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?