But what if the sky actually is falling?
- Read Mark 13:14–23
After Jesus announces that the Jewish temple will be destroyed (13:1–2), his disciples have asked him, “When will these things be, and what will be the sign when all these things are about to be accomplished?” (13:4). In addition the destruction of the temple, they seem to want to know when he will set up his kingdom on earth. Because these two events are interrelated but separated in time, Jesus’ answer will include elements from both. But first of all, he warns them not to be easily alarmed by cataclysms or by false announcements of his coming; in fact, they should expect persecution since his coming will be delayed (13:5–13).
However, the time will come when the temple will be destroyed, and it won’t be pleasant. We know from history that in 37 years, a Roman army will overrun Judea in response to a rebellion. Jerusalem will be destroyed, and the temple will be razed to the ground, just as Jesus is prophesying. The Jews will be massacred. Jesus wants to protect his vulnerable disciples from this act of judgment, so he tells them to watch for “the abomination of desolation standing where it ought not to be.” When they see this, they are to drop everything and run! The suffering will be so terrible that “if the Lord had not cut short the days, no human being would be saved.” Everyone in Judea would be killed.
We know that the Christians in Jerusalem obeyed Jesus’ warning and evacuated to the town of Pella to the north and across the Jordan River. By following Jesus’ warning, they escaped with their lives.
“But wait!” you ask. “What is this ‘abomination of desolation’ that they were supposed to look out for?” Well, we know that Jesus was quoting from the book of Daniel, in which it was prophesied that a vicious tyrant would desecrate the temple with some sort of “abomination” (Daniel 8:9–14; 9:26–27; 11:31; 12:11). This prophecy was initially fulfilled when Antiochus IV Epiphanes outlawed the worship of the Lord and set up swine sacrifices in the temple about 200 years before Jesus’ words. Apparently history is about to repeat itself, and another “abomination of desolation” is yet to come before the temple is destroyed.
And if you’re wondering whether I know what this “abomination” turned out to be, the answer is no. There are plenty of theories out there, but no one knows for sure. Ultimately, it’s not terribly important what it was exactly. What’s important is that Jesus is warning his disciples to protect them from death.
Not only is he protecting them from death with these warnings, but he’s also protecting them from deception. He tells them, “If anyone says to you, ‘Look, here is the Christ!’ or ‘Look, there he is!’ do not believe it. False christs and false prophets will arise and perform signs and wonders, to lead astray, if possible, the elect.” In times of great suffering, people will latch on to any charismatic figure who offers them hope, especially one who can (supposedly?) perform miracles. “Be on guard,” Jesus says. “I have told you all things beforehand.” This prophecy is meant to protect his disciples so that they can survive the dangerous times that are coming.
Here’s what this passage tells us about Jesus: he wants to protect those who are his own. Twice he calls them the elect—people who have been chosen by God. He won’t abandon the people whom God has chosen to be called by his name. He will preserve them even when the world around them comes apart at the seams. They can say with confidence, “The LORD of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our fortress!” (Psalm 46:11).
So how should this affect our thinking and our behavior? First, we must be confident no matter how severe the danger surrounding us. Our confidence does not come because we have enough influence or financial security or government protection to avoid suffering. As though these things will protect us when “the earth gives way…the nations rage, the kingdoms totter” (Psalm 46:2, 6)! Neither can we be confident in our own intelligence, thinking that false teaching won’t deceive us. No, it is God who is “our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear” (Psalm 46:1–2).
Second, watch out! It’s dangerous to have too much confidence in the institutions of man, whether it’s the Jerusalem temple or the national government or the stability of your employer. And as we just observed, it’s dangerous to have confidence in your own ability to discern false teaching. So watch carefully to make sure that you trust only in your Lord, Jesus Christ, to save you when the world falls apart around you.
It’s Chicken Little vs. Jesus in this next compelling installment of Mark’s gospel!
In the first two verses of this chapter, Jesus has announced that the Jewish temple will be destroyed because its leadership has rejected him as the Messiah that God has sent to lead his people. Naturally, his disciples now want to know all about this impending judgment. So his inner circle of Peter, James, and John (plus Peter’s kid brother Andrew) come up to him and ask him, “Tell us, when will these things be, and what will be the sign when all these things are about to be accomplished?”
The rest of chapter 13 is Jesus’ response to these two questions. It’s a very difficult chapter to interpret. Much of what Jesus says seems to apply to the destruction of the temple in 70 A.D., a mere 37 years later. Following a Jewish revolt, the Roman government sent an army to crush the rebellion and return Palestine to its status as a province of Rome. The army laid siege to Jerusalem, slaughtered the people, and flattened the temple. By the time that the Romans were finished, the Jewish nation had been crushed.
However, as we work through this chapter, we will see some statements Jesus makes that don’t quite fit the historical events that took place. They seem to describe judgment on a grander scale. This might surprise you or cause you to question whether Jesus prophesied accurately. However, this is part of a pattern in the Bible which you see in Old Testament prophecies. The prophets would announce that God was about to judge the nations threatening his people (or sometimes his people themselves!) while promising salvation for the remnant of his people who remained faithful to him. This divinely appointed judgment was often referred to as the Day of the Lord. And sometimes, the prophet would see beyond this immediate judgment to the ultimate Day of the Lord that will come on all the earth. God works in patterns in human history, and the Day of the Lord is one of those patterns. This is why the prophet Joel, for example, could warn about an impending plague of locusts and call it “the Day of the LORD” (2:1), yet use language that is picked up by Jesus to describe the coming judgment of God (Joel 2:10–11 and 2:30–31; compare Mark 13:24–25). The locust plague was one of many sneak previews of a future judgment coming on all the earth.
Now, when the disciples ask Jesus about the coming judgment on the temple, they probably think that this will mark the final judgment of the whole world. They think that at this point Jesus will set up his kingdom on earth (Mark 10:36; Acts 1:6). That’s probably what they mean when they ask about “these things.” They’re asking, “When will the temple be destroyed and your kingdom set up in its place?” Because the establishment of Christ’s kingdom is a far more complicated process than they think, what they’ve asked is a far more complicated question than they think. And thus Jesus’ answer is complicated as well. The destruction of the temple in 70 A.D. becomes a preview of the great worldwide judgment when the kingdom arrives “on earth as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6:10).
Now, if it were me in Jesus’ place, I might respond by laying out a nice neat timeline of “last days” events. Maybe I’d draw a chart in the dirt for them. But that’s not what Jesus does, because Jesus knows we don’t really need an end-time chart. What his disciples need is to live faithfully in this present age while they wait for God’s judgment to arrive and bring justice on the earth.
So the first thing that Jesus tells his disciples is, “See to it that no one leads you astray.” He’s concerned that the questions the disciples are asking might turn into obsessions. They might be deceived by people claiming to be the returning Christ. They might interpret wars and disasters to be signs of the end. If you’ve ever tuned into religious broadcasting or read any bestselling “end times” novels, then you probably know that Jesus’ fears are justified. There is an unhealthy obsession with plotting out end-time charts and trying to force current events to fit into biblical prophecies. Jesus says not to be alarmed when you hear Chicken Littles shout, “The sky is falling!” He says, “These are but the beginning of the birth pains.” The baby isn’t here just because the water broke, as many a mother can tell you. There’s a lot more to come before the end, and it won’t be pretty.
And just like a mother whose labor has become, Jesus’ disciples can’t expect to get away without suffering. Some end-time teachers emphasize that God’s people shouldn’t have to suffer—they will be “raptured” away from the earth before God’s judgment begins and so will escape “tribulation.” In contrast, Jesus warns us not to relax in our easy chairs. “Be on your guard,” he warns. In every age, Christians will be persecuted by everyone from hostile governments to close family members. “You will be hated by all for my name’s sake,” Jesus says. Then he promises, “But the one who endures to the end will be saved.” The mark of a genuine Christian is endurance. When your faith is challenged, it becomes obvious what you really believe.
You and I want Jesus to give a timeline of the end. But Jesus is much more concerned at how his disciples live in the present, before God’s judgment arrives. The end won’t come right away, so the question is whether we will remain faithful to him in the world as it now exists. Will you get carried away by apocalyptic fantasies? Will you buckle under hostility from family or authority figures? Or will you remain sober-minded and faithful to the end?
For the third time, Jesus predicts that he will suffer and die and rise again from the dead. What’s unique this time is that now he has set out toward Jerusalem, the headquarters of his enemies. The religious leaders of Israel hate Jesus’ guts, yet he’s leading his disciples right into the teeth of their religious empire. I suppose you could say that it’s an invasion of sorts, and his disciples are “amazed” and “afraid.” And when Jesus announces that it’s a death march, it doesn’t help matters.
However, a couple of his disciples are unflappable. James and his brother John look right past Jesus’ gloomy forecast and see only the glory on the other side. Jesus has called himself “the Son of Man,” and they probably remember from Daniel 7:13–14 that this “son of man” will be given “dominion and glory and a kingdom, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him.” They’d like a piece of that, thank you very much.
But how to broach the subject? “Teacher,” they say, “we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” Uh-huh, very subtle. Jesus offers no promises, but they still request, “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.”
Jesus tells it like it is: “You do not know what you are asking.” They still haven’t picked up that Jesus isn’t the glorious, victorious political Messiah they’re wanting. He asks them if they’re able to suffer what he will suffer, and they respond, “We are able”—with a healthy dose of naïveté and arrogance. They have no idea what they’re in for. Jesus agrees that they will suffer, but still he won’t promise them the glory they’re looking for. “To sit at my right hand or at my left is not mine to grant,” he says, “but it is for those for whom it has been prepared.” He defers to his Father’s sovereign assignments. Positions of prestige in his kingdom can’t be bought with charm or good deeds; they can only be given freely by God.
James and John are finding out the hard way that to follow Jesus requires suffering, and it is not the sort of suffering one endures in order to gain prestige. We’re about to find out why not.
Word gets out to the other ten disciples that James and John tried (and failed) to pull of this power play. So of course they’re ticked. (“No fair! Why didn’t we think of it first!”) If I were Jesus, I’d throw up my hands at these boneheads, but he sees it as an opportunity to show them the upside-down kingdom of God. He reminds them that the present world system, as exemplified by the heathen Gentiles, values prestige, prominence, and the possession of power. In this world system, greatness means gaining power and using it to benefit yourself.
But Jesus tells them, “It is not so among you.” This is not how the invading upside-down kingdom works. Its economy is the exact opposite. In God’s kingdom, “whoever would be great among you must be your servant.” Well, that sounds annoying. Who wants to be at the beck and call of other people, many of whom are more stupid or boring or ugly or evil than you? How about you take it easy on us, Jesus?
No dice. “Whoever would be first among you must be slave of all,” he adds. Not just a servant, but a slave. Not just a slave of a handpicked few, but a slave of all.
Why is this? Where does this upside-down reality come from?
Jesus doesn’t derive it from abstract philosophical principles. No, he draws it from his own person and his own mission. “Even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve,” he says. Remember, this is the same “son of man” in Daniel who is to be served by “all peoples, languages, and nations”! And he has come to serve? Yes! In fact, his greatness in God’s kingdom comes from this mission. He will be the greatest of all because he will “give his life as a ransom for many.” He will give up his life as a price to God to pay for the sins of many. This atoning work will be the ground for the “dominion and glory and a kingdom” which the Ancient of Days will give him. He will receive the all-conquering upside-down kingdom as its King. Anyone who wishes to be great in this eternal kingdom must serve and suffer like he does.
So this is Jesus—the triumphant Son of Man, yet a humble, devoted slave who lays down his life in our place. As Samuel Crossman writes,
In life, no house, no home
My Lord on earth might have;
In death no friendly tomb
But what a stranger gave.
What may I say? Heav’n was His home;
But mine the tomb wherein He lay.
If you and I are his disciples, if we belong to him, then we must also serve and suffer. We have to give up any idea of an easy life. It’s okay if things are hard and painful. And we have to give up any idea of popularity or fame or influence. It’s okay to be small and unnoticed. In fact, it’s far better to serve others in small and unnoticed ways than to have the attention of the world fixed on you. For Jesus will not be disappointed with you.
Jesus doesn’t pull any punches, does he? When his disciples want him to explain his teaching, hoping that he will add a few caveats, he only gets more extreme.
This is hard stuff. Anyone who has seen nasty marriages and family conflict must feel sympathy for people in those situations. How could anyone object to such a divorce? We all want our friends and family to escape suffering, don’t we?
This was the way Jesus’ countrymen thought as well. They turned to Deuteronomy 24:1–3 to demonstrate that God permitted divorce if a man “has found some indecency” in his wife. While some (more conservative) Jews argued that this meant adultery was the only ground for divorce, most agreed that these verses allowed divorce for any reason. Regardless, all agreed that divorce was permissible.
Some of these Pharisees must suspect that Jesus holds radical views on this issue (and boy, are they right). They want to undermine Jesus in some way, and they know that if he places any restrictions on the right to divorce, he’ll become unpopular with the crowds. So they ask him, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” Jesus replies, “What did Moses command you?” Of course, they refer him back to Deuteronomy.
Now, here’s where Jesus brings down the hammer. The Deuteronomy passage didn’t command divorce; it acted as damage control in case of divorce—which it assumed was already taking place. It prevented God’s people from being defiled by forbidden forms of remarriage. Jesus tells the Pharisees, “Because of your hardness of heart he wrote you this commandment.” In other words, Deuteronomy doesn’t reveal God’s ideal plan for marriage. God was being flexible with his stubborn people; but Jesus hates hardness of heart, and he holds his disciples to a higher standard. So he tells them what God really thinks of divorce.
In order to establish God’s original plan for marriage, Jesus goes back earlier than Deuteronomy. He goes all the way to the creation accounts of Genesis 1 and 2. He reminds the Pharisees that “God made them [man] male and female” (Genesis 1:27). They were created incomplete; God intended for them to be paired together. “Therefore,” Jesus says, “a man will leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh.” He’s quoting Genesis 2:24 here and establishing it as the foundation for marriage. God created man and woman to be paired together, and marriage is what weaves them together. It’s an act of God’s creation. For this reason, Jesus warns, “What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.”
In other words, divorce is man’s attempt to undo God’s work of uniting husband and wife. It’s an attempt at uncreation, at tearing apart God’s created order. Jesus insists that divorce is an act of rebellion against God, an attempt to usurp divine authority. Jesus has come to serve and submit to God, so he is adamant that his disciples not participate in such a power play that stands in total conflict to his mission.
What makes this teaching so hard is that divorce doesn’t feel like rebellion; it doesn’t feel like a power play. It feels like a painful and desperate attempt to escape an awful situation. That’s why Jesus’ disciples question him afterward. They’re shocked by how radical and insensitive his teaching is. But Jesus only gets more extreme: “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her, and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.” Apparently, divorce is not only an attempt to usurp divine authority, but it’s a failed attempt to usurp divine authority. God refuses to accept man’s efforts to undo his act of creation. From his perspective—the only one that matters—a “divorced” couple is still married. He will not permit man to be victorious over him.
As Christians argue about divorce, the debate often centers around possible “exception clauses” found in Matthew 19:9 and 1 Corinthians 7:15. These are important discussions. However, it’s easy to make the mistake the Pharisees made, to focus on finding a loophole to get out of a bad marriage. Jesus calls his disciples to be willing to suffer as he suffered. Divorce is an easier path, but Jesus has not called his followers to an easier path. He wants them to explore other options.
This may be the most difficult saying of Jesus for me to stomach. It seems cruel not only for people in bad marriages, but also for people who are already divorced. Are they doomed to remain lonely if they aren’t able to return to their previous spouses? The fallout from Jesus’ teaching is terrible. It would have been just as terrible in his day as it is now. Yet he said these words anyway.
This leads us, I think, to the question, “Would Jesus ask his followers to suffer for his sake?” Would he dare to ask them to suffer through painful marriages? Would he dare to ask them to remain single for the rest of their lives if need be? I think we can say that yes, he would.
Jesus wants disciples who, like him, will remain in suffering if that’s what it takes to follow him. “If anyone would come after me,” he says, “let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me” (Mark 8:34). He was willing to suffer if that’s what it took to submit to the will of God. If you join him, he will be glad to call you his own when he comes in glory.
One of my favorite TV shows is The Beverly Hillbillies. If you’ve never seen an episode, the premise of the show is that the backwoods Clampett family from Tennessee discovers oil on their property, gets rich, and moves to Beverly Hills in California. There, they are befuddled by modern culture. In an early episode, a young man promises the beautiful Elly May Clampett that he will “give her a ring,” meaning that he will call her on the phone later. Of course, the Clampetts take it for a promise of marriage, which leads to a series of misunderstandings and eventually a brief yet colorful feud with the man’s extended family.
Chronic misunderstandings can be hilarious when they’re happening on TV, but when you’re trying to communicate a message of vital importance to your friends, they bring nothing but frustration. It should be no surprise that Jesus’ disciples are once again going to play the role of the Clampett family—convinced they understand what’s going on, but in reality hopelessly confused.
In recounting the event of Jesus’ transfiguration, Mark connects it with the message Jesus had spoken just six days prior. He has promised that his kingdom will soon come in power, and now he’s going to give his “inner inner circle” of disciples (Peter, James, and John) a sneak peek of this future glory. They ascend a high mountain together, and there, the layers of Jesus’ humble earthiness are peeled away; his glory as the Son of God breaks through, and he shines bright like the sun. Even his clothes glow “intensely white, as no one on earth could bleach them.” And to top it off, two of the most pivotal figures in Israelite history, Moses and Elijah, appear out of nowhere and begin holding a conversation with Jesus.
I’m not sure what Jesus’ three disciples were expecting to happen on that mountain, but this definitely exceeds it. They are unable to comprehend what is going on; it has overwhelmed their senses and they are petrified at first. Finally, Peter shouts at Jesus, “Rabbi, it is good that we are here. Let us make three tents, one for you and one for Moses and one for Elijah.” Mark tells us what’s going on in his head: “He did not know what to say, for they were terrified.” Apparently, James and John are shocked into silence, but that’s not the way Peter handles the unimaginable. When he is flabbergasted, Peter responds by blurting out the first thing that pops into his mind. I guess he just wants to be useful.
Now at this point, the purpose of the transfiguration is revealed. A cloud envelops the mountaintop, and a divine voice speaks to them, saying, “This is my beloved Son; listen to him.” The cloud lifts, and the glory vanishes; only Jesus remains with them, as he was before. He leads them down the mountain and warns them not to speak of this event until he has “risen from the dead.” Until then, any announcement of Jesus’ glory is premature. This is the main reason why Jesus orders people to keep quiet about him—his glory is not to be fully revealed until he has died and risen again.
Once again, his disciples miss the point. When they caught a glimpse of his glory, and it was announced that he was the “beloved Son” of God, they should have understood that this was a wake-up call for them, intended to shock them out of their spiritual dullness. The transfiguration ended with the words, “Listen to him!” But they aren’t. They’re “questioning what this rising from the dead might mean” even though Jesus had said plainly what it means—that he will have to suffer first before his glorious kingdom comes (8:31).
Yes, Jesus’ disciples have misinterpreted the transfiguration. They’re high on what they’ve just seen; they’re convinced that the Messiah has come in glory, about to usher in a holy and righteous Jewish empire. Jesus’ predictions that the Messiah will suffer, die, and rise from the dead are just anomalous data points that his disciples have chosen to ignore. They only have one nagging doubt, which they bring up to Jesus: “Why do the scribes say that first Elijah must come?” They’d just caught a glimpse of Elijah, but he hasn’t been traveling around Judea to prepare the people for the coming Messiah.
Jesus affirms what the Jewish teachers have been saying: “Elijah does come first to restore all things”—just as the prophet Malachi said (Malachi 3:5–6). But then he redirects the conversation, asking, “How is it written of the Son of Man that he should suffer many things and be treated with contempt?” That’s what the disciples are choosing to ignore, refusing to listen to Jesus. “But I tell you that Elijah has come,” Jesus says, “and they did to him whatever they pleased, as it is written of him.” With this curveball, Jesus shatters any last hope of a glorious political Messiah. In the Old Testament, Elijah suffered greatly, and the next “Elijah” suffered as well; he was John the Baptist, and he was beheaded by Herod. And the same will happen to the Son of Man, the Messiah.
This is the death knell for the “glory story” of those who promise prosperity and success in this life to you and me. If you are a disciple of Jesus, “Your Best Life Now” will not happen, not yet; anyone who promises it to you is deaf to what Jesus says. Jesus came to suffer, and to follow him (8:34) means that we will, too. Until we are raised to life again in glory, we will share the pain and hardship of our Lord. Expect nothing less.