Jesus and the End (Mark 13)

The following is an unedited sermon manuscript; for an explanation of my sermon manuscripts, click here.

*Originally preached April 11th, 2021*

Sermon Audio: Jesus and the End (Mark 13)

In the 1950’s, at the dawn of the Cold War with USSR, America worked diligently to create a missile detection system that would alert us of incoming Soviet attacks. An array of radars were stationed at likely places that missiles would pass over en route to the States. If an incoming missile was detected, the protocol was for an immediate launching of our own nuclear salvo (it had to be immediate, of course, because once Russia’s warheads dropped it would send America back to the stone age, leaving us no ability to retaliate), creating what is popularly known as “mutually assured destruction.” 

In his book The Doomsday Machine, Daniel Ellsberg (himself an architect of our nuclear defense program and now an advocate for nuclear disarmament) tells the story of an early detection system set up in Alaska. One day, shortly after the radars were up and running, alarms began blaring, alerting the command that their worst fears were realized; a Russian missile had been detected and was flying to America. Technicians quickly pulled out the keys that had to be simultaneously turned to open the glass shield around an ominous button. Panicking, they radioed soldiers stationed at the radars themselves to confirm if they could see the inbound missiles. Every second was a gamble—if they waited too long to respond, their missile launching capacities may be incapacitated once the Russian warheads detonated; but if they fired, they would likely kill every living person in the USSR. They waited, fingers poised shakily over the button, weighing their duty to their country with the sheer magnitude of the consequence of pressing the button. 

Well, since we are all here, not in the grips of a nuclear ice age or locked in WWIII with Mother Russia, obviously the commanding officers decided to wait. But what happened? As it turns out, the missile detection system, still very new and prone to malfunction, had taken a flock of Canadian geese flying overhead to be a nuclear warhead. And because the soldiers and commanding officers were willing to exercise discernment in interpreting the alarm signals—even in a moment of extreme pressure!—we are all still here.

In our text today, we see Jesus give us the resources we need to exercise discernment, to interpret signs rightly, to know how to respond to great calamity. Turn with me now to Mark 13:

1 And as he came out of the temple, one of his disciples said to him, “Look, Teacher, what wonderful stones and what wonderful buildings!” 2 And Jesus said to him, “Do you see these great buildings? There will not be left here one stone upon another that will not be thrown down.”

3 And as he sat on the Mount of Olives opposite the temple, Peter and James and John and Andrew asked him privately, 4 “Tell us, when will these things be, and what will be the sign when all these things are about to be accomplished?” 5 And Jesus began to say to them, “See that no one leads you astray. 6 Many will come in my name, saying, I am he!’ and they will lead many astray. 7 And when you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed. This must take place, but the end is not yet. 8 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.

9 “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. 10 And the gospel must first be proclaimed to all nations. 11 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. 12 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. 13 And you will be hated by all for my name’s sake. But the one who endures to the end will be saved.

14 “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. 15 Let the one who is on the housetop not go down, nor enter his house, to take anything out, 16 and let the one who is in the field not turn back to take his cloak. 17 And alas for women who are pregnant and for those who are nursing infants in those days! 18 Pray that it may not happen in winter. 19 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. 20 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. 21 And then if anyone says to you, ‘Look, here is the Christ!’ or ‘Look, there he is!’ do not believe it. 22 For false christs and false prophets will arise and perform signs and wonders, to lead astray, if possible, the elect. 23 But be on guard; I have told you all things beforehand.

24 “But in those days, after that tribulation, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, 25 and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken. 26 And then they will see the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory. 27 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.

28 “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. 29 So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that he is near, at the very gates. 30 Truly, I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all these things take place. 31 Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.

32 “But concerning that day or that hour, no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. 33 Be on guard, keep awake. For you do not know when the time will come. 34 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. 35 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— 36 lest he come suddenly and find you asleep. 37 And what I say to you I say to all: Stay awake.” Mark 13:1-37

Temple Grandeur

The text begins with the disciples exclaiming to Jesus: ““Look, Teacher, what wonderful stones and what wonderful buildings!” (Mark 13:1b). It is hard to overstate just how magnificent the temple complex was. Construction on this temple began just fifty years before Jesus by Herod the Great, and was actually still under construction during Jesus’ time (it was not completed till 63 AD), but it was nonetheless staggering in appearance. Herod’s temple was far larger than Solomon’s or the second temple built under Nehemiah and Ezra. You could fit 12 football fields in the temple complex alone. The entire exterior was either covered in a white-wash or plated with gold. Josephus, the Jewish historian from the first century, writes:

“The exterior of the building wanted nothing that could astound either mind or eye. For, being covered on all sides with massive plates of gold, the sun was no sooner up than it radiated so fiery a flash that persons straining to look at it were compelled to avert their eyes, as from the solar rays. To approaching strangers it appeared from a distance like a snow-clad mountain; for all that was not overlaid with gold was of purest white. Some of the stones in the building were forty-five cubits in length, five in height and six in breadth”. – Josephus

One commentator writes: “In the latter part of the twentieth century, a large stone on the second tier of the western foundation wall was discovered whose dimensions are approximately 42 feet long × 14 feet wide × 11 feet tall,” (Stein, BECNT). Everything about the temple, from its beauty, to its sheer size, to its solemnity made it appear to be totally permanent. But Jesus thought otherwise.

“Do you see these great buildings? There will not be left here one stone upon another that will not be thrown down,” Mark 13:2

Temple Destruction

Mark 13 begins with the innocuous comment: “And as he came out of the temple…” Mark 13:1a. It reminds us that the entire previous episode we have been studying has taken place within the temple: starting back in Mark 11, with Jesus’ triumphal entry and subsequent cursing of the temple, to the repeated debates and arguments with the temple authorities in Mark 12, right up to this moment. Towards the beginning of Mark 11 we saw Jesus cursing the fig tree as a sign of the judgment to come on the temple (11:12-22) and here at the end of Mark 13 we find a parable of a fig tree about the coming judgment on the temple (13:28-31), forming two brackets to tie this unit together as a whole.

Mark’s comment that Jesus is “coming out of the temple” could be a simple statement about Jesus leaving the temple grounds. Or it could be a prophetic act demonstrating that God’s presence has now departed from the temple (cf. Ezek 10). This seems more likely particularly because of the location Jesus walks to immediately afterwards: the Mount of Olives (Mark 13:3). This mountain was directly to the east of the city and gave those who sat on it a commanding view of all of Jerusalem, but especially the Temple. In the book of Zechariah, there was a prophecy of the coming destruction of Jerusalem and “on that day [The Lord’s} feet shall stand on the Mount of Olives,” (Zech 14:4). The Lord is not in the temple, in Jerusalem, but standing outside Jerusalem as its judgment comes. Remember: Jesus, before His incarnation, was the One in the temple. But now, He stands outside of it, standing over it on the Mount of Olives. The temple in Jerusalem is no longer the dwelling place of God, instead it has become a dwelling place of robbers and false religion (cf. Mark 11:17). 

Alarmed by Jesus’ statements, the disciples ask Jesus: ““Tell us, when will these things be, and what will be the sign when all these things are about to be accomplished?” (Mark 13:4). This is critical to rightly understand this whole chapter; the controlling question here is: when will the temple be destroyed, and how will we know ahead of time when that will be? 

In verses 5-8 Jesus explains signs that do not mean the temple is about to be destroyed: wars, famines, and earthquakes. These problems are part and parcel of living in a fallen world; they are “birth pains” (cf. Rom 8:22). Jesus’ advice is: “do not be alarmed. This must take place, but the end is not yet,” Mark 13:7

In verses 9-13 Jesus gives more signs that do not necessarily mean the temple is about to be destroyed: persecution. Because Jesus Himself was persecuted and “no servant is greater than His master” Christians have always experienced persecution. Jesus wants His disciples to know that this is to be expected, but God will also provide strength and aid to them as they share the gospel to all nations.

But in verses 14-23 Jesus gives His disciples what they are looking for: a sign that the destruction of the temple is imminent, “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,” (13:14). The “abomination of desolation” is a phrase taken from the book of Daniel (Dan 9:27; 11:31; 12:11) that describes a wicked ruler who brings an end to sacrifices in the temple, destroys Jerusalem, exalts himself above God, and desecrates the temple with “abominations.” The reason Mark includes that interesting comment (“Let the reader understand”) is because for most Jews, they assumed that this event had actually already happened. Nearly 190 years before Jesus gave the Olivet Discourse, a Seleucid general named Antiochus Epiphanes IV, who ruled over Palestine, brutally squashed a rebellion in Jerusalem by destroying much of Jerusalem, entering the temple, and stopping all sacrifices. He then set up an idol to Zeus in the temple, and allegedly offered up a pig for sacrifice (an unclean animal according to kosher laws). This event is recorded in the Jewish historical book 1 Maccabees (1 Macc 1:54, 59) and was understood by all Jews to be the “abomination of desolation” that Daniel spoke of. 

So, Jesus is saying: when something like that happens again in Jerusalem, you need to get out of the city as fast as possible and flee to the mountains because a judgment is going to fall on Jerusalem that us unlike anything else it has experienced in its total brutality. And this is exactly what happened. Thirty years from Jesus’ Olivet Discourse, political tensions between Jerusalem and Rome had boiled over to a screaming fever pitch. More and more would-be Messiahs began to arise, more and more began to resort to acts of violence to throw off the Roman yoke, and more and more did Rome increase the burden of its yoke on the Jews’ necks. By 66 AD, the Zealots—an extreme fanatic movement of Jews—organized a rebellion against Rome. At the same time, however, a fierce civil war broke out between the different Jewish factions, with the Zealots eventually gaining ascendancy and taking forcible possession of the city. They instituted a reign of terror in the city, quickly executing anyone who questioned them, and set up their headquarters inside the temple. Driven far more by a hatred of Rome than a genuine love for Yahewh, they deposed the current high priest and set up their own high priest (Phanni) who knew nothing whatsoever was required of being a priest and was unqualified. They executed their political enemies in the temple square and permitted criminals to enter into the holy of holies, and thus desecrated the temple.

After this occurred, the church historian Eusebius details how the Christians who were residing in Jerusalem fled, remembering Jesus’ teaching, and so their lives were spared. In the Spring of 70 AD, the Roman general Titus during the Jewish celebration of Passover besieged the city. Rome, aggravated by the decades of growing hostility from the Jews, wanted to make an example out of this small nation and so crushed the with an absolute brutality. After months of waiting the people out till they were all near death due to famine, the Romans breached the walls and slaughtered nearly everyone in the city. They crucified thousands of Jews outside of the city and burnt the city to the ground before they plundered then destroyed the temple. Josephus, the Jewish historian was present when this happened and wrote that the dead were so numerous that ground could not be seen anywhere in the city, only corpses. The gravity of Jesus’ warning is thus fitting: “But be on guard; I have told you all things beforehand,” (13:23).

Total Destruction

But Jesus’ teaching seems to extend beyond just this moment in history. As we read Mark 13 we see that Jesus also is informing us of a greater event that looms larger than the destruction of the temple alone. He describes the climactic return of “the Son of Man.” He explains: 

“But in those days, after that tribulation, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, 25 and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken. 26 And then they will see the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory. 27 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.” – Mark 13:24-27

What is described here is the climactic conclusion to history. The sun and moon darkening, the stars falling from heaven is a prophetic description of creation itself being unraveled, as if Genesis 1 is going in reverse (cf. Isa 13:10; 34:4; Ezek 32:7-8; Joel 2:10). The coming of the Son of Man riding the clouds is an image from Daniel 7:13-14 that describe the consummation of the Kingdom, where God the Father gives to this Son authority and power over every enemy, and then the Son shares His authority with God’s people (Dan 7:27). This is detailing something much more than just the destruction of the temple in 70 AD, but is looking to the second coming of Jesus where He will destroy all His enemies and usher in the New Heavens and New Earth. But, how are we to understand the relationship between the destruction of the temple and the final judgment?

Two things are happening here in Mark 13: (1) Jesus is understanding the destruction of the temple to serve as a paradigm through which to understand what the end time judgment will look like (Paul seems to understand this and points to an event similar to the abomination of desolation as being a precursor to the second coming in 2 Thess 2:3-4). (2) Jesus sees the destruction of the temple as something that opens the door to the final judgment and His second coming. 

When you look at a mountain range from a distance, it looks like all of the mountains are standing right next to each other. But when you get close, you discover that one mountain may actually be a mile further behind the other mountain. From your vantage point, the space between the mountains looks non-existent. This is often what happens in prophecy in the Bible—the future is viewed as a single event and described as such, when in reality there may be large gaps of distance in time between the events. For Jesus, the destruction of Jerusalem and His second coming are bound together—after the destruction of the temple the Son of Man comes. But, what we now know is that there has been an expanse of two thousand years and we still are awaiting the second coming.

Surprisingly, Jesus Himself explains that He does not know the timing of the end: “But concerning that day or that hour, no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father,” Mark 13:32. If you’re thinking: Wait, how can Jesus not know something? You might ask yourself: Why did Jesus need to sleep? He was a human being, and in His humanity there were certain things that He was simply ignorant of. In His deity, this is not true of course. If you are befuddled by that, then feel free to come ask me questions about it afterwards. 

But this dual-lens view of the destruction of the temple (near) and the end judgment (far) is how we can understand Jesus’ statement that “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,” Mark 13:29-30 (Note: the “these things” and “all these things” mirror the disciples question in vs. 3, “Tell us, when will these things be, and what will be the sign when all these things are about to be accomplished?” Thus, the “things” being accomplished refer to the destruction of the temple). And Jesus says, once that happens, you know “He is near.” One commentator explains, “Both Jesus’s resurrection and Jerusalem’s destruction are end-time events that are completed only by the [second-coming] of the Son of Man. Like engagement and marriage, they are necessarily connected, even though a time period separates them. So for Mark the events of AD 70 and the [second-coming] are united and yet separated in time,” (Stein, BECNT).

This is why all of the New Testament authors understand anyone living on this side of the resurrection to be those living in “the last days” (Heb 1:1-2; 9:26; 1 Pet 1:20; 4:7; Acts 2:17; 1 Cor 7:31; 1 John 2:10). Thus, Jesus’ short parable of the master going away on his journey and who may return at any time is a picture of the eager expectation we need now to have. As Peter reminds us, “But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a roar, and the heavenly bodies will be burned up and dissolved, and the earth and the works that are done on it will be exposed,” (2 Pet 3:10). At any moment, the end may come. In light of that, Peter then asks us this question: “Since all these things are thus to be dissolved, what sort of people ought you to be in lives of holiness and godliness,” 2 Pet 3:11. Let’s briefly consider that now:

1.     Patient. It might feel odd to think, “How can we be in the “last days” for two thousand years now?” Peter anticipates this problem: “knowing this first of all, that scoffers will come in the last days with scoffing, following their own sinful desires. 4 They will say, “Where is the promise of his coming? For ever since the fathers fell asleep, all things are continuing as they were from the beginning of creation.”… But do not overlook this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day. 9 The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance,” 2 Pet 3:3-4, 8-9.

2.     Discerning. Much of Jesus’ exhortation to His disciples—and to us—in Mark 13 is to be careful about being misled. It is ironic that Jesus explicitly tells us here that “wars, rumors of wars, famines, and earthquakes” are not a sign of the end, and yet nearly every time war breaks out, Christians (American Christians particularly) think that it most certainly is a sign that the end is near. And when we get riled up into a fever of “doomsday prognosticating” we then will be more susceptible to false prophets and false messiahs who through signs and wonders, political analysis, end-times chart making, and biblical origami try to lead astray the elect. In 1988 a book came out called 88 Reasons why the Rapture will be in 1988, giving cooky half-baked explanations for why Jesus would return (one of them: in 1988 it would be the 212th anniversary of America and 100th session of congress, and water boils at 212 degrees and 100 degrees Celsius, and America was now at a boiling point). That, of course, sounds ridiculous now—but that book was a huge seller in America. We need to be very discerning. If we give ourselves over to “end-times” fervor, we will constantly be set up to be duped and swindled and have a strange kind of vanity that assumes that our moment or location in history is always fraught with the most supreme of importance. If we were Christians living in the 700’s and heard that muslim armies had taken over Jerusalem and built a mosque on top of the Temple Mount, it would be tempting to think: This must be a sign that Jesus is returning soon. If we lived in medieval Europe in the 1200’s and 1300’s and saw the bubonic plague (Black Death) ravage our villages and cities, killing nearly a third of the population, leaving stacks of dead bodies piled up in our streets, wouldn’t it be tempting to think: Surely, this must be a sign that the final Day is near! We should be slow to assume that we are at the doorstep of the end times, slow to be jumping to conclusions; we should be discerning.

3.     Enduring. Jesus assumes that the posture we need to have is one of alert readiness: “Stay awake!” he charges us. You might be tempted to spiritually doze, but don’t! As we consider the length of time we are awaiting for Jesus’ return, our urgency might slip. Think of how sleepiness comes over you at a time where you need to stay awake: you know you shouldn’t, but you feel warm, your eyelids are heavy, your head begins to nod, and it just sounds so nice to lay your head back and slip into the bliss of unconsciousness. And Jesus is hear clanging a loud bell and shouting: Don’t! STAY AWAKE! To resist the temptation to become spiritually lackadaisical, to resist the lusts of the flesh and desires of the world that want to lull us into a slumber, we need endurance. But notice the particular way we are told to endure in verses 9-13? We should endure through persecution. Apparently, we should expect that as we seek to obey the Great Commission, to preach the gospel to the nations, it will result in persecution: “And you will be hated by all for my name’s sake. But the one who endures to the end will be saved,” Mark 13:13. Jesus simply assumes that His disciples are taking the gospel to any and everyone, even if it comes at the cost of our comfort and our own lives. But in our persecution, we have the comfort that the Holy Spirit Himself is with us, supplying everything we need (Mark 13:11) and that if we continue to endure to the end we “will be saved.”

4.     Confident. Interestingly, during the crucifixion of Jesus we see some of the elements of judgment that Jesus describes here. Mark explains that in Jesus’ final hours, “when the sixth hour had come, there was darkness over the whole land until the ninth hour,” Mark 16:33. The sun stops shining. Matthew explains that at the moment Jesus dies, on top of the great darkness, there is a massive earthquake that splits rocks in two, that tombs open up and that dead saints come to life (Matt 27:51-53). And both Matthew and Mark explain that at the moment of Jesus’ death, the veil of the temple is torn in two (Mark 15:38). It’s like a miniature display of the destruction of the temple and the final judgment is happening in the death of Jesus. Why? Because that is exactly what is happening. The judgment day is coming, but it is coming into Jesus. The end times, earth-shattering, cataclysm of condemnation is rending creation–but the bullseye of this wrath is aimed at the man from Galilee hanging on a cross. The future has been pulled back into the past; the Final Day is happening today, in Jesus. Jesus is taking on the judgment that the sins of everyone who has put their faith in Him deserve, so that now for those who have trusted in Christ, there is no condemnation left (Rom 8:1). Our “Judgment Day” has already happened, two thousand years ago at Golgotha. And now when we die, we will receive the blessings and welcomes that Jesus’ spectacular, law-fulfilling life had earned. And that is the kind of confidence we need to face down the persecutions of this world, to endure the temptations, to be discerning, and to be patient.

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