondary doctrines, like credo- and paedo-baptism. Eschatological views are tertiary doctrines upon which we can happily disagree and argue about with joy within the same congregation. Indeed, I would argue that the ambiguity of Christ’s return is meant to foster these different views. When rightly used, the pessimistic view of the world by premillennialists keeps the church focused on our blessed hope. When rightly used, the optimistic view of the world by postmillennialists calls the church to engage in multi-generational culture building. And I like to think that amillennials help keep everyone balanced between the two.

As for our text, Jesus warns of the abomination of desolation, a time of tribulation like no other that must shortly come to pass. [1]

SUCH TRIBULATION AS HAS NOT BEEN

Our text begins with moving beyond the five non-signs that He gave in verses 5-13 (false messiahs, wars and rumors of wars, earthquakes, famines, and persecution). Though each of those hardships are easily taken to be signs of the end, Jesus specifically warns us against doing so, saying rather that we should expect to face them as an ordinary part of living in our broken, sin-stained world. Now, however, Jesus does present us with a definitive sign.

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 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.

The sign of the end that Jesus gives here is called the abomination of desolation or the abomination which makes desolate, which is a phrase that comes from the book of Daniel. The parenthetical statement, let the reader understand, could have been spoken by Jesus to His disciples or it might be another editorial comment by Mark. Either way, it is probably best taken as a call for us to consider again the prophesies within Daniel’s book.

We will not spend much time here doing so since we studied through the book of Daniel last year. There we find references to the abomination that makes desolate in chapters 9, 11, and 12. As I noted in that study, that event seems to refer to the Seleucid king Antiochus Epiphanes, who converted the temple into a temple to Zeus and forbid the Jews from such practices as circumcision and observing the Sabbath. It was a horrific period of tribulation that lasted for a about three and a half years and ended with Antiochus dying in excruciating pain from a sudden illness. Yet by Jesus’ day, that had happened long ago, so why is Jesus calling His disciples to recall those words. I think William Hendriksen answers that question quite well:

In accordance with that prophet’s prediction Antiochus Epiphanes (175-164 BC), unaware that he was indeed fulfilling prophecy, and being thoroughly responsible for his own wicked deed, erected a pagan altar over the altar of burnt-offering, thus polluting the house of God and rendering it desolate and unusable. This had happened long ago. See I Macc. 1:54, 59. Nevertheless, Jesus says, “Now when you see ‘the desolating sacrilege.'” The implication is that a divine oracle may apply to more than one historical situation. The sacrilege that results in the desolation of city and temple takes place more than once in history… Just as in the past the holy places of the Lord had been desecrated, so it will happen again. And it did indeed take place when the Roman armies, with the image of the emperor on their standards, an image and an emperor worshiped by them laid siege to the city of Jerusalem (Luke 21:20).[2]

Thus, a new period of tribulation and desecration of the temple was coming, like what occurred in second century BC yet much worse. Here again I believe that we ought to keep the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple in AD 70 squarely in our focus, for it certainly seems to have been the fulfillment of these predictions. Sam Storms does a particularly wonderful (if that word can be applied to such discussion…) work detailing the horrors of AD 70, citing frequently from the Jewish historian Josephus, yet the following descriptions will be drawn from multiple sources.

The Jewish-Roman War began in 66 with many skirmishes between particularly the Zealots and the Romans. As the Roman armies grew larger and a full siege of Jerusalem became evident, Jewish Christians obeyed Christ’s words in our passage and fled to the hills surrounding Jerusalem. These believers were considered traitors by the Jews that remained, and Nick Needham says, “the ultimate effect of the Jewish War was to cut Christianity off almost entirely from its Jewish origin.”[3] Yet we should very much take note from this, as well as many scenes within the book of Acts, that Christ does not expect His people to never flee from hardship and tribulation.

And that siege did come in April of 70. Titus, the newly crowned emperor’s son, encircled Jerusalem in the days following the Passover, leaving many of the yearly pilgrims caught within the city. Yet “the The zealots rejected, with sneering defiance, the repeated proposals of Titus and the prayers of Josephus, who accompanied him as interpreter and mediator; and they struck down every one who spoke of surrender.”[4] Indeed, Josephus was then able to observe firsthand the ensuing chaos within Jerusalem over the next several months looking down from the Mount of Olives.

The horror that Jesus predicted for Jerusalem, in the powerful prophetic language of verses 17– 20, came with the fall of the temple and is a matter of historical fact. “And if the Lord had not cut short the days, no human being would be saved” (v. 20a). The roofs were thronged with famished women with babes in arms, and the alleys with corpses of the elderly. Children and young people swollen from starvation “roamed like phantoms through the market-places and collapsed wherever their doom overtook them.” But there was no lamenting or wailing, because famine had strangled their emotions. Jerusalem could not bury all the bodies, so they were flung over the wall. The silence was broken only by the laughter of robbers stripping the bodies.[5]

As for those who did venture outside of the city, whether in brief fights with the Romans or sneaking out at night to find food, they were often captured and crucified just outside of the city “often at a rate of 500 per day.”[6] Yet perhaps even most lamentable is what the Jews did to each other during those. Listen to how Josephus describes the tortures that they inflicted upon anyone who was suspected of hiding food:

It is therefore impossible to go distinctly over every instance of these men’s iniquity. I shall therefore speak my mind here at once briefly: – That neither did any other city suffer such miseries, nor did any age ever breed a generation more fruitful in wickedness that [than] this was, from the beginning of the world.[7]

Regarding the false christs that Jesus predicts again in verses 21-22, note what historian Philip Schaff writes about the burning of the temple:

Titus (according to Josephus) intended at first to save that magnificent work of architecture, as a trophy of victory, and perhaps from some superstitious fear; and when the flames threatened to reach the Holy of Holies he forced his way through the flame and smoke, over the dead and dying, to arrest the fire. But the destruction was determined by a higher decree. His own soldiers, roused to madness by the stubborn resistance, and greedy of the golden treasures, could not be restrained from the work of destruction. At first the halls around the temple were set on fire. Then a firebrand was hurled through the golden gate. When the flames arose the Jews raised a hideous yell and tried to put out the fire; while others, clinging with a last convulsive grasp to their Messianic hopes, rested in the declaration of a false prophet, that God in the midst of the conflagration of the Temple would give a signal for the deliverance of his people.[8]

Here is one final quotation from Josephus:

The hill on which the temple stood was seething hot, and seemed enveloped to its base in one sheet of flame. The blood was larger in quantity than the fire, and those that were slain more in number than those that slew them. The ground was nowhere visible. All was covered with corpses; over these heaps the soldiers pursued the fugitives. The Romans planted their eagles on the shapeless ruins, over against the eastern gate, offered their sacrifices to them, and proclaimed Titus Imperator with the greatest acclamations of joy. Thus was fulfilled the prophecy concerning the abomination of desolation in the holy place.[9]

Storms summarizes this tribulation as follows:

Once one grasps the dimensions of what occurred in 70, one realizes that the savagery, cruelty, and the monstrosities that occurred were beyond comparison. Also, never so high a percentage of one city’s population was destroyed. ‘Everyone was either killed or sold into slavery.’ As noted earlier, approximations are that 1,100,000 people were killed and 100,000 were enslaved.[10]

Yet with all of this in mind, we must take care to understand properly the nature of this judgment. Josephus, as Jews, clearly saw the destruction of the temple as horrendous abomination, as the desecration of the most holy place. Yet that is not so, for the presence of God no longer dwelt within the temple. Upon Christ’s death, the great curtain was torn in two, and in Acts 2, we find that God no longer dwells simply with His people but now dwells in them. Making Jesus’ church the present, living temple of the Holy Spirit.

But if that is the case, why was the physical temple’s destruction so important? While it was not the desecration of the holy, it was very much a mighty display of God’s judgment and wrath, a localized foretaste of what is still to come. Indeed, I think Matthew Henry right in saying, “They had rejected Christ as an abomination, who would have been their salvation; and now God brought upon them an abomination that would be their desolation, thus spoken of by Daniel the prophet (ch. ix. 27), as that by which this sacrifice and offering should be made to cease.[11]

LESSONS FROM AD 70

But here may be the largest question that we might desire to have answered. If Daniel’s prophecies were able to refer to both Antiochus’ persecution and the events of AD 70, could there also be another such abomination of desolation to which Jesus’ word apply? I would say that certainly could be the case. Though the specific reference to those in Judea seems to bind this particularly to that region, there certainly could be a more global tribulation still to come. But if that is the case, we should not look for the building a third temple and then its defilement. Because we are now God’s temple in Christ, the rebuilding of the temple in Jerusalem and the reinstitution of daily sacrifices would itself be an abomination, for it would be a mockery of the once-for-all sacrifice of Christ and would almost certainly lead many astray. No, if a similar abomination were to occur, then it would be a large-scale apostasy within the church.

But is that not a little like what we are witnessing today? Presently, the world has, for the first time ever, post-Christian societies, and Europe as a whole is the largest one. These are societies that were once predominately Christian, but now are not. The culture at large has apostatized and fallen away. Indeed, while the world speaks of deconstruction, post-Christian societies have really regressed back into ancient paganism, but they dress it up in progressive clothing and call it secularism instead. After all, there is nothing new under the sun. Does this fit the bill? We certainly find wicked and antichrist ideologies now being proclaimed from pulpits on Sunday mornings, throwing truth to the ground and making a mockery of God’s Word. Perhaps we are in the midst of our own abomination of desolation, at least spiritually. Lest we think that thought must be an exaggeration, we should consider that for all the wickedness of the first century Jews they could at least answer the question: what is a woman?

But if so, what then should we make of the church during the Middle Ages? Certainly, there were many faithful believers, but did not the church descend pretty sharply into apostasy and wickedness? Since Catholics and Protestants are not as hostile with one another today, we may find it shocking to read the Westminster and London Baptist Confessions calling the pope the antichrist, but if we do some reading into the great wickedness of so many Medieval popes, their belief is at least understandable, even if we disagree with it. Indeed, the Reformation forced Catholics to acknowledge at least some of the rampant corruptions, which led to the Counter-Reformation.

Yet perhaps my biggest hesitation in looking for an even greater tribulation yet to come is that such thinking seems to make light of the great tribulations that are ongoing around the world and throughout history. I do not think that the forty-two-month (or three and a half years) war of the beast against the saints in Revelation 13 is warning of a great tribulation still to come (again, perhaps there is, but that is not what the text seems to be indicating). Instead, John’s vision seems to present the timeframe of Antiochus’ persecution, as well as the relative timeframe of the Jewish War, as a pattern for the tribulations that are sure to come upon believers. Forty-two months is a significant time, but in comparison to the thousand-year reign of Christ it is a drop in a bucket. The book of Revelation particularly reads as a message of comfort and hope to persecuted saints, and I do not see how hopeful it is to tell Christians in Muslim countries (for example) who are being ostracized, beaten, beheaded, and crucified for refusing to take the beast’s mark by confessing that there is no God but Allah and Mohammad is his prophet, that the worst is still to come.

Indeed, Jesus’ word about the days being shortened lends to this thought. In many parts of the globe, our brothers and sisters are currently living under tribulation that may seem impossible to survive. Particularly, in many places in Africa, Christians experience the physical persecution of Muslim militants, yet they must also wrestle with false teachings, especially the prosperity teachings of the Word of Faith Movement. Likewise, there are still many rural places in Latin America, where leaving the Catholic Church to become a Christian[12] brings forth severe consequences. Of course, they too are being ever tempted by the promises of the prosperity gospel. Yet such tribulations will not endure forever. They shall soon pass, for the Lord will preserve His elect.

Let us lastly consider Jesus’ conclusion to this passage: But be on guard; I have told you all things beforehand. Here is certainly a warning for we who do not yet live in a time of tribulation to make ourselves ready for if they should befall us. Now, by making ourselves ready, I do not mean doomsday prepping. I mean preparing as Daniel and his friends prepared for their moments of testing. We must practice and devote ourselves to God in faithfulness during times of peace so that we have built up those muscles to continue being faithful to God should He bring upon us times of tribulation. Indeed, Calvin gives us that very warning: “Let us therefore regard this period of quiet not as something which will last forever, but as a truce in which God gives us time to gain strength, so that, when called to confess our faith, we do not act as raw recruits because we failed to think ahead.”[13]

Yet perhaps the greatest lesson that we can take from Jerusalem’s fall and the temple’s destruction  nearly two thousand years ago is to repent and confess Christ as Lord and Savior before all the world faces the wrath of His coming. As Henry noted in the quotation above, the events of AD 70 were a particular judgment of God upon the Jews for rejecting His Son as an abomination rather than calling Him Lord. Indeed, reading the accounts of the stubbornness of the Jews throughout the siege and even the actual destruction of the city brings to mind the hard-heartedness of Pharaoh in the midst of all of God’s judgments upon him.

Yet we should by no means think ourselves better than them. Throughout the Old Testament, rather than laughing at the folly of the Israelites, we are meant to see our own sinful folly. Just as they pledge to worship God one generation but worship idols in the next, we do the same on a day-to-day basis. We exit the church on Sunday, resolving that we will live for God’s glory this coming week, only to descend back into our regular patterns by Monday.

Yet the destruction in 70 was more severe than even the Babylonian Captivity because it serves as an example of the destruction that awaits all those who do not merely reject the Word of God as spoken by prophets or even angels but who reject the Word made flesh. Hebrews 10:28-31 gives us this very warning:

Anyone who has set aside the law of Moses dies without mercy on the evidence of two or three witnesses. How much worse punishment, do you think, will be deserved by the one who has trampled underfoot the Son of God, and has profaned the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified, and has outraged the Spirit of grace? For we know him who said, “Vengeance is mine; I will repay.” And again, “The Lord will judge his people.” It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.

We ought to remember the great tribulation of AD 70 and hear the words of Christ ringing in our ears: “Unless you repent, you will likewise perish.” Therefore let take the counsel of the writer of Hebrews once more:

Take care, brothers, lest there be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away from the living God. But exhort one another every day, as long as it is called “today,” that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin. For we have come to share in Christ, if indeed we hold our original confidence firm to the end.

Hebrews 3:12–14

Brothers and sisters, as we come the Lord’s Table, let us cast both our eyes and our hope upon Christ. Let us look to Him as the cornerstone of our salvation, who is even now building up us as His church into a holy temple by His Spirit. Let us taste and see the goodness of our God displayed for us upon the cross of Christ, where the greatest act of God’s judgment took place. Let us also be comforted that regardless of whatever tribulations our Father permits to befall us we need to have no dread of facing His eternal wrath, for Christ took every ounce of it upon Himself.


[1] Giving credit where credit is most certainly due, my understanding of the eschatological views has been profoundly shaped by W. Robert Godfrey’s descriptions of the differing views in his lesson “Puritan Worship & Eschatology” from the Ligonier teaching series, A Survey of Church History.

[2] William Hendriksen, The Gospel of Mark, 527.

[3] Nick Needham, 2000 Years of Christ’s Power Vol 1: The Age of the Early Church Fathers, 56.

[4] Schaff, Philip. History Of The Christian Church (The Complete Eight Volumes In One). Kindle Edition

[5] R. Kent Hughes. Mark (Kindle Locations 5931-5936). Kindle Edition.

[6] Sam Storms, Kingdom Come: The Amillennial Alternative, 251.

[7] Cited in Storms, Kingdom Come, 251.

[8] Schaff, History of the Christian Church. Kindle Edition.

[9] Cited in Schaff, History of the Christian Church. Kindle Edition.

[10] Storms, Kingdom Come, 254.

[11] Matthew Henry, Matthew Henry’s Commentaries Vol V: Matthew to John, 542.

[12] In the States, we almost never disassociate Catholicism from Christianity, yet they frequently do so in Latin America. Upon entering Mexico this past summer, one of the security guards asked me why I was visiting Mexico. After I told him that I came to work with some churches there, he asked if I was Catholic or Christian, for the two are separate religions in the minds of many in Latin America.

[13] John Calvin, Faith Unfeigned, 6.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s