Continuing a series on passages from St Mark’s Gospel which do not appear in the three-year Lectionary for public worship, this post examines Jesus’s description of the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem and imminent apostolic martyrdom.
Signs of the Close of the Age
3And 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?” 5And 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. 7And when you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed. This must take place, but the end is not yet. 8For 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. 10And the gospel must first be proclaimed to all nations. 11And 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.
It is disappointing that Matthew 24 — none of it — is included in the Lectionary. It doesn’t hurt any of us to hear more frequently about the run-up to the end of the world with all its devastating events, both manmade and natural.
It is also unfortunate that the Lectionary compilers saw fit to truncate Jesus’s narrative as detailed in Mark 13 and Luke 21. Later in the post, I shall include the part of Mark 13 which is read in church.
In last week’s post, we read Jesus’s devastating reply to the disciples admiring the great edifice of the Temple.
Afterward, on the Mount of Olives overlooking this magnificent structure and the city of Jerusalem, Jesus’s closest friends among the Apostles — Peter, Andrew and the two Boanerges brothers James and John — asked Him when the Temple would be destroyed and what signs would precede it (verses 3 and 4).
John MacArthur explains what was probably going through their minds at the time:
On Monday [Palm Sunday readings], everybody said He’s the Messiah. Everybody hailed Him as the Messiah. Hundreds of thousands of people gathered for the Passover, were there in Jerusalem throwing palm branches at His feet, laying their garments down in front of the animal He was riding on and hailing Him as the Son of David and the Messiah and saying, “Hosanna.” And the disciples had their expectations elevated greatly.
However, the next day, on Tuesday, He comes into Jerusalem with them. Curses a fig tree and that’s a symbol of the curse that’s going to come on the nation. And instead of Him destroying the Gentile occupiers, the Romans, which the Jews wanted Him to do, He’s going to destroy Israel. He’s going to judge them. He’s going to curse them as He cursed the tree. And He sets that in motion with a second symbol of that. He goes into the temple and He throws the buyers and sellers out. He just cleans the place of all the corruption and crime and then comes back on Wednesday and with the debris and litter still lying around, He occupies the temple for that full day and speaks the truth in that place for the first time in hundreds of years.
The disciples don’t know what to think. They know that the leaders of Israel are after Him. They know they want Him dead. And Jesus has told them at least three recorded times that He’s going to be arrested, He’s going to die, and He’s going to rise. And they still are trying to figure out, when is the Kingdom going to come?
If you’ve missed the past few posts, it’s important to know that the Jews believed that their Messiah would redeem the nation of Israel in a temporal way and make it into a great earthly kingdom. Hence the confusion about what Jesus has told them and will set out in this chapter.
Although they did not realise it, the Apostles were asking about two different events and time periods. The destruction of the Temple would occur in 70 AD and the end of the world is yet to come.
Some reading this passage — and several years ago, I was one of them — believe that what our Lord discussed in Mark 13, Matthew 24 and Luke 21 all happened in 70 AD. These believers are called preterists. Within the past few years, I have changed my outlook in reading and rereading what these chapters say. It’s much easier for one’s mind to believe that all this happened in the first century and that we haven’t had to worry about it since.
For this reason, preterists often believe that the world can only improve. Utopians — religious and secular — fall into this category. Christians who are working towards a utopia are known in theological terms as post-millenialists.
MacArthur warns us about a rosy interpretation of much of Mark 13 (emphases mine) :
Well, I’ll promise you one thing, Jesus was not a post-millennialist. He certainly didn’t believe things were going to get better and better and better. This is a long pessimistic look at history. He doesn’t say when. In fact, He says, “No one knows, not even the Son of Man, only the Father.” But He does define the nature of human experience while history waits for His return. While history is waiting for Him to come back, there will be a barrage of false Christs, false Messiahs, false teachers, false prophets, wars, disasters, persecution, all through human history and getting worse and worse and worse. And at the end, the explosion of these kinds of things will reach epoch proportions that are described in Revelation 6 through 19 in a seven-year period called a time of Tribulation. Even the latter half of that is a time of Great Tribulation, the last three and a half years being the worst of all.
These prophecies do not describe 70 A.D. That’s impossible. And yet there are people called Preterists who say that everything that our Lord predicted here came to pass in 70 A.D., or by 70 A.D. That is an impossible interpretation, to be sure. And there’s no need for that. You can take Scripture at face value.
Whilst there are verses that do describe the times of the destruction of the Temple within this chapter, not all of them do. Some could also be read to pertain to that time and the end of the world.
In verses 5 and 6, Jesus warned against being drawn in by false teachers appearing to come in His name or proclaiming themselves as Christ. Matthew Henry’s commentary says that in the years after the Jews rejected Him, many began following false prophets. Henry says that this phenomenon had not occurred before. Although the Jews fell into sin, as the Old Testament and Gospels tell us, they had not been lured into believing false teachings at that time.
Jesus cautioned against fearing war — in the disciples’ time and in ours (verses 7 and 8). Henry’s commentary tells us:
Christ was born into the world when there was a general peace, but soon after he went out of the world there were general wars …
For us and future generations, Henry advised:
Those that despise the smiles of the world, and do not court and covet them, may despise the frowns of the world, and need not fear them. If we seek not to rise with them that rise in the world, why should we dread falling with them that fall in the world?
In other words, if we’re already turning away from the world’s pleasantries and entertainments, we can equally avoid getting too wrapped up the schemes of evil men and nations. This is difficult to do, however, as we see in election results: ‘Why didn’t the better candidate win? If only our society were less corrupt.’ In other words, whilst taking in the news we must try to not let it envelop our lives to the extent that we become fearful or fatalist. It is at these times when our faith should be sustaining us. It is this faith which we should be trying to build up in our own households.
Note that Jesus also mentions natural disasters in the second part of verse 8: earthquakes and famines. The ‘birth pains’ refer to the travails that generations past, present and future will have to endure in a fallen world.
Henry’s commentary recommends pragmatism, rephrasing what Jesus was saying and adding a conclusion:
” … instead of being disturbed at them, you ought to prepare for worse; for there shall also be earthquakes in divers places, which shall bury multitudes in the ruins of their own houses, and there shall be famines, by which many of the poor shall perish for want of bread, and troubles and commotions; so that there shall be no peace to him that goes out or comes in. The world shall be full of troubles, but be not ye troubled; without are fightings, within are fears, but fear not ye their fear.” Note, The disciples of Christ, if it be not their own fault, may enjoy a holy security and serenity of mind, when all about them is in the greatest disorder.
We are called to be materially and spiritually prepared. My grandparents always had a larder in case of storms. These days, such pragmatism is ridiculed. We would do well to always have spares of things on hand, from food to toiletries to blankets to linens. We should avoid a hand-to-mouth existence. Anything could happen. As the Scout motto says, ‘Be prepared’. If people ridicule us for it, so what?
In verse 9, Jesus began a short discourse warning of persecution and prosecution. Some of that is documented in Acts — with the accounts of Sts Stephen and Paul. In fact, of the Twelve, only one — John — was spared martyrdom. He was exiled on Patmos, where he died alone. What Jesus said here pertained to His followers at the time but equally to subsequent generations. This will last until the end of time, whenever that may be. Jesus advised, ‘Be on your guard’: be prudent, be watchful, be aware of people, events, trends so that we know how to respond in wisdom and holiness.
Concerning verse 10 — the preaching of the Gospel — the context between Mark’s verse here and Matthew’s (Matthew 24:14) differs somewhat because of their placement in the text. Mark’s intimates that Jesus’s meaning here is to keep evangelising, regardless of general circumstances. In a secular context we say, ‘The show must go on’. We mustn’t give up being faithful witnesses. On the other hand, Matthew’s understanding is that the end of the world will not take place until the Gospel has reached every corner of the earth. Therefore, we must bear both meanings in mind.
And what happens if we are prosecuted for our faith? What if we are sentenced to be tortured or to die? What do we say before our persecutors? Jesus said not to fear; should we find ourselves in that situation, the Holy Spirit will speak through us (verse 11). We can read an example of this in Acts 7, which documents what Stephen said at his own trial. Such powerful words must have sustained him in death. I pray that none of us reading this undergoes martyrdom, but, if we do, a strong witness will help us persevere at the worst of times, even in final moments of unimaginable suffering.
Just as alarming as court prosecution for our faith is the reality that persecution will also take place amongst family members (verse 12). There are many testimonies today from Christians — some converts from Islam but equally amongst unbelieving people around the world — who faced torture at the hands of their fathers, uncles, brothers, mothers or sisters. Sometimes this has resulted in death — then and now. This is yet another reason why it is so important to shore up our faith every day. Pray. Study the Bible. Ask the Lord for guidance. Use the gifts of the Holy Spirit.
Jesus closed His discourse on persecution by confirming that people will hate us because we believe in Him (verse 13). Yet, He encouraged endurance and standing firm in the faith. On this, Henry wrote:
Those whom Christ calls out to be advocates for him, shall be furnished with full instructions: and when we are engaged in the service of Christ, we may depend upon the aids of the Spirit of Christ …
Perseverance gains the crown. The salvation here promised is more than a deliverance from evil, it is an everlasting blessedness, which shall be an abundant recompence for all their services and sufferings.
The rest of Mark 13 is in the Lectionary, however, it is divided into two parts — each being read at a different service. It is little wonder, then, that some Christians side with preterism and post-millenialism.
So that we can compare Mark 13 with Matthew 24, I shall include the rest of the chapter here and add commentary on the main points:
The Abomination of Desolation
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, 16and let the one who is in the field not turn back to take his cloak. 17And alas for women who are pregnant and for those who are nursing infants in those days! 18Pray that it may not happen in winter. 19For 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. 20And 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. 21And 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. 23But be on guard; I have told you all things beforehand.
The Coming of the Son of Man
24“But in those days, after that tribulation, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, 25and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken. 26And then they will see the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory. 27And 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.
The Lesson of the Fig Tree
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. 29So 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.
No One Knows That Day or Hour
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— 36lest he come suddenly and find you asleep. 37And what I say to you I say to all: Stay awake.”
About these verses, particularly the abomination of desolation, Henry counselled:
Now, let him that readeth this, understand it, and endeavor to take it right. Prophecies should not be too plain, and yet intelligible to those that search them; and they are best understood by comparing them first with one another, and at last with the event.
The abomination of desolation which Jesus refers to in verse 14 means the Roman army. Henry explains that had the Jews acknowledged Christ — whom they viewed as an abomination — they would have been spared this judgment. To this day, the Temple ground stands desolate.
They had rejected Christ as an abomination, who would have been their salvation; and now God brought upon them an abomination that would be their desolation, thus spoken of by Daniel the prophet (ch. 9:27), as that by which this sacrifice and offering should be made to cease. This army stood where it ought not, in and about the holy city, which the heathen ought not to have approached, nor would have been suffered to approach, if Jerusalem had not first profaned the crown of their holiness. This the church complains of, Lam. 1:10, The heathen entered into her sanctuary, whom thou didst command that they should not enter into the congregation; but sin made the breach, at which the glory went out, and the abomination of desolation broke in, and stood where it ought not.
It is about this destruction of the Temple at the hands of the Romans which Jesus warns. He said to drop everything and not to return home. Mothers and wetnurses would suffer with the children they were minding. He said that it would be a worse invasion than the Jews had experienced at the hands of their enemies; indeed it was. It was also at that time that false ‘Christs’ appeared to mislead the Jews. Jesus also said that the suffering would have been even worse had God not spared the elect — the faithful who were there at the time. Jesus concluded these verses by telling the Apostles to be alert; this was going to happen. And it did in 70 AD.
However, verses 19 through 23 still hold true today. Many false teachers abound; a good number of them pose as wolves in sheep’s clothing in our churches. Some call themselves prophets. Others preach an Old Testament-only — ‘Judaising’ (as St Paul would have called it) — theology, full of legalism which makes their followers prideful. Still others preach secularism because they are too faithless to say aloud that Jesus Christ is Lord.
In a dual reading of the destruction of the Temple (historical) and the Second Coming, verses 19 through 23 describe the tribulation of both events. For us and future generations, the world will become more dangerous, more evil, more tyrranical and more hateful of Christ and His followers. These events culminate during a period of 1260 days, 42 months as prophesied by Daniel and reaffirmed in Revelation. (Unlike John MacArthur, I see nothing in Scripture to support the Rapture. As an amillenialist, I believe that the faithful alive during that time — whenever it occurs — will be caught up in it. However, I do believe that God will spare or mitigate their suffering.)
In any event, after the tribulation, whatever generation is alive at the time will see Christ’s Second Coming. This is not something most Christians think about. However, Jesus’s words in verses 24 to 27 and in the latter chapters of Revelation (in Messianic imagery) tell us that these hours will be terrible for unbelievers and awe-inspiring for the Christian faithful. Bible scholars like MacArthur say that people will die of fright. I would not doubt that, because the world will be in an unbelievable state by that time. Thus begins judgment for those who are evil or unbelieving and salvation for those who have persevered.
Verse 30 could be read to apply to the generation which would be around to experience the devastation of the Temple as well as a warning to us to pass along to future generations. The world will not end until all of which Christ accurately predicted happens. In verse 31, He clearly states that His words will withstand the test of time.
As to verse 32, John MacArthur theorises that perhaps Jesus suppressed His divine omniscience in saying that only God the Father knows when the end of the world will occur. Henry thought that perhaps the Holy Spirit spoke through Jesus at that point. After all, human nature being what it is, if He said when that fateful day would come, nearly everyone from that point until now would say, ‘It’s not in your lifetime. Don’t worry about it’. Faith would become lukewarm. Many more people would have lost their souls.
As it is, Jesus continually emphasises the need for us to be alert, awake and prepared for the tribulation and for His Second Coming. He means this in a practical and spiritual sense. If the worst happens, don’t mooch off your neighbours; you should have laid in enough supplies or made plans by then. Don’t expect God to provide if you haven’t made provision for yourself.
However, more importantly — don’t give up the faith. Let us store up spiritual sustenance now so that we may withstand what may come in our sinful world during our lifetime. Let us also prepare future generations in the same way.
Next time: Mark 14:1-2