Mark 13:3-13. Birth pangs aren’t death rattles.

And as he sat on the Mount of Olives opposite the temple, Peter and James and John and Andrew asked him privately, “Tell us, when will these things be, and what will be the sign when all these things are about to be accomplished?” (v3-4)

And Jesus began to say to them, “See that no one leads you astray. Many will come in my name, saying, ‘I am he!’ and they will lead many astray. And when you hear of wars and rumours of wars, do not be alarmed. This must take place, but the end is not yet. For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be earthquakes in various places; there will be famines. These are but the beginning of the birth pains. (v5-8)

But be on your guard. For they will deliver you over to councils, and you will be beaten in synagogues, and you will stand before governors and kings for my sake, to bear witness before them. And the gospel must first be proclaimed to all nations. And when they bring you to trial and deliver you over, do not be anxious beforehand what you are to say, but say whatever is given you in that hour, for it is not you who speak, but the Holy Spirit. And brother will deliver brother over to death, and the father his child, and children will rise against parents and have them put to death. And you will be hated by all for my name’s sake. But the one who endures to the end will be saved. (v9-13)

 

Through Mark’s Gospel, Jesus has been revealing himself to his disciples. He has shown them that he is God’s king. He has shown them what the kingdom of God will be like by forgiving sins and healing the sick. He has shown them on the mount of transfiguration that he is more than just a human king. He has taught them that he has come not as a conquering king, but as a suffering king.

Over the last week, Jesus and the disciples have been in and out of the temple, and Jesus has claimed it as his house. He has driven out those who had no right to be there. He has restored it to its original purpose. He has taken on those who claim power in Israel- the Pharisees, Herodians, and Sadducees, and has defeated them all.

Then to close the temple section, Jesus has said that an offering of two small coins from a widow is worth more than all the rest of the temple offerings put together, and he has said that the Temple building will be torn to the ground. The disciples ask him about that…

 

  1. What are the disciples asking? What do they expect to see happening very shortly? Why is this an important question for them to ask?
  2. Why does Mark tell us where Jesus sat?
  3. Why does Jesus need to tell the disciples to watch out for those who claim to be him? They know Jesus well. They know what he looks like and how he talks. Why would they be in danger of being fooled?
  4. Jesus talks about “birth pains”. What does this picture mean?
  5. What is Jesus talking about in v 9-13?
  6. How are we supposed to use this passage?

 

1.      What are the disciples asking? What do they expect to see happening very shortly?

We’ve already seen that the disciples have some serious misunderstandings about what is going on. They are Jewish men, steeped in the OT scriptures, but viewing things through their own filters. They are sure that Jesus is the Messiah. They are sure that he is God. And so they expect to see him ride to victory and restore God’s people.

A Gentile man, not knowing the scriptures, would be totally bemused by Jesus. A Jewish man would see all sorts of significance in all sorts of things Jesus did and said- but would get it wrong much of the time. You’d expect the disciples to have serious misunderstandings.

We see this happen again and again. We’ve read of Peter’s offer on the mount of transfiguration to make booths for Jesus, Moses, and Elijah (9:5). Knowing the scriptures and viewing things through his filters, when Peter saw Jesus transfigured with glory and talking to Moses and Elijah, he thought that the final kingdom of God had arrived. In terms of the Jewish festival calendar, the final feast of Tabernacles had just begun- it was time for the full harvest and for total rest and rejoicing. The rule of God through Jesus was about to start on the mountain, all Israel coming to Jesus, Moses, and Elijah, for judgement. That was a natural enough assumption on Peter’s part, but it didn’t happen, and Jesus told them to keep quiet about what they’d seen until the Son of Man had risen from the dead.

We’ve seen the disciples join with the crowd who waved their palm branches and threw down their cloaks on the ground to welcome Jesus as he rode into Jerusalem like a king. Again, they thought that the time had come for Jesus to take his throne.

We’ve seen Peter shocked when he saw the withered fig tree- he understood something of the symbolism there, and understood that this was about judgement falling on Israel.

 And so here, when the disciples ask “When will these things be?”, we need to understand their mindset. They are talking about what Jesus has just said in 13:2. He’s just told them that the Temple will be destroyed utterly, with not one stone left on top of another. They understand that this isn’t just a local disaster much like any other- a gas explosion or an earthquake into which we shouldn’t read any great significance. They know that the destruction of the Temple has a deeper meaning than simply the dismantling of a physical structure. At the very least, it means that God has abandoned Jerusalem. They know their history. They know why Solomon’s Temple was destroyed by Nebuchadnezzar- it’s all there in Jeremiah and Lamentations and Ezekiel, books they’ve heard read many times over.

They ask, “When will these things (plural) happen. What is the sign that they are all about to be fulfilled?” They are not just asking about the destruction of the Temple. In their minds, the Temple being destroyed is inextricably linked with great upheavals. If God allows the Temple to be destroyed, it means that he no longer sees it as his dwelling place. It means that he has abandoned his people to their enemies.

And they know that Jesus is the Messiah. So when Jesus, whom they know to be God’s Messiah, leaves the Temple, predicting its fall; what are the disciples supposed to think? They’ve seen Jesus set his face towards Jerusalem. They’ve been astonished at the sense of destiny he so plainly had (10:32). They know that he has come to Jerusalem with some great purpose in mind. They have for a long time thought that he is going to set up God’s eternal kingdom very soon. Now, they surely think that God is about to unleash wrath on unbelieving Israel, destroy their Temple, and set his King to rule on Zion’s holy hill. So they ask when they can they expect to see it all start? Today? Or if not today, perhaps tomorrow? Or maybe there are a few more things to organise first, and the battle lines won’t be drawn until later this week?

 It is crucial to see that this chapter is embedded in this context. The words Jesus speaks in reply to the disciples- words about coming trouble and suffering- do not come out of nowhere. The temptation for us is to read Jesus’ words as the words of a prophet, setting out a vision of the distant future. But to do so is to ignore the context. Jesus is not some 2-dimensional figure in a cheap novel, free to divorce himself from the reality around him and indulge in a long monologue addressed to distant readers. Jesus’ words are spoken in reply to a direct question. There are real men in front of him as he speaks, and they have real fears and hopes and questions in their minds. Although Jesus is a prophet and more than a prophet, he is also a pastor. He is shepherding these men. His words are a genuine answer to their question.

 Though the passage is often interpreted as a prediction of the end of the world, the immediate context makes it clear that Jesus is talking about the fall of the Temple and related events; event the disciples expect very soon. And the broader context- the fact that this conversation comes at the end of a series of conflicts between Jesus and the Jewish leaders over the Temple- also indicate that this is all about the Temple in Jerusalem.

 

 

2.      Why does Mark tell us where Jesus sat?

Mark tells us that Jesus sat on the Mount of Olives (v3). The Mount of Olives is a significant place in Jewish prophecy, especially in prophecy concerning the Temple. It is the place where the Lord comes and stands on the day of destruction and restoration (Zechariah 14). If you turn to the strange vision Ezekiel sees in chapters 9 to 11 of his book, then you’ll see that the Mount of Olives is the place to which the Lord moves when he abandons his temple because of the wickedness of Israel. First, the Lord leaves the inner most place of the temple, and stands at the door. Then he moves further, to the doors of the outer walls. And finally, he leaves the temple altogether for the mountain to the East of it. The Temple stands empty; it is God’s dwelling no longer.

There are parallels here. Jesus is the Lord, and he has just left his Temple, prophesying against it. He has gone out to stand on the Mount of Olives. This is all part of the setting for the disciples’ question, isn’t it? The disciples are wondering what happens now. Will Jerusalem be destroyed now? Will foreign armies suddenly appear to reduce the temple to rubble, kill the wicked, and leave only the Godly standing, before Jesus brings back all true worshippers from all the lands where they are scattered? Whether or not the disciples understood all this at the time is debatable. They at least understood that the Mount of Olives was an important location when it came to the coming Kingdom of God. Mark certainly understands the background in Ezekiel, and sees Jesus as following the movements of God there  described.

 

 

3.      Why does Jesus immediately tell the disciples to watch out for deceivers?

In v5-6, Jesus seems to be envisaging a time when he will not be with the disciples, and when they will be looking for his return to them, and not sure exactly what to expect when he does appear. They will therefore be vulnerable to frauds who will come claiming to be sent by Jesus, or actually to be him. If Jesus were still with the disciples, then they wouldn’t be deceived by anybody claiming to be Jesus- they’d say, “You’re not him. Look, he’s just over there”, or “We know Jesus, and you don’t even look like him”. But after the resurrection, when Jesus did appear for 40 days before the ascension, the disciples didn’t recognise him immediately. Maybe his physical appearance wasn’t precisely the same.

That is important because the disciples still have not got it into their heads that such a time will come. They still don’t think that Jesus is really going to die. They think he’ll take the throne of David, still in the earthly body he has as he speaks to them, and begin his everlasting reign. The disciples have read the OT prophets, and they’ve listened to Jesus’ teaching on the matter, and now they think they know a thing or two about the kingdom of God. But their minds are still locked in to a not-fully-accurate understanding. The disciples expect things to happen quickly, but Jesus replies to their question not with a timeline, but with an extended speech. And he tells them that things might not happen so very quickly. He seems to take it as read that there will be a delay between his ascension and his second coming, whereas the disciples have not even grasped that there will be a crucifixion and resurrection.

When you go walking in the mountains, and you see a range of hills many miles away, all the peaks look as though they are the same distance away. They are all on the horizon. It looks as though you will arrive at them, and there they will all be, all at once, part of the same ridge. If you were to prophesy about the day when you arrive there, based on your current vision, you might talk in terms of “On that day, when we arrive at the distant peaks”. But when you do actually arrive at the beginnings of the horizon, the range you saw as one event resolves itself out into a fresh vista and a new horizon. You then see that what you once saw as a string of peaks all the same distance away, is actually a range of hills that will take many days to traverse. The OT prophets spoke as men looking at distant hills. They were given visions of things to happen in the future- the coming of Messiah, the founding of his kingdom, the gathering in of the Gentiles, the final judgement- and they saw all these as happening at once. The disciples still have this mindset. They see only two ages to the earth- now and then. “Now”, they live in a fallen world, but “Then” Messiah will arrive, and everything will be changed. Everything. All at once. Living after Jesus came, we know that this is not the case, that there is an overlap of ages, a time when the kingdom has come, but before the fallen world has been consumed- a time when the “now” and the “then” are both true at once, and when God’s people live kingdom lives in a fallen world.

This is often confusing for us, and for the disciples it is bewildering. They know that Jesus is the Messiah, and they constantly expect him to do something final and decisive. So when he leaves the temple, predicting destruction, and goes out onto the Mount of Olives, they expect things to happen quickly. But Jesus knows that he is going to leave them. And he knows that they need this sort of instruction. He warns them against a false sense of imminence, and urges vigilance in the turmoil through which they will live. The disciples would have struggled to understand any of the details. But they will remember it, and will understand it after the resurrection. Obviously they did remember: how else did Mark know what Jesus said? And after Jesus had left them, they would have been helped by this teaching. False Messiahs did come. Perhaps Simon Magus, in Acts 8, was one such figure, with people saying that he was God on earth. And he did lead many astray.

 

 

4.      Jesus talks about “birth pains”. What does this picture mean?

In v7-8, Jesus talks about wars and earthquakes and famines. He says that these things are not very important- that they tell you nothing about when the end of the age will come. He says that there will always be troubles and wars, conflict between nations, famine and so on, and that these things are only the birth pains.

Well, if you think about it, these things are precisely what the disciples would have been looking for. Their script for the end of the age, the coming of Messiah, and the start of the Messianic kingdom, involves a massive battle, from which Messiah emerges the victor. They are expecting armies to converge on Jerusalem. Wars and rumours of wars will interest them deeply. They are precisely the things which the disciples do think of as signs of the end of the age. But Jesus tells them that these things do not indicate the end. The end is yet to come. The disciples are reading from the wrong script. Again, Jesus seems to have a longer term view of things. He sees a long period where life goes on as it has since the fall- with wars and famines and natural disasters which don’t mean that the world will end in the next few months. They are not signs of the end, they are birth pains. The wars and suffering simply point to the fact that the world is fallen, and under God’s judgement. They don’t indicate anything beyond that.

But Jesus does describe them as “birth pains”. Birth pains are a common image of God’s punishment on the wicked (Isaiah 13:8; 26:17; Micah 4:9f; Hosea 13:13; Jeremiah 4:31; 6:24; 13:21; 22:23; 49:22; 50:43). The phrase fits into a broader stream of Biblical theology. It is an appropriate image of fallen-ness because of the origin of birth pains. Where are birth pains first mentioned in the Bible? They are part of the curse pronounced on Eve. Eve had taken part in the rebellion of Genesis 3; the overturning of God’s authority and the turning upside-down of all the other authorities derived from God. Especially, she had disregarded the way she was supposed to relate to her husband. She had listened to the serpent, and taken action independently of Adam. She and he were supposed to function as a single unit, and she was supposed to be his helper. She wasn’t meant to strike out on her own, without his blessing. And so the curse spoken to her rested particularly on her marriage and family life. Children are perhaps the most obvious physical expression of the one-flesh union enjoyed by a married couple. The couple share their lives, and their lives flow together, and children- derived from both parents- spring from that union. In a fallen world, the experience of childbirth is marked by intense pain for the woman. But after the pain, new life comes forth. The woman gives birth, the pain is over and soon forgotten, and the enjoyment of new life begins.

This picture of the birth pains then works on two levels. On one hand, it is a picture of God’s wrath on the disobedient. Wars and famines and earthquakes are a consequence of the fall, just as are birth pains. The prophets use the picture that way. And Jesus says that the things the disciples will see are only “the beginnings” of the birth pains. Events of greater intensity and significance can be expected.

But on the other hand, the wars and turmoil are not the point. A child will be born when the birth pains are over. The birth pains are not the childbirth. Life has yet to come. Wars and rumours of wars are a constant feature of life in a fallen world, as are famines and earthquakes. But they are not the childbirth- they only show us that a child is to come. They don’t even put a definite timescale on the child’s arrival, other than “soon”. So when the disciples see the turmoil that is to come to Jerusalem, when they see the Temple torn down, they shouldn’t expect the immediate return of Jesus. But they should pray urgently for his return.

 

 

5.      What is Jesus talking about in v9-13?

Having spoken of trials and troubles and false saviours being part and parcel of a fallen world, Jesus goes on to warn his disciples about some of the trials and troubles specific to them. As believers in him, as those who live as citizens for the kingdom of God, who look for its full arrival, and who tell others about it, they can expect persecution from the fallen world.

It is easy to apply this to ourselves, and to assume that Jesus was talking directly to us. In a way, he was, but only in so far as we are made the heirs of the apostles, building on the foundations they laid. Jesus is talking immediately to Peter, James, John, and Andrew. They have asked him a question about their concerns, and Jesus is dealing with those concerns. As we’ve said, it is a real human situation, and Jesus isn’t about to go off on one, turn away from the people in front of him, and start speaking “for the historical record”, or “to future generations”. He is speaking to the men who will lead the first century church on earth after he has ascended to heaven. He says that the disciples will be delivered to the courts, flogged in the synagogues, and taken before governors and kings. He promises them that the Spirit will give them utterance when they are forced to testify. Jesus says that families will divide over him during the first generation of the church, and people will hate the apostles because of him. These sayings might be more broadly applicable, but they are certainly given in the first place to the apostles.

Read the book of Acts, and we can see the start of that 2-stage application. It is plain that all that Jesus says here came to pass. It was true for Peter, James, John, and Andrew. They were hated by the Jews. Peter and John stood before the rulers. And they did this to bear witness to Jesus; they said that he was the Messiah, come to die, raised to life, and ruling from heaven until he comes again. And it was true also for Stephen, Paul, Barnabas and Silas, who weren’t there on the Mount of Olives in Mark 13. Paul and Barnabas and Silas took the Gospel to the Gentile nations (an idea firmly rooted in the Old Testament- Isaiah 42, 49, 52, 60; Psalm 96).

The disciples can be reassured that when Jesus has gone, they will have another helper. The Holy Spirit will come to them, and will speak through them. The division between the disciples and the world will be severe- even splitting families apart. The hatred of unbelievers for believers is so strong that it can cause the unbeliever to hand over to death even his own brother or his own father. But although all the world will hate those who are on the Lord’s side- yet they must endure. For if they endure, they shall surely be saved.

 

 

6.      How are we supposed to use this passage?

Bearing in mind that the disciples have serious misunderstandings, Jesus is at the very least trying to smash their triumphalism. They expect the end of the age and then an everlasting glory. Jesus is trying to warn them that this is not yet on the menu. They face the shock of Jesus’ own death, a long period without Jesus, the destruction of the Temple and the abandonment of the Jews to the Romans. They face persecutions and trials, hatred from the world at large and even from their own families. If they knew what lay ahead, they would tremble and cry out for help. Their eager expectation is wrong-headed.

If we are Christians- if we believe what these men believed, trust as they trusted, and do as they did- then we can expect the same treatment as they received. We’ve seen Jesus’ predictions about Jerusalem come to pass, nearly 2000 years ago. We’re still living through the birth pains, still praying for the saviour to come, and still proclaiming the Gospel to all nations.

A passage like this teaches us how to live in our world, waiting for the return of Jesus. We should be building his church and preaching his gospel. And we should expect to be treated as he was and as his apostles were. We shouldn’t be looking for honour and respect from the world, for the praise of the learned or the famous or the wealthy. We can expect to be hated by all for Jesus’ sake.

And if that makes us tremble and cry out for help, then good! We should be asking for God’s help. We have here promises that help will be forthcoming. Jesus sits in heaven, at his Father’s right hand, and he sends us the Holy Spirit, who makes us into witnesses for him.

Especially, we need to be praying for his return. When we cry out to God in pain or sorrow or frustration- when a loved one dies, or when we feel overwhelmed by enemies around us, or when we are tempted to despair at our own wickedness, or when we struggle to break sinful habits- and we cry out for deliverance; then we can be sure that all of those prayers will find their ultimate answer in Jesus’ return to rule. He will banish all of those things to the uttermost.

 

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