13:1 And as he came out of the temple, one of his disciples said to him, “Look, Teacher, what wonderful stones and what wonderful buildings!” 2 And Jesus said to him, “Do you see these great buildings? There will not be left here one stone upon another that will not be thrown down.”
3 And as he sat on the Mount of Olives opposite the temple, Peter and James and John and Andrew asked him privately, 4 “Tell us, when will these things be, and what will be the sign when all these things are about to be accomplished?” 5 And Jesus began to say to them, “See that no one leads you astray. 6 Many will come in my name, saying, ‘I am he!’ and they will lead many astray. 7 And when you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed. This must take place, but the end is not yet. 8 For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be earthquakes in various places; there will be famines. These are but the beginning of the birth pains.
9 “But be on your guard. For they will deliver you over to councils, and you will be beaten in synagogues, and you will stand before governors and kings for my sake, to bear witness before them. 10 And the gospel must first be proclaimed to all nations. 11 And when they bring you to trial and deliver you over, do not be anxious beforehand what you are to say, but say whatever is given you in that hour, for it is not you who speak, but the Holy Spirit. 12 And brother will deliver brother over to death, and the father his child, and children will rise against parents and have them put to death. 13 And you will be hated by all for my name’s sake. But the one who endures to the end will be saved.
Last week we began our study of the Olivet Discourse in Mark 13. We noted that though it is explicitly a prophecy about the destruction of the temple, which would occur in A.D. 70, there is good reason to understand that Jesus is also predicting events that are set to occur even further along in the future. In other words, the destruction of the temple was an historical event that carries with it great theological significance. The destruction of the temple signifies the arrival of the last days which Jesus explains will end with his Second Coming and the final judgment.
That’s an overview of where we are heading in Mark 13. In short, the Olivet Discourse is Jesus’ teaching on the last days. So let’s consider today the meaning of the last days, Jesus’ concern for his disciples in the last days, and God’s purposes in the last days.
Of course it sounds odd to talk about the “last days” if we believe that we have been in those last days since the end of the first century. So what exactly is meant by the phrase “the last days”?
In John’s Gospel we find several references to the “last day.” Jesus says that Christians will be raised from the dead on the last day (John 6:39, 40, 44, 54; also 11:24). And it will be on the last day that non-Christians will be judged (John 12:48). After the gospels we find no more references to the last day but rather to the last days. According to these texts, these “last days” have already come. Peter says that Pentecost was the fulfillment of a prophecy found in the book of Joel who said that “in the last days” God would pour out his Spirit on all flesh (Acts 2:17). Paul says that the last days will be times of difficulty and that those days are already here (2 Tim 3:1-9).
We get the clearest picture of what is meant by the “last days” in Hebrews 1:1-2:
Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world.
The last days are indicated by the revelation of God to men through his own Son rather than through the prophets. So according to the New Testament, the “last days” began with the first coming of Jesus. To criticize such language in light of the fact that about two millennia have transpired since then is to miss the point of this description. Peter T. O’Brien explains that these are the last days not because of the brief duration of this time before the final judgment but because “God has fulfilled his promises uttered through the prophets, and spoken climactically and finally in his Son.”
In other words, Jesus is the final and perfect voice of God to man and we must not look for anyone else who can reveal God to us. God has spoken decisively in Jesus. These are the last days, meaning that there are no other periods of redemptive history yet to be completed before the last day.
Islam teaches that Mohammad was the final prophet of God. But Christianity says that Jesus, the Son of God, was the final prophet. Like in the parable of the wicked tenants, it is the coming of the Son of God that signifies the last days, the final chance for humanity to submit themselves to God who owns them. He will send no more prophets. The next revelation of God will be his final coming in judgment.
So it is not erroneous or illogical to say that we have been living in the last days since the first century. Precisely when the last days began, whether at the incarnation or the crucifixion or the resurrection or the ascension or the destruction of the temple matters little from our perspective in 2011. But this explains why the Olivet Discourse has significance both for the disciples in the first century and for disciples in the twenty-first.
The point is that we are in the last days which Jesus says will be a difficult time. These are “the beginning of the birth pains” that will culminate in the “end,” the Second Coming, the final judgment. Satan, knowing that he has been defeated, is now unleashing his fury on the earth as God moves history along toward the which he has purposed.
And it is a good end that he has purposed. The chaos of our fallen world is not a threat to God’s purposes. We will see in a moment something of what God’s good purpose is in these last days.
One of the themes that comes out in this passage, and indeed throughout the Olivet Discourse, is Jesus’ concern for his disciples in these last days. He knows that the last days will be dangerous times for all people, and his disciples are not immune from the threats.
So when he is asked to provide a sign of when the temple will be destroyed and the last days will come upon us, he begins instead with a warning: “see that no one leads you astray” (v. 5). He is concerned that his own disciples may be deceived into error, and this would be a danger far greater than wars, earthquakes, and famines.
What creates the danger of deception for Jesus’ disciples? One answer is that “signs” themselves can deceive us. Jesus is not opposed to giving them some signs of the “last days,” but he also wants them to know that signs can be misinterpreted and misapplied. The most important preparation we need to make for the last days is not an understanding of the accompanying signs but an understanding that there is a danger of being deceived by those very signs.
Jesus warns his disciples that “many will come in my name, saying, ‘I am he!’ and they will lead many astray” (v. 6). We have historical records that suggest that this is exactly what happened in the years leading up to the destruction of the temple. According to Josephus, and Acts 5:36, a man named Theudas gathered a significant following, claiming to be a prophet of God and saying he could prove it by parting the Jordan River. His cult was squashed and Theudas himself was executed. Then there was an Egyptian who also claimed to be a prophet and gathered 30,000 men in an attempt to invade Jerusalem and overthrow the Romans. His rebellion was silenced as well, but not before many of his followers lost their lives.
But what danger is there for us today of being led astray by someone making such bold claims for themselves? Obviously we have no lack of people making such claims and even gathering significant followings. But we probably don’t think it is likely that many people in the church today would be deceived by someone coming in and claiming to be Jesus. So what is the danger for today’s disciples?
The danger is exactly the same, for the problem is being led astray in doctrine, and this kind of deception continues to this day. The danger of being led astray remains, especially for those who do not know the truth of the Scriptures well enough to see the error they are being taught by people they perceive to be authoritative. We must “see that no one leads us astray” by grounding ourselves in the authority of Scripture and being committed to the Scriptures above all other truth claims.
Not only must Jesus’ disciples be careful to not be led astray by those who claim the authority of Jesus, they also must not be alarmed when they hear of wars and rumors of wars (v. 7), and when they hear of earthquakes and famines in various places. Easier said than done! There are fewer things more frightening than the threat of war and the devastation caused by natural disasters.
But the “alarm” to which Jesus refers is the perception that the predicted “end” has come. The word alarm is found in one other place outside the parallels to this text. Paul writes to calm the Thessalonians who are afraid that “the day of the Lord has come.” In both places, then, the kind of alarm that disciples are not to have is the fear that these historical events have initiated the day of the Lord.
The day of the Lord is indeed a time to be afraid. It is “the day of the Lord’s anger” (Zephaniah 2:2). It is the day of final judgment, where God’s wrath is poured out upon the guilty and no relief can be found any longer. The New Testament identifies the day of the Lord with the Second Coming of Jesus (2 Pet 3:10-13) when he will return with fiery vengeance (2 Thess 2:8).
Jesus says we are not to see these things as the final judgment of God. They are only the beginning of the birth pains.” This is familiar imagery for a time of intense suffering that is a prelude to the final judgment of God. These things do not signal the end; they only signal the beginning of the end and a time which may be extended and which may become even more painful as time goes along.
But Jesus’ disciples must not be alarmed because all of this “must take place.” God has not lost control of history in the midst of wars, earthquakes, and famines. In fact, all of these things come by the design of God as the old age gives way to the new. Conflicts and disasters keep before us the ugly reality of a fallen world destined for the judgment of God. The disciple of Jesus does not need to be alarmed, however, because he knows he will be spared this final judgment.
Jesus goes on to say that the disciples will be greatly persecuted. And yet, “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” (v. 11).
The book of Acts recounts several fulfillments of this prophecy (Acts 4:8, 31; 5:32; 6:10; 13:9). Since most of Jesus’ early disciples held low positions of social status, we can imagine the anxiety they would have when placed on trial for their lives. How could they possibly face this kind of persecution without compromising their allegiance to Jesus? They were able to do so because of the empowerment of the Holy Spirit.
The Holy Spirit transformed the disciples from cowards to courageous witnesses. Surely the Holy Spirit is how Luther was able to stand firm at the Diet of Worms and how William Tyndale was able to stand up to the King of England. And it is how thousands of Christians have been able to persevere in their faith in spite of intense threats against them.
Will we ever have to stand before governors and kings for the sake of Christ? Will we ever be faced with life or death on account of our faith in Christ? Maybe and maybe not. But if you have ever wondered about that and wondered if you could possibly have the courage to confess your faith in such settings, and if such thoughts have ever troubled you, then Mark 13:11 is the word of Christ to you today. “Do not be anxious” about this. The Holy Spirit will give you boldness in that day.
Now that we understand what we mean by the “last days” and now that we see Jesus’ concern for his disciples in these dangerous days we are ready to consider God’s purposes in the last days.
Notice how smoothly the text would flow without verse 10.
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 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. (Mark 13:9, 11)
This suggests that verse 10 is given to us not only to inform us as to what God is doing in the last days, but also to sustain us in the midst of these difficult last days.
How does this information, this knowledge about what God is accomplishing in the last days, sustain us in our struggle? By showing us that God is not wasting our struggle but using it precisely to accomplish his purpose of gospel proclamation. I think this is what Mark is showing us by placing verse 10 in-between verses 9 and 11. When the disciples stand before governors and kings, they are doing so “to bear witness before them,” because this gospel proclamation is what God is accomplishing in the last days.
God’s purpose in these last days is the proclamation of the gospel to all the nations. It is the proclamation itself that is the goal, not a specific effect of the the proclamation. In other words, as the gospel is proclaimed those who hear it may either receive it or reject it. God’s purpose is not to get all the nations to receive the gospel. His purpose is to get all the nations to hear the gospel.
Even if the disciples stand before kings and governors and these rulers reject the gospel and put these disciples to death, God’s purpose will not have failed. The disciples’ testimony before these rulers will serve as its own testimony against them when they stand trial before God. Likewise our presence in this city, in our neighborhoods and workplaces, is ordained by God for the purposes of gospel proclamation to our fellow-citizens, neighbors, and co-workers. Our responsibility to them is to proclaim the gospel to them, whether they receive the gospel or not.
This purpose of God in the last days, the proclamation of the gospel “to all nations,” is a prerequisite that must be fulfilled before the end will come. “The gospel must first be proclaimed to all nations.” Does this mean that Jesus could not return today since, according to JoshuaProject.net, there are still nearly 7,000 people groups who have been unreached by the gospel?
This is not an easy question to answer. Clearly the proclamation of the gospel to all nations is said here to precede something, but we are not told exactly what it precedes. The gospel must first be proclaimed to all nations before what? Some answer that Jesus is only talking about the destruction of the temple. “The temple will not be destroyed (and with it the central role of Israel in God’s purposes come to an end) until the good news has already gone out beyond Israel to [all nations], and so the new ‘temple’ which replaces the physical building will not be a solely Jewish institution.”
In Matthew’s account of the Olivet Discourse, once the proclamation of the gospel to all the nations is complete, “then the end will come” (Matt 24:14). And as we suggested last week, the “end” being referred to here is the end of the present age which is followed by the Second Coming of Christ and the final judgment. In this case it seems that it is this proclamation of the gospel to all nations that God is accomplishing in the present age. And once that task is complete, God will bring this present age to a close.
So we return to the question. Does this mean that Jesus could not possibly return today—or even anytime soon—since it appears this task is far from complete? I do not think that is the conclusion we must draw. First of all, how do we determine whether or not the gospel has been preached to “all nations”? Missiologists debate exactly what is meant by the word nations. Does this refer to geopolitical states or to ethnic people groups? If the latter, how do we count them? By ethnicity alone or also by language and dialect?
Another question is at what point we might say that this task has been accomplished. The Apostle Paul declared that the gospel was already bearing fruit and growing in the whole world in his day (Col 1:5-6). He claimed that he had “fulfilled the ministry of the gospel of Christ” from Jerusalem all the way to the northwest provinces of Macedonia and so was ready to move his missionary efforts westward to Rome and even to Spain (Rom 1:19-24). It might be reasonably argued that the gospel has been proclaimed to all nations at different points throughout history.
Therefore we conclude that though God has not yet declared “Mission Accomplished!” he could rightly do so at anytime. Therefore we continue to press onward with the Great Commission, aiming to take the gospel to all people while also eagerly waiting for Jesus’ return.
In verse 13 Jesus warns his disciples, “you will be hated by all for my name’s sake. But the one who endures to the end will be saved.” This is Jesus’ assurance to his disciples who will endure the difficult times of the “last days.” Accomplishing the mission of gospel proclamation to all the nations will not be easy, but we have Jesus’ promise that those who suffer for the sake of the gospel will not be losers in the end.
This is how we must prepare ourselves for endurance in these last days. God has told us what he is up to and he has called us to persevere in the mission of gospel proclamation. These last days, with all of the difficulties that go with them, are nothing compared to the judgment that awaits the world at the end. But for those who believe in Jesus, there is no condemnation to be feared at the end. There is only final salvation, for the gospel we are sent out to proclaim to the nations is the good news that Jesus has satisfied God’s righteous wrath toward sinners.
 Peter T. O'Brien, The Letter to the Hebrews, The Pillar New Testament Commentary, ed. D. A. Carson (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2010), 50.
 Josephus The Antiquities of the Jews 20.97-98.
 Josephus The Wars of the Jews 2.261-63.
 Taking the phrase, “to bear witness before them” to be expressing disadvantage: “as a witness against them.”
 R. T. France, Mark: A Commentary on the Greek Text, The New International Greek Testament Commentary, ed. I. Howard Marshall and Donald A. Hagner (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co, 2002), 516.
 Ibid., 519.