Withstanding the Greatest Tribulation

Well this morning we are continuing our study of preparing for the future with Jesus. I’m eager to open the Scriptures with you this morning and watch as we see the future unfold before our eyes. 

A great deal of what we study in the Scriptures is historical, it has already taken place. But today again we are looking into events that have not yet happened. Please grab your Bibles and turn with me to Mark 13, we will be studying vv. 14-23 today.

If this study has felt a bit technical for you, let me remind you, this is considered one of the most challenging passages of Scripture in the New Testament. We are in this together and it feels technical and challenging to me as well. 

It is agreed by everyone that Jesus gives instructions about the future here. The debate centers around just how far into the future. Do these words pertain only to the disciples and their generation? Do these words pertain only to days beyond the disciples, or is it some combination of the two?

Our temptation when you come to a difficult passage is to find your favorite or most trusted teacher and listen to their perspective and make that your own. Or if you have a well-established theological grid to bring that understanding to the passage.

But that’s not the proper approach to this. We don’t do outcome-based-Bible study where we begin with a viewpoint and then go to the text because it will slant our views. Rather, if you simply study the text in its context and deal with details in integrity before the Lord you will get clarity on the interpretation.

I was on the phone with one of my former seminary professors this week who I took Greek and some other classes from. I was so blessed by our conversation about this passage… the clarity of moving through it and just letting the text speak is letting God speak to us. So that’s what we are going to do. Essentially in this passage…

Jesus Issues a Survival Guide for Withstanding the Greatest Tribulation

This is content, given by Jesus, which will equip anyone who goes through this tribulation. He provides a guide of sorts that will give someone the tools necessary for surviving these incredibly difficult days.

  1. Study prophecy so that you understand what you’re watching for (14a)

  2. React appropriately when you see the great tribulation arriving (14b-18)

  3. Set your expectations properly for the magnitude of the trial (19-20)

  4. Keep waiting for my return and don’t be duped—you won’t miss it (21-23)

Let’s read Mark 13 beginning in v. 1. It is lengthy, but it keeps us in the flow here. Take special note of the clear transition in v. 14 to a new time period.

1 As He was going out of the temple, one of His disciples said to Him, “Teacher, behold what wonderful stones and what wonderful buildings!” 2 And Jesus said to him, “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left upon another which will not be torn down.” 3 As He was sitting on the Mount of Olives opposite the temple, Peter and James and John and Andrew were questioning Him privately, 4 “Tell us, when will these things be, and what will be the sign when all these things are going to be fulfilled?” 

5 And Jesus began to say to them, “See to it that no one misleads you. 6 “Many will come in My name, saying, ‘I am He!’ and will mislead many. 7 “When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be frightened; those things must take place; but that is not yet the end. 8 “For nation will rise up against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be earthquakes in various places; there will also be famines. These things are merely the beginning of birth pangs. 

9 “But be on your guard; for they will deliver you to the courts, and you will be flogged in the synagogues, and you will stand before governors and kings for My sake, as a testimony to them. 10 “The gospel must first be preached to all the nations. 11 “When they arrest you and hand you over, do not worry beforehand about what you are to say, but say whatever is given you in that hour; for it is not you who speak, but it is the Holy Spirit. 12 “Brother will betray brother to death, and a father his child; and children will rise up against parents and have them put to death. 13 “You will be hated by all because of My name, but the one who endures to the end, he will be saved. 

14 “But when you see the ABOMINATION OF DESOLATION standing where it should not be (let the reader understand), then those who are in Judea must flee to the mountains. 15 “The one who is on the housetop must not go down, or go in to get anything out of his house; 16 and the one who is in the field must not turn back to get his coat. 17 “But woe to those who are pregnant and to those who are nursing babies in those days! 18 “But pray that it may not happen in the winter. 19 “For those days will be a time of tribulation such as has not occurred since the beginning of the creation which God created until now, and never will. 20 “Unless the Lord had shortened those days, no life would have been saved; but for the sake of the elect, whom He chose, He shortened the days. 21 “And then if anyone says to you, ‘Behold, here is the Christ’; or, ‘Behold, He is there’; do not believe him; 22 for false Christs and false prophets will arise, and will show signs and wonders, in order to lead astray, if possible, the elect. 23 “But take heed; behold, I have told you everything in advance. 

The first four verses set up the teaching. Comments about the coming destruction of the temple and the return of Jesus and the end of the age.

The initial statement Jesus made is that the temple would be destroyed (Mark 13:2) took place in A.D. 70. Titus, a roman general surrounded the city of Jerusalem and eventually the temple was conquered and burned to nothing.

I take the position that Jesus is speaking primarily in this passage, however, about a period of time that hasn’t yet taken place, known as the tribulation. The destruction of the temple in A.D. 70 was a birth pang of this great day. It was a foretaste or a down payment.

I intend to demonstrate that as we walk through this passage this morning together.

Jesus begins to set expectation in v 5 and says that when he leaves you can expect all the travails of difficultly and tumult and war. There will be false messiahs coming, the rise of false teachers, there will be wars, and natural disasters and widespread famines.

All of this will crescendo as this world continues.

It will get worse and worse going from the beginning of birth pangs (v. 8) to full on labor as the intensity increases. Persecution of believers will be on the rise with even close family members betraying one another to death. 

But true disciples will persevere.

Who is this message for?

  • This is a message for the men listening to Jesus (it the Apostles when through all of these difficulties)

  • This is a message for our day (all of these things continue taking place in present history),

  • And this is a message for the future (this will take place in the fullest sense in the period of tribulation and trial as Jesus comes to take all of his disciples home and beings to pour out judgment and wrath upon the earth.

There is a near and far fulfillment. The fullest and ultimate fulfillment is coming, but there are This period of time in history is known as the tribulation. That is the biblical language that we find here in this passage as well as in Revelation. 

It is called the tribulation, which means:

pressing or pressure… and in the metaphorical sense trouble that inflicts distress, oppression, affliction… brought about by outward circumstances.

You say that just sounds like trials. This outward pressure that makes life difficult and comes from any direction. That is true, and it is used commonly in the Scriptures to identify the hard circumstances that we face.

But here it is used in the technical sense. It would be like if I we often spoke of books that we were reading, and then we would speak of the good book. When I say the good book it is clear I’m speaking about the Bible, which is still a book, but it is a very specific and distinct book that is distinguished from the rest.

This tribulation period then, this difficulty and time of intense pressure is called the θλίψεως τῆς μεγάλης in Revelation 7:14. It is literally the great tribulation. Just like how you would distinguish the good book as it’s called from all other books, the great tribulation is a very specific and distinct time period.

Jesus removes believers from the earth (1 Thessalonians 4:15-17) and then he begins to pour out wrath upon the earth, and specifically Israel.

Now some people have a problem with that interpretation of this passage in part because when Jesus speaks to the disciples and says when you see. 

Sometimes that trips us up. We think, “well everything Jesus said had to be to these specific men.” Of course, that’s true it was to these four disciples in this intimate, small group lesson on the Mt. of Olives with Peter, James, John and Andrew. 

But there are two reasons why we can’t limit our interpretation to this being a message given only to the disciples. 

First, Jesus often gives directions specifically to the disciples that still apply to the church today. In fact, the instructions on church discipline in Matthew 18 and the great commission are both given to the disciples, but apply to the church today. When Jesus says to them “when your brother sins you go to him in private” he is speaking to the disciples with an abiding relevancy for future audiences. When Jesus says to them, “you guys make disciples of all nations baptizing them in the name of the… “ it is given directly to the disciples, but has an abiding function for future audiences.

Second in this very lesson Jesus will address other groups. He gives instructions concerning those who are in Judea in v. 14 (Judea is down south, and these guys are from the north in Galilee). Then he gives instructions to young mothers in v. 17 (these guys are men not women). 

So, although the language itself addresses the disciples directly, it has an abiding relevancy to a broader audience, and this is demonstrated even as other groups are addressed in the initial conversation.

So, this is a message, to the disciples about the future. He has just explained the time from when he leaves earth that will be very difficult for his people (vv. 5-13). That includes are present day, but will be significantly worse during the first three and a half years of the tribulation period.

And so at that midpoint Jesus very calling out a change in time reference. But… or now.

(14) But when you see… 

The language here marks a shift where things go from bad to worse. And it here that…

Jesus Issues a Survival Guide for Withstanding the Greatest Tribulation

  1. Study prophecy so that you understand what you’re watching for (14a)

But when you see the ABOMINATION OF DESOLATION standing where it should not be (let the reader understand), 

Not immediately obvious to our eyes and ears what is meant by this statement. And in case you feel like the oddball because you need a little help decoding the language of the abomination of desolation you aren’t alone. 

In fact, there is a rare comment here indicating the necessity of taking time to understand what’s taking place.

(let the reader understand), ὁ ἀναγινώσκων

Some red-letter versions ascribe this to Jesus and some assign it to Mark. If it is Mark, then he is adding this as an editorial comment as he is writing his gospel account. If it is Jesus, then Jesus is speaking for the benefit of those in the future.

So, who is the reader? Either way, the referent is the same. The reader is not the reader of Mark’s gospel record, but it’s the reader of another book of the Bible. Matthew says explicitly that Jesus is referring to the Old Testament book of Daniel here.

Let the reader (of Daniel) understand.

What are you supposed to understand? The abomination of desolation. This is why our first point is:

  1. Study prophecy so that you understand what you’re watching for (14a)

If you want to withstand and endure the great tribulation you are going to have to equip your mind to grasp how history is going to unfold so that you can respond accordingly.

Now the NASB translates this verse:

ABOMINATION OF DESOLATION standing where it should not be.

Most English translations of the Bible use it. But the ESV, which uses he is more accurate here. 

The word standing in your Bible is a masculine participle. That doesn’t mean it is macho, but you have words that have masculine forms, feminine forms and neuter forms. The word abomination is neuter that means no gender. You could use that to describe an event or an object.

But the participle standing is what should inform our understanding that the abomination of desolation is not a what, but a who. Jesus is speaking of a person who will be found doing something very wrong. 

An abomination means that which is defiling, loathsome, immoral, and detestable often related to the practice of idolatry (false worship). Desolation, of course, means destruction or devastation.

This phrase originates in the Old Testament book of Daniel and Daniel uses is three times.

One place that Daniel uses it (Daniel 11:31), foretells a specific event that occurrs about 200 years before the death of Jesus (175-165 B.C.). 

A man named Antiochus IV went into the temple, sacrificed a pig on the alter, forced priests to eat it, and then called himself a god. Antiochus slaughtered thousands and he erected an idol to Zeus in Israel’s temple.

That’s the type of event that comes to mind with the abomination of desolation. It is sacrilegious and vile and violent. It is abusing a place that God has called holy and set apart and it is making it profane and using it for idolatry.

And what Antiochus IV did in the temple is a first fruit or a foreshock. A smaller predecessor to the real deal.

Before the mainshock of an earthquake you can have a foreshock. In the 2004 Indian Ocean Earthquake that was a 9.1 magnitude and killed roughly 200,000 people, there was a significant foreshock earthquake that occurred two years earlier.

Antiochus IV was a foreshock. And as with an earthquake, the mainshock is worse than the foreshock.

The two other times Daniel uses the phrase abomination of desolation (9:27 and 12:11), he is referring to a man being revealed who ascends to power during the tribulation period and then begins persecuting the Jews and believers.

Daniel is given a revelation about a seven-year tribulation period where God is executes judgment upon Israel. There is a specific purpose for the time recorded in Daniel 9:24.

Daniel 9:24—Seventy weeks have been decreed for your people and your holy city, to finish the transgression, to make an end of sin, to make atonement for iniquity, to bring in everlasting righteousness, to seal up vision and prophecy and to anoint the most holy place.

So this particular phrase: but when you see the abomination of desolation would indicate to the reader of Daniel that Jesus is referring to the mid-point of the seven year tribulation.

Three-and-a-half years into this thing there is a man who gained access to Israel by appearing to be on their side. And then he is going to set himself up as a god in the temple and from that place begin executing terrible afflictions on the Jews and believers.

Was Titus an abomination of desolation? well in one sense yes. He did burn down the temple and take items from the holy of holies. But did he set himself up as a god? No. In fact, he gave credit to his false gods for the victory.

Titus was a destructive force, he was an abomination, but he wasn’t what Jesus is talking about here. Jesus is speaking of the Antichrist who also appears in 2 Thessalonians 2:1-12 in detail. And here is a small detail that has huge interpretive implications.

Titus was attacking Israel for two or three years before Jerusalem fell. Jerusalem was surrounded for some time. So, if the warning was when you see Titus in the temple, everything is pretty much over at that point. You are at the end of the difficult days.

Jesus here is warning that when you see this person ascend to power and influence and set themselves up as god, that’s when you want to respond because things are about to go from bad to worse.

Jesus Issues a Survival Guide for Withstanding the Greatest Tribulation

  1. Study prophecy so that you understand what you’re watching for (14a)

  2. React appropriately when you see the great tribulation arriving (14b-18)

Jesus is going to give a list of specific instructions depending upon your location when this whole thing goes down, but the main point is the same here. Urgency, urgency, urgency. Time is of the essence. 

He’s going to give instructions for if you are located…

  • In Judea (14b)

  • In your home (15)

  • In the field (16)

And then he is going to address two factors that will make this trial go from extremely difficult to even worse.

  • Being a young mom—either pregnant or nursing a little one (17)

  • Being in the winter—a bad time of year for fleeing (18)

So in this survival guide, Jesus is giving instructions on how to react appropriately when you see the great tribulation arriving. 

Let’s take these each. One by one.

then those who are in Judea must flee to the mountains. 

Those who are in Judea. Where is Judea? Well Judea is the southern portion of Palestine, the area we refer to as Israel. Now Jerusalem, the city where the temple is, the city that is going to be at the center of all this commotion is located in Judea.

But they aren’t synonyms. 

In fact, anytime Mark has used Judea in his Gospel so far it is clearly used to locate a different geography. It’s like saying that California and Sacramento are the interchangeable. They’re not.

When people apply this verse to the attack that came upon Jerusalem in A.D. 70 as though it was speaking of that issue there is a sloppiness in not recognizing the obvious distinction here in terms of the location Jesus refers to.

Furthermore, when Titus came into Jerusalem to destroy it and the city as surrounded, Judea had been under siege for years. In other words, the Jewish Wars had been going on in the area for three years already (A.D. 68-70) and Jerusalem wasn’t the first place to fall, it was the last 

 If the abomination of desolation is seen in Jerusalem and as word spreads, those who are outside the city scatter to the mountains to get further away from it.

Maccabees? King who did this before…

(15) “The one who is on the housetop must not go down, or go in to get anything out of his house; 

This is great. In Palestine you have at times intense heat and no air conditioning, but you have a flat room to escape to. Jesus say if you are upstairs don’t even go downstairs. Sounds funny. It is led people to describe this verse as something like a action adventure movie where you are in such a hurry that you are jumping from rooftop to rooftop and not going down.

The point is that you would go down the fire exit stairs rather than going through the house to gather up your belongings.

I don’t remember which one my kids, but my wife was in labor with one of them and I was stalling to get some projects and tidying done before we left because I wanted to leave the house without any loose ends that needed to be tied up.

That’s what Jesus wants those who find themselves in this situation to avoid. Leave the checkbook. Leave the savings under the pillow. Leave your keepsakes and your family photos. And run for your life.

Now to those who are working that day:

(16) and the one who is in the field must not turn back to get his coat. 

If you were laboring in the field, you would leave your outer garment while you work. Makes sense. It’s cold in the mornings so you would wear a jacket on your way to work, Once you get there you take it off so you don’t get overheated.

Jesus says don’t even cross back to the other side of the field to grab your jacket. Of course, it would be nice to have your cloak. You are going be cold and uncomfortable without it. But the alternative is so much worse. Tuck tail and run.

This is horrible and urgent and terrifying. And if it isn’t bad enough there are two other factors that will make this even worse.

(17) “But woe to those who are pregnant and to those who are nursing babies in those days! 

Wow. Horror. Pain. Distress for young moms. Why young mothers? Two reasons. First is very practical: how easily do mom’s move that are about to have babies or just had babies? It’s limiting for sure.

Second, it is possible that this is because of the vulnerability of little ones and the horror of war.

Hosea 13:16—Samaria will be held guilty, for she has rebelled against her God. They will fall by the sword, their little ones will be dashed in pieces, And their pregnant women will be ripped open.

It is reaching the most intense level of inhumane and hardened evil treatment imaginable. It’s not merely poetic imagery. This has taken place in human history. An ancient poem describing the victory of an Assyrian king reads:

He slits the wombs of pregnant women, he blinds the infants, he cuts the throats of their strong ones.

Why would Assyrian kings relish in disemboweling pregnant women and torturing infants during war? Because it inflicted the greatest terror to attack the defenseless in such brutal ways. It violated the conscience. It was psychological warfare.

This is a sign of ruthless atrocities that have no boundaries.

(18) “But pray that it may not happen in the winter.

What’s the problem with winter? Wadis which are normally dry in the summer fill with water. Travel is going to be difficult. Try fleeing to the mountains or running for your life when you have to get through little rivers.

(Summarize about fleeing for your life…)

Jesus Issues a Survival Guide for Withstanding the Greatest Tribulation

  1. Study prophecy so that you understand what you’re watching for (14a)

  2. React appropriately when you see the great tribulation arriving (14b-18)

  3. Set your expectations properly for the magnitude of the trial (19-20)

Briefly look at how plain and simple the language of Jesus is:

(19) “For those days will be a time of tribulation such as has not occurred since the beginning of the creation which God created until now, and never will. 

In the entire history of the world since God created it, there has never been anything like this. And their never ever will be anything like this.

The end of v. 19 that says and never will read it never, never will in the original [καὶ οὐ μὴ γένηται]. This is bad English, but good Greek. Doubling the negatives doesn’t make a positive is stresses the negativity of it

Some commentators say that is hyperbolic language. Jesus is exaggerating to make a point. It would be like someone saying, “we were in the worst storm ever.” Well, chances are that’s not technically accurate. So, the argument goes that Jesus is using a common expression that denotes something really, really bad, but not necessarily the worst.

Of course, sometimes Jesus does use exaggeration or poetic imagery to make his point more vivid:

  • “Easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle…”

  • “If anyone doesn’t hate his mother, he can’t be my disciple.”

  • “Eat my flesh and drink my blood”

But I take issue with that for two reasons:

First, in each of those examples I just named, the hyperbole is obvious. The metaphorical imagery is obvious. Jesus never teaches people to be mother-hating-cannibals. There’s nothing here that requires taking it as hyperbole.

Second, Jesus goes over the top to be overly specific and detailed in his time references. 

Those days will be a time… such as has not occurred since the beginning of the creation which God created until now, and never will.

Multiple specific references. It’s laboring the very specific point that this tribulation is a definite period of time that will be definitively the worst on earth.

Worse than the suffering and terror when God destroyed the earth in a flood and saved just one family. Worse than when Israel was assaulted by Assyria and led away with hooks through their necks and mouths.

Worse than the suffering endured in the Nazi Concentration camps. As a boy my parents took me to hear a Jewish holocaust survivor recount her experience in a concentration camp. As she recounted everything from starvation to the point of nearing death to parents being torn apart by horses, to priests being skinned alive in rolled in salt until they died. It was horrifying. 

There is no way that it could possibly have been fulfilled in A.D. 70. 

But this thlipsis is worse than all of them.

Pause here for a minute with me. Why are these days so bad?

Because this is what it looks like when God begins to punish sin. Friends, this is the splendor of a holy God who begins to deal with sinners according to their transgressions.

It is particularly bad for Israel. This is fulfilling God’s judgment upon his people. And to understand why now, why so bad, and why on Israel, you have to read about God’s relationship with his people in the Old Testament.

Do you know what the focus always was? I have shown you kindness and you have sinned against me. It’s always relational. It’s always personal. The sin wasn’t merely sin against 

So bad in fact, that according to v. 20—

(20) “Unless the Lord had shortened those days, 

If Jesus didn’t cut it short. An active verb that he is the one doing it in his timing according to his sovereign will and plan… ἐκολόβωσεν

no life would have been saved; 

In other words, everyone is getting completely destroyed.

but for the sake of the elect, whom He chose, He shortened the days. 

He shortened the days. Why? For the sake of the elect whom he chose. The elect means the chosen ones. The one’s whom God desired to save. All the people who will hear the Gospel and repent and believe during this tribulation period.

Here in the midst of wrath we have mercy. God is pouring out wrath upon the earth. The elect are suffering, and yet he is relenting for the sake of his people.

Jesus Issues a Survival Guide for Withstanding the Greatest Tribulation

  1. Study prophecy so that you understand what you’re watching for (14a)

  2. React appropriately when you see the great tribulation arriving (14b-18)

  3. Set your expectations properly for the magnitude of the trial (19-20)

  4. Keep waiting for my return and don’t be duped—you won’t miss it (21-23)

Suffering always leaves us vulnerable as humans. When you are pressed in life you can become vulnerable. You want relief and so you are more willing to believe in someone or something that provides that relief.

This happens all the time in counseling. You are desperate for answers so you latch on to some unbiblical counsel because of the desire for relief. Same is true in this day:

(21) “And then if anyone says to you, ‘Behold, here is the Christ’; or, ‘Behold, He is there’; do not believe him; 22 for false Christs and false prophets will arise, and will show signs and wonders, in order to lead astray, if possible, the elect. 

People are going to claim to be the promised one. People will claim to be the Messiah who will bring deliverance. And they are going to come utilizing every evil power they can muster to counterfeit signs and wonders.

Jesus says don’t believe him. That’s the instruction. Don’t get duped.

In fact, the elect cannot be led astray. Why? Because they can’t trust in another deliverer if they have trusted in Jesus. And they will know when Jesus comes because as we will see, next week Lord willing, there will be no missing his return.

Well this is the survival guide for withstanding the greatest tribulation. That was his point of this whole lesson.

(23) “But take heed; behold, I have told you everything in advance. 

Look, you need to take these words and make yourself ready. You have the full story that I want you to know about what is going to happen before my return in judgment. That’s coming in the very next verse. 



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