The highest concentration of red ink in Mark’s Gospel is found in the thirteenth chapter. This is the last of Jesus’ speeches that Mark records before the Shepherd was struck and the sheep scattered (Mark 14:27). So what topic is important enough to warrant this much attention at this critical point in Jesus’ ministry? Ironically, it is one of Christianity’s most contentious subjects, the end times.
It makes sense that end-times studies can evoke strong emotions and even disagreements in the church. Christians, unlike non-Christians, place more hope in the coming age than in the present. So it’s not surprising that Christians take their end-times views seriously. Still, some traditions have made their peculiar view of the end times the defining factor of their theology. When this happens, that particular view is defended vehemently and often ungraciously. Such an approach overlooks the difficulties presented by eschatology, or the study of the end times. The symbols used are often hard to interpret. Jesus Himself admits that the end times are mysterious, at least regarding the day and the hour (13:32). Much can be said about the end times, but not without caution and charity.
Method of Interpretation
Mark 13 has been interpreted in three main ways. The first view, called the preterist view, holds that all (or at least most) of Jesus’ predictions in Mark 13 have been fulfilled, largely in connection with the destruction of the temple at Jerusalem in AD 70. In the extreme, this view teaches that even the physical second coming of Christ and the final judgment have already been accomplished. Preterists argue that when Jesus insisted that “this generation will by no means pass away till all these things have taken place” (v. 30) the crises in AD 70 provide the only explanation. In response it has been argued convincingly that “this generation” “refers to the rebellious, apostate, unbelieving Jewish people,” living in the past, present, and future.1 It is also difficult to see how all of the events described in this chapter can have been fulfilled already. We are convinced that the Son of Man has not yet returned in the clouds and in great power and glory and that the elect have not yet been gathered from the earth (v. 27).
The second view, called the futurist view, teaches that all (or at least most) of Jesus’ predictions in Mark 13 have yet to be fulfilled. But if Jesus is only speaking about the end of this present age then He doesn’t answer the disciples’ question: “Tell us when the temple will be destroyed” (v. 4; cf. v. 2). If Jesus’ words are only about the end times then He failed to speak to the pressing needs of believers who were about to undergo severe persecution. In fact, Jesus does give real instructions to Jewish Christians to help them respond to the coming Roman invasion (vv. 14b–17).
A third view recognizes that in His sermon Jesus addresses events which would be fulfilled both in the near and distant future. To appreciate this view, we need to understand what question, or questions, Jesus was answering. According to Mark, Jesus began this discussion by alluding to the destruction of the temple (13:2). The disciples then asked Him when this would take place (v. 4). If only Mark were consulted, Jesus’ answer would seem to be only about that single event. According to Matthew, however, the disciples also asked about “the sign of [Jesus’] coming and of the end of the age” (Matt. 24:3). In His Olivet Discourse, therefore, Jesus is answering several questions, only one of which is recorded by Mark. Jesus’ speech pertains to events that are now past (connected with the destruction of Jerusalem) and still future (connected with end of the age). Obviously, from the perspective of the disciples all the events were futuristic. Also from their skewed perspective Jerusalem’s fall was seen as coterminous with Christ’s return and the end of the world.
Jesus corrected this mistaken notion while at the same time relating the two important events. Jerusalem’s destruction both culminates the “beginning of sorrows” (13:8) and symbolizes the end of all things. In speaking prophecy with multiple fulfillments Jesus is following the well-established Old Testament pattern.2 It is as if Jesus is describing a distant mountain range. There is one large mountain directly in front of Him. But there are several others that extend beyond. The entire range is in focus. Jesus begins describing what is in His immediate view (the destruction of Jerusalem) but concludes with the view at the end of the horizon (His second coming and the last day). The events, though quite distinct chronologically, are spoken of as if they were close together. It is not always easy to tell where the one ends and the other begins. This method is known as “prophetic foreshortening.”3
Consistent with the principles governing the interpretation of prophecy we will not focus on the minute particulars of Jesus’ predictions. Instead we will “aim to discover the fundamental idea expressed.”4 This goal well reflects Jesus’ concluding words of application (13:28–37). He gives this historical preview not to promote speculation on the identification of particular signs or to guess about the dates of Christ’s return but to promote preparedness (v. 23).
Unpacking the Multiple Fulfillments
Understanding Jesus’ use of prophetic foreshortening helps us unpack the two layers of His prophecy. The two points of Jesus’ sermon could be identified as first, “The Beginnings of Sorrows,” and second, “Earth’s Final Sorrow.”
Imminent Fulfillment: The Beginnings of Sorrows
Beginning in Mark 13:5, Jesus answered His disciples’ question relating to His prophecy that the temple would be destroyed. “Tell us, when will these things be?” they ask. “And what will be the sign when all these things will be fulfilled?” Jesus explained that there will be signs (vv. 5–8) that do not signal the end of all things (v. 7b). The beginnings of sorrow will be characterized by wars and rumors of wars (v. 7), the proliferation of deceptive false christs (vv. 5–6), and religious persecution (vv. 9–13). Throughout the book of Acts, James, Peter, Stephen, Paul, and others suffer for their faith and give their testimony before rulers and ordinary people alike. Jesus’ death just a few days hence would serve as a harbinger of this persecution.
In Mark 13:8 the signs that Jesus had been describing are called “the beginnings of sorrows” or literally, “the beginning of the birth pains.” Significantly, Paul uses the same word and concept to describe the great day of judgment in 1 Thessalonians 5:3. Sudden destruction will come upon those who are not prepared, “as labor pains upon a pregnant woman. And they shall not escape.” What Jesus calls “the beginnings of sorrows” seem to describe events that would be fulfilled in the immediate future from the perspective of the disciples. The beginning of labor doesn’t tell when the delivery will occur, but it does prove that it is coming.
The beginnings of sorrows would culminate in the Roman invasion of AD 70 (13:14–20). It is estimated that under Emperor Titus more than a million Jews, who had crowded into the city against Jesus’ warning, were slaughtered. The soldiers lit fire to the temple complex and while it burned massacred children and old people, laity and priests alike. The streets ran with blood. Not surprisingly, many believers escaped because of Jesus’ warning.
Final Fulfillment: The End of the Age
As has been mentioned, Jesus used this series of historical events that would soon take place as an illustration helping to answer the disciples’ other question, “What will be the sign of your coming and the end of the age?” (Matt. 24:3).
The end of all things will be preceded by two primary signs: gospel proclamation and religious persecution. Jesus would shortly commission His disciples to bring the gospel to all nations amid great persecution (Acts 14:22). By the end of Acts, less than a decade before Jerusalem’s devastation Paul is preaching the gospel under the nose of Nero, as it were, in the heart of the most powerful empire the world has known. The gospel had made inroads into Caesar’s household (Phil. 4:22). On a grander scale, before Christ returns to judge the earth the gospel will truly be communicated to the “uttermost part of the earth” (KJV). There will be disciples in all nations (Matt. 28:19).
At the last day, amid disturbances in the heavens (Mark 13:24–25; cf. 2 Pet. 3:10), Christ will come and gather the elect. The Scripture gives no indication that the rapture will be secret; instead, it will be preceded by public, visible signs (cf. 1 Thess. 4:16–17). The fact that Christ’s sermon culminates in a vivid description of the coming of the Son of Man (Mark 13:24–37) underscores the decisiveness of this event. All of history is careening toward the return of the great King.
How, Then, Should We Live?
Jesus’ last sermon in Mark is infused with application, largely revolving around the word watch. Seven times, Mark uses two different Greek words that mean “watch out,” “beware,” or “take heed” (13:5, 9, 23, 33, 34, 35, 37). To top off His prophetic message Jesus tells two parables with the same meaning, “Watch out!” (vv. 28–39, 34–36). Contrary to the view among some in the Thessalonian church, Christ’s command to watch does not condone a speculative or impractical searching of the signs (2 Thess. 3:12). Without question, watchfulness requires the active pursuit of godliness. Believers must watch their life so they will be ready to meet Christ when He calls (cf. 1 Cor. 16:13). There are many sleepy Christians today who are oblivious to the times. Every Christian has a place and a task in God’s kingdom. Everyone must do his part to prepare, not only himself, but others (1 Thess. 5:11) for Christ’s return. But, what does this look like?
Remember the Terror of God’s Judgment (13:24)
Judgment and hell are two scorned bywords in our day. Today it is considered uncouth to use the fear of hell as motivation to trust in Christ. “People have heard enough about hell and judgment,” they say. “We need to proclaim grace and acceptance.” But according to Christ those two approaches are not mutually exclusive. Christ graciously warns His friends of the coming Roman invasion. As terrible as it was, Rome’s judgment on Jerusalem would serve as a faint shadow of what the judgment of God will do to those who have not sought His favor through repentance and faith. The Bible uses revolting images of judgment to awaken sinners from their carelessness.
Even believers can never purge from their thoughts the fearful concept of hell. Cognizance of God’s judgment against unrepentant sinners should always paint the backdrop of Christian gratitude (Rom. 9:22–23).
Study Christ Diligently (13:5–6, 13)
One of the signs of the end will be a flurry of counterfeit christs. The best way avoid being taken by a counterfeit is to study the genuine article. Knowing the Son of God more closely keeps us from “remaining children, tossed to and fro and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of men, in the cunning craftiness of deceitful plotting” (Eph. 4:14). It is not enough to simply confess Christ at one point in your life; you must endure to the end (Mark 3:13), growing in His grace and knowledge (2 Pet. 3:18). It is impossible for the elect to be deceived (Mark 13:22). But believers are to make their “call and election sure” by exercising their knowledge of Christ through the practice of virtue, self-control, perseverance, godliness, brotherly kindness, and love (2 Pet. 1:5–11). The never-passing words of Christ (Mark 13:31) radiate light on His goodness and grace for our comfort and godliness.
Fulfill Your Evangelistic Calling (13:10)
Like good watchmen (cf. Ezek. 33:1–11), God’s people must publicize the warning that Jesus entrusts to us. The gospel must be preached to all nations. While the Great Commission was given the church to discharge formally through preaching and practicing the sacraments (cf. Mark 16:15–16), every kingdom citizen bears responsibility for “telling the good news about the Lord Jesus” (Acts 11:20). Jesus exhorted the disciples to be prepared to speak the good news in the face of opposition. His promise to give His disciples words to say does not relieve them of their duty to prepare but assures them that, despite their own weaknesses, God will be their strength.
One serious problem that confronts the church in the face of its evangelistic imperative is the inability of many believers to articulate the gospel when the opportunity arises. Will Metzger has helpfully pointed out that the gospel message is a word about God and His holiness, man and his sinfulness, Christ and His mercy, and a response of faith.5
Expect Tribulation (13:8–13)
One common theme of end-times sermons today is the claim that Christians will be raptured out of this world before the great tribulation. But such a claim seems to be patently out of step with Mark 13:24–27. It is “after the tribulation” (v. 24) that Christ’s gathers “together his elect from the four winds” (v. 27). God’s people have always expected tribulation. The writer to the Hebrews says that time would fail him to tell of the myriad saints who were tortured, stoned, sawn in two, slain with the sword, impoverished, afflicted, and tormented, who endured mockings, scourgings, chains, and imprisonment, “of whom the world was not worthy” (Heb. 11:32–38). Speaking from experience Paul points out that their situation wasn’t unique. “All who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will suffer persecution” (2 Tim. 3:12). The doctrine of the pre-tribulation rapture seems to undermine what Peter says in his second epistle: “Beloved, do not think it strange concerning the fiery trial which is to try you, as though some strange thing happened to you; but rejoice to the extent that you partake of Christ’s sufferings, that when His glory is revealed, you may also be glad with exceeding joy” (2 Pet. 2:12–13).
The overall message of Jesus’ sermon is that believers should be encouraged because Christ is returning. Our hope is not in earthly success or living a good life but in seeing Christ face to face. Christ began His talk, and flustered His disciples, by saying that the earthly temple would be destroyed. Before long the disciples would realize that this temple would be replaced by one much more glorious; Christ Himself (John 2:21). 1. Anthony Hoekema, The Bible and the Future (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans), 117. Cf. William Hendriksen, Exposition of the Gospel According to Mark, New Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1976), 540. 2. Louis Berkhof, Principles of Biblical Interpretation (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1950), 153. 3. Hoekema, The Bible and the Future, 148. 4. Berkhof, Principles of Biblical Interpretation, 152–53. 5. Will Metzger, Tell the Truth: The Whole Gospel to the Whole Person by Whole People (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1984), 44–72.
Points to Ponder and Discuss
1. What can we learn from the disciples’ undue awe of the temple suggested by Mark 13:1? 2. What makes false christs so deceptive (Mark 13:5–6)? 3. How are Jesus’ words in Mark 13:11 an encouragement to ordinary believers? 4. How should Mark 13:13 confront us when we attempt to win the world’s love? 5. Reflect on the simplicity of the Nicene Creed’s assertion that Christ “shall come again, with glory” (cf. Mark 13:26). 6. How does Mark 13:27 comfort you? 7. Some people would argue that even failed predictions of the coming of Christ are valuable because they promote thoughtfulness about the end times. Do you agree? 8. What single word could summarize Mark 13 (cf. Mark 13:37)? Meditate on this word.