“The Signs of the Times”
From the past couple of weeks, you recall that we are in the midst of the Passion Week in the life of Jesus Christ. We saw how much of Mark’s gospel moves quickly through much of the life and ministry of Christ. The pace moves rather quickly as Mark gives us highlights of the significant things leading up to this point. But as we approach the cross, he slows the pace down as it were. He wants to emphasize the events that happen in this time.
In this more immediate section, Jesus has begun to condemn the current religious system because of its inability to save and because of its abuses. He has overturned the tables of the money-changers. And he has spoken against the religious leaders in very strong terms. In Mark’s gospel, he points out that they misunderstood and misrepresented the Messiah and that they misrepresented true godliness. And this was evidenced in their lack of care for the most needy – the widows.
We find ourselves entering chapter 13 of Mark. So please turn in your Bibles to Mark 13 as we get underway. If you are acquainted with your Bible, you know that this section contains what is known as the Olivet Discourse – because much of Jesus’ teaching takes place on the Mount of Olives outside the city of Jerusalem. The passage contains interesting language dealing with wars, calamities, tribulations, and apocalyptic language. This chapter has often been cited in the pursuit of constructing elaborate charts on end time events. What I hope to show you is that this understanding is not the emphasis in our passage this morning. Let’s read our text and get started. Mark 13.1-13. READ.
The first point from our passage is Judgment on External Religion. After warning his listeners of the scribes teaching and lifestyle, Jesus and the disciples vacate the premises. They come out of the temple area and gaze back upon it. One of the disciples (who Mark graciously leaves unnamed) points out the beauty that is contained the structure of the temple and its courts. He notes that it is crafted with wonderful stones. And he is right!
The beauty and size of Herod the Great's Temple Mount exceeded that of most of the seven wonders of the world. It was more than twice the size of the Acropolis in Athens. Its perimeter was 1.55 km and enclosed a space equivalent to one-sixth of the entire city. The area could hold somewhere in the neighbourhood of 12 football fields. It was one of the most impressive structures in the world. It was made of massive blocks of stone adorned with gold ornamentation. It is recorded that some of the stones measured 40x12x12 ft. and were expertly quarried to fit perfectly against one another. John MacArthur includes that “The temple buildings were made of gleaming white marble, and the whole eastern wall of the large main structure was covered with gold plates that reflected the morning sun, making a spectacle that was visible for miles.” So when one of the disciples remarked, he probably did not expect the response that he gets from Jesus.
Jesus wheels around and says, “Do you see these great buildings? There will not be left here one stone upon another that will not be thrown down.” Can you imagine the tension? Perhaps the disciples were thinking, “Jesus, take it easy. Like everybody else, we’re just appreciating the buildings.” Perhaps Jesus was still reflecting on the abuses of the religious system that devoured widow’s houses and accepted all they had to live on. Perhaps it was these abuses that allowed them to build and amass wealth – not unlike the times of Martin Luther where the Roman Church would manipulate the people to pay indulgences in order to fund their building project of St. Peter’s Basillica.
In any event, Jesus now pronounces final judgment on the temple. As we saw earlier when he overturned the tables, he does not seek to purify its practice, but to eradicate it. Jesus is going to the cross and there would no longer be a need for this physical temple. Here he openly prophecies its complete destruction.
What we have seen in Jesus’ pronouncements against the religious leaders is directed to their superficiality and their hypocrisy. They were externally “clean” and internally corrupt. He pointed that out throughout his ministry and most notably in the events just prior to this. Matthew’s gospel includes more of these judgments and identifies some of their inconsistencies. In chapter 23, Matthew also calls them on their desire for the greetings in the marketplaces and their titles. He pronounces woes on the scribes and Pharisees for they “shut the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces.” Jesus indicates that they (the religious leaders) would not enter the kingdom and hinder others from entering.
Jesus condemns them because they tithe and yet neglect justice, mercy, and faithfulness. He pinpoints the issue to that of hypocrisy. Jesus repeatedly judges them because they appear to be holy, but their hearts are corrupt. Listen to Matthew 23:25–29 “25 “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you clean the outside of the cup and the plate, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. 26 You blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup and the plate, that the outside also may be clean. 27 “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which outwardly appear beautiful, but within are full of dead people’s bones and all uncleanness. 28 So you also outwardly appear righteous to others, but within you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness. 29 “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you build the tombs of the prophets and decorate the monuments of the righteous.”
And with this fresh on his lips, he looks back at the structures and pronounces judgment on the whole thing. How can Jesus be impressed with something that is beautiful on the outside and filthy and corrupt through and through?
Some years ago, I went to Paris on a mission’s trip. I know, I know. I was really suffering for the Lord on that one! As a seminary class, we went on a visionary trip to talk to the missionaries serving there to glean insight to their mission – including their challenges and successes. Perhaps I may have initially questioned one’s motivation to choose Paris for career missions. This quickly vanished as I gained a greater understanding of the nature of their work there. They were immersed in a post-Christian environment where converts to Christ were extremely rare. I should mention that this had little to do with their efforts.
One of the exercises we did while we were there was to go on the streets and accumulate information through interviews. This was a valuable lesson for me. Individually, we constructed a questionnaire with which to engage people in public places. We attempted to enter into spiritual discussions in order to get a sense of the spiritual climate in France.
If you’ve been to Europe, you know that there are some magnificent buildings throughout – namely churches and cathedrals. One of my favourites is Notre Dame. The building is characterized by its intricate carvings, colourful stained glass, sounds of a magnificent pipe organ.
The thing that stuck out to me the most in my conversations with people was the fact that these beautiful cathedrals held no spiritual value for them. They were the places for weddings and special events. They did not see much connection to the One True God. Physically beautiful, but spiritually bankrupt.
The temple embodies the spiritual climate of its religious leaders. And the church faces the same danger. If the Pharisees, Sadducees and scribes were guilty of terrible hypocrisy because their inward lives did not match their external appearances, aren’t we susceptible to the same things? What does this look like? Do we come to Sunday worship and pretend that our spiritual lives are thriving when in reality we just had a conflict in the car ride here? Or do we say to others that we really want to grow in our faith and serve more in the church without any action behind our words? Say one thing and do another… This is hypocrisy. And the religious system of Jesus’ day was characterized by hypocrisy.
When Jesus says, “there will not be left here one stone upon another that will not be thrown down,” his words will be literally fulfilled in a.d. 70. Titus, the Roman general, built large wooden scaffolds around the walls of the temple buildings, piled them high with wood and other flammable items, and set them ablaze. The heat from the fires was so intense that the stones crumbled. The rubble was then sifted to retrieve the melted gold, and the remaining ruins were “thrown down” into the Kidron Valley.
But Jesus’ words were ringing in the ears of his disciples. Jesus departs the temple and, with his disciples, head east to the Mount of Olives. They have a seat and gaze upon the temple and Jerusalem. These four disciples need some clarification here. In fact, their questions in verse 4 reveal that they connected this prophetic judgment on the temple to the end time when Jesus will usher in the new kingdom. “When will these things be, and what will be the sign when these things are about to be accomplished?”
Understandably, they were anxious for such things. They repeatedly asked this question of Jesus. Here, I am going to give away the ending. Jesus dies, is buried, rises from the dead, and appears to the disciples. Just before he returns to heaven, he has some last instructions to leave the disciples. And in Acts 1, the disciples ask Jesus, “Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?” And you remember Jesus’ response. “It is not for you to know times or seasons that the Father has fixed by his own authority.”
And in Mark 13, Jesus does not answer this question how they wanted. And his answer introduces our second point, Exhortation to Discernment. The disciples ask the questions and Jesus says, “See that no one leads you astray.” Jesus is less concerned with the timing of events but the disciples’ response in them. The word “see” is the same word that we looked at last week with regard to the scribes. “Beware” of the scribes. Take heed, guard against. This “seeing” means to “look with perception.” It appears as though Jesus thought that the disciples were in danger of being deceived.
Now, this is an interesting chapter. And I should mention that in Jesus’ teaching here, he encompasses different time periods. I already indicated that the Romans will destroy Jerusalem in A. D. 70. So some of what Jesus includes here will occur within the lifetime of the current generation. However, some events of the chapter will be indicative of the end times. Much of our discussion will deal with the former with timeless principles for us.
In this first section, vv. 3-8, we see that Jesus lists some events that will begin in their own day and continue to the end. We see this in verses 7 and 8. Verse 7 Jesus says that while these things occur, the end is not yet. And in verse 8, he says these are but the beginning of birth pains.
Jesus indicates that there will be many declaring themselves to be the Messiah Deliverer. And the sad thing is that many will also be led astray. Verse 22 also indicates that false christs and false prophets will arise and perform signs and wonders to lead people astray. This is not a new thing. The Lord spoke to the Old Testament prophet Jeremiah saying that “prophets are prophesying lies in my name. I did not send them, nor did I command them or speak to them. They are prophesying to you a lying vision, worthless divination, and the deceit of their own minds.” (14.14) The Apostle John wrote in his first letter (2.18), “Children, it is the last hour, and as you have heard that antichrist is coming, so now many antichrists have come.” See that no one leads you astray.
How do we discern the true Christ from the false ones?? We become well-acquainted with the true One!! How do we do this? First, we bow the knee. We must acknowledge that He is the Lord and our only Savior. Having repented of sin and trusting in Christ for salvation, we cultivate our relationship with him through the written Word and prayer. We walk with him also as our friend. We will be able to identify him as we would a spouse or close friend. We know these not only by looks, but by character. The closer we get to people, the better we anticipate their mannerisms and responses.
The more we study Jesus the Christ in the Scripture, we will know the false ones because they won’t smell right. Some things won’t sit right with us. Primarily, these will not coincide with what God’s Word says. This is why it is imperative and critical that we are immersed in this book!! Did I say that clearly enough?? It is imperative and critical that we are immersed in Scripture! This is not a luxury or option for the Christian. Do not be deceived, we will be most susceptible to the world and false christs if we are negligent! Make sure that you are not one of the many that are led astray. In addition to your daily Scripture, I would encourage everybody to read Tim Challies’ book on spiritual discernment. He will take you beyond theory to the practical ways that one can determine if something is true to Scripture or not.
Verses 7 and 8 indicate that there will be wars, rumours of wars, nation against nation, kingdom against kingdom. We will also witness natural disasters and famines. I had previously thought that these wars and rumours of wars signalled the time of the end. But I believe Jesus is saying that these are indicative throughout all ages in history. Perhaps he points this out for the exact opposite reason. Sinful mankind is prone to these things and we should not be surprised or alarmed. There will be earthquakes and famines. Do not fear.
Jesus uses the analogy of birth pains. John MacArthur suggests that this is a pointed reference. He writes, “Birth pains signal the end of pregnancy—they are infrequent at first and gradually increase just before the child is born. Likewise, the signs of vv. 6–8 will be infrequent, relatively speaking, in the beginning and will escalate to massive and tragic proportions just prior to Christ’s second coming.” In other words, insofar as these events are indicative of the times of the disciples onward, they will increase as birth pains until the Lord Jesus returns. Regarding the time period Jesus is talking about, Robert Gundry says that it is "the entirety of the period during which Jesus' disciples bear witness, suffer persecution, and stand in danger of deception, however long or short that period may turn out to be."
I think that this too is a call to discernment. And it is also a message of comfort and encouragement. How can Jesus’ words regarding wars and calamities provide comfort? Why does he say not to be alarmed? The fact that Jesus refers to such things with certainty indicates that all of this is according to the sovereign plan of God. Don’t we often get anxious when we consider war and worldwide disasters? Television evangelists warn us the end is near and some profit by publishing books promoting their end time charts and details.
Jesus says don’t be surprised or alarmed when these things happen. God is in control and is using such things to carry out his purposes. In his perfect time, he will bring things to a close. Trust him. The apparent chaos truly is no chaos at all. For the disciples, this would be important as many watch their beloved city burn to the ground. These are but the beginnings of the birth pains. There is more to come. But there will also be an end to them.
Verse 9 begins with “but be on your guard.” Same word here. “Beware of the scribes.” “See that no one leads you astray.” “Be on your guard.” This introduces our third point: Perseverance and Proclamation.
Be on your guard. Why? The next word tells us why. “For.” For they will deliver you over to councils, and you will be beaten in synagogues, and you will stand before governs and kings for my sake, to bear witness before them. To appear before the councils would be to stand in the local Jewish courts that were attached to the synagogues and be tried for charges of heresy and infractions of the law. The normal punishment was to receive 39 lashes. It was this number so as not to violate the directives of Deuteronomy 25.2-3. “2 then if the guilty man deserves to be beaten, the judge shall cause him to lie down and be beaten in his presence with a number of stripes in proportion to his offense. 3 Forty stripes may be given him, but not more, lest, if one should go on to beat him with more stripes than these, your brother be degraded in your sight.” And you remember that the Apostle Paul experienced this punishment more than once. 2 Corinthians 11:24 “24 Five times I received [beatings] at the hands of the Jews the forty lashes less one.”
Sure enough this happened to others as well. A cursory glance into the book of Acts confirms this. Acts 17:6 “6 And when they could not find them, they dragged Jason and some of the brothers before the city authorities, shouting, “These men who have turned the world upside down have come here also.” Acts 18:12 “12 But when Gallio was proconsul of Achaia, the Jews made a united attack on Paul and brought him before the tribunal.” Acts 24:1 “And after five days the high priest Ananias came down with some elders and a spokesman, one Tertullus. They laid before the governor their case against Paul.”
Notice the end of verse 9. Jesus tells the disciples that they will endure this persecution at the hands of authorities for my sake. Disciples of Jesus are targeted precisely because of him. They are singled out for persecution because of faithfulness to Christ. This is what is often left off of contemporary gospel presentations. Sometimes we neglect to include the fact that, “you know what? You may have to suffer for the sake of Christ.” That doesn’t sell, does it?
Also in this verse we have the purpose. Trace the thought process of the verse. First, Jesus tells us to be on guard. Why? Because you will be handed over and persecuted. Why will they be persecuted? Because they belong to Jesus. For what purpose would we suffer because of Jesus? Jesus says “to bear witness” in their presence. The suffering and persecution provides the Christian an audience and opportunity to declare the glories of Jesus Christ! Remarkable! I wouldn’t have thought of that.
Notice how inextricably linked suffering is to gospel declaration. It’s all through this section. Smack dab in the middle is the bright light of God’s intention of the persecuted Christian. The gospel must first be proclaimed to all nations. This is a divine necessity. We know from other New Testament passages that this is the mandate of the church. Jesus commands the disciples in Matthew 28:19 “19 Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” Romans 10:17–18 “17 So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ. 18 But I ask, have they not heard? Indeed they have, for “Their voice has gone out to all the earth, and their words to the ends of the world.”
Paul’s letter to the Colossians begins with recalling their salvation when he writes, “Colossians 1:4–6 “4 since we heard of your faith in Christ Jesus and of the love that you have for all the saints, 5 because of the hope laid up for you in heaven. Of this you have heard before in the word of the truth, the gospel, 6 which has come to you, as indeed in the whole world it is bearing fruit and growing.” And we know that especially in Paul’s ministry, it was characterized by gospel proclamation in the midst of great persecution.
Verse 11 picks up with the persecution. Jesus says “when” they bring you to trial and deliver you over. Not, in the outside chance you come across some difficulty in ministry… When this happens, we have a responsibility to do something. What is it? Speak. The purpose of persecution is, once again, to speak. In this context and elsewhere we know that the disciple is to declare the gospel. And Jesus adds this encouraging statement. He says, “do not be anxious about what to say.” Out of the gate, this statement again reminds me of the sovereignty of God. Jesus warns us that these things will happen. He tells us the purpose of such things. And then he reminds us that we are not alone. We do not have to be overly creative because the Holy Spirit is present with us and helps us with our speaking.
This concept does not give us an excuse for laziness. Rather, the Holy Spirit brings to mind that which we have studied in his Word. I’m sure that many of us can tell of situations where we had a powerful encounter of communicating Christ to someone. And somehow we were able to articulate eternal truths like never before. We conclude at the end of a conversation, “did I really say that?” And we know that we were a conduit of the Holy Spirit speaking through us.
Verse 12 provides more insight into what the future holds for the sake of the advancement of the gospel. The gospel brings spiritual unity between people who would otherwise be enemies and it also brings division among physical families. This text prepares us for the harsh reality that there is strong opposition to the message of Jesus Christ. The conclusion of this thought process is inserted in verse 13. “You will be hated by all for my name’s sake.” Anybody get that message when they were presented with the gospel?
To summarize, the most important task that disciples of Christ have been called to is to make more disciples. We have been charged to preach the gospel to the nations. The same message that brought light and life to our lives, we have the awesome privilege to pass on to others. This may sound strange. But we also have the privilege to suffer for our Savior. And from what I’ve seen in Scripture, God gets greater glory when we bear witness to him in our suffering. Why else would we stick to a particular worldview, if we didn’t believe it with our lives? – and sometimes at the expense of our lives.
Jesus promises that the gospel will be preached to the nations but offers no assurances that it is to be warmly welcomed. The message of the cross creates greater resistance from the powers of evil until, in the end, that power is spent and God ultimately triumphs.
What I hope you see in this passage today is that Jesus’ discourse on the times focuses the attention of the disciples on preparedness, on readiness to suffer, and to trust solely in Jesus Christ. We say this over and over but… We live in a time and geographic location that has allowed us to be laissez-faire and comfortable in our Christianity. I can assure you of this: when persecution comes, many will abandon the faith. But, as Jesus says in verse 13, it is the one who endures to the end who will be saved. This does not suggest that the endurance produces the salvation – but confirms the genuineness of it. Let’s encourage one another to be strong in the faith so that we can be certain we will spend eternity together. Let’s pray.
Hebrews 3:12–14 (ESV)
12 Take care, brothers, lest there be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away from the living God. 13 But exhort one another every day, as long as it is called “today,” that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin. 14 For we have come to share in Christ, if indeed we hold our original confidence firm to the end.