Jesus has come to announce the last days, so stay alert (Mark 13:32–37)

Well, May 21 came and went, and it turns out that Harold Camping was wrong. Jesus didn’t come back on that day. And no, he didn’t come back “spiritually” and secretly either, as Camping now claims (in yet another statement which contradicts Jesus’ words; see Matthew 24:26–27).

When you hear arrogant preachers like Camping announce that they have cracked a secret Bible code to unlock the date on which the end will come, you can know at once that they are either liars or fools. Jesus said so.

Jesus now shifts to a question that is a hot topic even today: what is “that day and that hour” in which he will return to the earth? Some commentators believe he is still talking about the destruction of the Jerusalem temple that would occur in 70 A.D., but there seems to be a transition away from that topic (Jesus begins by saying “but concerning…”). Remember, after he predicted the destruction of the temple (a singular event), his disciples asked him, “When will these things be?” (plural). They had more in mind than just the temple. Throughout Mark’s account of Jesus’ life, he has announced that God’s kingdom is coming. His disciples expect Jesus to set up this kingdom and rule over Israel, placing them in positions of power (Mark 10:37). When he announces that the temple will be destroyed, they’re probably assuming that this is part of the process in which he sets up his kingdom.

In a way, they’re right. When the temple is destroyed, it is an act of judgment on the religious leaders of the Jews and their failure to recognize the Messiah whom God has sent. Jesus will be vindicated in his claim to be Messiah, and his reign as God’s anointed King will be firmly established. This is part of what’s going on in Mark 13:24–27.

However, Jesus will not return to set up an earthly kingdom when the temple is destroyed. That will not take place until long afterward; in fact, we are still waiting for it. When Jesus talks about the destruction of the temple, he promises it will be within a few decades (Mark 13:30), and he tells his disciples that it will be preceded by a sign—the “abomination of desolation” (13:14). But now, when describing “that day or that hour” when he will return, Jesus doesn’t give any specifics at all! “Concerning that day or that hour, no one knows,” he tells them, “not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.” Not even the angels know when it will be. And during his earthly ministry, not even Jesus knows! God the Father is the only one who knows when the time will be.

Why is this? Why has God revealed so much to us yet hidden from us this important piece of information? I think the answer is revealed in the next few verses as Jesus tells us how to respond.

His message is absolutely clear: “be on guard, keep awake…stay awake…stay awake…stay awake!” Why? “No one knows…you do not know…you do not know.” He tells a parable about a man who goes away on a journey and leaves his servants in charge of his house. Apparently the man forgot to bring his cell phone, because the servants have no way of knowing when he’ll get back. So they need to stay awake, because he could return in the middle of the night, and they need to be ready for his arrival.

What does it mean to “stay awake”? It means to be on alert. You fall asleep when you think things will okay for the next few hours. You don’t fall asleep when you think that at any moment, everything around you will change.

To fall asleep means that you’ve bought into the lie that the world is going to keep on going as it always has. It means that you’ve bought into the lie that Christ won’t come back, that human institutions and banks and businesses and governments are permanent fixtures, that everything around you is stable and your future plans are all but certain (James 4:13–17). It means that you have bought into the values of your culture—its emphasis on human wisdom or careers or family or money or entertainment or comfort or food or sex—thinking that these values are an eternal standard for what’s really important. You are groggy, sedated, asleep.

To stay awake means that you recognize that all of this could be undone at any moment. Christ could return, and you don’t know when. This means that every day is the last day. By withholding from us the exact date when Christ will return, God the Father has shown us that we are already in the last days, and that we cannot count on anyone or anything other than himself. “All is vanity” (Ecclesiastes 1:2).

I don’t know about you, but for me, this is really hard. I settle naturally into the mindset that things will keep going like they always have. My life really isn’t going to change all that much in the coming years. Frankly, I find it depressing. I see how broken and unrighteous the world is; I see the sin that grips me; I see many reasons to lose hope. But Christ’s return is a game-changer. Everything will be upended when he overthrows all human kingdoms and sets up his own eternal kingdom in their place.

Today is one of the last days. And then he will come.

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 protect his disciples, so have confidence in him alone (Mark 13:14–23)

Last week, we read that Jesus doesn’t want us to be Chicken Littles who panic whenever some cataclysm happens, convinced that the world is coming to an end—that “the sky is falling!”

But what if the sky actually is falling?

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.

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?

Jesus has come to announce judgment, so don’t be impressed with human establishments (Mark 13:1–2)

I read J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy back in high school, but I never really got sucked in by them the way a few of my friends did. I enjoyed the movies, though, despite the fact that one of the characters in The Return of the King creeped me out. This was Denethor, the Steward of Gondor, played by the terrific actor John Noble.

The problem with Denethor is that he’s supposed to be a Steward to the throne of Gondor, governing the kingdom until its king reappears. Yet he sees Aragorn (the rightful king) and his allies as a threat to his authority. He doesn’t want to yield to them when the time comes to relinquish his power. Rather, he gives in to despair because of the enemy armies arrayed against him and ends up committing suicide.

Sometimes fiction has a firm basis in history.

Throughout Mark’s account, Jesus has come into conflict with the religious leaders of his day. They enjoy their positions of authority and prestige among the Jewish people. They are quite confident that God is on their side—after all, isn’t a magnificent temple, a symbol of his presence, being constructed in Jerusalem? They see this hick preacher from the backwater region of Galilee—condemning them for their vices, humiliating them in debate, and confirming his authority with miracles—and they are determined to get rid of him. They refuse to accept his claim as their King appointed by God, their Messiah.

The Temple Mount in Jesus' day, courtesy of the ESV Study Bible

After a series of confrontations with them, Jesus leaves the temple for the last time and heads out of Jerusalem. Now, his disciples are taken aback by the grandeur of the temple. Even in modern days it would be an impressive, colossal structure—let alone in a time before the invention of trucks and cranes and other construction technology! To these simple men from Galilee, the temple is the grandest monument to the religious establishment of Jerusalem. It seems an impregnable fortress, a sign of God’s eternal favor.

“Look, Teacher!” one of them exclaims. “What wonderful stones and what wonderful buildings!”

“Do you see these great buildings?” Jesus replies. “There will not be left here one stone upon another that will not be thrown down.”

That’s Jesus for you: whenever someone wants to talk about the triumph of the human spirit, he’s nothing but a killjoy.

Coming immediately after his conflict with the temple leadership in chapter 12, Jesus’ announcement can only mean one thing: the time of the temple and its religious establishment is over. God will punish them for rejecting their rightful King and attempting to usurp his authority as wicked stewards of his kingdom (Mark 12:1–12).

It’s no surprise that Jesus’ prophecy will come to pass. In the year 70 A.D.—several years after Mark’s gospel was likely written and nearly 40 years after Jesus spoke these words—the armies of Rome will surround Jerusalem in response to a Jewish revolt. They will conquer the city and raze the temple complex to the ground. Only a few of the foundation walls of the courtyard will remain. The glory and might of the temple will be undone.

When Jesus pronounces this judgment, the religious leaders and the temple are finished. The hammer of God’s judgment is about to fall. Even a human edifice as grand as the Jerusalem temple cannot stand before the righteous wrath of the almighty God.

So don’t be impressed by human achievements or establishments. Don’t be impressed by the laws and principles of Western democracies, or by the skyscrapers of Dubai, or by the economic engine of China. They have been given a season in which to flourish, but it will not last forever. If God is willing to destroy the temple of his chosen people, how will the grandeur and power of these modern institutions rescue them from his judgment? Will he not overthrow all kingdoms when his chosen King returns? They will all be undone on the day of the Lord.

Do not be impressed with the Stewards. Stand in awe of your King.

My flesh trembles for fear of you,
and I am afraid of your judgments.
Psalm 119:120