Posted tagged ‘Apocalypse’

Mark 13:26-37. Doorkeepers in the master’s house.

August 13, 2011

“And then they will see the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory. And then he will send out the angels and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven. From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts out its leaves, you know that summer is near. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that he is near, at the very gates. Truly, I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all these things take place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away. (v26-31)

But concerning that day or that hour, no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. Be on guard, keep awake. For you do not know when the time will come. It is like a man going on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his servants in charge, each with his work, and commands the doorkeeper to stay awake. Therefore stay awake- for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or when the rooster crows, or in the morning- lest he come suddenly and find you asleep. And what I say to you I say to all: Stay awake.”(v32-37)

Standing on the Mount of Olives, overlooking the Temple, Jesus answers a question asked by his closest disciples. They’ve spent a week in and around the Temple, and Jesus has just left it, predicting that it will be destroyed. The disciples’ minds are filled with questions- when will this happen? What exactly is going to happen? What do we need to do now to be ready for it? They know that if the Temple is destroyed, all bets are off for Israel. They already expect Jesus to be crowned very soon as the Messianic King, and to establish God’s kingdom from Jerusalem. Now they see a connection between that, and the fall of the Temple. Surely, God is about to unleash his wrath on unbelieving Israel, destroy their Temple, and establish his king in righteousness to rule from Zion’s holy hill…

But when they ask for a timescale for all this, Jesus tells them to expect suffering and tribulation instead of victory. He tells them that they will be hated by everyone, imprisoned, and had up in court. He also warns them that when Jerusalem falls, they shouldn’t stick around to enjoy the victory party- they should flee, and not even wait long enough to grab a coat on the way out.

We can become very confused by Jesus’ answer, so although we’ve been through most of it already, if I may, I’ll just recap and briefly lay out what- and when- I think Jesus is talking about:

  •  Verses 5-8 The beginning of birth pains. Jesus is talking fairly generally about pain and suffering and false Messiahs. The four men he’s talking to will hear about these things. They are wondering about an instant Kingdom of God coming to earth. Jesus tells them it won’t be like that.
  • Verses 9-13 Suffering and persecution. Jesus goes on to say that not only will the Kingdom of God not come fully in a moment, but the disciples will undergo great suffering for Jesus’ sake. As they take the Gospel out to the nations, they will need endurance. Jesus is particularly addressing Peter, James, John, and Andrew, but we can extend his remarks to the first generation of disciples, and even to ourselves.
  • Verses 14-22 Jerusalem. Jesus is very plainly talking about the events of A.D.70, with the destruction of the Temple and the obvious cutting off of national Israel.
  • Verses 23-27 After Jerusalem. Jesus says that there will be huge upheavals in God’s dealings with the world and with the nations. And he says that the Son of Man will send out his angels to gather in the elect- which we are still seeing.
  • Verses 28-31 Jesus warns the disciples that when they see these things take place- and they will all take place within a generation- then they should know that “he is near, at the very gates”.
  • Verses 33-37 In the days when he is near, this is how the four- and all disciples- should live.

 We’ve already covered the chapter up to v25 in previous studies, so we’ll pick up at v26 this time. 

  1. Who will see the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory? And where will he be coming to and from?
  2. When Jesus says that the Son of Man will send out the angels and “gather his elect from the four winds”, what would the disciples understand by that phrase?
  3. What should the fig tree teach the disciples?
  4. Jesus is emphatic that his words will not pass away. What guides his choice of phrase?
  5. Is “that day or that hour” in v32 a different day and hour from “those days” in v24? If so, which day and hour is it?
  6. What big lessons should we learn from this passage?

 1.      Who will see the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory? And where will he be coming to and from?

The most obvious way to read this is just to read straight on from the previous verse. The powers in the heavens will be shaken, and they- i.e. those powers- will see the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory.

This fits perfectly with the whole thrust of the Son of Man’s coming. For us earth-centric folk, it seems natural to read the passage about the coming of the Son of Man as a reference to the second coming- to the time when Jesus will return to the earth as he promised. But perhaps that’s because in our heads, it’s all about “me, me, me”. When Jesus talks about the coming of the Son of Man, and about clouds and glory, the most obvious OT reference is Daniel 7:13. And that passage does not seem to be about a coming of the Son of Man to earth. In his vision, Daniel sees one like a son of man coming with the clouds of heaven to be presented before the ancient of days and to receive dominion and glory and a kingdom, that all peoples and nations and languages should serve him. This doesn’t sound so much like Jesus coming down from heaven to earth at the end of time as it sounds like Jesus coming into the throne room of heaven to be crowned as king of the universe. Jesus isn’t coming down to the earth; he’s going up into heavens.

Another strand of evidence on this point is that when we read here of the “coming” of the Son of Man, the word is “erchomai”, not “parousia”. Greek scholars say that “parousia” means “presence”, and is used elsewhere to talk about the return of the Son of Man to earth on the last day. “Erchomai”, on the other hand, simply means “coming”, and carries no connotations as to where Jesus is coming to or from.

Also remember that Jesus says that this generation will not pass away until these things have come to pass. That is the only point in the whole chapter at which Jesus puts a definite time-limit on anything. We ought to take note of it. The obvious meaning is stubborn. Jesus says similar things in Matt. 10:23 (the disciples will not finish evangelising Israel before the Son of Man comes) and in Mark 9:1 (some of the disciples will not die until the Kingdom of God comes). He is plainly not talking about the end of the world in either of those contexts.

 It is not the second coming, but the ascension, in view. This is Jesus being seated at the right hand of the Father in heaven while his enemies are put under his feet. It is not seen by those on earth, but it is seen by the powers in heaven, who are shaken by it. And so they should be- it is a momentous event.

That whole cluster of events- the resurrection, the ascension, the sending of the Spirit at Pentecost, and the fall of Jerusalem, are all really one big event stretched over a few decades. And they are causes of and (at least the last one) symptoms of the fall and rise of nations, of groups of people, in God’s purposes.

National Israel rejects its Messiah and puts him to death, but God vindicates him by raising him from the dead and appointing him as judge and king over all the earth. He ascends to heaven, from where he will rule, sat at the right hand of the Father. He sends his Spirit down on his people from heaven. Those joined to him are a new humanity. The church takes shape. This is an unprecedented development in human history. If the powers in heaven were shaken in the fall of Pharaoh and of Babylon, then much more so in the fall of national Israel and the rise of the church of Jesus Christ.

2.      When Jesus says that the Son of Man will send out the angels and “gather his elect from the four winds”, what would the disciples understand by that phrase?

When we read the word “elect”, we tend to think immediately of “Christians”. We assume that the two words are more-or-less synonymous. Those with a bit of theological nous might say, “No no, they’re not synonymous. Somebody can be elect and not (yet) be a Christian. The word elect refers to those people chosen by God. So all of them have been purchased by Jesus Christ, but not all of them are yet regenerate. Some of them probably haven’t even been born yet.” On that reading, the gathering in of the elect would mean the conversion of those whom God has chosen to faith in Jesus Christ. But although that is perfectly theologically correct, and is a natural extension of what Jesus means, it still seems pretty unlikely to be what the disciples would have understood by Jesus’ words. The disciples weren’t thinking like that at all. For them, the word “elect” didn’t conjure up images of believers from all over the globe; all races, all ages, all languages. At this stage, they had only a dim idea about the church. From Acts we can see that they had no idea about a global church including non-Jews. It seemed to take them by surprise when it happened.

So when they hear Jesus talking about gathering in the elect, what do they think he’s talking about? Who are these “elect”, and how are they to be “gathered in”, and what are they doing out at the “four winds” anyway?

The word “elect” in the Jewish mind could only really mean the nation of Israel. And when an Israelite speaks of the “elect” being “gathered in”, he is obviously speaking of a Jewish return from exile. The re-gathering of the dispersed Jewish exiles is a big theme in the Prophets, and is a big theme in Jewish hopes for the end times. In the Old Testament, to “scatter to” and “gather from” the “winds”, or “nations” or “corners of the earth”, are recurring expressions (for scattering, see Deuteronomy 30:3; Jeremiah 9:16; 18:17; Ezekiel 5:10,12; 12:14,15; 17:21; Zechariah 2:10. For re-gathering, see Deuteronomy 30:4, Isaiah 11:12; 27:13; 56:8; Jeremiah 23:3; 31:8; Ezekiel 11:17; 20:34, 41; 28:25; 34:13). If you’re wondering why it should be four winds, rather than seven, or eleventeen, it is because the earth has four corners, four rivers, and four winds, in a Jewish conceptual geology. Gathering exiles from the four winds simply signifies gathering them from the whole earth.

The scattering of Israel to exile, or the re-gathering of Israel from exile, are events with obvious theological import. If the nation is scattered, then that can only be because they have been unfaithful to God, and have fallen under God’s judgement. If the nation fragments it is because their faith has already fragmented. And if the nation is re-gathered, then that happy event is bound up with the salvation of Israel. God has had mercy upon his children, and has gathered them back from the far places so that they might worship him in unity and truth. The prophets talk about national scattering and national gathering in this way.

In Jesus’ day, while there are Jewish communities all over the Roman world, there are also plenty of Jews in the promised land. Things don’t look like they did in Ezekiel’s or Daniel’s day, when Israel was a nation held captive in a foreign land. There is a Temple in Jerusalem. There is a High Priest. There are daily sacrifices. The law given at Sinai is held up publicly as the law of the land. On the face of things, there is no need for a return from exile. But the consistent New Testament picture is that there has never really been a complete re-gathering of Israel from the exile in Babylon. After the utter disaster of 586 B.C., Judah was scattered to the winds, just as Jeremiah had foretold. Israel (the Northern kingdom) had already been scattered by Assyria, although perhaps many of them had migrated south to Judah at that time. The scattering of the Southern kingdom though, was a much more final and absolute disaster. The Davidic kingship was cut short. The Temple was ransacked and flattened.

There had been a return from exile, when Cyrus the Persian made his decree in the days of Nehemiah and Ezra, and that had been a cause for great rejoicing. The Temple was rebuilt and the gathered exiles re-covenanted themselves to God. But that had always been a faintly unsatisfactory affair. Not all the Jews wanted to return, and lots of them never did. Those who did were few and weak, and the temple they rebuilt was a pitiful shadow of Solomon’s glorious temple. Those who could remember Solomon’s temple wept for sorrow, not joy, when they saw the foundations laid for the new edifice (Ezra 3:12). And the Jews of Jesus’ day still looked for a great re-gathering of the exiles, and a restoration of the Temple to its former glory. Herod, in his attempts to be an acceptable king to the Jews (he wasn’t even Jewish, let alone from David’s line, so he had a fair bit of work to do to make himself acceptable), rebuilt the Temple and made it big and impressive. He understood that a true King of the Jews would make it his business to restore the house of God, and he tried to copy what the true king would do. Herod couldn’t do much about the exiles though. If the Jews had seen a king arise who could attract a huge number of the Jews scattered all over the Roman Empire to come back to Judea, then that would have been a big sign of God’s favour resting on the nation and her king.

So when Jesus talks about the Son of Man sending out his angels to gather in the elect, it isn’t just a prediction that each one of God’s chosen people will be individually brought to salvation. Rather, Jesus is claiming that he, the Son of Man, will be a greater and more glorious king that any before. He will bring God’s blessing on the people; he will send out God’s angels to gather in the scattered elect. It is perhaps a claim to greater glory than any mortal king had ever enjoyed- Jesus says that he will send out the angels- he will command the messengers of God. This Son of Man will be what even Adam failed to be, a real king with mighty authority, directing even the angels. Those messengers will go to the ends of the earth, to the four winds, to gather in the people of God.

But while the disciples would probably hear Jesus to be talking about a physical return of national Israel, I don’t think he really was. Bear in mind that Jesus has just said that the Temple will be destroyed, not one stone resting on another. The Temple was God’s house, where God’s people met together for worship. It had always been the visible focus of unity for the gathered people, ever since it had first been built. When the exiles returned from Babylon, Temple reconstruction was high up the list of things to do. But Jesus says that although the Temple will be destroyed, yet the exiles will be gathered in. Those two things don’t usually go together.

So what Jesus is saying is that the destruction of the bricks-and-mortar Temple does not mean permanent dispersion for the true Israel, for those really chosen of God. Rather, it means the ascension of the Son of Man to glory, and the sending out of the angels to gather his chosen people back from the four winds.

This is a continuation of Jesus’ theme of Temple destruction. The fall of the Temple means the fall of Israel and the vindication of the Messiah, which means disruption in the heavens, and the rise of a new people of God. We are to see a re-constitution of Israel as the twelve tribes under the twelve Apostles. Israel is God’s elect nation, but physical Israel is cut off, and spiritual Israel is to be gathered in, from all across the empire. And the Gentiles are to be gathered in as well, and joined to Israel.

Jesus is giving a huge re-interpretation to Israel’s future hopes. Physical Israel will be scattered, but the New Israel will be gathered in. And the focus of their unity won’t be the Temple, but will be the Son of Man himself. There will be no need for a bricks-and-mortar Temple. Something better will have arrived. Jesus himself, in his own body, will be the dwelling place of God. God’s people will meet with Jesus Christ among them, and so they will draw near to God.

 3.      What should the fig tree teach the disciples?

The Mount of Olives (oddly enough, given its name) is covered with fig trees. It is famous for them. The fig tree is deciduous- it loses its leaves in winter. And the leaves don’t grow back until fairly late in the spring. The leaves of the trees around Jesus would perhaps be poking out as he spoke, at Passover time. This is a very simple illustration, using things at hand to act as an immediate visual aid.

Given the way that the fig tree is consistently used in the Old Testament as a picture of Israel, it is very tempting to look for that sort of deeper parallel here. After all, Jesus has just drawn an extending comparison of official Judaism/Temple Judaism with an early-leafing fig tree in chapter 11. He’s acted out a parable, cursing the fig tree for bearing no fruit. But the picture just doesn’t seem to work in this chapter. The trouble in chapter 11with the fig tree that was Israel, is that it was already leafy but the leaves lied. It didn’t have any fruit on it. The use of the fig tree as a picture of Israel works because the fig tree ordinarily bears sweet fruit, and Israel should have borne fruit of justice and righteousness for God. In chapter 11, the whole comparison is to do with the fruit of the fig tree. Here, the fruitfulness or otherwise is irrelevant. The emphasis is on the timing of the appearance of leaves. I’ve looked, but I can’t really see it. When one of Sigmund Freud’s students asked him why he smoked cigars, he replied, “sometimes a cigar is just a cigar”. Here, I think a fig tree is probably just a fig tree.

We can see how Jesus’ illustration works. When the fig tree begins to show signs of life, summer is close. It’s just around the corner. We are glad to see the first signs of spring, and most of us are insulated from the effects of the seasons, having centrally heated homes and working in nice climate-controlled offices. An agrarian outdoorsy people would be much more closely attuned to the passing of the seasons than are we. The disciples would know to look out for the leaves appearing on the fig trees as a sign that spring was turning into summer.

Jesus tells them that they should be just as eager to look out for more important things. When the disciples see the things Jesus has been describing- when they see Jerusalem destroyed and they see Jesus ascend, and they see the elect beginning to be gathered in; then they will know that they really are entering a new era. They will know that the Son of Man could return at any moment to bring history to a close.

This doesn’t mean that Jesus will return immediately after the things described have taken place, but it does mean that he could. If the disciples on the Mount of Olives with Jesus were to ask themselves, “Could tomorrow be the last day?” then the answer would have to be “No”. There are too many things that still have to happen. Jesus has to die, remain three days in the tomb, rise again, spear to the disciples, ascend to heaven, and send the Holy Spirit. Jerusalem has to be sacked and the Temple destroyed. The elect have to be gathered from the four winds. But if the disciples, after all those things have taken place, were to ask the same question; the answer would be different.

 4.      Jesus is emphatic that his words will not pass away. What guides his choice of phrase?

Jesus’ choice of words here is astonishing. In the OT, the one whose words will never pass away is God himself. In the famous words of Isaiah, “the grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God will stand forever”. The permanence is God’s word is established in contrast to the created things which pass away. (Isaiah 40:6-8. Similar statements can be found in Psalm 102:25-27; 119:89, 160; Isaiah 51:6). Jesus uses those words, well aware that he’s borrowing his description from the Old Testament.

Just look at the way Jesus uses the Old Testament, the way he quotes some passages and uses imagery from to others in both his words and his actions. We can see that the written word of God has been his meat and drink from childhood. He has eaten and drunk and lived and breathed the Old Testament scriptures until they have become the marrow of his bones. He is able, spontaneously and constantly, to conjure up allusions to OT passages. He lives in the thought-world of the Bible like a native, and that is exactly what he is.

So when Jesus uses OT phrasing, we are right to go back and check the OT context. When we do so, we see that these words of Jesus are amazingly bold. Jesus’ claims to deity in the synoptic Gospels are deeper and more pervasive than we realise. By using language used in the OT of YHWH himself, Jesus implies that his words are on a par with the very words of God. When he speaks, it is with the voice of the eternal God. This is more than a claim to the role of a prophet. Jesus isn’t claiming merely to transmit messages from God- “Thus saith the Lord”. He says “My words…” Whatever Jesus says are the words of God, simply because Jesus says them.

5.      Is “that day or that hour” in v32 a different day and hour from “those days” in v24? If so, which day and hour is it?

“That day” is an indeterminate date which is the Father’s secret. No one knows the day. It is plainly not the same day as “those days” of v24, because people do know about the day of v24. Jesus himself knows about it, and he has just been telling the disciples about it. But even Jesus doesn’t know about the day of v32.

Linguistic scholars say that the Greek of v32 is adversarial- the thrust is: “But on the contrary, concerning that day, no-one knows the day or the hour”. The day to come is set in opposition to the events that Jesus has just said will take place within the lifetime of his hearers. The days of v24 are knowable from the signs- the day of v32 is not. Jerusalem’s fall can be foreseen. Jesus’ second coming cannot. “You do not know” and “No-one knows” is the repeated theme in these final verses (v32, 33, 35).

“That day” is a phrase used repeatedly by the prophets – Amos 8:3, 9, 13; 9:11; Micah 4:6; 5:10; 7:11; Zephaniah 1:9; 3:11, 16; Obadiah 8; Joel 3:18; Zechariah 9:16; 12:3,4 – to speak of the day of YHWH’s coming, the day when YHWH would reward the faithful and punish the nations. Jesus here uses the phrase to speak of the return of the Son of Man- the day when he will not only be at the gates, but will throw them wide and enter in. Again, he is claiming that he and YHWH are to be identified. The greatest and most terrible thing about the great and terrible day of YHWH is that it was the day of YHWH- it was the day when God’s presence would be among his people directly. Israel knew that to be in God’s presence was a dangerous thing. God hid himself in clouds, and no man could look on his face and live. If God is among his people, then he will, of necessity, purify his people. He will cast out the impure, consuming away evil with fire. Jesus claims here that the presence of the Son of Man will bring about “that day”.

This is well-connected to the flow of thought within the passage. Jesus, having warned his disciples of the things that they will face before they leave this fallen world, has then told them that after they have seen come to pass the things he has warned them about, they will know that history is at an end (at least in the Francis Fukuyama sense of the term). After the great upheavals of the ascension of the Son of Man and the formation of the church as the people of God, there remain no more surprises before the great surprise. There is nothing very much left to happen before the end. The Son of Man is at the gates, and he could enter at any moment. He is as near as is summer after the fig tree has begun to sprout. So now, Jesus warns them not to try to fix a precise date on the day when the gates will be flung open. He tells them that even the angels in heaven are not party to that knowledge. The Father alone knows.  Even the Son is ignorant of the timing of that day.

On the one hand, this raises theological questions about the union of the two natures in the person of Christ. On the other, it certainly discourages speculation about the timing of the last day. Calvin puts it well- “Surely that man must be singularly mad, who would hesitate to submit to the ignorance which even the Son of God himself did not hesitate to endure on our account”.

6.      What big lessons should we learn from this passage?

The parable Jesus draws here is full of goodness. A man is going on a long journey, and he knows he’ll be away from home for a while. He’s not quite sure how long- maybe he’s got some business to take care of a long way off, and it is uncertain how long it will take him to get it all sorted out. Maybe he’s only going for the day, but he’s just not sure whether or not he’ll be home for supper. So he gathers his servants together, tells them that he’s going to be away for a while, and gives directions about how the household is to be run in his absence. Each of the servants has his own work assigned to him, and that’s what he should be getting on with. The work of the doorkeeper is to stay alert and be ready for the master when he comes back.

Jesus then tells the four disciples that they are doorkeepers in the master’s house. They are to stay awake because they don’t know when he will return. It could be at evening, or at midnight, or at daybreak, or even the next morning. If they are going to be ready for him, then they can’t afford to go to sleep on the job.

The lesson for us is obvious. We are to watch and pray. We live at the end of history. I don’t mean that in the Harold Camping sense of “Jesus will return in the next few months”. The point isn’t that he will, but that he might. There is nothing enormous left to happen. His death and resurrection have taken place. He has ascended to receive a kingdom from his Father. He has been at work, gathering the elect from the four corners of the earth. Jerusalem fell nearly 2000 years ago. Jesus may not return for another 2000 years or more. But he may return today. It would be wonderful if he did. “Even so, quickly come”, as John says. And so we need to be ready.

John Wesley was once asked what he would do if he knew that he were going to die at 12:00 midnight tomorrow. His answer was that he would do nothing different- he’d carry on with his planned schedule- go here to preach this evening, then ride there to preach the next morning, then be at this meeting, then spend the evening with a friend of his, go to bed, pray, sleep, and wake up in glory.

That’s the point. We are servants of Jesus. Of course we look forward to his return. But we have a job to do in the meantime. He has given us a job to do. And so we should be getting on with it. That’s how we remain ready- we live in such a way that if Jesus did return today, he’d find us doing the work he gave us to do. We don’t need to know when he’ll be coming- we only need to know what we’re supposed to be doing in the meantime. Paul, Peter, and John, are full of the awareness that believers need to live in the light of the imminence of Jesus’ return. They can scarcely write a letter without touching on the theme (Romans 13:11-14; I Corinthians 15:58; 2 Corinthians 5:1-11; Philippians 3:20-4:1; Colossians 3:4-11, 23-24; I Thessalonians 5:1-11; I Peter 1:3-9; 2 Peter 3: 11-15; I John 3:1-3.). And even a passage like this tells us what we should be doing. We’re waiting for, and actively taking part in, the Son of Man’s gathering in of Israel. That, we now see, includes us- the Gentiles- grafted in to Israel’s olive tree (Romans 11). So we should be acting like disciples, working with the angels, building the church and looking for our Lord’s return. We should be practising for life in the new heavens and new earth with all the gathered people of God. It will be community life, but with a holy community. It will be great. The best practise we can get is to look at the Son of Man now. He will be the focus of life in heaven, and should be the focus of life on earth.

Mark 13:14-25. No, Peter really wasn’t drunk.

August 5, 2011

 “But when you see the abomination of desolation standing where he ought not to be let the reader understand, then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains. Let the one who is on the housetop not go down, nor enter his house, to take anything out, and let the one who is in the field not turn back to take his cloak. And alas for women who are pregnant and for those who are nursing infants in those days! Pray that it may not happen in winter. For in those days there will be such tribulation as has not been from the beginning of the creation that God created until now, and never will be. And if the Lord had not cut short the days, no human being would be saved. But for the sake of the elect, whom he chose, he shortened the days. And then if anyone says to you, ‘Look, here is the Christ!’ or ‘Look, there he is!’ do not believe it. For false christs and false prophets will arise and perform signs and wonders, to lead astray, if possible, the elect. But be on guard; I have told you all things beforehand. (v13-23)

But in those days, after that tribulation, 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.”(v24-25)

We’ve already looked at the first half of Jesus’ long speech to his disciples on the Mount of Olives. They’ve spent a week in and around the Temple, and Jesus has just left it, pronouncing the whole show to be all-but worthless, and predicting that it will be destroyed. The disciples, understandably, are extremely curious about this. They know that if the Temple is destroyed, all bets are off for Israel. They already expected Jesus to be crowned and to establish God’s kingdom from Jerusalem as the Messianic King. Now they see a connection between that, and the fall of the Temple. Surely, God is about to unleash his wrath on unbelieving Israel, destroy their Temple, and establish his king in righteousness to rule from Zion’s holy hill…

But when they ask for a timescale for all this, Jesus tells them to expect suffering and tribulation instead of victory. He tells them that they will be hated by everyone, imprisoned, and had up on rotten charges in court. In these verses, he also warns them that when Jerusalem falls, they shouldn’t stick around to enjoy the victory party- they should flee, and not even wait long enough to grab a coat on the way out.

  1. What (or who) is the abomination of desolation, and where ought he not to be standing?
  2. What makes the suffering that will take place in those days so bad? Jesus says that it is worse than anything that ever has been or ever will be. Is he serious?
  3. Why shouldn’t the disciples believe anyone who claims to have seen, or actually to be, the Christ in those days?
  4. When Jesus talks about the days following “that tribulation”, he uses language about the sun and moon being darkened. What tribulation is he talking about? And is there any reason not to take the cosmic language literally?
  5. No, but seriously, isn’t it a bit weak to waffle on about “cosmic metaphor”? You sound like a liberal.
  6. What big lessons should we learn from this passage?


1.      What (or who) is the abomination of desolation, and where ought he not to be standing?

First, we need to understand when and where this will happen. Having warned the disciples about the days when he will no longer be with them (v5-13), Jesus then (v14-23) prophesies definite events that will take place during that period. The warnings of verses 14-15 are very clearly specific to the local context: Jesus speaks of those who are in “Judea”. He assumes that people could be out “on the housetop”- which is not something we can do here in the rainy North-West of England with our pitched roofs. The whole passage deals with events within the lives of the apostles. It can’t be about the end of all things. What would be the point of fleeing Jerusalem for safety if the whole world were about to be consumed by fire?

Jesus says that people should run for cover when the disciples (“you”) see the abomination of desolation standing where it does not belong. Mark then adds the editorial comment, “let the reader understand”. Mark is signalling to his readers that Jesus is speaking in “code” here, but he expects his readers to “get” the significance of the phrase. From the immediate context, we can see that it describes something which will signal a time of great upset, so great that the disciples should drop everything and flee.

So what event is Jesus talking about here? How do we understand this reference to the “abomination of desolation”, which Mark seems to think his readers will understand?

Look at the prophecy of Daniel. Daniel uses the phrase to refer to some future event which will occur in the Temple, and which will desecrate it utterly (8:13; 9:27, 11:31, 12:11). Both Jesus and the disciples would have known Daniel, and so to understand the phrase, we need to understand something of that book.

Daniel is a book with racy chunks of narrative which all children in Christian families know from Sunday School (what churchy child has never had a lesson on “Daniel in the Lions’ Den”?)  and equally racy but slightly confusing sections of prophecy and dreams. Daniel interpreted the dreams of Nebuchadnezzar, and also had dreams of his own concerning the future.  In Daniel, we read about dreams of a statue with a head of gold, chest and arms of silver, belly and thighs of bronze, legs of iron, and feet of iron and clay; dreams of a succession of different beasts coming out of the sea; and dreams about other animals and powerful horns. These were dreams about great world empires and rulers to be raised up by God. After Nebuchadnezzar and the Babylonian golden head, there came the Persian arms of silver. After Persia, flourished the Greek empire under Alexander the Great. After Greece, came brutal Rome.

Between Alexander’s death (323 B.C.) and the rise of Rome, the Greek empire was split into pieces and various successors to Alexander reigned in different parts. Israel, which is where our interest lies, was ruled first by the Ptolemies of Egypt, and then by the Seleucids of Syria. Antiochus Epiphanes, a Seleucid king, began to interfere with religious affairs in his Jewish territory. He treated the office of High Priest as a political appointment within his gift, rather than an hereditary office by Divine law. When some of his illegitimate “High Priests” began to fight among themselves, Antiochus assaulted Jerusalem, pillaged the Temple, and led captive the women and children. He then embarked on a programme of zealous Hellenisation in Israel. In effect, this meant the persecution of faithful Jews. Sacrifice was forbidden. Festivals and Sabbaths were banned. Circumcision was made illegal. In 168 B.C, Antiochus erected an altar to Zeus over the altar of burnt offering in the Temple, and sacrificed a pig on it. This was seen as an act of sacrilege so appalling that it invited the abandonment of the Temple by God and his people.

Has anyone ever dipped into the apocryphal books of 1 and 2 Maccabees? They contain accounts of this rebellion, and interestingly, the phrase “abomination of desolation” is applied to something Antiochus did on the altar of burnt offering (1 Maccabees 1:54; 6:7). The author of the book plainly (and I think correctly) regarded this as a vindication of Daniel’s prophecy.

Jesus and the disciples will not only know Daniel, but will also know what Antiochus did, and will almost certainly know 1 Maccabees. And so when Jesus himself prophesies a further fulfilment of Daniel, it is a further profaning of the Temple of which Jesus speaks. The disciples (and Mark’s readers) will understand the reference Jesus makes. It is like us hearing somebody say, “When you see the conquerors goose-stepping down the Champs Élysées (let the listener understand), run for the hills”. Westerners of our generation would immediately be thinking back to the events of 1940 and the fall of Paris to the Nazis, but we’d understand that the speaker was talking about a future defeat, a quick surrender, and a conquering army marching down the central street of the captured capital. Depending on the context of the remark, we’d apply it appropriately.

Jesus is talking about the coming siege of Jerusalem and destruction of the Temple by the Roman forces. In A.D. 70, the Jews rebelled against Rome, and the Romans crushed the rebellion. Jerusalem was placed under siege, and the Zealots gained temporary control of the Temple. They allowed murder to take place inside the courts, and installed a clown, Phanni, as high priest. Since Jesus refers to the abomination of desolation as a “he”, standing where he shouldn’t, it is quite possible that Phanni is in view. But whatever the exact fulfilment of the phrase, it is about the desecration of the Temple, and everyone would have understood that.


2.      What makes the suffering that will take place in those days so bad? Jesus says that it is worse than anything that ever has been or ever will be. Is he serious?

This desecration of the Temple will mark a time of great trouble in Judea. The moment they see it, the people had better flee to the mountains. Jesus warns that this disaster will come suddenly (v15-16). While many of the Jews will be fleeing into the city and Temple for protection, Jesus urges his disciples to flee the other way. If a man is up on his flat roof, then he should run down the stairs at the side of his house, and head for the hills. Going down the other stairs into his house, even if it is only to snatch up some food for the journey, could mean death. And if a man is in the fields, he too should run, not even going to pick up his outer garment, designed to keep off the cold at night. That garment would come in handy for a refugee, but the urgency will be too great. The destruction will be terrible and the people will become shelterless wanderers, so woe on those who are nursing children and have to deal with their infants in the flight. And woe especially if this should come in winter with harsh weather as well. It will be dreadful for the Jewish people- worse than anything before or after in the history of the world.

Some take issue with this, and cite the holocaust as the obvious example of something far worse for the Jewish people than anything the Romans dealt out in A.D. 70. But although the suffering of the holocaust ought not to be diminished, whether or not it was worse than A.D. 70 depends on the yardstick you use to measure the events. And by the Bible’s yardstick, A.D. 70 was by far the more profound disaster. We tend to think about relative “badness” purely in terms of immediate human suffering. With that yardstick, perhaps the holocaust was worse- surely the death tolls were higher. Or using the yardstick of the intentions of the perpetrators, perhaps the Nazis were more evil than the Romans. But those are secular yardsticks. They measure things purely in terms of man- man’s suffering or man’s evil. If you put yourself into the mindset of a devout first century Jew, then nothing worse than A.D. 70 is conceivable. The desecration, robbing, and final destruction of the Temple, was the high-water mark of devastation. It wasn’t just about the suffering and humiliation- it was about the unavoidable fact that God had abandoned his people, and was fighting against them. It meant everything that the exile of 586 B.C. had meant and more. Read the death-poetry of Lamentations to get an idea of the depths of suffering- not only physical and mental, but spiritual too- that the exile to Babylon caused the Jews. There isn’t much that could compare with suffering like that. When the holocaust came, it wasn’t about the loss of the promised land; it wasn’t about God abandoning his Temple and his people. It was an horrible event, but measured with a theological yardstick; it just can’t carry the same weight as the fall of the Temple. 

And yet, says Jesus, as bad as the coming tribulation for the disciples may be, it won’t last forever. There will be an end to it for the sake of the chosen, whom God loves.


3.      Why shouldn’t the disciples believe anyone who claims to be, or to have seen, the Christ in those days?

Because they’d be wrong. He isn’t going to be there in those days. When the Romans come in force, the only sane option is escape. There would be carnage, and sufferings would be indescribably cruel, and, crucially, this would not mean that Messiah was about to appear.

The only reason why a sensible man might not flee, would be if he believed that God was going to defend Jerusalem- if the Messiah was going to arrive in the nick of time like the U.S. cavalry and drive the Injuns away. So Jesus makes a special point of saying that when this happens, nobody should be looking for the Christ, the anointed saviour, to show up. If anyone says that the Messiah has appeared, don’t believe it.

The statement in v21-23 looks like a repetition of Jesus’ earlier statement in v5-6; a warning against false Christs who will lead people astray. But this warning is made in the specific context of the siege of Jerusalem. This is connected with the warning to flee. There were those living in Jerusalem in A.D. 70 who predicted the coming of the Messiah. Jesus says they’ll say, “Look, here is the Christ!” And if the disciples at that time had believed that Jesus was coming back to defend the city, then they’d have stayed in Jerusalem to enjoy his protection. But Jesus is warning that he won’t be protecting Jerusalem from the Romans. If anyone claims to be the Messiah in that day, then they’re a liar and a fraud, no matter what magic tricks they’ve got up their sleeve. False messiahs will come and do fake signs and wonders to lead people astray, but they won’t stop the Romans and they won’t stop the destruction of the Temple. Figures like this did arise during the first Jewish-Roman war- try Googling “Simon Ben Giora”- but any who hoped in them, hoped in vain.

Jesus tells the disciples this ahead of time, so that they won’t be taken by surprise. And tradition has it that many of the Christians in Jerusalem did head for the hills when they realised that the Romans were coming, and so escaped with their lives.

Maybe it’s getting boring having the point hammered home, but Jesus cannot be talking about the end of all things, when flight will be useless (Rev 6:15-17).


 4.      When Jesus talks about the days following “that tribulation”, he uses language about the sun and moon being darkened. What tribulation is he talking about? And is there any reason not to take the cosmic language literally?

 Jesus says that in “those days, after that tribulation”, the sun will go dark, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the heavenly powers will be shaken. The “what tribulation is he talking about?” part is the easy bit. In v24, Jesus is following on from his comments about the fall of Jerusalem in v14-23. The fall of Jerusalem and the final destruction of the Temple are the tribulation in view. Those things took place in A.D. 70, as one might expect given that Jesus says (v30) that the disciples’ generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place. But in these verses, Jesus says he is talking about events post-A.D. 70. The question remains, “exactly how long post- ?”  Jesus talks about falling stars and darkened sun, which sounds very much like the end of the world to our ears. But doesn’t he then say that “this generation will not pass away” until all these things have taken place?

I don’t think we can wriggle out of the force of what Jesus says in v30. He closes by saying that the things he’s been talking about will happen before the generation of the disciples passes from the earth. Some commentators manfully argue that the Greek word γευεα, usually translated as “generation”, actually means “race” or “people”, and so the time-span in view can be extended indefinitely, or at least for as long as there are still Jews around. But that doesn’t really wash. It certainly isn’t consistent with Mark’s and Jesus’ use of the word so far in the Gospel (Mark 8:12, 38; 9:19). In those verses, Jesus uses the word to mean his own generation, which is wicked and sinful like the generation that died in the wilderness. So on a face reading, these cosmic signs have already taken place- they happened during the disciples’ generation.

That leaves us with an obvious problem. The historical accounts of the fall of Jerusalem (mostly from Josephus) make no mention of un-natural darkness or falling stars. It seems very unlikely that these things could happen, and yet go un-noticed and unremarked in the histories. Did everybody blink at the same time, and miss it? Or did people think “ho-hum, there goes the sun. Oh, and the stars, too. Still, I’ve got more important things to write in my journal for today”?

To find the answer to the problem, we need to look back to OT, and see the way this cosmic language is used there. The OT reader who hears that language immediately thinks of Isaiah 13, and of similar passages (Isaiah 34:4; Ezekiel 32:7; Amos 8:9; Joel 2:1; 3:15).

In Isaiah 13, we have Isaiah’s oracle concerning the coming fall of Babylon. Isaiah says that “the Lord of hosts is mustering a host for battle.” He says that “the day of the Lord is near.” He says that God is stirring up the pitiless Medes against Babylon. He says that Babylon, in all her splendour and pomp, will be destroyed “like Sodom and Gomorrah when God overthrew them.” He’s talking about huge geo-political upheaval. Babylon would be the Top Nation of the time. It would seem unthinkable that the Babylonian Empire could be destroyed. As Isaiah says, it was the glory of kingdoms. But fall it did, almost overnight, defeated by the Medo-Persian Empire. The key thing for our purposes though, is that as Isaiah describes the fall of Babylon, he says that God declares “the sun will be dark at its rising and the moon will not give its light”; and “I will make the heavens tremble and the earth will be shaken out of its place” (Isaiah 13:10, 13). When we read of the sun being blotted out and the earth being shaken out of its place, that doesn’t sound an awful lot like the fall of an earthly empire, does it? It sounds like something an awful lot more serious. It sounds like the end of everything. And yet Isaiah is not talking about the end of the world, but about a change in world-government. He can talk about the fall of Babylon, and tell us that the heavens will tremble when it happens. In Isaiah, the celestial language is not meant to be about the enormous nuclear fusion reactions out in space. It is nations that are blotted out, not the sun.

Or take Ezekiel 32, where Ezekiel raises a lament over Pharaoh and Egypt, having just prophesied Egypt’s fall to Babylon, and the death of Pharaoh. In that chapter, God says to Pharaoh that when he destroys Pharaoh by the sword of the Babylonian king, then he will cover the heavens, make the stars dark, cover the sun with a cloud, stop the moon from giving its light, and make all of the bright lights of the heavens dark. But the astral disaster was a metaphor for the political downfall and death of Pharaoh. This is a characteristic of prophetic literature- cosmic sympathy and correlation. So in Isaiah and Ezekiel, so in Judges where the stars in their courses fight against Sisera (Judges 5:20), and so with the language Jesus uses here- almost quoting Isaiah.

 If you wonder whether this is all a little bit too obscure- whether the disciples would have understood that Jesus was talking about the fall of Jerusalem when he spoke of celestial disaster- just look at Peter’s use of Joel in Acts 2.

Joel had said to Israel that a day would come when God’s Spirit would be poured out “on all flesh; your sons and daughters shall prophesy; your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men shall see visions… and I will show wonders in the heavens and on the earth, blood and fire and columns of smoke. The sun shall be turned to darkness, and the moon to blood, before the great and awesome day of the Lord comes. And it shall come to pass that everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved” (Joel 2:28, 30-32).

When Peter is there in Jerusalem at Pentecost, and the disciples begin to speak in foreign languages, which the Jews of the dispersion who are gathered for the festival can understand, some men in the crowd begin to accuse the disciples of drunkenness. Peter stands up and addresses the crowd, and he says that these men are not drunk- it’s too early in the morning anyway. Instead, says Peter, what is happening is a direct fulfilment of the prophecy of Joel- and he then quotes the chunk from Joel 2:28-32.

We can see immediately how the part about God’s Spirit being poured out is true of the disciples. But Peter doesn’t say that only that part is fulfilled. He talks about the sun being darkened as well. We have no hint that that is actually physically literally happening as Peter speaks. But the crowd don’t turn on him and say “The moon turning to blood, eh? Ha! You ARE drunk”. Again, this is only intelligible if we read the cosmic darkness as a metaphor for the downfall of a political body, and also take it as read that the Jewish crowd shared this understanding. In Acts 2, the political downfall is that of Israel; this outpouring of the Spirit sounds the death-knell for her national privilege. God is at that very moment speaking to her in tongues of foreigners because she wouldn’t listen to him speak in her own language, as Isaiah had predicted (Isa 28:11-13). God’s people are now no longer defined as those people who can trace their descent to Jacob, or who are circumcised and who keep the law like good Israelites. God’s people are now as defined as the body of people joined to God’s Messiah. No longer the natural children of Abraham, but all who share Abraham’s faith. This is the biggest change in God’s dealings with men since the fall, perhaps even since the creation. If cosmic language isn’t appropriate here, then where would it be?


 5.      No, but seriously, isn’t it a bit weak to waffle on about “cosmic metaphor”? You sound like a liberal.

Well, maybe. But I still think it has got to be about the events of the disciples lifetime; the changes in God’s purposes that separate the Old and New Covenants.

And there might even be a way for it to be both literal and about those changes, even though nobody at the time actually experienced a black-out. That way would involve answering questions like “So what actually is an angel?” and “What are the principalities and powers Paul talks about in Ephesians?”, and, “When Isaiah talks about the “Day Star, son of Dawn…You who said in your heart, ‘I will ascend to heaven, above the stars of God’”, who does he mean?”

I don’t intend to do that now because

a) I’ve gone on long enough.

b) We’ve had more than enough weird for one day.

c) I’ve not really thrashed it out in my own mind yet.

But basically, I think that earth is an image of heaven, that realities on earth mirror the heavenly realities, and that there is a connection between earthly powers and heavenly powers- between stars, kings, nations, and angels. It would make admirable sense of all the passages quoted in the previous question. To most of us, brought up in a materialist society, it sounds very odd indeed. Perhaps the thing in our experience that it sounds most like is the ramblings of some New-Age hippie whose rational faculties have been fried by LSD. So I should probably add here that I am no more drunk than was Peter. And I have never taken, do not take at this time, and never intend to take, illegal drugs. But at least it stops me sounding like a liberal.


6.      What big lessons should we learn from this passage?

Jesus is in total control of all history. In the last week of his life, before he went to the cross, he knew what his death would accomplish. He knew that it would mean unimaginable pain for himself. He knew that it would mean turmoil and confusion for Israel. But in all that, with all those concerns in his mind, Jesus is still concerned for the good of his disciples. Anybody else, thinking about the rise and fall of nations, might think themselves justified in ignoring their friends. Any other man, knowing his own death to be near, might have been selfish and preoccupied. But Jesus, all through this chapter, is putting the needs of his disciples first. They will be confused and in danger. So Jesus tells them the things they will need to be able to remember.

He does these things because he is the image of the invisible God, and God cares for his elect and works all things together for their good. How can we doubt it, when we see Jesus?

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

August 5, 2011

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.