The Beginning of the End
When you go on a trip with children, one of the questions which is often asked is, “Are we there yet?” We are interested in similar questions when it comes to the matter of life itself. The questions we ask are, “What will it be like in the end? How will it all happen? When will it happen? How will we know when it is going to happen?”
Sometimes when children ask, “Are we there yet?” the parents don’t answer the question, but they may suggest that they sing a song or play a game or, these days, watch a video. Jesus does a similar thing in Mark 13.
Today we will take a look at Mark 13 in the last message on the series from the gospel of Mark. It is a chapter which speaks about the beginning of the end and although we will find that it doesn’t answer some of our curiosity, it does give us important answers for living in anticipation of the end.
As we think about Mark 13, we need to remember that it is written following the cleansing of the temple in Mark 11 and the conflict with the Jewish leaders in Mark 11 and 12. During these days, Jesus left the city at night, but each day he and his disciples went to the temple. As they walked out of Jerusalem for what would be the last time before his arrest, trial and death, the disciples remarked to Jesus about the beauty of the temple. None of that temple is visible in Jerusalem today, but all the accounts which are written about it suggest that it was a very beautiful temple. It was large and situated on the top of a hill and so was visible for quite a distance around. It was well built and a most impressive building. The disciples were awed by it, but also awed by the importance of the temple to their people.
It must have been shocking for them to hear Jesus say with great emphasis that “not one stone here will be left on another; everyone will be thrown down.” Not only was the temple beautiful and strongly built. It was also an institution which was founded by God and represented the presence of God. The people placed their spiritual hope on the temple in their midst. Yet such a condemnation was appropriate. In Mark 12:9, Jesus had predicted judgment on the Jewish religious leaders because of their faithlessness. Now he was predicting judgment on the temple because it had become an institution, not a place to meet God. Significant historical things are spoken of here and for once the disciples realized this because it is in response to this warning of coming judgment that they asked questions about these things which to them would have meant the end.
I. The Questions Asked and How Jesus Responded
As Peter, James, John and Andrew were sitting on the Mount of Olives with Jesus, looking across the Kidron Valley at the city of Jerusalem and at the temple, they were curious about what Jesus has just said and they wanted to know more. They asked two questions in Mark 13:4. They asked, “When will these things be?” and they asked, “What will be the sign of their coming?”
These questions which the disciples asked are questions which we continue to ask.
A. When will these things happen?
The first question which they asked was, “When?”
Oh how we want to know the answer to that question. I have been a part of many conversations in which this question has been asked. I have a book which says that Jesus will return in 1988…oops. Many people have suggested that everything is pointing to the return of Jesus very soon. I have listened to people who are looking forward to something very special, like marriage, and hope that Jesus doesn’t return before the event happens. I have listened to other people who are facing difficulty and hope that Jesus comes back before it happens so they don’t have to face it.
How does Jesus answer that question? Following the question in verse 4 we eagerly read verse 5 and on through each verse of the chapter waiting for an answer. Sometimes it seems like the next line will give an answer, but we don’t find an answer until we come Mark 13:32 and finally Jesus answers the question. What is his answer? His answer is, “I don’t know.” So we come to the end of the chapter and we realize that Jesus has not answered the question. In fact he warns against speculating about the answer to that question when he says “no one knows about that day or hour…”
It seems kind of disappointing to read a question that we want an answer to, but find that no answer is given and that the one whom we are asking doesn’t even know the answer. But that is how it is. When? We don’t know. There is no answer in this text.
B. What will be the sign that they are all about to be fulfilled?
The second question is, “What will be the sign that they are all about to be fulfilled?” Once again we read a question that we would like an answer to. If we can’t know the time, perhaps there will be some signs which will help us see that the time is near.
Sometimes when we travel to a location that we are unfamiliar with, we look for signs to tell us that we are close. I remember traveling once and I had been told that the place we were looking for was right next to a lake. We saw a lake and believed that we were almost there. Quite a long time later we realized that that was not the lake and we needed to look for another one. We want a clear sign to let us know that we have almost arrived at the end of our journey.
As we once again read through the text to look for an answer to the question, once again we are disappointed. Nowhere does Jesus use the word “sign” or say to the disciples, “Here are the signs.”
When we come to verse 14 it may seem as if we have found a sign. There we read, “When you see the abomination that causes desolation standing where it does not belong…” But what kind of a sign is that? What does it mean?
The phrase “abomination of desolation” speaks of some unholy thing inappropriately standing in a holy place. It speaks of that which is abhorrent to God standing in the place where God belongs. This phrase has a history in the literature of Israel. In I Maccabees 1:54, which is a book that is not in the Bible, but tells stories of the history of Israel, it says, “Now on the fifteenth day of Chislev, in the one hundred forty-fifth year, they erected a desolating sacrilege on the altar of burnt offering.” When that desolating sacrilege was set up, the people of Israel rebelled against the Greek occupiers and were able to remove the desolating sacrilege and establish pure worship again. In 40 AD Caligula ordered a statue of himself to be set up in the temple. The Jewish people made such a fuss that it didn’t happen and once again the desolating sacrilege did not come to be. But Jesus is warning that when this kind of a thing happens again then there will be a war of such magnitude that the people of Judea should flee. At that time they will not be able to prevent the desolating sacrilege from being placed. That exact thing happened in 70 AD when the Romans, tired of the rebellion of the Jews, attacked and totally destroyed the nation, Jerusalem and also the temple. That was the desolating sacrilege which Jesus was speaking of here. It was an answer to the issue Jesus raised when he warned that the temple would be destroyed. It was a sign which fulfilled the prophecy of the destruction of the temple which He has spoken of in Mark 13:2. So in part, Jesus did answer the question about a sign.
Our question is, “What does this sign have to do with us?” because it clearly did not signal the end of things. In some ways the judgment mentioned here seems to go beyond the destruction of Jerusalem in 70AD. Is Jesus warning about something beyond that event? There is a concept in the Bible, which some call “bifocal prophecy.” For example, in Habakkuk 2:3 we read, “For there is still a vision for the appointed time; it speaks of the end, and does not lie. If it seems to tarry, wait for it; it will surely come, it will not delay.” In that context Habakkuk was talking about the destruction of Babylon, but the prophecy also points beyond it to the final destruction of evil. This happens numerous times when a prophecy is given and has an immediate fulfillment, but also points forward to another more complete fulfillment. Is that what is going on here? It may well be but if so, it retains a considerable degree of ambiguity and in the end we do not have a very clear answer to our question about the signs which will indicate the end of time and the return of Jesus.
So in the end, it seems that Jesus is deliberately ambiguous about answering the question regarding signs. In fact, he actually warns about those who announce signs. In Mark 13:22 Jesus says, "For false Christs and false prophets will appear and perform signs and miracles to deceive the elect—if that were possible." All of this makes us think that once again the question, as we want to know the answer to it, is not answered. Geddert suggests, “The chapter contains an astonishing number of ambiguous expressions…Interpreting this chapter does not mean getting rid of the ambiguity but understanding why it is there and what role it plays.”
II. Living In the End Time
So we see that Jesus did not answer the questions which the disciples asked, questions we would dearly like answered. But that does not mean He did not respond with answers that were useful for the disciples and for us. He gave answers that help us live in light of what will yet happen. Instead of looking with curiosity for the answers we want, it would be much better for us to examine this chapter and look for the answers Jesus wants to give us.
A. With Understanding
One of the most important phrases which we need to recognize in this chapter is the phrase, “Watch out.” This concept is repeated numerous times in Mark 13:5-23. We read in both Mark 13:9 and 23, “be on your guard.” The message Jesus gives us is a warning to be aware. It is a message which invites us to live with understanding of the times we live in and with an awareness that Jesus will return.
What the disciples at that time did not seem to understand, but which we can now understand is just how things played out with the life and ministry of Jesus. Jesus had told his disciples that He would be handed over to the Jewish leaders, be killed, and rise the third day. The opposition of the Jewish religious leaders would not end in victory over Jesus, but in their destruction. The temple which was in Jerusalem was to be replaced with the temple which is the body of Christ – His people indwelt by His Spirit. This becomes the new temple. Jesus was announcing a time when the old system would be set aside and the new system under Jesus would be put in place as we read everywhere in the New Testament especially in Hebrews.
Furthermore, Jesus was indicating that from the time of Jesus death and resurrection until the day when He returns is the entire period of the end times. We do not need to wait for the end times, we are living in them. There is nothing else that needs to happen before the end. Jesus has accomplished all and the only event we are still looking for is His return. These are the things which Jesus tells his disciples when he announces his death and resurrection and warns about the coming abomination of desolation and destruction of the temple system. We need to be aware and understand that we are in the end times now.
The other thing about which Jesus warns His disciples, and us, is the nature of these times. Much of the content of what Jesus is saying in these verses deals with these warnings. He iss telling us that in this end time in which we live there will be people who will seek to deceive and warns don’t be fooled by them. He is saying that there will be wars but that they do not signal the end. He communicates that there will be earthquakes and famines but that we shouldn’t be alarmed by them. All of these things are simply the times we live in, they are not signs of the end. Jesus also lets His people know that there will be persecution but encourages us, “don’t stop being witnesses for Jesus.”
When Jesus warns “be on your guard” He is saying that we need to understand the times we live in. We are in the end times. Wars, deceivers, earthquakes, persecution will all be a part of these times. They do not mean that Jesus has already come, they do not mean that we have missed Jesus, they are not signs of the end. In fact in Mark 13:5, 6 we learn that deceivers are the ones who say that these are signs. Instead, these words of Jesus are a call to endure to the end.
The words of Jesus in this chapter help us to live with understanding in this present time, even when it does not look as if Jesus is winning. That is the question which Jesus answers, and it is a much needed answer. We need to know that Jesus is still Lord and will return more than we need to have our curiosity satisfied about when it will happen or what signs will reveal it. Geddert says, “These texts are functioning as intended when they lead believers to trust God’s sovereign care in ambiguous times. Then they can hope in God’s future so passionately that necessary sacrifices in this life are readily embraced for Christ’s sake.”
B. With Hope
In this section we are also given a word of hope in light of all the difficulties and trials which will mark the end times in which we are living.
In Mark 13:24-27, we have a wonderful word of promise. We read that in those days the end will come. When will it come? We don’t know. What will be the signs of its coming? We don’t know. What we do know is that the end will come. In God’s time a great cataclysm will reveal the final day. At that time the sun will be darkened, the moon will not shine and the physical world, as we know it will be destroyed. This destruction of the physical world is not a sign, but is what will happen accompanying the return of Jesus. Then we will experience the great promise which Jesus made when he stood with his disciples and ascended into heaven. We read in Mark 13:26, “At that time men will see the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory." The glorious hope we have, the wonderful promise we rejoice in is that Jesus is going to come back. His return will be marked “with great power and glory.” Everything we have hoped for will be fulfilled and revealed at that time.
This announcement encourages us with a great word of hope. Jesus is coming back again! So instead of satisfying our curiosity about signs and times, Jesus gives us a word of assurance and hope. Jesus is coming back.
C. With Confidence
The next section gives us another word about how to live in this in between time.
The lesson from the fig tree, mentioned in Mark 13:28, makes us think that we should be looking for a sign. It says that the tenderness of the shoots in a plant is a sign that summer is near. Many have taken that as a word that we need to watch out for the right signs. But that is a difficult interpretation because the text does not point to any signs and warns us about the danger of seeking signs, so the parable about the fig tree must mean something else.
What should come quickly to mind is the previous parable of the fig tree. In Mark 11, Jesus cursed a fig tree. When we studied that, we recognized that Jesus was speaking a parable about the deadness that was in the temple. There he indicated that the temple system was cursed . Now Jesus has expanded on God’s judgment on the corrupt temple and its leaders. The reason Jesus mentions this is that for the disciples at that time, the destruction of the temple, which was clearly announced in this section and in the rest of Mark, would have been devastating. But the assurance of the parable of the fig tree is that God’s plan for His people has not died with the destruction of the temple. What the parable of the fig tree says is that the tree which was assumed to be dead, has not died. God will make a new place for His kingdom which will include all those who follow Jesus. A new group of leaders will replace the corrupt Jewish religious leaders and that is the disciples who follow Jesus. When we understand the parable of the fig tree in that way, it becomes much easier to understand how Jesus could say that all these things would happen in this generation. The church was established in that generation and all of the trials which have come upon the world and the church including persecution began happening in that time.
After assuring them that God’s people would continue, Jesus gave them one more word of promise in Mark 13:31 where He said, "Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away." Once again we realize that although we do not have an answer to questions of when and what signs, we do have an assurance that God’s plan will certainly unfold as He has indicated. Therefore, Jesus gives us a word that allows us to live with confidence in this time.
D. With Faithfulness
So what Mark 13 is about is to help us understand that we can live in the present time with understanding, hope and confidence. In the last part of the text, we have a call which arises out of the rest and that is a call to live with faithfulness. The final parable is about a man who goes away and leaves his house in charge of his servants. The parable talks about the servants doing their “assigned tasks.” We are those servants and the key phrase is that because we don’t know what time the Lord of the house will return, we need to continue in faithfulness doing the work which He has left us to do.
In Mark 13:10 we read, "And the gospel must first be preached to all nations." Many times this has been taken as a sign. But we have already established that Jesus does not give us a sign in this text. Rather than a sign, this is an assignment. The word “it is necessary” is a key idea from Scripture that communicates a divine necessity. So when it says that the gospel must be preached in the whole world, we should not take that as a sign that Jesus will come when that has happened. Rather, we need to take it as an assignment which should occupy our time until Jesus comes. The next verse about knowing what to say in the context of persecution makes much more sense in that context. The reality in which we live in this present time is that the gospel will be rejected and those who proclaim the gospel will be persecuted. But if we know that when that happens the Holy Spirit will help us witness, then we can also be encouraged to keep on witnessing no matter what happens. The call then is a call to be faithful in the task of witnessing which the Lord has left us as His servants.
So the final warning and challenge and encouragement to all those who follow Jesus is that in light of the unknown timing, but certain imminence of the return of Christ, we must not be sleeping. Therefore, the question which each of us must ask of ourselves is, “am I where God wants me?” “Will God find me doing what He has left me to do when He returns?”
Jesus tells us, “you do not know when.” Therefore, “Be on guard, Be alert!” What does it mean to be alert? It means that we should be careful not to get too caught up in the things of this world. If our life in this world is more important to us than our assignment from Jesus, we might find that we are asleep. It means that our primary job is not mother, or teacher, or farmer, or student, but while doing any one of those jobs our primary job is being a servant of Jesus. If we have set being a servant of Jesus aside as an avocation which we pursue when we have time, we may be found sleeping.
When mom and dad don’t answer the question “are we there yet?” are the children disappointed? Perhaps. But if mom and dad provide meaningful activity for the journey, will the children be occupied and forget about their question? Probably.
Jesus does not want us to focus on the “when” and the “what signs” question. If that were our focus, it would be far too easy to look for the signs and leave following Jesus until just before the end. So Jesus left the answer to these questions deliberately ambiguous. Instead, Jesus has left us with some important information.
We do know that we are in the last days and that they will be days in which wars, earthquakes and persecution happen. We do know that God’s kingdom is being established through the new temple of Jesus. We do know that Jesus will return and it will be a wonderful. We do know that God keeps His promises and so we can be confident that all these things will be fulfilled. Therefore, we can wait, not with impatience and questioning, but with faithfulness, being busy with the work that Jesus has given us. So as we conclude Mark’s gospel in view of these words about the end, the final word is “Watch!”