The Passion of the Servant, Part Three
Riding the wave of an almost obsessive public interest in biblical prophecy, in 1970, Zondervan Publishing House released a book entitled The Late Great Planet Earth that became an instant best seller. I had just come to faith in Christ that year and was immediately captured by the truth that Jesus Christ promised to one day return and take believers to live with Him forever in Heaven. So, I purchased a copy of the book and quickly read it from cover to cover. It was the very first “Christian” book I ever read. Because the author strongly hinted that Jesus would be coming back in 1988, I became even more excited, because I believed that I was going to be a part of the last generation and that the “rapture” would occur during my lifetime.
And while that would have been quite possible, Divine providence guided me in the direction of some outstanding Bible teachers who cautioned me from the Word about being dogmatic in terms of placing dates on prophetic events. One of the texts that was set before me is found in our passage this morning—namely, Mark 13:32—“But concerning that day or that hour, no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.”
Fast forward now some four decades, where I was in my fifth year as the pastor of this church. One of our faithful members contacted me to let me know that she would be leaving our fellowship in order to prepare for and await the Lord’s return. A self-proclaimed prophet had been predicting on the radio that Jesus would soon come to rapture His faithful ones and pronounce judgment upon all others. The date was announced and many—including one of our own members—began getting ready for that day. Despite counseling and the urging of many, she walked away from this church. Needless to say, the anticipated day of Jesus’ return came and went. We have spoken with that lady once or twice since then, and she has expressed being disillusioned about what she perceives the Bible to have said. I truly pray that the Lord has led her back to the truth found in His Word. I cannot help but wonder how many others, like her, have had their faith shaken—and possibly even destroyed—because they succumbed to false teaching with regard to the end times.
Charles Kettering once wrote that “We should all be concerned about the future, because we will spend the rest of our lives there.” And while that is true, we are not to be so concerned with coming events that we overlook our responsibilities here and now. Years ago I came across a quote that comes to mind whenever I hear someone predict the latest date for Jesus’ return. It is worth citing here: “God does not tell us about the future in order to arouse our curiosity, but to motivate us to live obediently in the present.”
That in summary is what the 13th chapter of Mark is all about. Although God has provided us with glimpses of the future, you and I must guard ourselves against going beyond what He has revealed. I suppose that it is part of human nature to want to know with clarity what the future holds. At the same time we have to realize that He has not told us everything. As Deuteronomy 29:29 reminds us, “The secret things (still) belong to the LORD our God.”
Mark 13 records one of the most difficult passages in the New Testament. That is because of the rich nature of the prophetic language that Jesus used, as well as because of the nature of the prophecy yields multiple fulfillments. It is introduced with a brief yet important...
Warning of coming events (verses 1-2)
If you have been with us for the past few weeks, then you are aware that we are in the midst of a series within a series. What began as a journey through the Gospel of Mark has brought us to Jesus’ final week. Those last seven days comprise the last six chapters—or nearly forty percent—of Mark’s recorded account of our Lord’s earthly ministry. They will culminate with His death on Friday and His glorious resurrection from the dead on Sunday.
Jesus had ridden into Jerusalem that previous Sunday to the cheers of an adoring crowd who held great hope that this One would indeed prove to be the long-awaited and prophetically-promised Messiah. A brief survey of the city and its illustrious house of worship that day merely set the stage for His dramatic cleansing of that Temple and subsequent cursing of the city on Monday. On Tuesday He is confronted with a barrage of questions posed to Him by several groups whose lone intent is on silencing Him and ridding themselves of Him.
When He walked out of the Temple that afternoon, He never returned. His public ministry had come to a halt. He had presented Himself to His people as their Savior-King, but for the most part had been rejected. With His remaining time on this earth dwindling down to a precious few days, He again turns to His disciples with whom He will continue to invest Himself.
As He and the Twelve leave the Temple to begin the trek back through Bethphage and to Bethany where they were staying, one of them makes a rather strange observation. I say “strange,” because it seems so out of place. In light of Jesus’ condemnatory statements regarding what He has witnessed on the Temple mount over the past few days, this disciple proudly states in verse 1, “Look, Teacher, what wonderful stones and what wonderful buildings!” One commentator suggests that perhaps this disciple was trying to lift Jesus’ spirits by persuading Him that the religious climate wasn’t really as bleak as He supposed.
Without question the place of worship was quite “wonderful” and beautiful to behold. Its construction, which occupied approximately one-sixth of the area of the old city, had begun a half-century earlier and would not be completed for another three decades. Many of the stones in that building were the size of boxcars. It was an architectural marvel in its day and a seemingly impenetrable religious fortress. Therefore, Jesus’ response would have been quite shocking: “Do you see these great buildings?” he says. “There will not be left here one stone upon another that will not be thrown down.” Jesus was able to look beyond the external appearance of the Temple and see its spiritual emptiness.
In short, Jesus alerts the disciples that things were about to change, including what was considered the nation’s most religiously-significant symbol.
Allow me to admit up-front that my purpose this morning is not to walk you through the various schools of biblical prophecy—for, indeed, there are many—but rather to convey what I believe to be the lesson that Jesus wanted to leave with His followers that day. I have no eschatological axe to grind. In fact, as one writer has well expressed it, “We have yet to find a scholar who can perfectly unravel the knotty problems” of this chapter.
Instead, I want to build this message upon the four warnings found in these verses that Jesus intended to leave with His followers. These warnings—or words of caution—are pointed out in verses 5, 9, 23, and 33 and are more clearly observable in the Greek New Testament by the use of a single word, “βλεπω,” which is translated in three of those verses by the phrase. “Be on guard.” My prayer is that you and I—who are much closer to the ultimate fulfillment of these events—will be put “on the alert” as well.
These warnings are calls to vigilance in light of the future. The first of these is drawn from verses 3 through 8, and is a call to...
Watchfulness against messianic impostors (verses 3-8)
As Jesus and the Twelve continued their journey from Jerusalem, they paused to rest on the Mount of Olives. There Jesus sat for a while, perhaps in meditative thought as He overlooked the city and contemplated its future. We are told that “Peter and James and John and Andrew (approached Him and) asked him privately, ‘Tell us when will these things be and what will be the sign when all these things are about to be accomplished?’” Please notice that it is a two-part question: “when?” and “what?” As we shall see, the Lord will respond to the second part of that question, but not the first.
In what will become known as His Olivet Discourse, Jesus stated the first of His four warnings, saying, “See that no one leads you astray. Many will come in my name, saying ‘I am he!’ and they will lead many astray.” Many of these “doomsday prophets” will make reference the so-called “signs of the times,” such as “wars and rumors of wars...earthquakes ... (and) famines.” But such global events have been part and parcel of a sin-cursed world since the fall of man, have they not? So they are not necessarily indicative that the end is drawing near. As Jesus put it, “These are but the beginning of the birth pangs.”
The historian Will Durant wrote that in the nearly 3500 years of recoded human history, only 268 have not witnessed war. But what about the huge volume of unrecorded history? Given man’s track record it is not unreasonable to think that since man’s expulsion from Eden that there has ever been even a moment without war! What’s more, natural disasters and calamities have always been part and parcel of life on this planet.
“So, don’t be misled!” Jesus urges His followers. “False messiahs will play upon your fears and vulnerability. Reject them, and instead pay attention to what I have taught you.”
In addition to these global disturbances, there are also personal warnings to which they must give heed. These are discussed in verses 9 through 11 and may be described as...
Watchfulness concerning persecution (verses 9-13)
As he sat on “death row” awaiting his own execution, the Apostle Paul warned Timothy that “All who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” (2 Timothy 3:12). Jesus is issuing that same warning here in Mark 13. In verse 9, He cautions His disciples, saying, “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.” Not only would Jesus’ followers suffer persecution at the hands of the state, but they would also be treated cruelly at the hands of the religious leaders! In both cases, their rejection and abuse would come as a direct result of their identity with Jesus.
But then notice the promise. Not only must (“δει”) the Gospel “be proclaimed” to all peoples, but those who would proclaim it would be given extraordinary wisdom and given Spirit-led words to say. If you have never read the last words of the Christian martyrs, you would be greatly encouraged in doing so. Their courage is remarkable in the face of death, in some cases even as the flames crept up their bodies. They sought a lasting home, and allowed no earthly threat to stand in their way. What is helpful to realize is that no suffering has or ever will come to any of Jesus’ followers that has not been foreseen by Him and experienced by Him.
That includes the intense personal hatred that at times arises from the members of one’s own family. In verse 12, Jesus warns in language too difficult for most of us to imagine, “And brother will deliver brother over to death, and the father his child, and children will raise up against parents and have them put to death.” The radical commitment that the Gospel demands can disrupt even the most natural and sacred relationships. Announce your conversion to Christianity in a Muslim country or a hard-line Communist nation today, for example, and Jesus’ words take on a terrible reality.
Interestingly, Jesus does not provide a manual for avoiding or escaping persecution. And while we are not to pursue our own martyrdom, neither are we to shy away from it should it come. In verse 13, Jesus adds with less hyperbole than we might at first imagine, “And you will be hated by all for my name’s sake.” Although Christians are often treated favorably by the world, we must be careful in aligning ourselves with that world because we know how quickly it can turn against us.
Therefore, Jesus concludes this warning, saying, “But the one who endures to the end will be saved.” It is frequently pointed out that the Christian life is a marathon and not a sprint. It isn’t those who start fast, but those who finish well who demonstrate that they truly belong to Him. A persevering walk of faith is a mark of genuine conversion.
Thus far, Jesus has cautioned His disciples against messianic impostors and urged them to be on guard for the inevitable persecution they will face. His third warning comes out of verses 14 through 23, where He calls them to...
Watchfulness concerning deceptive dangers (verses 14-23)
The identity of “the abomination of desolation” in verse 14 has been the subject of much discussion. Mark’s parenthetical insertion, “let the reader understand,” suggests that there are allusions to such a description found elsewhere in Scripture. And that is, indeed, the case. It appears three times in the Book of Daniel (9:27, 11:31, and 12:11). Daniel spoke of a coming figure who would desecrate the Temple and abolish the daily sacrifice being offered there. It has been described as “an appalling sacrilege.” One commentator calls it “an abomination so detestable it would cause the Temple to be abandoned by the people of God.”
We could spend the rest of our time together this morning discussing the various interpretations of this phrase and whether Jesus’ words have already been or yet will be fulfilled. I personally believe that both are true. One hundred and fifty years before Jesus, the Seleucid King Antiochus Epiphanes conquered Jerusalem and desecrated the Temple, causing the Jews to abandon worship there until their successful revolt. But here Jesus refers to it as a yet-future event. In light of that, others would say that it was fulfilled when Rome sacked the city and burned the Temple in AD 70. That may indeed be true, but the details that Jesus discusses here—when compared with other passages of Scripture—would suggest that its ultimate fulfillment remains as a future event.
But since it is not our intention to debate eschatological theories this morning, let’s get back to Jesus’ main point, which is His call for vigilance in light of the inherent and impending danger of identifying with Him. There is a sense urgency found in Jesus’ words:
“Let the one who is on the housetop not go down, nor enter his house, to take anything out, and let the one who is in the field not turn back to take his cloak. And alas for women who are pregnant and for those who are nursing infants in those days! Pray that it not happen in winter. 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.”
At that critical moment the concern for life will take precedence over possessions. God’s people are urged to leave all non-essentials behind, flee, and find refuge as these dangers begin to unfold. “Don’t be deceived,” Jesus implores. He concludes this warning in verses 21 through 23, saying, “If anyone says to you, ‘Look, here is the Christ!’ or ‘Look, there he is!’ do not believe it, For false christs and false prophets will arise and perform signs and wonders to lead astray, if possible, the elect.” And stating it quite plainly, he adds, “But be on guard; I have told you all things beforehand.”
These events are the signs that mark the end of the present age, and the followers of Jesus must remain vigilant if they are to discern them. So, here Jesus provides the answer to the “what?” question raised by Peter, James, John, and Andrew back in verse 4.
It is worth mentioning that our Lord does not promise to spare His own from the dangers that are coming. But what He does indicate is that His “elect” will not be among those who are deceived. What an incentive for us to remain close to Jesus and strong in our faith, and what a warning to those who may be wavering in their commitment to the Savior. As verse 13 exhorts us, it is “the one who endures to the end (who) will be saved.”
In warning His followers of coming events, Jesus has urged them to be watchful against messianic imposteos, to be watchful regarding persecution, to be watchful about deceptive dangers, and now in verses 24 through 37, He calls for...
Watchfulness in light of prophetic predictions (verses 24-37)
As we come to verse 24, we find a “time-marker” in the phrase, “in those days, after that tribulation.” From His position on the Mount of Olives, I imagine Jesus lifting His eyes from the city and its Temple and peering into the eschaton. Through the words of the Messiah we are thrust into an “end times” context. The language and descriptions that follow are borrowed from the prophetic writings of Old Testament writers like Isaiah (13:10 and 34:4), Ezekiel (32:7-8), Joel (2:10 and 30-31), and Amos (8:9). Therefore, the Twelve would have had immediate recognition of them, for no doubt they had heard these Scriptures read in the synagogues. Jesus relates these cataclysmic occurrences in reference to His Second Coming, something that would have created confusion in the minds of the disciples. Imagine hearing these words for the first time in the context in which Jesus was now using them:
“The sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers of heaven will be shaken. And then they will see the Son of Man coming in the clouds with great power and glory. And 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.”
Jesus had already used the “Son of Man” title of Himself several times, so there was no mistaking that He was referring to Himself. But in order for Him to return as He described it here, that meant that He must first have to “go away.” I’m not sure that the disciples had sufficiently processed the fact that He was soon to die—even though He had spoken of it with them on at least three occasions. Until the time of His arrest, now little more than forty-eight hours away, it doesn’t appear that they grasped the truth that Jesus would soon be leaving them.
This is the third time in this chapter that our Lord has made reference to His “elect,” suggesting that He has a remnant that He will draw to Himself when He returns. His angelic messengers will be dispersed as the reapers of His joyous harvest as He gathers His Church from every corner on the planet. This is what the Bible elsewhere calls “our blessed hope” (cf. Titus 2:13), and it will be our reality. But “when” will this occur? That was the disciples’ original question.
Jesus does not give a definitive answer. While He is crystal clear about the certainty of His return, He leaves uncertain its timing. That does not mean that it is unfixed, but rather that God has chosen not to reveal it to us. The reason is the same as we have seen all along. The Lord wants His people to “be on guard,” “on the alert,” and ready at all times. As with a “fig tree” in-leaf, one who is watchful is able to determine the time for fulfillment is near.
Just as with other portions of the Olivet Discourse, to whom “this generation” refers is the subject of debate. Jesus tells them that it would “not pass away until all these things take place.” Jesus’ immediate hearers would have understood the reference to be to their present generation...or possibly even to the Jewish “race,” which is another possible meaning of the term. Indeed, within most of their lifetimes, Jerusalem would fall to Rome and God’s judgment would be carried out on the nation. Their Temple would be destroyed and, to this day, never rebuilt. But the Jewish race would survive...just as it continues to survive.
Were we to go back to the verses that introduced this chapter, we would see how Jesus’ discourse has come full circle. It began with the unnamed disciples’ observation of the Temple’s beautiful adornment...much as a leafy “fig tree.” But both were barren, fruitless, and devoid of life (cf. Mark 11:20-25). Our Lord would curse both, but His promise to gather a chosen “elect” to Himself would not go unfulfilled. Even though “Heaven and earth (should) pass away, (His) words will not pass away.”
Beginning with verse 32, the application of not only this final section but all of chapter 13 becomes clear. Jesus still hasn’t answered the “when”-question, but He does reinforce what He wants His followers—both then and now—to take from His discourse:
“But concerning that day or that hour, no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. Be on guard, keep awake. For you do not know when the time will come.” Did you catch that? “You do not know when the time will come.” And anyone who says they do know is not getting his information from the Lord or from His Scriptures. Therefore, such predictions are untrustworthy and must be rejected.
No one, no matter how graphic his time-lines and how sophisticated his computer programs, is able to determine the date of Jesus’ return. Not a single angel in Heaven knows. Because of the integrity of His Incarnation, not even Jesus when He walked among us knew when that time would be. I can say, on the authority of the Scriptures, anyone who claims to know the date when Jesus will appear—not matter how sincere he may be—is in serious error. It is not our responsibility to know when He will return. Our duty, instead, is to faithfully occupy until He does.
In concluding this chapter, Jesus added, beginning in verse 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. 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—lest he come suddenly and find you asleep. And what I say to you I say to all: Stay awake!”
Vigilance is the order of the day because the time of the Second Coming is not known. Jesus has left us no excuse for spiritual lethargy or unpreparedness. We do not have all the answers because God has not given them to us. Instead we are to consistently be about the Lord’s business while watching and waiting hopefully for Him to appear at any time.
It has been nearly two thousand years since Jesus spoke the words we have read from the 13th chapter of Mark. Surely, if He were coming back, He would have come by now...wouldn’t He? We can understand how 1st-century believers may have anticipated His imminent return, but honestly, are we expected to maintain the same watchfulness today?
On September 6, 1941 a journalist by the name of Clarke Beach wrote an article that read in part: “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 defense than any other post under the American flag, it is protected by distance.” Three months later, on an otherwise peaceful Sunday morning, the Japanese launched a surprise air attack on the US naval base at Pearl Harbor near Honolulu destroying or crippling twenty American ships, three hundred US plains, and killing or wounding thirty-five hundred American soldiers and sailors. History records that our military ignored all the warning signs that such an event could ever have occurred.
There are nineteen imperatives or verbs of command found in this chapter. I would encourage you to go back and mark them. What they suggest is that Jesus’ purpose in the Olivet Discourse is not so much to disclose information about the future as to promote faith and obedience in a time of imminent distress and upheaval. Here Jesus assumes the role of a pastor as He seeks to prepare His disciples and His future Church for a time that would be characterized by both mission and persecution. Put succinctly, what is depicted here is what life for them would be like between His resurrection and His return.
Disciples of Jesus today need not speculate unnecessarily about specific future events. What is crucial is alertness regarding the essential mission of God to take the Gospel to all peoples, the readiness to suffer on His behalf if and when called upon to do so, and to trust in God’s promises and power to overcome every form of evil for the glory of His great name. Watchfulness, not calculation, is the charge given to the Church.
other sermons in this series