This Sunday I will be preaching in Ballymena on Mark 13. That chapter was assigned to me as part of a series the church I am visiting is working through in Mark’s Gospel. It has been variously described by commentators as an “exegetical minefield of a chapter” (Donald English, Bible Speaks Today) and “one of the most perplexing chapters in the Bible to understand” (James Edwards, Pillar New Testament Commentary). I’m sure I wasn’t given this passage for that reason, but it does feel like a challenge to open it up in a relatively short time.
As I write this blog post, war is raging in Ukraine. I have heard some Christians wondering if the end times are upon us and I read a headline from a U.S. newspaper asking whether Putin will fight the Antichrist, commenting on claims being made by some American evangelicals. It seems timely to be preaching on a chapter that touches on questions concerning the end times and that contains the well-known phrase “wars and rumours of wars” (verse 7), referring to signs of the times. As we hear of the war in Ukraine and rumours of wars that could escalate from that conflict across Europe and, perhaps, the world.
In this blog post, I want to offer some thoughts for Christians in these times based on Jesus’ words in Mark 13. If you want to skip to those, just scroll past the three bullet points that follow this paragraph. In those bullet points, I will explore the threefold reasons for the complexity of Mark 13 and work towards an outline of the chapter.
It is in some ways akin to the genre of literature known as apocalyptic. It has sometimes been called the ‘Little Apocalypse’, but that is somewhat misleading. Unlike classic apocalyptic such as in parts of Daniel and much of Revelation, there are no vivid images here and it is not written in the first person as an account of a vision given to the writer. Rather, it contains words of Jesus – the longest section of his teaching in Mark – in the third person about things that will come. What makes it like apocalyptic is its focus on the end times, with a future deterioration of the world’s circumstances, entailing tribulation for God’s people, before God intervenes directly to put things right. But even here Mark 13 is unusual as it tells us that the Son of Man will come in glory, but does not describe the judgement of evildoers and vindication of the righteous that will follow. So, this is an unusual kind of chapter that sticks out as different to the rest of Mark’s Gospel, although it clearly belongs where it is – bringing to completion Jesus’ comments on the Temple that begin in Chapter 11 and paving the way for the passion narrative that follows.
It contains a number of concepts that are difficult to understand or might be interpreted in different ways. In verse 14 we read of the “Abomination of Desolation”, followed by the frustrating comment from Mark, “let the reader understand”. This phrase clearly comes from Daniel (9:27; 11:31; 12:11) and its basic meaning is fairly clear – it refers to some form of false altar, sacrifice or object of worship being set up in the Temple where it should not be, taking the place of worship of the true God. The difficulty comes, though, in knowing when and how this prophecy of Jesus will be fulfilled. The original candidate for fulfilling Daniel’s prophecies about the abomination was Antiochus IV Epiphanes, a Syrian Greek ruler who commanded the sacrifice of a pig to Zeus on the altar of burnt offerings in 168 B.C. Jesus, however, is not referring to a past event, but to something future. The question is how far in the future. That relates to the third reason for complexity of this chapter (see below). Another confusing idea in this chapter is the statement by Jesus in verse 32 that the Son does not know the hour of His return. Some people have claimed that this means Jesus is less than fully God. That would be a denial of much that Jesus says elsewhere about His equality with the Father (especially in John 8) and the testimony of the epistles to Jesus’ deity. So, this statement does not bring Jesus’ divine identity into question. Rather, it emphasises His true and full humanity. At least during His time on earth, His knowledge was limited in some ways and to some degree (on this one point if nothing else), either because of limitation set by the capacity of his human brain or as part of His perfect submission to His Father.
The greatest cause of uncertainty when interpreting this chapter concerns the timeline of its fulfilment. Interpreters are agreed that Jesus’ prediction of the destruction of the Temple in verse 2 was fulfilled in A.D. 70, when Roman general and future emperor Titus besieged and flattened Jerusalem. Some add that the whole chapter refers to that time, but that hardly fits with Jesus’ prediction of cosmic disturbances and “the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory” (verses 24-26). This can hardly refer to A.D. 70 unless we are prepared to suggest that Jesus was mistaken (or, perhaps, that the words were not really spoken by Jesus but put in his mouth by Mark and that Mark was mistaken in his expectations). Those who take this view point to verse 30 in support, where Jesus says, “Truly, I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all these things take place”. Does “all these things” not mean everything Jesus says in the chapter? Well, strange though it might seem, I do not believe it does. Jesus uses two distinct ways of speaking in Mark 13. “These things” in verse 4 echoes back to the question about “these great buildings” in verse 2 and is picked up again in verses 29 and 30. “Those days” in verses 17, 19 and 24 and “the days” in verse 20 refer to a different period of time, after the abomination of desolation appears, which will precede the glorious return of the Son of Man (“that day” in verse 32). These two reference points should not be confused. The “abomination of desolation” pattern was not fulfilled in A.D. 70 – Titus stood in the Temple area, but he destroyed the Temple rather than setting up an idolatrous image or altar in it. So, “all these things” in verse 30 refers not to everything in the chapter but the events of A.D. 70 concerning Jerusalem and the Temple. These things were fulfilled within the lifetime of the generation Jesus addressed (which is the most natural way to understand “this generation” in verse 30, although it is not impossible that this phrase could mean the Jewish people or humankind as a whole). The “abomination of desolation”, therefore, awaits a future fulfilment, presumably by the “man of lawlessness” foretold by the apostle Paul in 2 Thessalonians 2:3-4, who will take “his seat in the temple of God, proclaiming himself to be God”. I suggest, therefore that Mark 13 can be broken down as follows:
o Verses 1-4 speak of the destruction of the Temple in A.D. 70.
o Verses 5-13 describe growth of the gospel despite hardship at the time of the destruction of the Temple and beyond, throughout Church history.
o Verses 14-23 describe a future time when the abomination of desolation will be seen and unparalleled tribulation will follow.
o Verses 24 to 27 speak of the glorious appearance of the Son of Man bringing an end to that time of tribulation.
o Verses 28 to 37 use two images or parallels to emphasise the key message of Jesus in this chapter, the need for us to be awake and watchful: first, the fig tree image in verses 28 to 31 shows that a new season (what we might call ‘the last days’) in God’s timetable is beginning with Jesus; second, the mini-parable of the doorkeeper contained in verses 32 to 37 illustrates the need to keep watch.
So much for the outline of Mark 13 and the timeline of its fulfilment. In conclusion, we can say with certainty that we are already living in the “last days” or the “end times”. That has been true ever since Jesus died and rose again. The final chapter of God’s purposes for humanity before the second coming of Christ has begun. We can also say with a high degree of certainty, though, that we have not yet reached the end of the end times. The abomination of desolation (or man of lawlessness) has not been revealed as yet. This is not the place to comment further on who he may be, whether Christians will be left on earth through the tribulation that follows its appearance, or what other global events will happen before or after its appearance (including any possible role for Russia). Mark 13 simply does not comment on such things. There are no references to battles here in Armageddon or elsewhere and no comment on a millennial reign or even on the final judgement.
Jesus’ intention in Mark 13 was not to give a timeline or detailed blueprint for the end of days. His aim was, above all, as I have said already, to call the first disciples, and believers in every age, to stay awake and be watchful. The reference to “wars and rumours of wars” in verse 7 tells us that when we hear of them we should “not be alarmed”. Sadly, we can slip into unhealthy speculation about things that are not clearly revealed in Scripture in a way that causes us anxiety rather than bringing peace. Of course the opposite risk is also real. We can find such speculations so distasteful that we avoid eschatology (doctrines of the end times) altogether. Yet, Jesus speaks of the end here for a reason and the awareness of the future return of Christ is a major motivator throughout the New Testament towards faithful Christian living. We are supposed to think of the end when we see trouble in the world, but we are expected to do so with confidence, not fear, and to be motivated to greater faithfulness in the present. Mark 13 can help us with that.
Specifically, in this chapter, I see Jesus challenging us about what our confidence rests in as we live for him in the face of hostility. There are four wrong sources of confidence – things that could lead us astray if we do not recognise that they are not causes for assurance.
Buildings (verses 1-4) – the disciples were in awe of the Temple buildings and their immense stones. At a human level that is entirely understandable. Herod’s remodelling of the second Temple (originally built after the return from Exile to replace Solomon’s Temple that had been destroyed in 586 B.C. by Nebuchadnezzar’s armies) had been underway for around 50 years when Jesus visited it. It is reckoned to have been the grandest Temple anywhere in the ancient world. The foundation stones that remain today are truly mind-blowing in scale, measuring up to 13.6 metres (44 feet) in length and weighing up to 570 tons. But, the whole Temple would be destroyed. Indeed, the whole age of the Temple – the Old Testament system of worship – was becoming obsolete because of what Jesus would accomplish. The individual believer and the Church, indwelt by the Spirit of God, would become the Temple. The confidence of the Christian should not be in buildings made by human hands. Yet we may be tempted to find reassurance in our church buildings or in other human-made things: strategies, plans, programmes and techniques. These things all have their place, but they are not the basis of our trust. They can come and go – they do not endure.
People (verses 5-13) – Jesus warns of false Messiahs who would come. In the early centuries of the Church this literally happened. Perhaps we would not be duped today by someone claiming to be the returned Jesus (although many have been in modern times, for example in China where a cult called Eastern Lightning claims Jesus returned as a woman in China). But we can be misled to put our confidence in charismatic and gifted leaders. We set them on a pedestal and think that they will defend the faith, lead the church to growth and expand the kingdom. Yet, we cannot base our hope in human beings, however gifted. We have seen many times, increasingly so recently, how flawed people can be. High profile leadership abuses and moral failings are in the news regularly. Why did we ever put such confidence in people? How did we allow them to build ministries around themselves (sometimes even named after themselves)? Why did we fund and support that? We are so prone to deceit by people who seek a name and glory for themselves rather than for Jesus, the true Messiah.
Power (verses 14-23) – this point relates closely to the preceding one. False Messiahs reappear in this section, along with false prophets, but there is an additional detail. These deceivers will perform miracles. They will have powerful ministries. Impressive results. Instant success. Great, we might think, the Lord is working in power as He did in the time of the apostles. But we must be careful. Our confidence is not in the visible and powerful, but in the Lord. We must not seek assurance in what is instant and looks strong. The path of Christian faithfulness will, as this chapter shows, lead us into suffering and hardship, not prosperity and glory in this present age.
Knowledge (verses 24-37) – Jesus confesses to His own limited understanding of His Father’s timetable. How sad when we think we can know more than Him! Beware detailed predictions about future events that go beyond Scripture. We are not supposed to join up the dots but to trust in God and stay faithful. We can extend this principle beyond knowledge of the end times to our tendency to have confidence in our qualifications, training, degrees, even understanding of Scripture. Such pride we are tempted to when we think the success of the Church and its mission rests on our ingenuity or wisdom.
So, we must not trust in buildings and strategies, people, power or knowledge. Where is our confidence? It is in the only certain place – in Christ Himself. When troubled about the future of the Temple, where did the two pairs of brothers who were the first to follow Jesus among the Twelve turn? To Jesus (verse 3)! What does He say will endure when everything built by human hands and the whole Heaven and Earth have passed away? His words (verse 31). What mission does Jesus give us until the end? To preach the gospel about Him to all nations (verse 10). How will we be able to bear faithful witness to Jesus under pressure? Through the Holy Spirit’s enabling (verse 11).
This is the shape of Christian faithfulness now and throughout the ages until the very end.
Not trusting in human constructions but turning to Jesus.
Not trusting in charismatic leaders but staying faithful to the words of Jesus.
Not trusting in powerful deeds but sharing the gospel about Jesus.
Not trusting in our knowledge and wisdom but depending on the Holy Spirit who leads people to Jesus.
So, my dear friends, amidst wars and rumours of wars, remember that these things must happen before the end, but it is not the end yet and we still have a mission to follow. So, stay awake, do not be anxious, trust in Jesus and be on your guard against all other sources of confidence but Him.
Until He comes in glory, let it be so.