Jesus has come to announce his reign, so don’t trust in human institutions (Mark 13:24–31)

Deluded evangelist Harold Camping has predicted that the end of the world will begin on May 21, 2011, which is two days away from the time I’m writing this. If you’ve been reading the last few installments of Four Minutes in Mark, you’re correct in guessing that I’m not too worried about “prophecies” like this.

Besides, just as Jesus predicted, the end of the world came in 70 A.D. Sort of.

Jesus has announced that the Jerusalem temple is going to be destroyed. His disciples are shocked that such an impressive monument and the religious institutions it shelters could be swept away. So they ask him, “Tell us, when will these things be, and what will be the sign when all these things are about to be accomplished?”

Now, we’ve seen that Jesus does answer their questions, but his answers are deeper than they anticipated. What his disciples don’t realize is that Jesus’ kingdom won’t fully arrive when the temple is destroyed. Rather, the destruction of the temple is a signal indicating the end of the Jewish priestly system; it indicates that Jesus’ reign has been inaugurated, that as the Messiah he has fulfilled the Old Testament “types”—the historical people, regulations, and events which pointed toward his coming. But his kingdom won’t fully arrive yet—and it still hasn’t to this day.

After a period of intense suffering during which the destruction of Jerusalem is imminent, Jesus tells his disciples, “The sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.” If this sounds like the end of the world, it’s supposed to! In fact, these powerful words would have been familiar to the disciples. Many of the Old Testament prophets used similar images to prophesy God’s judgment of Babylon, Egypt, Israel, or the world as a whole (see, for example, Isaiah 13:10; 24:21–23; Ezekiel 32:7–8; Joel 2:10; 3:15). Why? Because they wanted their audience to visualize the “de-creation” of the created order. God had appointed the sun, moon, and stars “to rule over the day and over the night, and to separate the light from the darkness” (Genesis 1:18). No matter how bad your life gets, you can always count on the sun rising tomorrow morning. But if you can’t trust the sun, moon, and stars, what can you trust? The prophets wanted to depict a time of chaos and destruction, a terrible judgment in which even the most reliable institutions around them would collapse. Each of these judgments was “the end of the world” on a smaller scale, a “Day of the Lord” event, and each pointed toward a final “Day of the Lord” in which heaven and earth itself would be dissolved.

So the destruction of the temple in 70 A.D. is yet another Day of the Lord. It is the end of an age. The temple institution which is the foundation for Jewish politics, commerce, and religion is about to be destroyed. Their world will come to an end.

Why will this take place? To establish the kingdom of Jesus, the Son of Man. Using imagery from Daniel 7:13–14, Jesus paints the picture of his reign being established by God as he comes “in clouds with great power and glory.” And then his kingdom grows and spreads, as his chosen people from all nations are gathered in, repenting and believing, extending his reign “from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven.”

As wild as this promise may sound to his disciples, Jesus promises that “it is near, at the very gates.” Just like the budding of the fig tree indicates that summer is almost here, so the signs of Jerusalem’s destruction indicate that his kingdom is being established. In fact, Jesus tells his disciples, “This generation will not pass away until all these things take place.” Some of them will see it with their own eyes!

Then, Jesus tells them, “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.” There will come a final Day of the Lord in which “the heavens will be set on fire and dissolved, and the heavenly bodies will melt as they burn.” They must be replaced by “new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells” (2 Peter 3:12–13).

Don’t trust in your job security. Don’t trust in your bank account. Don’t trust in your retirement savings. Don’t trust in the stock market. Don’t trust in the government. Don’t trust in the American military. Don’t even trust in the sun, moon, and stars. They will all fail someday, without exception. Ground your faith in the promise of the Son of Man, that he is setting up “an everlasting dominion which shall not pass away” (Daniel 7:14).

And while we’re on the subject, definitely don’t trust in Harold Camping.

Jesus has come to announce judgment, but it won’t come right away (Mark 13:3–13)

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?