Since 9-11, our nation has learned a great deal about preparation—on both a personal and a national level. The Department of Homeland Security has released levels of terrorism anticipation as evidence of their extensive preparation:
1. Low Condition (Green). This condition is declared when there is a low risk of terrorist attacks.
2. Guarded Condition (Blue). This condition is declared when there is a general risk of terrorist attacks.
3. Elevated Condition (Yellow). An Elevated Condition is declared when there is a significant risk of terrorist attacks.
4. High Condition (Orange). A High Condition is declared when there is a high risk of terrorist attacks.
5. Severe Condition (Red). A Severe Condition reflects a severe risk of terrorist attacks.
For every genuine sign of terrorism, however, there are scores of false ones. Two opposite and equally harmful extremes exist among the general population pertaining to preparation for terrorism. The first is complete lack of preparation, to abandon any state of readiness, and to go about our days with the naïve illusion of invulnerability. This was our general condition on September 10th, 2001. The opposite extreme associates virtually anything out-of-the-ordinary with terrorist activity: plane crashes, fires, power outages, car wrecks, milk expiring before expiration date, etc. (you get the point). This was our general condition on September 12th 2001. Balance is necessary.
Just as there are two negative extremes regarding preparation for terrorism, there are also two opposite and equally wrong views Christians can hold on the end times: The first is complete lack of preparation, and failure to give any thought to the return of Christ.
On September 6, 1941 journalist Clarke Beach recorded these words:
“A Japanese attack on Hawaii is regarded as the most unlikely thing in the world, with one chance in a million of being successful. Besides having more powerful defenses than any other post under the American flag, it is protected by distance.”
The opposite extreme interprets too many events as “signs” of the end: earthquakes, the United Nations, the Eurodollar, a meteor shower, near miss of Mars, the internet, flooding, el nino, etc. Balance is called for.
For centuries, well-meaning Christians have spent countless energies attempting to do something the Bible never asks them to do: Predict the end times. Rather, much ink is spilled in Scripture exhorting believers to do one thing pertaining to the end times: Prepare. The nineteen imperatives recorded in Mark 13:5-37, indicate that the passage is not as concerned about revealing signs of the end times as it is with promoting faith and obedience in light of such events. The passage could almost be summarized this way: “You focus on obedience to God and faithfulness, and let God handle the end of the world.”
Furthermore, many have instilled fear in their listeners by wrongly teaching the prophetic and eschatological texts of the Bible. The primary goal of biblical prophecy has never been to evoke fear, but obedience.
This passage is the longest discourse in Mark’s Gospel. It is called the “Olivet Discourse” because it is a discourse that takes place on the Mount of Olives. The message was delivered by Jesus on either Tuesday or Wednesday before His Friday execution. Here, Jesus will predict a far-future event (His return) by comparing it to a near-future event (destruction of the temple).113
13:1 Now as Jesus was going out of the temple courts, one of his disciples said to him, “Teacher, look at these tremendous stones and buildings!” 13:2 Jesus said to him, “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left on another. All will be torn down!”
13:3 So while he was sitting on the Mount of Olives opposite the temple, Peter, James, John, and Andrew asked him privately, 13:4 “Tell us, when will these things happen? And what will be the sign that all these things are about to take place?” 13:5 Jesus began to say to them, “Watch out that no one misleads you. 13:6 Many will come in my name, saying, ‘I am he,’ and they will mislead many. 13:7 When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed. These things must happen, but the end is still to come. 13:8 For nation will rise up in arms against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be earthquakes in various places, and there will be famines. These are but the beginning of birthpangs.115
Jesus predicts the destruction of the massive temple in Jerusalem. Josephus, the Jewish historian, compared the temple to a mountain. He said some of its stones measured 25 x 12 x 8 cubits! The temple was destroyed in
When the disciples ask for the sign that will indicate when “these things” will take place, Jesus responds by listing the false signs. In other words, when Jesus is asked about the end, He begins His answer by saying when it will not be. His first comment is to watch out! Yet many over the centuries have ignored this warning. Countless Christians have been misled by false predictions of pinpoint accuracy.
Hal Lindsay’s The Late Great Planet Earth was such a book. According to the New York Times, Lindsay’s book was the number one best-selling non-fiction book in the decade of the 70’s. However, rather than teach believers how to better prepare for the Lord’s coming, Lindsay played the dangerous game of “this is that,” pointing to future people, nations, and events as depicted in biblical prophecy and naming their contemporary fulfillment. The Soviet Union and the Iron Curtain countries favor prominently in this cold war scare novel. Libya, Vietnam, and Iran have more than a little representation.116 Those who found confidence in the accuracy of the Bible because of Lindsay’s pinpoint accuracy must certainly be disillusioned today.
Jesus warns against confidence in identifying modern phenomenon with biblical prediction. We are to wrestle with such deception.
13:9 “You must watch out for yourselves. You will be handed over to councils and beaten in the synagogues. You will stand before governors and kings because of me, as a witness to them. 13:10 First the gospel must be preached to all nations.117 13:11 When they arrest you and hand you over for trial, do not worry about what to speak. But say whatever is given you at that time, for it is not you speaking, but the Holy Spirit.118 13:12 Brother will hand over brother to death, and a father his child. Children will rise against parents and have them put to death.119 13:13 You will be hated by everyone because of my name. But the one who endures to the end will be saved.120
Suffering and persecution do not mean the end has come, although persecution is sure to increase as the end draws near. Jesus’ encouragement to persevere was certainly a challenge that the early readers of Mark’s Gospel understood. Here as much as anywhere Jesus seeks to prepare His followers for the age to come.
And Christian persecution isn’t limited to the early church.
The 20th century was the bloodiest Christian century in history. What does the 21st century hold for us? Will it surpass the 20th century in persecution of Christians? Are we prepared for that contingency?
It is estimated that as many as 160,000 Christians die for their faith each year. Christians die for their faith every day. They are sold into slavery and buried alive in Sudan. They are raped and executed in Central America and the Balkans. They are burned alive, beaten and stoned in India, Indonesia and the East Timor. They are imprisoned and abandoned by their families in the Middle East.
Today violence against Christians is widespread primarily on the continents of Africa and Asia, but Christian persecution exists in every country on the planet every day of the year. When you and I are challenged about our faith, we are to speak boldly by the Spirit in our answer.
13:14 “But when you see the abomination of desolation standing where it should not be (let the reader understand), then those in Judea must flee to the mountains. 13:15 The one on the roof must not come down or enter to take anything out of his house. 13:16 The one in the field must not turn back to get his cloak. 13:17 Woe to those who are pregnant and to those who are nursing babies in those days! 13:18 Pray that it may not be in winter. 13:19 For in those days there will be suffering unlike anything that has happened from the beginning of the creation that God created until now, or ever will happen. 13:20 And if the Lord had not cut short those days, no one would be saved. But because of the elect, whom he chose, he has cut them short. 13:21 Then if anyone says to you, ‘Look, here is the Christ!’ or ‘Look, there he is!’ do not believe him. 13:22 For false Christs and false prophets will appear and perform signs and wonders to deceive, if possible, the elect. 13:23 Be careful! I have told you everything ahead of time.
What is the “abomination of desolation” (see also Dan. 9:27; 11:31; 12:11)? It seemingly had a partial fulfillment in 167
It will certainly be a terrible day, but Christians are promised that we will be spared from God’s wrath (1 Thess. 1:10; 5:9).
13:24 “But in those days, after the suffering, the sun will be darkened and the moon will not give its light; 13:25 the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.121 13:26 Then everyone will see the Son of Man coming in the clouds with great power and glory. 13:27 Then he will send angels and they will gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven.
13:28 “Learn this parable from the fig tree: whenever its branch becomes tender and puts out its leaves, you know that summer is near. 13:29 So also you, when you see these things happening, know that he is near, right at the door. 13:30 I tell you the truth, this generation will not pass away until all these things take place.122 13:31 Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away.
13:32 “Now about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, except the Father. 13:33 Watch out! Stay alert! For you do not know when the time will come. 13:34 It is like a man going on a journey. He left his house and put his slaves in charge, assigning to each his work, and commanded the doorkeeper to stay alert. 13:35 Stay alert, then, because you do not know when the owner of the house will come—whether during evening, at midnight, when the rooster crows, or at dawn— 13:36 or else he might find you asleep when he comes suddenly. 13:37 What I say to you I say to all: Stay alert!”
The moral of the story: Be prepared! It is precisely at this point in Matthew’s Gospel that Matthew records Jesus’ parables about preparation (lamps) and stewardship responsibility (talents).
“Drop-in visits” are not as common in today’s culture as they were in the time of our grandparents. It is considered poor etiquette to surprise a friend or neighbor without calling them ahead of time. Although our home is not always perfectly tidy, my wife and I enjoy drop-in guests. Usually we say something like, “I wish I’d known you were coming, and I would have straightened up a little.” The Lord is a drop-in visitor. He promises to drop in unexpectedly; He will not call ahead. Is your house in order? He will not accept excuses. He has warned us in advance that we should be prepared.
Do you experience restlessness, knowing that you are not precisely where God wants you? Do you have in the back of your mind plans to change someday—to begin to pray or to read your Bible or to share your faith or to attend church more regularly? Are you ready to give an account today? Sixty-two percent of Americans claim to believe that Jesus is coming back; I wonder how many of them are prepared for His return.
We conclude each lesson with one verse from the passage we’ve studied. We refer to it as a “meditation verse” to leave a broad range of uses: meditate, reflect, memorize, reread, etc. Our meditation verse for this lesson is Mark 13:35:
13:35 Stay alert, then, because you do not know when the owner of the house will come—whether during evening, at midnight, when the rooster crows, or at dawn.
113 Pay attention to the Greek word for “watch” or “look” (13:2, 5, 9, 23, 33). Also, 13:34, 35, 37 each use the Greek word meaning “watch” or “beware” that Jesus later uses for His disciples at Gethsemane.
114 Unless otherwise indicated, all translations are taken from The NET Bible.
115 Mark 13:7-8 suggest that the end is still a long way off. Jesus claims that the future unfolding of many severe events will be only the beginning of birth pangs—a common symbol of a coming monumental event.
116 I can’t help but wonder what countries Lindsay would identify if he produced a sequel today: Iraq, Afghanistan, China, North Korea?
117 A common misunderstanding about end times—even in Bible-teaching churches—pertains to the preaching of the Gospel to all nations. Many believe that Jesus cannot return until the Gospel is preached to every living soul. Some seek to bring about the return of Christ by preaching to every soul—as if Jesus will immediately return the very moment that last person hears the Gospel. Note the interesting difference between Mark 13:10 and Matthew 24:14.
118 Many find the fulfillment of this prediction in Acts 4:8ff.
119 Mark 13:9b-13 finds it parallel in Matthew 10:17-22, instead of in Matthew’s Olivet Discourse (24-25).
120 He is also not teaching that endurance is a necessary prerequisite to salvation, but that you will know those who have truly been saved because they will still be standing after persecution. This is especially important to Mark’s original reader—Christians persecuted by the Romans. Remember the purpose of the Gospel—it is a lasting response Mark is attempting to evoke.
121 Isaiah 13:10 and 34:4 are in view with the celestial bodies.
122 Jesus promises that “this generation” will not pass away until all these things take place. Yet then He claims to not know the day or the hour. This suggests to me that “this generation” is a broader designation than merely those alive at the time.