End times fears and excitement seem to ignite in every generation. In the late 1990s the Left Behind books released causing a renewed fervor about the nearness of the end of the world. The year 2000 was a major point when people thought the end of the world would certainly come. The Mayan calendar declared the end of the world to be in 2012. The Jehovah’s Witnesses proclaimed the end of the world in 1914, 1918, 1925, 1940s, 1975, 2000, when the generation of 1914 passes away, and now 2033. Hysteria seems to always be centered on when the end of the world will come and the various predictions that come. Often these predictions come from reading Mark 13, or the parallel passages Matthew 24 and Luke 21. So we are going to carefully read this chapter and look for what Jesus is teaching and what we should understand as followers of Christ.
The Scene (13:1-2)
The first few verses are critical for properly understanding the teaching in this chapter. We noted in the last few chapters that Jesus has been at the temple in Jerusalem giving his final teachings to the people before he is arrested. Mark 13 opens with Jesus and his disciples now leaving the temple complex. One of the disciples says to Jesus to consider the magnificent buildings of the temple. Now it is important to consider that this is not a sightseeing tour. Nor is this the first time that Jesus and his disciples have come to the temple. Jesus, as an obedient Jew, would have presented himself at the temple at least three times each year. All of these men have been to the temple many times in their lives. So what is the disciple doing by pointing out the magnificence of the temple? We have noticed contextually in the last three chapters that Jesus has condemned the religious leaders and declared the fall of temple and Jerusalem with the cursing of the fig tree, the cleansing and condemnation in the temple, and the parable of the tenants. After two days of condemning the temple and its leaders, a disciple remarks about the temple as a point of national pride. This is quite parallel to the people in the days of Jeremiah who were in disbelief that God would judge the nation because they possessed the temple (cf. Jeremiah 7:4). God is with us was the thinking because the temple stood there. The temple represented God with his people. See with have the temple of the Lord! But Jesus says that in spite of the grandeur and magnificence of the temple, not one stone will be left on another. Every stone will be thrown down. Jesus plainly states what has been implied in the teachings and parables given in the prior days.
The Questions (13:3-4)
Jesus leaves the temple and goes to the Mount of Olives, which is opposite the temple mount. It is interesting to note that this is what Ezekiel pictured when the glory of the Lord left the temple and went to the nearby mountain, indicating God leaving his people. So now Jesus leaves the temple and goes to the nearby mountain. Four of the disciples privately ask Jesus about what he just said. Listen to what they ask in verse 4. “When will these things happen? And what will be the sign that they are all about to be fulfilled?” (NIV). Now look carefully at your text. When will what things happen? What is the context? The context is the destruction of the temple. The context is that the temple will not have one stone left on another. They are asking when this will happen. They are also asking what sign they can have to know that the destruction of the temple is about to happen. They want to know two things: when will the temple be destroyed and what signs are there to know that the temple is about to be destroyed. Did the disciples ask anything about when the end of the world would come? No. Did they ask anything about the second coming of Christ? No. In fact, we have seen that they have not understood that Jesus is leaving them. They do not understand that Jesus is going to be killed and raised from the dead. They certainly are not asking about the second coming of Christ or the end of the world! They are asking about the destruction of the temple and the judgment against the nation, which has been the context of the last three chapters and the context of the last words Jesus just said.
The Beginnings (13:5-13)
Jesus begins by describing events that will happen before the destruction of Jerusalem. Jesus calls these things in verse 8 “the beginning of the birth pains.” False messiahs, wars, and rumors of wars, famines, and earthquakes are just the beginning signs. These are not signs for today but signs for the eventual fall of Jerusalem and the temple. In verse 9 Jesus tells the disciples that they will stand before councils like the Sanhedrin, beaten in synagogues, and stand trial before governors and kings. Jesus had promised his apostles in John 14-16 that the Holy Spirit would tell them what to say and we see Jesus say this here in verse 11. We see all of these happening in the book of Acts. These signs are recorded in Acts as events leading up to the temple’s destruction. Further, before the temple is destroyed the gospel must be preached to all the nations. The apostle Paul in Colossians 1:6, 1:23 and Romans 16:26 that the gospel had been made known to all the nations. Jesus then calls for them to endure through these difficulties to the end to be saved.
The Signs (13:14-23)
After telling his disciples about the beginning signs, Jesus now gives further signs of what will happen in leading up to the temple’s destruction. This big sign is in verse 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. (Mark 13:14 ESV)
Notice that the reader needs to understand the imagery of the abomination of desolation. When they see this abomination of desolation, that is when people in Judea need to run to the mountains. Now I want us to think about for this a moment. If this is about the end of the world or the second coming, then what good would it be to run to the mountains? And why would only people in Judea need to run to the mountains? No, this is still about the signs leading up to the temple’s destruction. The people need to evacuate Jerusalem and Judea quickly when they saw the abomination that causes desolation.
So what is the abomination of desolation? This term is used in Daniel’s prophecies in the scriptures (cf. Daniel 9:27; 11:31; 12:11) which speak of an enemy or power attacking Jerusalem. The time frame of those references center upon the rise of the Roman Empire. It is not that the reader was to look for an exact person. It came to “symbolize an unspeakable affront to the sanctity of God’s house and to God himself” (Evan). Essentially, you are going to see a Gentile ruler or power where it ought not be. This understanding is validated by Luke’s parallel account which, rather than calling this “the abomination of desolation,” simply says, “when you see Jerusalem surrounded by armies” (Luke 21:20). When you see an army coming where it ought not come, then you need to run to the mountains. You need to not go back for your belongings. You just need to go because it is going to be really, really bad. It will be awful for pregnant and nursing mothers. Pray that this does not happen in winter because it will be hard to travel. The big message is that when the armies come into Judea, then you need to go fast. Only God is going to prevent the destruction of Jerusalem from being worse than it could be. Notice verse 23 that Jesus calls for them to be on guard because that is what they are to be looking for.
The Event (13:24-31)
Jesus now describes the event itself as noted in verse 24, “After that tribulation.” So after these birth pains and signs will be judgment. Now people have the tendency to read from verse 24 on and presume that this must be talking about the end of the world and the second coming of Jesus because the text says that stars will fall from heaven, the sun will be darkened, and the Son of Man will come in the clouds. Should we see Jesus no longer talking about the fall of the temple and destruction of Jerusalem but is now talking about the end of the world? A closer look at other scriptures will help us see that this language is commonly used for the fall of a nation.
Behold, the day of the LORD comes, cruel, with wrath and fierce anger, to make the land a desolation and to destroy its sinners from it. For the stars of the heavens and their constellations will not give their light; the sun will be dark at its rising, and the moon will not shed its light. I will punish the world for its evil, and the wicked for their iniquity; I will put an end to the pomp of the arrogant, and lay low the pompous pride of the ruthless. I will make people more rare than fine gold, and mankind than the gold of Ophir. Therefore I will make the heavens tremble, and the earth will be shaken out of its place, at the wrath of the LORD of hosts in the day of his fierce anger. (Isaiah 13:9–13 ESV)
This also sounds like the end of the world. But the first verse of Isaiah 13 says that this is a prophecy against Babylon. What we see is God uses this kind of graphic, apocalyptic language to describe the end of a nation. This is why Jesus uses this imagery for Jerusalem. This is the end of the Jewish age as they knew it. This was the end of the nation as God brought judgment on it for its sins. But what about this passage in Mark saying that the Son of Man would come in the clouds? If we had time I would show you other places in the scriptures where God comes in the clouds and it is a picture of judgment (cf. Revelation 1:7). But the easiest place to see this is in Matthew 26:64 where Jesus tells Caiaphas, the high priest, that he would see the Son of Man coming in the clouds of heaven. How would Caiaphas see the Son of Man coming in the clouds of heaven if that is a reference to the end of the world? What we need to see is that none of this language refers to the end of the world specifically, but to God’s judgment upon a peoples. We must read with an understanding and knowledge of how God uses these pictures of judgment in other places to properly understand what Jesus is teaching here. So the context continues that Jesus is talking about the destruction of Jerusalem and the end of this Jewish nation. The same is true of verse 27 where God is gathering together his people, which is frequently used in the scriptures also (cf. Deuteronomy 30:3-4; Psalm 50:3-4; Isaiah 43:6; Jeremiah 32:37; Ezekiel 34:13; 36:24). Nothing in this passage says that God is gathering his people and taking them to heaven. Rather, God is gathering his scattered children, which is a reference to Deuteronomy 30:3-4 where God will gather his people from all parts of creation and bring them into his promised land.
Now Jesus says to learn the lesson. When you see certain signs then you know certain events are going to happen. Jesus uses a fig tree generating leaves to know that summer is coming. For us, when you feel that sudden cool breeze in south Florida you know that rain is coming. It is certain and coming soon. This is what Jesus says in verses 30-31. Please underscore verse 30. This verse eliminates any idea that this chapter is about the second coming of Christ or the end of the world. “This generation will not pass away until all these things take place.”
The Time (13:32-37)
Now the disciples also asked when the temple would be destroyed. Jesus declares that the day or hour is unknown. Only the Father knows when he is going to accomplish this. The point seems to be that God has not determined the exact hour and day for Jerusalem’s fall. What is certain is that it will fall within the lifetimes of the audience listening to Jesus’ words. So what are the disciples to do? “Be on guard and keep awake!” Again, Jesus says this in verse 35, “Stay awake!” Again, the same admonition in verse 37, “Stay awake!” Jesus says because you do not know exactly when the judgment on Jerusalem would come, they need to stay ready and be watchful.
First, we want to note that there is nothing in this chapter, nor in Luke 21 or Matthew 24 that is about the end of the world or the second coming of Christ. That is not what the disciples ask about nor is it the context of the discussion. To say that this is about the end of the world is to push something on the text that is not given in it.
Second, the second coming of Christ does not have signs or warnings. The scriptures do not offer any warning signs or things to look out for when Christ does return. Look at 1 Thessalonians 5. After describing the return of the Lord in chapter 4, listen to what Paul says next.
1 Now concerning the times and the seasons, brothers, you have no need to have anything written to you. 2 For you yourselves are fully aware that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night. 3 While people are saying, “There is peace and security,” then sudden destruction will come upon them as labor pains come upon a pregnant woman, and they will not escape. 4 But you are not in darkness, brothers, for that day to surprise you like a thief. 5 For you are all children of light, children of the day. We are not of the night or of the darkness. 6 So then let us not sleep, as others do, but let us keep awake and be sober. (1 Thessalonians 5:1–6 ESV)
How will Jesus come? He will come like a thief. Jesus is coming at a time what is not expected. He is coming in a way that will “surprise you like a thief.” There are not any warning signs. Wars, tsunamis, European unions, communism, or any other event are not signs for the second coming of Christ. We are not look out at the world and think that Jesus is coming soon. Now, we can look at our nation and perhaps say that judgment is coming soon. But that is not the same as the end of the world. When Jesus returns is unknown. There are no signs or warnings given.
Therefore, what should we do? Just like Jesus warned regarding the judgment of Jerusalem in Mark 13, we are given the same direction in 1 Thessalonians 5. We need to be watching and ready. Since the Lord will return without warning, how should we be living our lives each day? We should not assume that we have tomorrow to get our lives right with the Lord. We should not assume that things will keep going as they are. Further, what we should ask ourselves every day is if we are ready for the Lord’s return today. Are you ready if the trumpet sounds and the dead arise in the next five minutes? Are you ready or do you need to get ready? This is the point the Lord is making to us. We need to always be ready for judgment, whether it is the judgment on the land we live in or whether it is the Lord’s return. Are you ready?