Say you’re on a driving trip across the United States on its vast interstate highway system. What signs or road markers are you likely to look for? What kind of information might they provide?
Certainly signs that update distances to destinations would be important. Signs that inform you of available restaurant or fuel options would catch your eye. You might find yourself looking for notification of an upcoming rest area and the necessary facilities it offers. Road markers are important. They provide information. They move us forward and on our way.
The same is true when tackling challenging and lengthy portions of Scripture. We sometimes need “road markers” to navigate our way through the text. That is the case with Jesus’s message in Mark 13—a teaching block that carries the potential to generate the heat of conflict as well as the light of understanding. It’s packed with information that can be read any number of ways, depending upon your theological persuasion about the end times.
There are a variety of views on “last things,” also called eschatology. Those differing views are often held by solid, reputable scholars who love Christ and love the Scriptures. Perhaps the fact that these various positions exist may tell us that none of us has the end times perfectly figured out. That makes it even more critical to remember that these various views are not the gospel—the message of the life, death, ascension, and return of Jesus. Our salvation does not depend on our view of the end times. While our differing perspectives are not unimportant, they are not what is most important, nor are they justification for breaking fellowship with one another.
So where do we find common ground in the midst of honest disagreement? What matters most in our consideration of “last things” is the confident assurance that Jesus will return as He promised. In John 14, we read:
“Do not let your heart be troubled; believe in God, believe also in Me. In My Father’s house are many dwelling places; if it were not so, I would have told you; for I go to prepare a place for you. If I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and receive you to Myself, that where I am, there you may be also.” (vv. 1–3; emphasis added)
This promise was echoed six weeks later in Acts 1 by two figures (apparently angels) speaking to the disciples after Jesus’s ascension to the Father:
And as they [the eleven disciples] were gazing intently into the sky while He was going, behold, two men in white clothing stood beside them. They also said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into the sky? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in just the same way as you have watched Him go into heaven.” (vv. 10–11; emphasis added)
We may disagree on the calendar of that return or the mechanics of it, but one thing is clear—Jesus will return. In Mark 13, Jesus speaks to His disciples of events that, in one way or another, will characterize the time between His soon departure and His certain, promised return. How do we navigate our way through this strategic chapter? By paying attention to the road markers that Jesus Himself has provided in His teaching.
Time and Place (VV. 1–4)
Some scholars describe the gospel of Mark as a passion narrative with an extended introduction. This has value, for chapters 11–16—which comprise the passion narrative—focus on the final week of Jesus’s life on earth. Chapter 11 opens with the triumphal entry, then moves forward to the report of the resurrection in chapter 16.
In the midst of that passion narrative, Mark 11:27 through 12:44 describe an ongoing debate between Jesus and the religious leaders as it took place in the temple in Jerusalem. We enter the story as Jesus and His disciples are leaving the temple grounds following that debate.
The context of this discussion is important. It must be understood both in terms of time and place—the historical context—of these events. As we have seen, the time is the passion week as Jesus moves ever closer to the cross. This reality colors how we understand everything that is said.
The place where this conversation begins is the temple. The Bible Knowledge Commentary says:
The Jerusalem temple (not fully completed until ca. a.d. 64) was built by the Herodian dynasty to win Jewish favor and to create a lasting Herodian monument. It was considered an architectural wonder of the ancient world. It was built with large white stones, polished and generously decorated with gold (Josephus). It covered about 1/6 of the land area of old Jerusalem. To the Jews nothing was as magnificent and formidable as their temple.
More than just a place of worship, this building was the center of Israel’s national life. It was also seen as the heartbeat and focal point of Judaism, explaining the religious leaders’ relentless attacks on Jesus, whom they saw as a threat to the temple.
A conversation in and about Israel’s temple grounds prompts the follow-on discussion between Jesus and His followers that will result in His Olivet Discourse.
As He was going out of the temple, one of His disciples said to Him, “Teacher, behold what wonderful stones and what wonderful buildings!” And Jesus said to him, “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left upon another which will not be torn down.” (mark 13:1–2)
Jesus must have shocked His followers with His declaration that this very temple would be destroyed (v. 2). The temple was revered by the Jewish people, and the possibility that it could be utterly destroyed was unthinkable. The Expositor’s Bible Commentary agrees:
Jesus’ reply was startling. Great though the temple buildings were, they would be completely destroyed. Jesus’ actions in clearing the temple earlier in the week had represented a symbolic judgment against the temple (11:15–17), and his cursing of the fig tree functioned as an enacted parable of judgment against Israel and her religious institutions (11:12–14, 20–21). Now Jesus explicitly predicts the temple–s destruction. The prophecy was fulfilled in ad 70, when the Roman general Titus destroyed Jerusalem and the temple.
It is this unprecedented prediction that prompts four of Jesus’s disciples to seek better understanding of the ins and outs of the Rabbi’s words. The ensuing teaching session begins with a question. It is likely the same question we would have asked: If all of this is going to happen, when will it happen?
As He was sitting on the Mount of Olives opposite the temple, Peter and James and John and Andrew were questioning Him privately, “Tell us, when will these things be, and what will be the sign when all these things are going to be fulfilled?” (mark 13:3–4)
This is a once-in-the-Gospels moment. We are accustomed to seeing Jesus’s inner circle witnessing things like the raising of Jairus’s daughter (mark 5:37), the transfiguration (mark 9:2), or Jesus’s prayers in the garden of Gethsemane (mark 14:33). There, and in other cases, it’s always Peter, James, and John—the Big Three. Here, however, for the only recorded time in the Gospels, Peter’s brother Andrew is included.
But more importantly, Andrew is now included with the inner circle for the only time—and as a result he will be privy to Jesus’s longest block of teaching in the gospel of Mark. These disciples ask their Teacher when the monumental, unspeakable destruction of the temple might occur, and He will answer. What did Andrew and the others hear, and how are we to get our own minds around it?
Necessary Warnings (MARK 13:5–8, 9–13, 21–23, 32–33)
The Bible Knowledge Commentary pointed out a road marker that allows us to take a high level view of this important teaching discourse. It’s rooted in the first word in the message—the Greek term blepete, which translates “take heed,” “pay attention,” “be warned,” or “see to it.” While dealing with a variety of issues both current (for them) and future, Jesus organizes this teaching session around a series of warnings, all introduced by the word blepete—“pay attention.”
Jesus repeats this word throughout the Olivet Discourse. (We have highlighted it for you in each text). While we can have long and enjoyable theological debates about the prophetic elements of Mark 13, the repetition of this cautionary word gives us the big ideas Jesus is highlighting for His followers. In this way, He warns us to “be on guard” about a number of things.
Be On Guard Against Wrong Assumptions (MARK 13:5–8)
The word assumption has been defined as “a thing that is accepted as true or as certain to happen, without proof.” This matters to us because one of the most dangerous realities in life is that we tend to view the world through the grid of our assumptions. However, those assumptions can’t always be trusted because we have limited information, incomplete perspective, and/or biased attitudes.
The danger of assumptions has been addressed wisely by many, including:
Agreement on all points of life with the individuals quoted here isn’t necessary to appreciate the keen insight they offer on the danger of assumptions. And, not surprisingly, the danger of assumption is at the heart of Jesus’s first warning to His four followers, beginning with the word blepete:
And Jesus began to say to them, “See to it that no one misleads you. Many will come in My name, saying, ‘I am He!’ and will mislead many. When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be frightened; those things must take place; but that is not yet the end. For nation will rise up against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be earthquakes in various places; there will also be famines. These things are merely the beginning of birth pangs.” (mark 13:5–8, emphasis added)
The indicators Jesus lists have been used by people for years as the basis for assuming that we are on the very brink of His return. In the midst of what appears to be plenty of signs, it’s easy to be deceived. Jesus even warns that such an assumption could cause the wrong person to be acclaimed as the returning Christ—and that would indeed be a dangerous assumption.
How many of us have assumed that our day must be the day? When I was a new follower of Christ, it seemed that studying Bible prophecy was a massive priority. The attempts to unravel prophetic mysteries ranged from wise and insightful to outlandish and absurd. But, the more absurd some of the applications were, the more they were bound up with the dogmatic assertion (assumption) that now was when those things would happen.
Assumptions can be dangerous because even though our day might be the day, there is nothing that says that it must be the day. Jesus warns against being deceived, and at its core, that warning is rooted in a simple fact—these kinds of events are an ever-present part of the brokenness of the world. They didn’t suddenly begin to occur in our generation, and they won’t suddenly go away until Jesus actually does come.
The last sentence is the key to how we respond to these words.
“These things are merely the beginning of birth pangs.” (v. 8)
The beginning. The first part. Not the culmination or the conclusion. The beginning. It reminds me of the words of Winston Churchill following a rare early victory for the Allies during the Second World War. He said, “This is not the end, this is not even the beginning of the end, this is just perhaps the end of the beginning.” There is wisdom there. Checking off the boxes of Jesus’s descriptors should not deceive us into thinking it is the end—but we can take hope. It may mark the beginning of the end. Time will tell.
Thoughts for Reflection:
Why can assumptions be dangerous? How can they lead to false hope or even disappointment?
How might that apply to the kinds of false assumptions Jesus warns about in Mark 13?
James 1:5 reminds us that if we lack wisdom we can ask of God and He will grant it to us generously. So, ask God for the wisdom to carefully work through challenging texts (LIKE MARK 13), so that you can gain all of the benefit intended from those Scriptures, without burdening them with unnecessary assumptions.