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Act 3: Scene 2. When is the End?: Mark 13.1-37

Third Act. Passion of Jesus 14.1-15.47
Scene 2. When is the End?: Mark 13.1-37

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Mark's Story of Jesus

As he was leaving the temple, one of his disciples said to him, “Look, Teacher! What massive stones! What magnificent buildings!”

“Do you see all these great buildings?” replied Jesus. “Not one stone here will be left on another; every one will be thrown down.”

As Jesus was sitting on the Mount of Olives opposite the temple, Peter, James, John and Andrew asked him privately, “Tell us, when will these things happen? And what will be the sign that they are all about to be fulfilled?”

Jesus said to them: “Watch out that no one deceives you. Many will come in my name, claiming, ‘I am he,’ and will deceive many. When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed. Such things must happen, but the end is still to come. Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be earthquakes in various places, and famines. These are the beginning of birth pains.

“You must be on your guard. You will be handed over to the local councils and flogged in the synagogues. On account of me you will stand before governors and kings as witnesses to them. And the gospel must first be preached to all nations. Whenever you are arrested and brought to trial, do not worry beforehand about what to say. Just say whatever is given you at the time, for it is not you speaking, but the Holy Spirit.

“Brother will betray brother to death, and a father his child. Children will rebel against their parents and have them put to death. All men will hate you because of me, but he who stands firm to the end will be saved.

“When you see ‘the abomination that causes desolation’ standing where it does not belong—let the reader understand—then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains. Let no one on the roof of his house go down or enter the house to take anything out. Let no one in the field go back to get his cloak. How dreadful it will be in those days for pregnant women and nursing mothers! Pray that this will not take place in winter, because those will be days of distress unequaled from the beginning, when God created the world, until now—and never to be equaled again. If the Lord had not cut short those days, no one would survive. But for the sake of the elect, whom he has chosen, he has shortened them. At that time if anyone says to you, ‘Look, here is the Christ!’ or, ‘Look, there he is!’ do not believe it. For false Christs and false prophets will appear and perform signs and miracles to deceive the elect—if that were possible. So be on your guard; I have told you everything ahead of time.

“But in those days, following that distress,

            “ ‘the sun will be darkened,
           and the moon will not give its light;
           the stars will fall from the sky,
           and the heavenly bodies will be shaken.’

“At that time men will see the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory. And he will send his angels and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of the heavens.

“Now learn this lesson from the fig tree: As soon as its twigs get tender and its leaves come out, you know that summer is near. Even so, when you see these things happening, you know that it is near, right at the door. I tell you the truth, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away.

“No one knows about that day or hour, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. Be on guard! Be alert! You do not know when that time will come. It’s like a man going away: He leaves his house and puts his servants in charge, each with his assigned task, and tells the one at the door to keep watch.

“Therefore keep watch because you do not know when the owner of the house will come back—whether in the evening, or at midnight, or when the rooster crows, or at dawn. If he comes suddenly, do not let him find you sleeping. What I say to you, I say to everyone: ‘Watch!’ ”

Personal Narrative

The burning question of the twentieth- and twenty-first century has been about the end times. Two voices in popular Christianity have stood out: Hal Lindsey and the late Tim LaHaye among many other voices parroting what they were teaching. There is nothing new under the sun, the two guys simply took their lead from C.I. Scofield, whose Scofield Study Bible notes took on a form of futuristic teaching that came to be known as dispensationalism, which accentuated fundamentalism in USAmerica.

In the Q&A times that I referred to in the previous section, I am usually asked about the Second Coming of Jesus because of all the prophets of doom, which fill the air waves and write the blogs that keep folks slightly at an uneven kilter when it comes to an understanding of the end. What’s amazing is that the end is not really and end, it is a new beginning. What is amazing to me is how much ink is spilled, some of it mine, on dealing with a subject that Jesus only addressed for one brief moment in a long history of teaching. I often wondered out loud if we spend the same portion of time talking about the future that Jesus brought into existence and then spent the time we have sometimes wasted arguing about the end to doing what Jesus did through his life, if the church would not be more accessible to those for whom Jesus came as a sacrifice. (Now that a sentence!) Here’s Mark’s take on what Jesus said.

Observing the Storyline

Author’s Note: Chapter 13 of Mark’s Gospel has been nicknamed “The Little Apocalypse” because of its resemblance to Apocalyptic Literature. The following section in its entirety is from my book God’s EPIC Adventure 1 and the Scripture references, which are from the NIV, have been retained from the book as they were presented there.

Interpreting the Storyline

BackStory

This following scene in the Gospel of Mark occurs in the last week of the life of Jesus. Mark begins Chapter 11 on Sunday of the Passion Week of Jesus. The conflict with the Jewish leaders was over. Mark 13, often called the Little Apocalypse, occurs on Tuesday afternoon of the last week of the life of Jesus and stands as a bridge between that conflict and the story of the death and resurrection of Jesus. This chapter is prophetic. Prophecy is sometimes like looking at two mountains, but, you cannot see the distance between them. One might see this chapter as the first mountain, a message for the disciples of Jesus played out in their own lives. At the same time, there are portions of this story, which reveal something about the future without stating a specific time plan for its fulfillment. This type of interpretation is often called sensus plenior, which means a fuller understanding. 2

Mark 13 is an exhortation regulating the conduct of the disciples in the period when Jesus would no longer be with them. The language of this section is characteristic of a Farewell discourse (Acts 20.17-35). The recurring phrase, “take care” (blepo: beware of, see to it: vv. 5, 9, 23, 33) and watch (gregoreo: be on guard: in 34, 35, 37), may suggest to the disciples that this is information that will help them in some future crisis. Jesus wanted them not to be disturbed by preliminary signs and that they should not confuse them with the end. With a profound pastoral concern, Jesus prepared his disciples and his church for a future period, which would entail both persecution and mission. This would have a profound significance to believers in Rome who were harassed by persecution. It would enable them to fare the crisis of the ‘60s. We can take away the same meaning from this passage. In today’s world, this passage shares that no matter what persecution is upon the church or the individual, the mission will ultimately be successful. It is not material, as often used by the Left Behind heology that should bring fear about the future. It is material of encouragement that should bring its present reader strength.

The following is a brief sharing of the possible meaning of this text by commenting on the specific text.

Introduction to the Olivet Discourse (13.1-2)

As Jesus was leaving the temple, one of his disciples said to him, “Look, Teacher! What massive stones! What magnificent buildings!” (Mark 13.1)

The Temple was made of many buildings, enclosures, and porches. In the afternoon sun, it glowed and lit up the whole city of Jerusalem. It comprised one-sixth (1/6) of the city of Jerusalem. Josephus 3 said that the stones that made up the Temple were 36½ feet in length; 11½ feet in height, 16½ feet wide; and weighed one hundred tons each. It was an architectural wonder. The Jewish people had little respect for Herod, but loved his Temple construction. Its construction began in 20-19 BC It was still under construction during the life of Jesus (John 2.20). It was completed in AD 64, which was only six years, before it was destroyed. The disciples were proud of the size and structure of the Temple.

“Do you see all these great buildings?” replied Jesus. “Not one stone here will be left on another; everyone will be thrown down.” (Mark 13.2)

When Jesus responded to the musing of the disciples, it was emphatic and definite. Titus ordered the whole city and the Temple to be leveled to the ground sometime during AD. 70, according to the historian Josephus. What Jesus said came to pass in the first century. The prophetic word of Jesus was a continuation of the prophecy of some of the Old Testament prophets (Jeremiah 26 Micah 3).

The Question of the Disciples (13.3-4)

As Jesus was sitting on the Mount of Olives opposite the temple, Peter, James, John and Andrew asked him privately, “Tell us, when will these things happen? And what will be the sign that they are all about to be fulfilled?” (Mark 13.3-4)

Jesus and his disciples had traveled to the Mount of Olives that was opposite the Temple. Four of his disciples asked him privately to tell them when the destruction of the Temple would happen and what would be the sign that it was about to be fulfilled. In Mark, questions from the disciples of Jesus often precede a teaching section (4.10f.; 7.17f.; 9.22; 10.10f.), which is what we have here. In verse 4, the disciples asked one question, which is in two parts: When, which has to do with time, and what has to do with specific information. The last part of the question, what, was answered first. The first part of the question, when, was answered last.

Warnings against Deception (13.5-8)

Jesus said to them: “Watch out that no one deceives you. Many will come in my name, claiming, ‘I am he,’ and will deceive many.” (Mark 13.5-6)

Jesus pointed out the fact that anyone who says that they have “inside information” on the Second Coming can get a crowd, but the end results is deception. The warning about false christs was well-suited for Palestine, which was plagued with false christs prior to the Jewish War (AD 66-70). This was one of the principal factors that caused the Romans to destroy Jerusalem. The disciples were told not to be deceived by the course of events into thinking that the end had arrived.

“When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed. Such things must happen, but the end is still to come. Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be earthquakes in various places, and famines. These are the beginning of birth pains.” (Mark 13.7-8).

Jesus said that when you hear of disturbances in society (wars and rumors of wars) and nature (earthquakes), that his hearers should not continue to be alarmed. The Roman emperors (Caligula, Claudius, and Nero) kept peace by threatening wars. Between AD 30-70 there were four major earthquakes (Crete AD 46; Rome ad 51; Apamaia in Phygia ad 60, and Campania ad 63). There were four famines during the rule of Claudius (AD 41-52). One of them was in Judea in AD 44 (Acts 11.28).

The words of Jesus are not to be understood as signs that the end was near. They were to be understood as signs to demonstrate that the end had not yet arrived. These signs would help believers not to be deceived into believing that Jesus had returned. These verses are often preached or taught to say that when you see these signs, get excited because the end is almost upon you. In fact, they actually mean the very opposite. Today’s followers of Jesus should rest in the comfort of knowing that when they hear of these calamities occurring in the world, it is a sure sign that Jesus has not returned, giving them assurance that anyone who says he is the Messiah returned in the present is only a deceiver.

Warnings about Persecution (13.9-13)

“You must be on your guard. You will be handed over to the local councils and flogged in the synagogues. On account of me you will stand before governors and kings as witnesses to them.” (Mark 13.9)

Being handed over to the authorities began as early as in Acts 4. Paul recorded in 2 Corinthians 11.2b that he was beaten in the Synagogue with thirty-nine stripes (this was thirteen across the chest and thirteen across the back and often caused the victim of such a beating to die). Jesus himself, a few days from when he spoke these words, would face Pilate (Mark 15.2) and be beaten. Later in the Story, Paul would face Felix and Festus (Acts 24.1.ff.). Mark wanted to make clear to his readers that the preaching of the gospel would cause offense and public rebuke to his followers. Persecution did not mean that the end had come, nor was it an occasion for the loss of hope. Rather, persecution was and still is an occasion for witness to the nations. I often get a slight chill when I hear a Christian leader tell his or her story about how they have favor in the eyes of governmental leaders. One might want to ask how the church is adapting to the status of the government instead of standing in opposition to them when they share the message of the kingdom. Does oil and water really mix after all? I am not saying that we should be stupid in our dealings with the government agencies, but only to remember that our ultimate goals may not be the same even though on the surface from time to time they may appear to be so.

“And the gospel must first be preached to all nations.” (Mark 13.10)

This saying provided assurance that the kingdom of God cannot be impeded by any local persecution anywhere. In the interval that comes before the consummation, i.e., the Act of the drama in which we are now living, the church is about her mission, preaching the gospel of the kingdom to the nations.

“Whenever you are arrested and brought to trial, do not worry beforehand about what to say. Just say whatever is given you at the time, for it is not you speaking, but the Holy Spirit.” (Mark 13.11).

Jesus spoke of the Holy Spirit who would come to continue his ministry. This can be seen in the story of Peter (Acts 4.7f.); Stephen (Acts 7); and Paul (Acts 24.10f.). The Holy Spirit can take out of a person only what has been placed inside the person. This is not ex cathedra creation by the Spirit. The disciples had been educated and trained by Jesus. The Holy Spirit had lots of information and experience of formation to rescue from them. When one is not trained and speaks, it is usually hot air rather than holy air that proceeds from the speaker’s mouth. Preaching the gospel of the kingdom to the whole world will be accomplished through the power of the Holy Spirit, who will give the disciples utterance to proclaim that gospel under the most adverse circumstances.

“Brother will betray brother to death, and a father his child. Children will rebel against their parents and have them put to death. Everyone will hate you because of me, but those who stand firm to the end will be saved.” (Mark 13.12-13)

Already Jesus had experienced what he was speaking about at the beginning of his ministry there was a division within his own family (Mark 2.30f.). The demand for radical commitment that is inherent in the gospel of the kingdom takes precedence over all other loyalties and may disrupt the deepest ties between families.

Several words are of importance in verse 13. First, stands firm (13b) (hupomeno), which means to preserve under misfortunes and trials, to hold fast to one’s faith in Christ; to take all the enemy can throw and still have strength to come back and win. Second, end (telos) refers primarily to the end of the persevering believer’s life. Finally, saved (sozo), vindicated is another word you can use here, which means to preserve one who is in danger of destruction, to save or rescue. Usually, by the Left Behind theology, end is interpreted as the end of the world. But, it seems better to understand it to mean the end of a persevering believer’s life. Saved is often seen as conversion, but it seems best to allow it to be understood as being vindicated in the present situation. So Jesus has suggested that his followers in their Act of the play should persevere to the end of their life, and, in so doing, be vindicated by God.

The Destruction of Jerusalem 13.14-23

“When you see ‘the abomination that causes desolation standing’ where it does not belong— let the reader understand—then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains. Let no one on the housetop go down or enter the house to take anything out. Let no one in the field go back to get their cloak. How dreadful it will be in those days for pregnant women and nursing mothers! Pray that this will not take place in winter, because those will be days of distress unequaled from the beginning, when God created the world, until now—and never to be equaled again. If the Lord had not cut short those days, no one would survive. But for the sake of the elect, whom he has chosen, he has shortened them. At that time, if anyone says to you, ‘Look, here is the Messiah!’ or, ‘Look, there he is!’ do not believe it. For false messiahs and false prophets will appear and perform signs and wonders to deceive, if possible, even the elect. So be on your guard; I have told you everything ahead of time.” (Mark 13.14-23)

Jesus now answered the what question of the disciples. Earlier in Jewish history (1 Maccabees 1.54), Antiochus Epiphanes had set up an altar to Zeus in the Temple. It was this historical event, which every Jewish person would have known about, that Jesus used to talk about another event just like that one. The abomination that causes desolation is not the destruction of the Temple that would occur in ad 70, for then it would be too late to flee. The Zealots had won an impressive victory over Cestius Gallus in November ’66. Many in Jerusalem realized that the Zealots would finally lose to Rome and began to leave in droves according to Josephus (Wars 2.20). The Zealots occupied the Temple and allowed criminals to roam freely in the Holy of Holies. In addition, murders took place in the Temple and this all climaxed with a mockery of the High Priest as the town clown (AD 67-68). Jesus told his disciples that when they saw these events, it was time to leave Jerusalem.

There should be an urgency to their flight (13.15-16). Jesus wanted his disciples to understand that a concern for life took precedence over possessions. There were possible circumstances that could hinder flight (13.17-18) like pregnancy, younger children, winter (the Jordan River would be swollen and difficult to cross). He told his disciples that there was a reason for flight (13.19-20): it would be a horrendous time. There could be deterrents to flight (13.21-23). This last warning implies clearly a crisis in history and not the end of time when flight will be useless (Rev 6.15-17). He told his disciples not to be deterred by claims that the Messiah was here or there. They should remember the signs to remind them not to be deceived.

This might be summarized by a story that I once heard about the bombing of London in World War II. On one occasion, two men were moving toward the underground when the bombs began to fall. One of them wanted to return for his dentures. His friend quipped to him: “The Germans are not dropping sandwiches, they are dropping bombs.” This last statement is mind boggling. He told them everything. I might suggest that there is not anything else that needs to be understood, unlike the words of the doomsday prophets of our time who always have something to add to the message.

The Coming of the Son of Man 13.24-27

“But in those days, following that distress, ‘the sun will be darkened and the moon will not give its light; the stars will fall from the sky, and the heavenly bodies will be shaken.’” (Mark 13.24-25)

The word but is to help the reader make a transition: But, as compared to the false christs, there would come other days. In those days is an expression that was distinctly future of the context into which it fell (Joel 2.28; Jer. 3.16–18, 31.29, 33.15f.; Zech 8.23). This piece of poetry is embedded in Old Testament language, which suggests that God was going to appear in history. This imagery language indicates that an important turn in history would occur. In Scripture, this kind of language is a picturesque way of saying that divine judgment would occur (Jude 14f.). Readers should not take it literally.

“At that time people will see the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory. And he will send his angels and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of the heavens.” (Mark 13.26-27)

The Left Behind theology often sees this as the elect, the church, being collected at the end of the age from the whole world offering 1 Thes. 4.16-17 as a proof text. Wright suggests the following that the other classic misunderstanding is the persistent view that “the Son of Man coming on the clouds” is a prophecy of Jesus’ downward flight in returning to earth from heaven at the second coming. In saying this, I am not denying a second coming; I am only denying that these texts refer to it. In Daniel 7, which is clearly referred to in passages such as Mark 13:26 and 14:62, “one like a Son of man” “comes” to the Ancient of Days. The “coming” is an upward movement of exaltation, not a downward movement of return to earth.

The Lesson of the Fig Tree 13.28-31

“Now learn this lesson from the fig tree: As soon as its twigs get tender and its leaves come out, you know that summer is near. Even so, when you see these things happening, you know that it is near, right at the door. Truly I tell you, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away.” (Mark 13.28-31)

This paragraph is to be considered in relationship with verses 14-23. The events in verses 24-25 represent the end of the age and cannot constitute a previous sign of something else. The fig trees lost their leaves in the winter and the branches became tender with sap. When the leaves began to appear, you would know that summer is near and winter was gone. When you see these things, is a reference back to verse 14. The catastrophe of the Temple sacrilege, the abomination that causes desolation, will enable the disciples to know that the destruction of the Temple is near at hand. Just as one knows summer is near when a person sees the leaves on a fig tree, s/he will know that the destruction of the Temple is near.

How Jesus spoke declared the truth he was affirming. This generation was the generation of Mark. It clearly designates the contemporaries of Jesus and affirmed t that generation will see the fulfillment of his prophetic word. What is said of God in the First Testament is said of Jesus in the Second Testament. His word will surely happen!

The Call to Vigilance 13.32-36

This is the practical section of the teaching of Jesus.

“But about that day or hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.” (Mark 13.32)

The concept that no one knows is simple to understand. No one knows no matter how many of the current doomsday prophets tell you otherwise, no one knows. Did I say, no one knows!

“Be on guard! Be alert! You do not know when that time will come. It’s like a man going away: He leaves his house and puts his servants in charge, each with an assigned task, and tells the one at the door to keep watch. Therefore, keep watch because you do not know when the owner of the house will come back—whether in the evening, or at midnight, or when the rooster crows, or at dawn. If he comes suddenly, do not let him find you sleeping. What I say to you, I say to everyone: ‘Watch!’” (Mark 13.33-36)

The disciples were told to be on guard. There were four watches of the night and the watcher should not be caught unexpected when the owner returned. The same is true of the followers of Jesus. Jesus ends this teaching section by telling his disciples to watch. To watch does not mean to be looking at twenty-first-century newspaper clippings or TV shows so one can discover the latest analysis of the end. To watch means to be prepared.

Where Are We Now?

Brian McLaren has provided a beginning answer to this question in his book: The Story We Find Ourselves In. The title in itself suggests that we live in a story. Living in a story surely goes “beyond the reigning systematic theologies that took shape in the modern world (from, say, 1500 to 1950)—to answer questions and to suit modern tastes.” 4. The concept captured in his title encourages a new way of thinking about life and “probably would be less analytical in structure and more rooted in the biblical narrative, less about filling the subpoints of an outline…and more about finding and celebrating meaning from our story.” 5 McLaren goes on to tell us:

…our whole planet now needs more than ever a good story to live in and to live by. There are a number of stories competing for the hearts and imaginations of humanity as we emerge together into this new century and millennium: the regressive stories of fundamentalist Islam and fundamentalist Christianity, or the progressive stories of secular “scientism” or American consumerism, for example. Once taken to the heart of human culture, each of these stories will produce its own kind of world. 6

McLaren suggests that if the story that he tells in his book, or another story like it, can get a hearing, a different kind of world can come into being. “The story we believe and live in today has a lot to do with the world we create for our children, our grandchildren, and our descendants one hundred thousand years from now (if?).” 7 We desperately need to discover “a larger story in which the stories of [our] lives can be located. 8

So where are we now? We all live in a story, but which story do we find ourselves in?

As followers of Christ, we should realize that we live in God’s EPIC Adventure, which is still unfinished. Remember, the first Act was Creation. We don’t reside there. God accomplished that in the first Act. However, our present existence is being played out on the stage of his creation and what he provided for us in the original creation gives us the ability and raw material to continue to create.

Rebellion was the act of humankind in the second Act. We don’t live there either, but we do live with the results of that Act. While not living in the Act itself, we may find ourselves from time to time resorting to participating in choosing independence for ourselves over interdependence with God and others, thus producing a world of independence in which we live.

The story of Israel formed in the third Act. We don’t live there either, although, we may be influenced by how God acted on behalf of his children in that act. His faithfulness to the first Covenant was surely as steadfast as his faithfulness to the second Covenant. Western Christianity has often ignored the whole Story of the First (Old) Testament, opting out for favorite stories within it instead. We may have become the Marcion 9 of our own Act, rejecting the third Act for the forth and fifth Acts.

The forth Act is the great and decisive Act of Jesus. As much fun as it might have been, or maybe not so much fun on occasion, we do not don our sandals and shadow Jesus as he walked the dusty roads of Palestine during his earthly life. However, it should be pointed out that the continuation of the Spirit within the life of the church in its own Act has found her participating in many of the “works” that Jesus did. This was certainly the experience of the earliest version of the church as her story was told by Luke in the book of Acts. We are surely called to act upon that Act in our own Act.

Living into the Storyline

  • What response should you have to the doomsday prophets of today (10.45)?
  • Read Mark 14.1-16.8
Helpful Resources

Easy to Understand
Tom Wright. Mark for Everyone (New Testament for Everyone [Paperback]

Winn Griffin. Gracelets: Being Conduits of the Extravagant Acts of God’s Grace [Paperback]

Advanced
Ben Witherington III. The Gospel of Mark: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary.
William L. Lane. The Gospel according to Mark: The English Text With Introduction, Exposition, and Notes (The New International Commentary on the New Testament)

EndNotes:

  1. Winn Griffin, God’s Epic Adventure. (Woodinville, WA: Harmon Press, 2007), 359-367
  2. Wikipedia, “Sensus Plenior,” Wikipedia http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sensus_plenior (accessed November 11, 2012).
  3. Wikipedia, “Josephus,” Wikipedia. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Josephus (accessed November 11, 2012).
  4. Brian D. McLaren, The Story We Find Ourselves In : Further Adventures of a New Kind of Christian, 1st Ed. (San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 2003), xi.
  5. Ibid.
  6. Ibid., xii.
  7. Ibid.
  8. Ibid.
  9. Marcion was an early bishop who rejected the complete Old Testament believing that the God of the Old Testament was not the same God as presented in the New Testament.

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