One commentator called his study of this section, “The Temple of Doom.” That is fitting. In this chapter, Jesus pronounced judgement upon the temple and the city where it was located, Jerusalem. Mark 13, along with its parallels in Mathew 24 and Luke 21, is one of the most sobering passages in Scripture. Sadly, it is also one of the most confusedpassages. Notice that I didn’t say “confusing.” I don’t agree with the majority who say that this is a very difficult chapter to interpret. We only make it difficult because we fail to consider the audience to whom it was spoken, fail to approach it with a proper biblical theology, and fail to interpret it respecting its genre: prophecy.
Along this line, it has not been helpful that scholars have created a literary category of “apocalyptic” writings. That derives from the first verse of the book of Revelation. The word “revelation” comes from the Greek word apokalupsis, which transliterates to the English “apocalypse.”
When we hear this word, we think “end of the world,” with Hollywood images of strange creatures, earth-destroying astronomical calamities, computer chips under the skin, and a mysterious religio-political individual, called “the Beast,” who rules the world who is called. In fact, sadly, when Christians hear the word “apocalypse,” they don’t normally think, Jesus Christ. Instead, they think antichrist, which, of course, is completely contrary to the reason for God’s inspired apocalyptic literature, which is to bear witness to the glory of the Lord Jesus Christ (Revelation 19:10).
You see, the word “apocalypse” means an unveiling or revealing. The book of Revelation is a revealing that Jesus Christ was coming in judgement upon Jerusalem to fully bring in his Messianic rule. It is therefore a revelation that he is Lord—he is King—and he has a new temple: the new church of the living God. The old Judaistic temple has been removed (Revelation 11) and the new temple, the Body of Christ, his church, is being built (1 Peter 2; Ephesians 2; 1 Corinthians 3; etc.).
But why all this talk about the book of Revelation? Because the foundation for that book is found in the Olivet Discourse, which is what we will be studying in Mark 13.
In addition to the three reasons I gave earlier why Mark 13 is needlessly made so difficult to interpret is a final one: preconceived ideas. And many of these are rooted in having been exposed for too long to erroneous teaching. I say that with humility. Nevertheless, I say it. And I say it from personal experience.
Nearly twenty years ago, I was forced to wrestle with the parallel passage to Mark 13: Matthew 24. I was confronted with the challenge to examine what the text actually says. It radically shook my hermeneutical and eschatological world. Sadly, it also cost me some relationships. But all these years later, I stand as firmly, if not more firmly, on my conclusions. I trust that our studies over the next few weeks will help you to come to the Scriptures before the Audience of one, committed to submitting to what these Scriptures teach. And by the way, it does matter. It matters a lot.
Recently I was a participant in a three-way discussion on a radio program about the Olivet Discourse, as recorded in Matthew 24. Each of us made the point that it is possible to disagree on this subject and yet be united in the gospel. The three of us are friends. In fact, two of us pastor churches that partnered together to plant the church which the third friend pastors.
And yet each of us would also make the point that it does matter how you interpret Scripture. And therefore it does matter how we interpret Mark 13. It is not a matter of salvation. However, I believe it is a matter that can affect how we live and minister in the world. Its implications are actually quite significant. As someone has said, eschatology is not the most important thing about me, but it does effect everything that I do. And, in these particular challenging and strange days, this is manifestly true.
Throughout church history, there has been much interest in end times theology. This is understandable. Jesus spoke about it. The epistles reference it. The resurrection points to an ultimate eschaton. The Bible storyline leads us to the end of time as we know it. Meditating on the biblical teaching on the end can be a very healthy and helpful endeavour. However, for the past century and a half, an end times madness has taken over much of evangelicalism. The strange days we are facing have become even more mad and, for many, this is quite maddening!
People are pointing to the current coronavirus pandemic as a sign that we are in the last days. Scriptures are appealed to that the return of Jesus, or the rapture of the church, is just around the corner. Governments are readying themselves to use vaccines as a means towards disseminating the mark of the beast. There is much talk about the Great Tribulation and that perhaps these are the days just preceding it. Some are looking for the rapture of the church while others are readying the church to go through the Great Tribulation. And though Revelation seems to be the focus of the craziness, our study of the closely-connected Olivet Discourse is timely.
My desire is not to be polemical. I am not going to approach this study with a mind for debate. I do want to explain the chapter according to how Jesus’ audience, the disciples, would have heard it. This, by the way, is the surest way to come to a right conclusion about any passage of Scripture.
For Us, Not to Us
One of the challenges we face in our understanding of Scripture is to make ourselves too prominent. We jump too quickly from the text to ourselves. This results in an existential application of the text too quickly. But if we ignore the author’s setting, and if we ignore the original audience, we may completely miss the point. For example, if a paralysed person were to happen upon the words, “Rise up and walk” (Acts 3:6), they would be disappointed if they took it personally. I am not saying that God cannot or would not do this. I am saying that these words were spoken to an individual in space-time history and so we need to be careful about directly applying to ourselves.
An important principle we must apply is that none of the Bible was written to us, though all of it is for us (2 Timothy 3:15–17). This is extremely important as we study this passage. We therefore need to pay special attention to the original audience of Jesus’ discourse. What did they hear? How did they hear? That is, as Jewish people, how would they have heard these words? What did they expect from what they heard?
If we discipline ourselves to keep our feet in the disciples’ sandals, we will find that this chapter is not confusing. Rather, we will find it to be clear, convicting, and comforting. If we hear what Jesus taught, I have no doubt that we will leave the Mount of Olives very careful, and yet very confident to follow the Lord Jesus.
We want to remember, as we enter this chapter, that Mark’s purpose for his book remains. Mark is concerned to stress what it means to follow Jesus. And this was very pertinent to his Roman readers, who were facing increasing suffering and persecution for their faith. This persecution was not primarily from Roman pagans but rather from Jewish pagans—those who were of the synagogue of Satan (Revelation 2:9; 3:9). Mark wanted them, and he wants us, to remember that to follow Jesus means to be rejected. It means to pay a price.
But there is another aspect of discipleship that also stands out in this passage, as it did in the previous one: the inverted values of the kingdom of God in comparison to the values of the world. Throughout Mark, Jesus has taught the disciples that, in his kingdom, the last will be first and the first will be last; the least will be the greatest and the greatest will be the least; the servant will be the chief and the chief will be the servant. In other words, what the world most values—externals—are of little account in God’s kingdom. But according to the opening verses of Mark 13, the disciples still didn’t get it. And it was pretty late in the game.
In just a matter of hours, Jesus’ often repeated prophesy about his betrayal, arrest, murder and resurrection would come to pass. It didn’t seem as if the disciples were prepared for his departure. According to v. 1, they still didn’t get it.
Whoever the spokesman was—Peter? Judas?—it’s clear that the values of the world were still very much entrenched in their hearts and minds. They are gobsmacked by the outer beauty of the temple. That seemed to be all that was on their minds. Where had they been the last three days? Consider what they had witnessed in the temple: Jesus’ cleansing it; the subsequent opposition of the religious leaders; Jesus’ scathing denunciation of these leaders with his parable of the vineyard and his warning about the scribes. Were they not paying attention when he cursed the fig tree? Do they not see that what was happening at the temple, at this very religious time of the year, was all a sham? Were they not listening when he had, just moments before, made much of a poor widow’s meagre offering in comparison to the “wonderful” coins of the rich? Apparently not, for they were mesmerised by the external. They may have been called out of the world, but too much of the world was still in them. This Olivet discourse was Jesus’ final attempt to invert their values.
A Prophetic Condemnation
The chapter opens with a prophetic condemnation: “And as he came out of the temple, one of his disciples said to him, ‘Look, Teacher, what wonderful stones and what wonderful buildings!’ 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’” (v. 1).
Jesus was exiting the temple. He was not impressed, but apparently his disciples were. “And as he came out of the temple, one of his disciples said to him, ‘Look, Teacher, what wonderful stones and what wonderful buildings!’” (v. 1). They were mesmerised by the brilliance of the external. Jesus, however, had already seen the deep corruption (11:11–14).
The temple represented the condition of the religious leaders, and the majority of the nation. In the words of Jesus elsewhere, they were like “whitewashed tombs, which outwardly appear beautiful, but within are full of dead people’s bones and all uncleanness.” They “outwardly appear[ed] righteous to others, but within [they were] full of hypocrisy and lawlessness” (Matthew 23:27–28). Jesus didn’t judge a book by its cover. Unfortunately, the disciples did. They needed to grow in their discipleship.
The temple was indeed a sight to behold. It was considered one of the great wonders of the ancient world. Herod’s temple took nearly fifty years to build. The main part of the temple was some six stories high with one particular parapet wall rising fifteen stories. It boasted columns so big that it would take three men touching outstretched arms to surround their girth. Some of the foundation stones were twenty metres long by eight metres wide and four metres high. The stones were marble and alternated pink and white. Huge brass gates and a brass dome, along with tons of gold, made it glow in the sunlight. It must have been a magnificent site. We can well understand why the disciples were so amazed, so astonished at its beauty. However, we should be amazed and astonished at their near-sightedness. For it was all for show. Herod had no love for God but plenty of love for himself. It was built as a monument to himself. In fact, the title “Herod’s temple” is quite apropos. God was a long way from it.
I have seen beautiful religious places around the world. I have been to cathedrals in Europe, Mexico, the USA, Costa Rica, and in South Africa. I have been to beautiful temples in India and elsewhere. And though I have been aesthetically impressed, I have often left those places with a deep heaviness. I have observed great external appeal but internal corruption and deception. In those instances, I have never left thinking, “Wow, what a neat place.” Indeed, I remember visiting Notre Dame in Paris and afterward lamenting that, though it was a marvellous piece of architecture, it was spiritually vacuous.
I say all this to emphasise that, after all they had observed and heard, these disciples should have left with heavy hearts rather than boasting about the structure.
But let’s pause to apply this to ourselves. Is it not true that too often we are swayed by externals? We may judge a church by the wrong measurements. We consider a church to be successful by its numerical strength, or by its offerings, or by its popularity, or by its many ministries, or by its seeming grasp of “relevance” to the community. And though these can be very good things, ultimately God’s measurement of a church is its faithfulness to him and to his word.
I suspect that, when all is placed in the scales of God’s judgement at the end of time, many churches, Christians, and pastors that are deemed insignificant in our day will be first, while those celebrated by the multitudes now will be last. The values of God’s kingdom are typically inverted. This is particularly relevant in our day of obsession with celebrity Christianity. Beware.
An Astonishing Announcement
Jesus responded, in v. 2, to their astonished amazement with an astonishing announcement: “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.’” I suppose his counter-intuitive response to their gushing approval of the temple caused some of the disciples to think that he must be in a bad mood. How could he say such things? Not only was he saying something very dangerous, but it sounded like he was announcing the end of the world. In fact, he was.
This was not exaggerated prophetic language. As Josephus and other historians record, this is precisely what happened in 70 AD. These massive stones were torn down and even the huge foundation stones were unearthed as Roman soldiers scavenged for gold. I can imagine Jesus saying this with both sorrow and anger: sorrow for what would come upon what was known as the city of God; and anger that God’s people had demonstrated such infidelity thus bringing this judgement of God upon themselves.
At this point we need to stop and ask, how did the disciples hear this? What would have gone through their minds?
I suppose, to begin with, they would have thought about what had happened to Solomon’s temple when Nebuchadnezzar tore it to the ground in 586 BC. That was a most horrific time in the nation’s history. Perhaps some gave thought to the covenantal curses recorded in Leviticus 26 and Deuteronomy 28. Perhaps they were reminded of the desecration of the second temple (ca. 165 BC) when Antiochus Epiphanes brought destruction again upon the Jews beloved place of worship.
But I am certain that, when they heard Jesus say these terrifying words, the disciples made the connection not only with the destruction of the temple, but of Jerusalem itself and the end of the Jewish world. To an orthodox Jew, God’s world revolved around Jerusalem, and particularly the temple. For an instructed Jewish person, the temple was where heaven and earth met. It was the centre of God’s kingdom.
Now, when you consider their understanding, it would have been deeply shocking to the disciples to hear of such calamity, particularly since they were coming to see that Jesus was the promised Messiah. The average Jew, including the disciples, expected that Messiah would be the one to deliver them from the Roman oppression. He was supposed destroy Rome, not Jerusalem. He would destroy Gentile paganism, not Judaism. He would build Jerusalem up, not tear it down. He would rule from the temple, not bring ruin to it.
I belabour this to make the point that this was a big deal! We, who have little frame of reference about a temple as a place of worship, might struggle to understand just how significant this announcement was. Further, for those steeped in the errors of dispensationalism or who have adopted another kind of western-centric theology, we will not appreciate just how covenantally, world-shaking, history-reshaping an event the destruction of Jerusalem’s temple was. To quote a world leader, who shall remain unnamed, it was “huge.” The next verse proves the point.
A Serious Concern
As Jesus and his disciples headed away from the temple precinct, they ascended the Mount of Olives, which rises considerably higher than Jerusalem. From this vantage point they had a stunning view of the temple. Mark then tells us: “And as he sat on the Mount of Olives opposite the temple, Peter and James and John and Andrew asked him privately, ‘Tell us, when will these things be, and what will be the sign when all these things are about to be accomplished?’” (vv. 2–3).
For a rabbi to sit down was a symbol of authority. When he sat down, his disciples knew that it was time to listen up. Peter, James, John, and Andrew recognised this and immediately joined him for a private class. They eagerly asked, clearly believing his words in v. 2, “Tell us, when will these things be, and what will be the sign when all these things are about to be accomplished?”
We must pause to recognise that the disciples were not asking two separate questions. They did not, as some suggest, think that the destruction of the temple would be a different event from the “end of the age” (see Matthew 24:3). Instead, they were asking one question with two parts. They were saying, “We believe you. Please tell us when this will happen, and what signs should we be looking for that are about to happen.”
It’s important to understand this because it will keep our feet firmly planted in the text and will go a long way towards guarding us from wrongly applying it to our times. Jesus’ prophecy in the Olivet Discourse was about their end, not ours. I will be so bold as to say that everything in Mark 13 applies to Jesus’ first century audience and none of it is about our times, even though it all applies to our times. This will become clearer as we progress in our studies, but for now it is vital that we submit to the text and not replace the clear words with the confused words of certain interpretive traditions. Constantly ask, what does the text say? And whatever it says, just accept it, even if it goes against what you have always believed. Even if it goes against your study Bible note. Even if it goes against your favourite Bible teacher. This is a wonderful opportunity to be Berean (see Acts 17:11).
I emphasise this because, for a long time, this rather straightforward passage has been twisted in such a way that the erroneous idea has gotten traction that the disciples were asking about both the near future (their future) and the distant future (our future and perhaps beyond). They weren’t. They didn’t give us a thought! I say this carefully, but there is a real sense in which even Jesus was not, in this sermon, giving us a thought either. That is, he was preparing the disciples and the first century church for impending troubles, and his imminent reign. He wasn’t thinking about Donald Trump or Benjamin Netanyahu or COVID-19 or nanochips under our skin. Of course, what came out of the destruction of the temple and Jerusalem had and continues to have huge implications for us, and for future generations of Christians, but the direct application of this chapter was for the first century church. The Roman Christians who received it would have realised as much. In other words, after hearing this chapter read in their church, they would not have looked at one another and asked, “How do you think the church in two thousand years will endure the abomination of desolation?” Rather, they would have responded, “God give us grace to endure to the end of what Jesus has told us will happen in our lifetime. Help us to pay close attention to the signs that he has told us to watch for. Please, don’t let us be deceived. Help us to endure to the end!”
If the church of later generations had in fact paid attention to the words of this text, they would not have been deceived about the end times and would not have lost their credibility in the process.
A Pastoral Concern
Though the entire sermon serves as a warning to the disciples about what they should expect and how they should respond, there is a definite division between vv. 5–13 and vv. 14–36. I would emphasise that these are the only two divisions in the chapter. Some propose a third (vv. 32–36) but I am persuaded that is erroneous. But our discussion of that will need to wait a few weeks. For now, we focus on Jesus’ pastoral concern in vv. 5–13:
And Jesus began to say to them, “See that no one leads you astray. Many will come in my name, saying, ‘I am he!’ and they will lead many astray. And when you hear of wars and rumours of wars, do not be alarmed. This must take place, but the end is not yet. 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.
“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. And the gospel must first be proclaimed to all nations. 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. 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. And you will be hated by all for my name’s sake. But the one who endures to the end will be saved.
Jesus had made known the impending destruction of the temple and, in answering the disciples’ question, he was clearly concerned about their welfare (v. 30). His concern was that they “stay awake” (v. 36), that they be alert to the impending doom. To the degree that they paid attention, they would “endure to the end” (v. 13).
In this section, Jesus, in answer to their question, told his disciples what to expect in their near future.
First, in vv. 5–8, Jesus told them that they should expect disruptions:
And Jesus began to say to them, “See that no one leads you astray. Many will come in my name, saying, ‘I am he!’ and they will lead many astray. And when you hear of wars and rumours of wars, do not be alarmed. This must take place, but the end is not yet. 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.”
It is helpful to pay close attention to what Jesus was clearly saying: The following turmoil must take place, but it would not be the end. These things were only the beginnings of the birth pangs (v. 8). There was more pain on the way before the “baby” (v. 2) would be born (vv. 14ff). The birth pangs would be distinct.
Many teach that these birth pangs are simply the normal course of history and so, as we hear of earthquakes and wars and false teachers and famines (and plagues!), we should simply be reminded that Jesus is coming again “soon.”
Others teach that these are pre-cursors to “the end.” I agree. Clearly Jesus was saying so! But the question remains, the end of what? Whose end? I am persuaded that Jesus was speaking about the end of the world as the Jews knew it. He was speaking about the end of the old covenant era, which could only fully come to an end with the destruction of the temple. While the temple stood, the old covenant sacrifices would continue. But with its destruction it would come to a complete standstill. It would be rendered null and void. And so, with the destruction of the temple, the old covenant era came to a dramatic end and the era of the new covenant, the Messianic era, fully commenced. And, isn’t it interesting that the temple has never been rebuilt?
On a couple of occasions in history, the Jewish people have attempted to rebuild the temple but, mysteriously, their attempts have never materialised. And while many zealous unbelieving Jews, as well as Christian Jews, are excited about the supposed rebuilding of the temple in our day, it’s interesting that Jesus has put a large “do not construct here” sign at the Temple Mount in the form of an Islamic mosque.
Brothers and sisters stop looking for Mark 13 to be yet fulfilled. It has been fulfilled. The old has passed away; the new has come. The first-generation church saw that day approaching and persevered to the end (Hebrews 10:19–25).
Historians of the day, as well as the New Testament itself, record many of these things that must take place. Consider some of this evidence.
Jesus warned, “Many will come in my name, saying, ‘I am he!’ and they will lead many astray.” False christs began to abound during the days of the early church. Theudus (Acts 5:36) and Elymas (Acts 13:8) are two that are mentioned by name in Scripture. The Gnostic heresy, which presented a false christ, demanded the apostle John’s response in 1 and 2 John. Paul, Peter, and Jude were continually warning the churches about false teachers who presented false gospels, presumably referencing false christs.
Jesus warned further, “And when you hear of wars and rumours of wars, do not be alarmed…. For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom.” In the first half of the first century, the Pax Romana (Roman Peace) was in full force. It was a marvel that there was so much political calm under Roman rule. But that would soon come to an end. In fact, by 68 AD, the Pax Romana had all but come to an end as various nations under Roman rule began to push back militarily against Rome. Even at the birth of Christ, there was concern about such upheavals, which is why Herod’s butchers went to Bethlehem.
Jesus said, “There will be earthquakes in various places.” There was, in fact, an earthquake within a few days (Matthew 27:51–54), and we know that a horrific earthquake destroyed cities in Asia Minor (Turkey) around 50 AD, including Laodicea.
“There will be famines,” warned Jesus. Acts 11:27–30 records a great famine that impacted the entire Roman Empire during the days of Claudius Caesar, who reigned from 41–54 AD. Historians speak of other famines as well.
The point that Jesus was making is that his disciples, and those they shepherded, must not panic when these things began to occur. The word “alarmed” (v. 7) means to be frightened so as to wail, or to cry aloud (see Matthew 24:6; 2 Thessalonians 2:2). One reason they should not “panic” is because “the end is not yet” (v. 7). Rather, these were signs of the beginning of the end. They must not be led astray.
Second, the disciples should expect persecution in their last days:
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. And the gospel must first be proclaimed to all nations. 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. 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. And you will be hated by all for my name’s sake. But the one who endures to the end will be saved.
Jesus admonished them to pay attention: “But be on your guard.” They were to pay close attention, to pay heed, to beware. But of what? They were to beware of thinking that the end had already come. It hadn’t. This temptation would be present in the early church (see 2 Thessalonians 2:2). But he was also warning them to be ready for things to heat up. They would suffer for his name.
In Mark’s account, Jesus somewhat mingled worldwide proclamation with global persecution. Three times in this discourse, Jesus warned the disciples that they would be delivered over to authorities for their fidelity to Jesus. That is the same word used numerous times to describe the betrayal and crucifixion of Jesus. This would take place locally in “councils” and “synagogues” and also in the larger realms of “governors” and “kings.” This would occur because of their bearing witness on behalf of Jesus.
Of course, a mere cursory reading of the book of Acts reveals the truthfulness of this prophecy. Over and over, commencing with chapter 3, Luke records the persecution of the apostles by enemies of Christ, primarily Jewish enemies. We also see fulfilled Jesus’ promise of v. 11. Isn’t it wonderful how the Holy Spirit filled the mouths of Peter and John, not to mention Stephen and the apostle Paul, as they stood before various authorities and gave powerful witness to the risen Christ?
We should let it sink in that it is often those who are closest to the church who cause the most hurt to the church. The Jewish leaders should have embraced the message of the apostles. Instead, they sought to murder them, as they had their Master. Small wonder that God destroyed their temple.
But not only must they expect persecution from religious and civil authorities; they would also receive malevolent treatment from their blood family (v. 12). Jesus was rejected by his own family. Paul may well have experienced the same and he warned Timothy that, in the last days, family affection would often be perverted into family hatred (2 Timothy 3:3).
Church history is replete with examples of those who, having followed Christ, were hated by their family. Some have experienced being ostracised, some made to leave their homes, others put to death. When you remember that the early church was Jewish, it means that the temple would be frequented by those who hated family members who believed the one to whom the temple and its prescribed worship pointed! That is twisted. And sadly, it continues.
There are many religious people, even the religiously churched, who have turned their backs on family members who have chosen to follow Jesus. As Jesus summed up his warning, “You will be hated by all for my name’s sake.”
But, in the face of persecution, Jesus told his disciples to expect perseverance: “But the one who endures to the end will be saved” (v. 13). What does this mean?
It is not primarily a soteriological promise—that is, it does not primarily refer to the perseverance of the saints—though it certainly applies. Instead, it is probably referring to the fact that those who were not killed for their commitment to Jesus would be delivered from the end result of the temple and Jerusalem’s destruction. If they came to the end of the last days then, if they paid heed, they would be rescued. Jesus elaborated on this in the passage that follows, which we will not delve into now. For our purposes, it is interesting to note that, as far as the historical record goes, not a single Christian lost his or her life in the siege of Jerusalem. In other words, those Christians who survived the wars, earthquakes, famines, etc. and who lived until the destruction of the temple were rescued from that destruction when it occurred.
There is a relevant application: Perseverance requires paying attention to the word of God. We will delve further into this in our next study. For now, pay attention and enjoy the deliverance.
Think about this for a moment: The disciples were first generation Christians. They were first generation Messianic Jews, as some might call them. They, along with Israel, had for centuries waited for Messiah’s arrival. Now he had arrived. They had expected prosperity in every realm, including peace and popularity. So why was Jesus talking about persecution, rejection, and heartache? This would have been news to them. That is why Jesus told them that, when they experience these things, “the end is not yet” (v. 7). In some ways, Jesus was saying that this was to be the normal expectation for those who follow Jesus. It still is.
We live in a broken world because of sin. In the normal course of living in such a world, we must expect conflict among nations. We must expect false teachings and teachers. We must expect the earth to groan with earthquakes, hurricanes, famines, and plagues (Romans 8:18–25). Because we are surrounded by sinners—by those who reject Messiah our Lord—we should not be surprised at persecution and rejection, even from those who call themselves Christian—even from those in our own households. But whereas we have the book of Acts and the epistles and nearly two thousand years of church history to inform us, these early disciples and the early church did not. They needed this instruction. They needed to know what to expect in their days. Yes, they should expect the end of the old and the beginning of the new, and so this was the end times. But, the end to which Jesus was pointing was not these vague disruptions. Rather, the end he had in view was the destruction of the temple and the destruction of the city of Jerusalem. This would bring about the end of one age, and the beginning of a whole new age: the Messianic age, the age of the new covenant, and therefore the age of the new covenant church. Once we take ourselves out of the text, this all becomes much clearer and so much less confusing.
In short, Jesus was saying that the temple would be destroyed. But before that occurred, the disciples must expect opposition and the world should expect some convulsions. But the disciples must not confuse those things with the end. They were not. They were merely birth pains, pointing to the birth of something new (John 16:16–24)—something gloriously new.
The disciples must also expect proclamation: “And the gospel must first be proclaimed to all nations” (v. 10). These words are sandwiched between verses about persecution. They speak of gospel proclamation, and proclamation is frequently sandwiched between persecution.
Jesus was saying that, “first” (that is, before the end [vv. 7, 13]), the gospel must be preached to all nations. Only then would the end come. That is how anyone reading Mark’s words would have understood them. In other words, the last of the last days would not arrive until v. 10 was fulfilled. And since Jesus made clear that all these things would occur in “this generation” (v. 30), he was not talking about the year 2020!
Of course, this is where many object: “Surely you’re not suggesting that the gospel has been preached to all nations?” Actually, I am saying that. Jesus said it would be so and the New Testament authors record it to be so.
Paul wrote to the Colossians, “of the hope laid up for you in heaven. Of this you have heard before in the word of the truth, the gospel, which has come to you, as indeed in the whole world it is bearing fruit and increasing—as it also does among you, since the day you heard it and understood the grace of God in truth” (Colossians 1:5–6). He reiterated that a little later when he wrote of “the hope of the gospel which you heard, which was preached to every creature under heaven” (v. 23). The biblical evidence is clear-cut.
We will flesh this out in future studies, but let me emphasise that, rather than focusing on the signs of the times, the early church persevered by focusing on their assignment for the times: gospel proclamation. God’s timetable took care of itself. The disciples were responsible to proclaim the gospel to the nations. This is what they were to busy themselves with, and they often needed this reminder, even after Jesus’ resurrection (Acts 1:6–8ff).
Mark provides the essence of what the early church needed to know about the destruction of the temple and the subsequent destruction of Jerusalem. He provides what they needed to know about the end of the world as the Jews knew it. Likewise, he provides for his modern readers all we need to know about that ending of that age. As we grasp this, we are equipped to make the most of our opportunities in this age—to be hopeful and remain faithful.
Brothers and sisters, none of us knows how long this pandemic will last. None of us knows when Jesus will return to carry out his final judgement of all who have ever lived. None of us knows when Jesus will once for all remove the curse and all creation and all his new creation will be glorified. But we do know that we have a task to carry out: discipling the nations. This is what we must do in these times. Let’s get to it.