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Archive for the ‘Eschatology’ Category

This is part 5 of a 6-part series on the Gospel of Mark.

Today we come to what is probably the most difficult passage to interpret in the Gospel of Mark, if not one of the more difficult extended passages in the entire New Testament.  In Mark 13, we have Jesus’ longest continuous sermon recorded in the Gospel of Mark.  This sermon is often called “The Olivet Discourse” after the location where it was given.  Or sometimes it is called “The Little Apocalypse” because it deals with events which are to come in the future… events characterized by judgment and destruction.

Given the difficulty in interpreting this text, it is no wonder that there are a variety of interpretations regarding Jesus’ teaching on the future.  At the risk of being overly simplistic, most interpretations of this passage fall into one of three categories:

1)      Those who believe the things described here were fulfilled completely and finally in the events of the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70.

2)      Those who believe these things are descriptive of events to come at the end of the age.

3)      Those who believe that these things describe some events which were fulfilled at the fall of Jerusalem in AD 70 and some events which are yet to be fulfilled at the end of the age.  Those who hold to this interpretation often see the events of AD 70 as a type of the judgment to come at the end of the age.

I fall into the third camp described above.  Some of the events described here seem to have been literally fulfilled in the events of AD 70.  However, especially when we come to verses 19-27, it becomes quite clear (to me at least) that Jesus is speaking of events which are yet to come at the end of the age.

However, with this said, when we examine this text closely, we see that Jesus’ purpose is not to indulge in speculative theology. He is not speaking here to pique our interest in the future.  No!  He has a very practical purpose here in Mark 13.  His purpose is to impact the behavior of His followers in very practical ways in light of the events to come in the future.

With this said, our approach to this passage will be less speculative and more practical.  We will attempt to hold to this agenda by examining this passage in light of the commands of Jesus, which seem to fall into 5 basic groupings:

1)      Don’t be led astray (13:5.)

2)      Don’t be alarmed (13:7.)

3)      Be on guard (13:9, 23, 33.)

4)      Be a witness to the gospel in the face of persecution (13:11.)

5)      Stay awake (13:33, 35, 37.)

With this basic introduction, let’s begin by looking at the context of the passage here.

In the context of Mark 10-12, we see the intensification of opposition to Jesus.  He has become more and more prominent among the people.  He has traveled to Jerusalem… the center of Jewish political and religious life.  And there, the opposition has risen against Him to the point that the religious leaders of the day are seeking to put Him to death (Mark 11:18, 12:12.)  Mark 12 seems to describe the events of a single day in the ministry of Jesus, where He faced multiple efforts by the religious and political leaders to drum up a reason to arrest Him.  It seems to be at the end of this day, as He left the temple, that the events of Mark 13 took place.

Mark 13:1-4 (ESV) – 1 And as he came out of the temple, one of his disciples said to him, “Look, Teacher, what wonderful stones and what wonderful buildings!” 2 And Jesus said to him, “Do you see these great buildings? There will not be left here one stone upon another that will not be thrown down.” 3 And as he sat on the Mount of Olives opposite the temple, Peter and James and John and Andrew asked him privately, 4 “Tell us, when will these things be, and what will be the sign when all these things are about to be accomplished?”

As Jesus and His disciples were leaving the temple, one of His followers comments on the beauty of the temple.  This was no overstatement.  The Jerusalem temple was magnificent.  The foundation stones were massive, some of which are said to have been 37 feet long, 12 feet high and 18 feet wide.  And the beauty of this structure was unmatched in the Ancient Near East.  Josephus describes the temple in this way, ““The exterior of the building lacked nothing that could astonish either the soul or the eyes. For, being covered on every side with massive plates of gold, the sun had no sooner risen than it radiated so fiery a flash that those straining to look at it were forced to avert their eyes as from the solar rays. To approaching strangers it appeared from a distance like a snow-clad mountain, the reason being that whatever was not overlaid with gold was purest white” (Josephus, Jewish War V.222).

No wonder this disciple makes this comment!  Yet Jesus doesn’t seem to feel the same sense of awe.  “Do you see these great buildings?  There will not be left here one stone upon another that will not be thrown down.” (Mk 13:2.)

I think we have a hard time appreciating how radical this statement of Jesus would have seemed to His followers.  In Jewish thought, Jerusalem was the center of the universe, for this was the city in which God had chosen for His name to dwell.  And the temple was the absolute center of the universe, for this was considered to be the dwelling place of God among His people.  How could the dwelling place of God be destroyed?

This is the question on their minds as they travel from the temple to the Mount of Olives. Then, having arrived on the Mount of Olives, with a bird’s eye view of the temple, Jesus’ first four and closest disciples, Peter, Andrew, James and John, approach Him privately with a question about His comments.  Specifically, they ask Him two questions:

1)      When will these things be?

2)      What will be the sign when all these things are about to be accomplished?

Their questions are centered around the destruction of the temple (“these things.”)  However, we should also understand that, in the mind of any pious Jew in the 1st century, the destruction of the temple would have been considered so catastrophic that they would have equated it with the end of the age (cf. Matt 24:3.)

In the discourse that follows, Jesus proceeds to answer their questions, but He does so in a way that seems to vacillate back and forth between the destruction of the temple in AD 70 and the events preceding the end of the age.  And, as we have already stated, His focus is intensely practical…

Mark 13:5-8 (ESV) – 5 And Jesus began to say to them, “See that no one leads you astray. 6 Many will come in my name, saying, ‘I am he!’ and they will lead many astray. 7 And when you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed. This must take place, but the end is not yet. 8 For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be earthquakes in various places; there will be famines. These are but the beginning of the birth pains.

Jesus’ opening command is, “See that no one leads you astray” (Mk 13:5.)  I find this fascinating given the identity of Jesus’ audience here.  He is speaking to Peter and Andrew and James and John.  They had been with Jesus since the beginning of His earthly ministry (Mk 1:16-20.)  They had seen Jesus perform many miraculous signs.  With the exception of Andrew, they had been witnesses of Jesus’ glory revealed on the Mount of Transfiguration (Mk 9:2-13.)  Yet despite their closeness to Jesus, they are at risk for being led astray from the truth as false teachers arise in their midst (Mk 13:6.)

If Peter and Andrew and James and John needed to be warned of the danger of being led astray… how much more do we need to be warned?

How can we see to it that no one leads us astray? First, we need to begin with knowing the truth and this means that we need to spend time reading and studying and meditating on the Word of God.  The best way to spot error is to know the truth.  And the only way we can know the truth is by prayerfully relying on the Spirit of God to reveal His truth through His Word.  Furthermore, we should humble ourselves to receive the Word from those whom God has called to shepherd us and serve one another in an attempt to keep our fellow Christians from being led astray (Eph 4:11-16.)

Jesus warns us that many teachers will come, seeking to lead people astray.  And He warns us that many will be led astray.  Are we ready for this challenge?

This leads us to the second command given by Jesus here… “Do not be alarmed” (Mk 13:7.)  Jesus specifically tells His disciples not to be alarmed in the face of “wars and rumors of wars” and natural disasters (Mk 13:7-8.)

His command here seems to be a warning against being overly worried about the coming of the end of the age in light of these political and natural upheavals in the world around us.  Jesus says that these things “must take place, but the end is not yet… These are the beginning of the birth pains” (Mk 13:7-8.)  These things are part of God’s plan… they must take place.  Yet they don’t necessarily tell us that the end is near. They are simply the “beginning” of “birth pains.”  The fact that Jesus calls these “birth pains” probably implies that they will grow progressively more and more intense as the end draws near.   As bad as these things are… the worst is yet to come.

It seems that many of us today have a hard time with this command.  Christians are constantly getting worried about current events, whether it is politics or the threat of wars in the Middle East.  Virtually every time there is a natural disaster of any significance, someone comes forward and announces that this is a sign of the coming of the end.

These things can cause us to feel fear and insecurity.  Yet the words of Jesus here can serve to comfort us.  The world is not out of control.  These things must take place.  This is all part of God’s plan.  This sin-filled world is moving towards a conclusion which has been determined beforehand by God… and the road will be hard.  Just like labor pains… these hardships will grow more and more intense… but the end is worth it!  There is a beautiful reward at the end of the labor!

Jesus warns us to be set against false teaching and prepared for large-scale hardships, but in the verses to follow, the warning and exhortation gets very personal…

Mark 13:9-13 (ESV) – 9 “But be on your guard. For they will deliver you over to councils, and you will be beaten in synagogues, and you will stand before governors and kings for my sake, to bear witness before them. 10 And the gospel must first be proclaimed to all nations. 11 And when they bring you to trial and deliver you over, do not be anxious beforehand what you are to say, but say whatever is given you in that hour, for it is not you who speak, but the Holy Spirit. 12 And brother will deliver brother over to death, and the father his child, and children will rise against parents and have them put to death. 13 And you will be hated by all for my name’s sake. But the one who endures to the end will be saved.

We have two more commands issued by Jesus here in this section of His teaching… “Be on your guard”… and “say what is given you in that hour.”

Jesus tells His disciples here in no uncertain terms that they will not only endure hardship which impacts the whole world.  They will be singled out specifically for persecution.  “You will be hated by all for my name’s sake” (Mk 13:13.)  One needs only to casually read through the Book of Acts to see these things literally fulfilled in the lives of the apostles.  They were arrested constantly.  They were beaten and martyred.  Yet they endured to the end and were saved.  They did not renounce their faith.  They stood firm in their faith in Jesus Christ, even if the whole world raged against them, for they knew that their ultimate salvation lay in Him alone (cf. Mk 8:38.)

But Jesus tells them they are to do more than simply stand stubbornly against the opposition of the world.  They are to be His witnesses.  They are to speak forth the gospel.  They are to tell the world which hates them about the sinless Son of God who loved them and gave Himself for them.   And they would be successful in doing so before hostile religious councils and governors and kings… and the gospel would be preached to all the nations (see the Book of Acts.)  How is this possible?  Because they would not do so in their own strength.  The Holy Spirit would come upon them and embolden and empower them to speak forth the gospel in the face of this persecution.  Nothing would be able to stop the spread of the gospel, because it is God’s will for this good news to go to the ends of the earth (Acts 1:7-8.)

These events were fulfilled literally in the lifetimes of the apostles (with the possible exception of the gospel being preached to all the nations), but this struggle to stand firm and preach the gospel in the face of persecution did not stop there.  We see this same struggle today all over the world.  In our own cultural context, we see those around us growing more and more hostile to Christ and His gospel all the time.  And if Jesus is speaking of events to come in the future preceding the end of the age (and I think He is… cf. II Thess 2:1-10), then are we on our guard against the persecution to come? Do we expect, as Christians, to be accepted by the world?  Or do we anticipate opposition and persecution as a result of our faith in Jesus Christ?  Particularly as we serve Christ as His witnesses and announce the gospel to a hostile world, we will face opposition.  Will we endure to the end?  Will we continue to be faithful?

The promise held forth here of the empowering work of the Holy Spirit was not simply for the apostles, but it is true for us today as well.  The Holy Spirit continues to work in us and through us to proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ.  Do we rely on Him to give us the words to speak as we stand against the opposition of the world?

Beginning in verse 14, the interpretation of this text of Scripture begins to become more difficult…

Mark 13:14-18 (ESV) – 14 “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. 15 Let the one who is on the housetop not go down, nor enter his house, to take anything out, 16 and let the one who is in the field not turn back to take his cloak. 17 And alas for women who are pregnant and for those who are nursing infants in those days! 18 Pray that it may not happen in winter.

There is no shortage of opinions on the interpretation of “the abomination of desolation” and we are not going to exhaust all the possible meanings here.  We should note that this phrase is first found in the book of Daniel (Daniel 9:27, 11:31, 12:11) as a prediction of some terrible event to come.  Most scholars see this fulfilled, at least in part, by Antiochus IV Ephiphanes in 167 BC, when he erected a statue of Zeus in the temple and offered up sacrifices of swine on the altar in the Jerusalem temple.  This may also be fulfilled at a time in the future when the “man of lawlessness” described in II Thessalonians 2 declares himself to be “God” (II Thess 2:1-10.)  But in Luke’s parallel account of this discourse, he explains this phrase in a completely different way…

Luke 21:20-24 (ESV) – 20 “But when you see Jerusalem surrounded by armies, then know that its desolation has come near. 21 Then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains, and let those who are inside the city depart, and let not those who are out in the country enter it, 22 for these are days of vengeance, to fulfill all that is written. 23 Alas for women who are pregnant and for those who are nursing infants in those days! For there will be great distress upon the earth and wrath against this people. 24 They will fall by the edge of the sword and be led captive among all nations, and Jerusalem will be trampled underfoot by the Gentiles, until the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled.

Notice that Luke seems to be recording the same teaching of Jesus.  He records Jesus’ instruction for His people to flee to the mountains when they see this even coming.  Yet Luke records Jesus stating that this should be the response “when you see Jerusalem surrounded by armies” rather than “when you see the abomination of desolation.”  This leads me to the conclusion that Jesus is speaking specifically of the events surrounding the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70.  And this is supported by the fact that the early church historian Eusebius tells us that Jewish Christians in Jerusalem around the time of AD 70 obeyed this command of Jesus, fleeing from the city when they saw the Romans begin to surround it, and they were saved.

This does not prohibit a future and further fulfillment of this warning by Jesus as well.  In fact this is likely the case, because notice how what immediately follows in verses 19-23 seems to project us forward into the future to the events preceding the end of the age…

Mark 13:19-23 (ESV) – 19 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. 20 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. 21 And then if anyone says to you, ‘Look, here is the Christ!’ or ‘Look, there he is!’ do not believe it. 22 For false christs and false prophets will arise and perform signs and wonders, to lead astray, if possible, the elect. 23 But be on guard; I have told you all things beforehand.

Although the destruction of Jerusalem was a terrible event in which, reportedly 1 million Jews were killed, it is hard to see this as fulfilling what Jesus says here about this being the greatest tribulation ever experienced on earth (Mk 13:19.)  No.  Jesus seems to be looking forward to the time of tribulation which will precede His return to the earth.  It will be a time of great apostasy and false teaching (Mk 13:21-22), but the key point seems to be judgment and destruction which will be prevalent… so prevalent that, if God did not lift this judgment… all the people of the earth would be slain.

But notice the grace of God highlighted here.  “…for the sake of the elect, whom He chose, He shortened the days” (Mk 13:20.)  Though these events will be like nothing the world has ever seen, God will still remain gracious to His people.  He will preserve His people through even the most terrible of tribulations.  Though these days will be dark… Christians in this time of tribulation will be able to look forward to a brilliant light at the end of this tunnel…

Mark 13:24-27 (ESV) – 24 “But in those days, after that tribulation, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, 25 and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken. 26 And then they will see the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory. 27 And then he will send out the angels and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven.

Although some scholars try to explain this passage in light of the events of AD 70, I find it much more likely that this refers to the events surrounding the end of the age.  In fact, I think this is the very end of the age… when the Son of Man returns in glory and power at the Second Coming.

We saw a similar reference to the coming of the Son of Man in our study last week in Mark 8:38

Mark 8:38 (ESV) – 38 For whoever is ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of him will the Son of Man also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.”

In Mark 8, Jesus is speaking of the judgment to fall upon those who are ashamed of Him.  But not so here in Mark 13:26-27.  Here Jesus describes the gathering of His people to Himself from all the ends of the earth.  Those who have endured the persecution and trials and temptations of this time of great tribulation will be gathered to their Savior and Lord and they will be with Him forever and ever.  This is the hope of Christians in the face of tribulation whether great or small.  This life is not all that there is.  Evil and death will not triumph in the end.  Jesus Christ is coming again… and when He does… His people will be with Him in glory forever.

This is the blessed hope of all Christians.  This is what we look forward to.  Yet we do not know when this will take place…

Mark 13:28-31 (ESV) – 28 “From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts out its leaves, you know that summer is near. 29 So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that he is near, at the very gates. 30 Truly, I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all these things take place. 31 Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.

Jesus tells us that these signs will be discernable and when we see them coming about… then we know that His return is near.

Verse 30 has led many scholars to believe that Jesus is speaking solely of the events of AD 70, because, otherwise, how could Jesus say that “this generation will not pass away until these things take place.”  I think there is some validity to this.  Jesus’ predictions here regarding AD 70 would take place in the lifetime of this generation.  Yet, I think that Jesus is also saying that, when these signs of the end of the age become visible, that generation will not pass away before the events of the end take place.

Yet despite the fact that these signs will be clearly seen… we still cannot know exactly when these things will take place…

Mark 13:32-37 (ESV) – 32 “But concerning that day or that hour, no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. 33 Be on guard, keep awake. For you do not know when the time will come. 34 It is like a man going on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his servants in charge, each with his work, and commands the doorkeeper to stay awake. 35 Therefore stay awake—for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or when the rooster crows, or in the morning— 36 lest he come suddenly and find you asleep. 37 And what I say to you I say to all: Stay awake.”

Here we have Jesus’ final command… “Stay awake” (Mk 13:33, 35, 37.)  No one knows when these events will take place.  No one knows when Jesus will return.  Jesus Himself, during His earthly ministry, was unaware of when these events would take place (Mk 13:32.)  Therefore, we certainly can’t know when.   So we should always be ready.  We must strive to “stay awake” in light of Jesus’ impending return.

What does it mean to “stay awake”? I think it means to apply everything we have seen here in this passage.  It means that we must be aware of the fact that things will get worse and worse in this world.  False teachers will come and go and many will be led astray.  But we are to strive to know the truth and hold fast to the truth.  We must know that persecution will rise against the gospel and those who proclaim it.  Yet we are to proclaim the good news of Jesus anyway… not in our own strength… but in the strength which the Holy Spirit provides. And we are to continue in this endeavor to preach the gospel until it has been proclaimed to all the nations of the earth.  We must be prepared to endure tribulation… terrible tribulation.  And in light of that tribulation… we are to look forward expectantly to the return of Jesus… knowing that one day, He will return and we will be gathered to Him forever and ever.  Staying awake means understanding God’s plan for the ages and living lives which reflect trust in His promises.  After all, Jesus has told us, “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away” (Mk 13:31.)

These things will come to pass, just as Jesus has promised.  Are you staying awake? Are you ready for His return?  Listen to the closing words of Jesus here in this passage and I pray that we all take them to heart…

And what I say to you I say to all: Stay awake.” (Mk 13:37.)

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