Reflections on Mark 13

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When reviewing the thirteenth chapter of Mark’s gospel two important issues are observed. First, there is a question about the timing of things to come. Secondly, there is a question about the signs of these coming things. The disciples pose these concerns this way: Tell us, when will these things happen? And what will be the sign that they are all about to be fulfilled? (Mark 13:4)

Of course these two questions are a response to Jesus’ words about the destruction of the Jerusalem temple. In verse 2 he informs his disciples that there will “not be left . . . one stone upon another.” It is understood from history that this is a direct prophetic reference to the Roman general Titus’ ransacking of Jerusalem in AD 70. Of course, this prophecy echoes what Daniel writes about in Daniel 9:26a when he states, “the people of the prince who is to come shall destroy the city and the sanctuary.”

But the questions of the disciples provoke Jesus to say still more; he is not content to leave it with the pending destruction of Jerusalem by Titus. And by saying more Jesus is merely continuing the line of thinking Daniel presents in 9:26b and beyond. Daniel 9:26b-27 declares regarding Jerusalem that its

end shall come with a flood, and to the end there shall be war. Desolations are decreed. And he (that is, the “prince who is to come,” the antichrist, or what the Apostle Paul refers to in 2 Thess. 2:8 as the “lawless one”) shall make a strong covenant with many for one week (seven years), and for half of the week he shall put an end to sacrifice and offering. And on the wing of abominations shall come one who makes desolate, until the decreed end is poured out on the desolator.

These statements by Daniel serve as the framework for Jesus’ answers to the disciples’ two questions.

With this in mind it helps to see that Jesus responds to the disciples’ two questions with two notes of recognition: the present season of time will have its own important challenges, which feel like the beginning of birth pains, and this will give birth to still more difficult days in a coming season of tribulation.

The Present Birth Pains

Mark 13:6 finds Jesus stating: Many will come in my name, saying, “I am he!” and they will lead many astray. He also adds in verse seven and eight that there will be much civil and political strife (war) and that there will be challenging natural crises (earthquakes and famines).

Moreover, in the verses subsequent to these, Jesus tells that his followers will be oppressed, dealing with trials and persecution from political and even familial realms. He wraps up his assessment of this season with these words: you will be hated by all for my name’s sake. But the one who endures to the end will be saved (13:13).

Of course these are sentiments echoed by Jesus elsewhere. In the Upper Room Discourse of John 16 Jesus makes plain that in this world his followers would “have tribulation” (33). He later prays that the Father would care for his followers in the midst of the world’s hatred (17:14). Later, the Apostle Paul goes to some lengths to point out that

we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. Therefore take up the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand firm. (Eph. 6:12-13)

Taking all of these words at face value forces the reader to see that for Jesus these “are but the beginning of the birth pains,” contractions that suggest a greater and more painful time to come. And yet those who follow Jesus are not without help during this season of contractions, this present darkness. In Mark 13 Jesus says that “the Holy Spirit” (11) will be available to help his followers toward faithfulness and endurance. And they will be fruitful; for he also indicates that through them God will see to it that the gospel will be heard around the world (10).

Things Beyond the Contractions

But Jesus does make clear that more is to come, things that suggest that the mere contractions will give way to the full birth of hardship. It should not be missed that the language Jesus uses to speak of this subsequent season of trial is like that used by Daniel (cp. Dan. 9:27) when he describes the intensifying of future trouble. Indeed, Jesus characterizes this coming season this way:

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. (Mark 13:19-20)

Clearly this pending season will transcend in hardship the present season of birth pains. In fact, of the current season Jesus suggests “the end is not yet” (7), but of this one beyond the current season he declares, “the end will come” (Matt. 24:14).

During this season of “great tribulation” (24:21), at least three things will unfold. First, there will be a catastrophic event that signals the launch of increasing crises. Mark 13:14 calls this the “abomination of desolation,” echoing, again, the things described in Daniel 9:27. The context of Daniel 9:24-27 speaks to the arrival of a “prince” (26) who will make a seven-year covenant (presumably of peace) with Israel. It is commonly assumed that this covenant will allow for Israel to resume those cultic practices that were lost when Titus and his legions (“the people of the prince who is to come,” 26) destroyed the temple in AD 70.

Yet, half way through this seven-year period this ruler will “put an end to sacrifice and offering” (27). 2 Thessalonians 2:3-4 finds the Apostle Paul saying of this event:

Let no one deceive you in any way. For that day will not come, unless the rebellion comes first, and the man of lawlessness is revealed, the son of destruction, who opposes and exalts himself against every so-called god or object of worship, so that he takes his seat in the temple of God, proclaiming himself to be God.

Evidently the covenant that this ruler makes will allow Israel to rebuild some semblance of a temple structure. They will, as has been said, restart their cultic rites. But then half way through this period of seven years the “man of lawlessness” will put an end to these practices and will declare himself to be God. This will all be the “activity of Satan” (9). Daniel 8:23-25 affirms this, offering another sobering picture of him:

And at the latter end of their kingdom, when the transgressors have reached their limit, a king of bold face, one who understands riddles, shall arise. His power shall be great—but not by his own power; and he shall cause fearful destruction and shall succeed in what he does, and destroy mighty men and the people who are the saints. By his cunning he shall make deceit prosper under his hand, and in his own mind he shall become great. Without warning he shall destroy many. And he shall even rise up against the Prince of princes, and he shall be broken—but by no human hand.

A second thing to occur during this pending season is the flight of Israel. Of course, this begs the question of who is being referenced here. Is it the Church? Is it a revived nation called Israel? Pages could be written here debating this matter, but for the purposes of this presentation an assumption is being put forward that this is a revived nation called Israel. Here are the reasons:

  • Jesus employs tangible terms that center the discussion upon the people of the locale: those who are in Judea flee to the mountains (Mark 14:14). This is done in a context wherein concrete images are being offered: housetops and houses, fields and cloaks, wintertime (15-18), even the Sabbath (Matt. 24:20). The language suggests a root in realities that transcends symbolism, giving the effect that, though quite future from the standpoint of Jesus’ earthly journey, it relates to the people of the region, that is, Israel.
  • Furthermore, the context of Daniel 9, a formidable backdrop for what Jesus presents, is profoundly Hebraic. The angel Gabriel (who with Michael is responsible to “your people”, that is Israel [see Dan. 12:1]), who presents to Daniel the news of things to come, refers to the people and place in question as “your people and your holy city,” a pointed reference to the Jews and to Jerusalem with whom Daniel is intimately connected. The allusions to cultic things (“anoint a most holy place,” “sanctuary,” “sacrifice and offering”) reflect matters consistent with Israel and its unique traditions. The reference to the Messiah (“an anointed one”) echoes the long anticipation of the Jewish people. Even the employment of a heptad, that seven-year period of time, is a strongly Hebraic phenomenon, first offered in connection with the Jewish people and their return to Jerusalem from their exile (cp. 9:25). These matters of which Daniel writes and to which Jesus alludes in Mark 13 are so knit to the heart and soul of Israel that one is hard-pressed to strip them of some form of exclusive Hebrew nationalism.
  • Of course one cannot help but pay attention to even the events in today’s geopolitical environment. Though it is more secular rather than spiritual in tone, there is today a defined nation called Israel; one that clearly sees itself as the fruit of a people going back thousands of years, and in the very same land in which it found itself during those ancient days. Even the parade of nations that are currently at odds with modern day Israel reflect those mentioned in the ancient prophets, particularly those found in places like Ezekiel 38-39, chapters of a geopolitical flavor that speak to a future tumult dealing with God’s “people Israel” (39:7).

The detail in Mark 13:14 of the Jewish people fleeing to the mountains gives a sense of the persecution that Israel will face during the tribulation season. It also invites the listener to Jesus’ words, or, as the case is, the reader, to remember the people of old and their wanderings in the deserts and mountains just beyond the Promised Land; at which time, like during the time to come, they desperately needed God to take care of them.

A third thing to unfold during the terrible season to come is what Mark 13:20 refers to as the cutting short of those days. So horrible will they be that God will choose to bring an end to them. Otherwise, as Jesus says in verse 20, “no human being would be saved.” Indeed, Jesus adds: for the sake of the elect, whom [God] chose, he shortened the days.

Once again Daniel 9 sets up the words of Jesus. Verse 27 offers that the antichrist will find that “the decreed end is poured out upon the desolator,” that is upon himself. The dream of King Nebuchadnezzar, recorded in Daniel 2, finds a great statue (indicative of the nations as they unfold through human history) collapsing when

the God of heaven will set up a kingdom that shall never be destroyed, nor shall the kingdom be left to another people. It shall break in pieces all these kingdoms and bring them to an end, and it shall stand forever, just as you saw that a stone was cut from a mountain by no human hand, and that it broke into pieces the iron, the bronze, the clay, the silver, and the gold. (44-45)

Then again, in Daniel 8:25b the reader discovers that the antichrist “will rise up against the Prince of princes, and he shall be broken—but by no human hand.”

The Apostle Paul is quite vivid in his description of the end of the end, when he writes in 2 Thessalonians 2:8 that “the lawless one will be revealed, whom the Lord Jesus will kill with the breath of his mouth and bring to nothing by the appearance of his coming.” Of course, the Apostle John pens these words about the abrupt ending to those coming days:

And I saw the beast and the kings of the earth with their armies gathered to make war against him who was sitting on the horse and against his army. And the beast was captured, and with it the false prophet who in its presence had done the signs by which he deceived those who had received the mark of the beast and those who worshiped the image. These two were thrown alive into the lake of fire that burns with sulfur. And the rest were slain by the sword that came from the mouth of him who was sitting on the horse, and all the birds were gorged with their flesh. (Rev. 19:19-21)

Jesus’ words in Mark 13:20 seem to be a fitting follow-up to these words from Daniel 12:

At that time shall arise Michael, the great prince who has charge of your people. And there shall be a time of trouble, such as never has been since there was a nation till that time. But at that time your people shall be delivered, everyone whose name shall be found written in the book. And many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt. (1-2)

Conclusion

The assessment presented here is based upon a hermeneutic that takes Jesus’ words at face value, that is, literally. This approach also applies to the other passages referenced above, including the items from the book of Daniel. Indeed, approaching Daniel with this plain method of interpretation allows one to see Daniel’s words as the keys to unlocking much of the prophetic things that follow throughout the remainder of the Scriptures.

Jesus offers the words of Mark 13 in response to two questions put forward by his disciples after they heard Jesus’ startling statement that the Jerusalem temple would be destroyed. His statement provoked for them a curiosity about what else was to come—and when. Jesus’ answers, rooted as they are in the soil of earlier prophecies about things to come, suggest that we are in a present struggle against what opposes the Almighty. Yet they also make clear that this present struggle will give way to an even greater tumult, inaugurated by a catastrophic event, and culminating with the return of Jesus who will make all things new.

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