“He shall come again, with glory, to judge the quick and the dead.” This line from the Nicene Creed effectively summarizes the orthodox Christian belief that human history is advancing toward a climactic day of judgment. On that day, Jesus will return visibly to consummate His kingdom, judge the world, and usher in the new creation (Acts 1:6–11; Heb. 9:27–28; Rev. 20–21).
Many Christians also read Mark 13, particularly verses 24–27, as referring to the final day of judgment. This is understandable since the text describes great apocalyptic signs in the heavens—a darkening sun and moon, falling stars, the heavens shaking—and the coming of the Son of Man, Christ Jesus, “in clouds with great power and glory.” Yet verse 30, in saying that the first hearers of the Olivet Discourse would not pass away before seeing such signs, makes it highly unlikely that at least most of Mark 13 is about the final judgment. What Jesus describes, at least up through verse 30, had to have happened during the first century, before the last Apostle died.
Thus, the signs in today’s passage must be interpreted figuratively or symbolically. There is abundant warrant for doing so. Old Testament prophets often use images of cosmic upheaval to describe God’s judgment of nations in history. For instance, Isaiah 13 uses such language to predict the fall of Babylon, which occurred in the sixth century BC. To understand why the prophets sometimes used figurative language to describe an empire’s fall, we need to put ourselves in the shoes of ancient people. When an empire such as Babylon was conquered by another empire in the ancient world, those who formerly lived under the control of the conquered empire rightly saw the change as epochal, as the end of one world and the beginning of another. The new empire would bring new demands and dangers. Some who lived lives of ease under the old empire would endure great suffering under the new empire. The balance of world power would shift, creating a new era. Even today, it is the dawn of a new age for conquered people when one nation conquers another.
Other evidence suggests Mark 13:24–27 is not about the end of history. First-century reports tell of ominous movements of heavenly bodies such as comets in AD 70. The Jewish historian Josephus says that some people saw chariots in the clouds during the siege of Jerusalem. Such reports seem to confirm that the Olivet Discourse predicts God’s judgment on Jerusalem for rejecting the Messiah.