Understanding that the language being used in Mark 13 is figurative rather than literal clears up a lot of confusion commonly associated with the chapter. It frees us up to move on to an examination of the central points of Jesus message.
To set the scene, Mark shows us the disciples in awe over the grandeur of the temple. Christ snaps them out of their reverie by telling them that “Not one stone here will be left on another” (v. 2). Of course, that piques their interest and they want to know more. They ask two questions in v. 4:
“Tell us, when will these things happen?”
“And what will be the sign they are about to be fulfilled?”
The first is a time question and the second is a sign question.
Jesus begins by warning them not to be misled by things they might be tempted to view as the sign of the temple’s impending destruction (v. 5-13). Then He moves on to identify the sign they are to look for as He tells them, “When you see the abomination that causes desolation standing where it does not belong—let the reader understand—then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains” (v. 14). In other words, it is time to leave Jerusalem because it is about to be destroyed. What is this “abomination that causes desolation?” In Luke’s account of Jesus’ address, rather than “abomination of desolation,” he has, “When you see Jerusalem surrounded by armies, you will know that its desolation is near” (Luke 17:20). This happened in AD 70 when the Romans under Titus laid siege to Jerusalem. So, the sign of the temple’s destruction will the Roman forces gathering outside the city.
The time question is answered in a general sense beginning in v. 28 with the fig tree and then is fully rolled out when Jesus says, “Truly I tell you, this generation will certainly not pass away until all of these things have happened” (v. 30). What generation is He referring to? This generation—the generation of the apostles! The generation that would see the Roman army surround Jerusalem.
He discusses the specific time in v. 32 where He tells them, “But about that day or hour, no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.” So, what are we left with? The destruction of the temple would occur in the generation of the apostles, but Jesus didn’t specify a time more exact than that. We know from history it happened in AD 70.
The only other major matter to address is the coming of the Son of Man that is mentioned in v. 26-27. Since this is spoken of by Christ prior to His promise that “this generation will certainly not pass away until all of these things have happened” (v. 30), it’s obviously not referring to the literal return of Jesus (Acts 1:9-11; Hebrews 9:27-28), but is being used figuratively and is part of the apocalyptic speech that characterizes the chapter. Moreover, the idea of God or Jesus “coming” non-literally in judgment or blessing is one that occurs frequently in the Scripture (Isaiah 19:1; Micah 1:1-3; James 5:7-9). Revelation 2:5, 16, 3:3,11).