Scripture Readings: Dan. 12:1-3; Ps. 16; Hebrews 10:11-25; Mark 13:1-8 Sermon by Ted Johnston (From Mark 13:1-37, drawing on commentary from New Bible Commentary and Bible Knowledge Commentary)
The Little Apocalypse
In our journey through the Gospel of Mark, we come to chapter 13, a passage often called “The Little Apocalypse.” Here Jesus gives a prophecy concerning a coming time of judgment. Unfortunately, some people misuse it, trying to force-fit it into their prophetic scheme. In doing so they miss the point of Jesus’ exhortation to his original disciples and the point that applies to all followers of Jesus down through the centuries, including all of us. Let’s see if we can hear what the Lord was actually saying.
Our Gospel reading today covered Mark 13:1-8. In this sermon we’ll also look at the rest of the chapter so we see the full message, in its context.
[Note to preacher: if vv. 1-8 were already read, pick up from there—either reading vv. 9-37 as you begin, or as they occur within the sermon.]
A little background will help us understand the meaning Mark intended for his original readers. It’s likely that Mark wrote his Gospel sometime during the period of AD 66-69. He likely sent it to churches in Italy, including the house churches in Rome. Rome had burned in AD 64 and Christians were blamed by Roman Emperor Nero. Both Peter and Paul had been martyred in Rome somewhere between 64 and 68. Mark chapter 13 would have meant a great deal to the Christians in Rome at this very perilous time in history.
In chapter 13, Mark quotes extensively the words Jesus had spoken about 40 years earlier, just before being crucified in Jerusalem. Jesus predicted a terrible time of judgment coming upon that city and upon all of Judea. He also warned and exhorted his disciples, noting that the coming judgment would impact them as well. Persecution was coming their way and he wanted to prepare them. When Mark wrote his Gospel, the fulfillment of what Jesus prophesied some 40 years earlier was at hand. Thus Jesus’ words were of great importance to those early Christians.
The Little Apocalypse of Mark 13 falls within a long section in Mark’s Gospel that addresses the judgment that comes when Israel, formed as a nation by God to represent all humankind, rejects Jesus, her Messiah. The Little Apocalypse sounds a severe warning that, though tinged with sadness, also offers the hope of redemption that follows judgment. As Mark explains through the course of his Gospel, the one who does the judging is none other than the incarnate Word of God, Jesus, who having united himself to our humanity, takes upon himself our judgment, dies on the cross in our place, and is resurrected to new, glorified human life, thus redeeming us.
Warning and exhortation
Mark first introduces Jesus’ warning concerning the judgment coming upon God’s people Israel in chapter 11 with the account of Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem where he curses a fig tree (a symbol of the nation of Israel) and drives the merchants from the Temple courts. Both are signs of God’s judgment against his people and its corrupt Temple-centered religious system. Then in Mark 13, Jesus gives a detailed warning to his inner circle of disciples concerning the coming judgment, making it clear that it will also test them.
In Mark 13:2, Jesus makes it clear that the coming judgment will mean the total destruction of the Temple. Jesus’ disciples no doubt believe that this event will mean the end of the current age and the beginning of the Messianic age. Thus they are anxious to know the signs that will announce the arrival of the judgment (Mark 13:3-4). In response, Jesus avoids the issue of timing (though he tells them in Mark 13:30 that these things will occur before the present generation is gone). Rather than focusing on the timing, he gives them a simple, yet vital exhortation: Be watchful! (Mark 13:5).
What are the disciples to watch for? First (Mark 13:5-6) Jesus says to pay careful heed to avoid false teachers—those who deceive. Second (Mark 13:7-8) Jesus tells them to watch for various alarming events. Both parts of this exhortation would have been highly relevant to Jesus’ first disciples and also to the original readers of Mark’s Gospel living in Rome (where several early heresies in the church were erupting, and a great deal of political intrigue and threat was ongoing).
Despite these ominous signs, these followers of Jesus are told not to be alarmed or overly-concerned (Mark 13:7a, 8b). Certainly, they are not to try to cobble together a speculative prophetic timeline! Instead, they are to see the coming time of trouble as an opportunity to witness to Jesus and his kingdom (Mark 13:9b) by proclaiming the gospel (Mark 13:10).
Preach the gospel!
Jesus’ exhortation to his disciples in about AD 30 and then through Mark to Jesus’ disciples in Rome just prior to the destruction of the Temple in AD 70, and to his disciples down through the ages, is the same: preach the gospel! Mark puts this exhortation in the form of a command that is essentially the same as the one given by Matthew in his Gospel (Matt. 28:19)—we call it the Great Commission. Mark, no doubt, before writing his Gospel, had seen obedience to this command in the ministries of Peter, Paul (who had been martyred for their testimony to Jesus) and other apostles, New Testament prophets, pastor/elders and other Christians.
The promise that comes with a warning
According to Jesus, the terrible, earth-shattering effects of the judgment coming on Jerusalem and Judea will include the breakdown under stress of the closest of natural human ties (Mark 13:12)—the opposite of how Jesus’ true ‘family’ (Mark 3:34-35) is to relate to one another, despite times of hardship. Indeed, many of Jesus’ followers will be hated by their own kin for loyalty to their Lord and Savior (Mark 13:13a). Yet, despite the threats they face, they are given a great promise: faithful endurance to the end, in the face of persecution, will mean salvation (Mark 13:13b), even if not safety in this world.
Don’t misunderstand: Jesus is not saying that the loyalty of his followers in the face of persecution earns salvation. Scripture is clear: salvation is a gift of grace apart from our works and personal merit. However, Jesus is saying that by persevering loyally through even through the most challenging of times, his followers will experience the reality of Jesus’ love and life (their salvation) both now, and then in its fullness in the life that is coming to the faithful in a new heaven and new earth.
But when will this occur?
Understandably, Jesus’ disciples ask their Lord, “When?” Using carefully veiled language, Mark records Jesus’ answer by hinting that these events will come upon Jerusalem and Judea when the idolatrous Roman army standards are planted triumphantly in the temple at Jerusalem (Mark 13:14).
Though Mark puts Jesus’ words in code language, the little addition he gives in Mark 13:14 shows that Mark expects his readers to understand what Jesus is referring to, for the code language used is taken from the familiar book of Daniel where we learn of the desecration of the Temple by the persecutor Antiochus Epiphanes in the second century BC. The abomination in that case was an idol, set up in the temple itself, thus defiling it.
The verses that follow in Mark 13 seem to describe the terrible suffering in the first Jewish wars, when Roman armies invaded Galilee and Judea beginning in AD 66. These terrible events took place only a generation after Jesus’ death, and the Christian church in Palestine would have shared in the suffering at that time. Tradition says that Christians in Judea fled at that time to Pella, east of the Jordan River, taking Jesus’ warning to heart (Mark 13:14).
Don’t be hoodwinked
One of Jesus’ most urgent warnings to his disciples at that time (and it certainly applies today) is the need to avoid false Messiahs and prophets (Mark 13:22). One of the tactics these deceivers use is various signs and miracles. Being quite impressive, these can hoodwink the gullible. Perhaps that is why Jesus performed miracles only sparingly.
Everything Jesus predicts up through Mark 13:23 can be fitted into the time around AD 68-70, with Roman armies ravaging Palestine and Roman emperors fighting for the throne. Mark’s readers, receiving this message somewhere around AD 68, would have recognized the references, even if some are not clear to us now.
Some see in Mark 13:24-27 a shift in perspective, viewing these verses as referring to what will happen at the very end of the age when Jesus returns bodily to earth. However, others see these verses as continuing to address what occurred in and around AD 70. Either way, the Bible uses the imagery of sun, moon and stars (Mark 13:24-25) to refer to earthly powers—using coded language, he’s talking about the fall of governments (i.e., the Roman Empire), not heavenly bodies. When that is occurring, the Son of Man will come in glory to gather his chosen ones (Mark 13:26–27). The “ends of the earth” (Mark 13:27) again draws on the imagery of Daniel and contains a hint of the Gentile mission—it’s not a reference to gathering in only faithful Jews, as some claim.
In deciding on the timing of “all these things” (Mark 13:30a), note that this phrase seems to be included in Jesus’ statement concerning “this generation” (Mark 13:30b)— the generation of the disciples that Jesus is directly addressing. Attempts to relate Jesus’ predictions in Mark 13:24-27 to events in our day (or events that occurred when the Jewish state in Palestine was founded in 1948 or some other time in our generation) seem unjustifiable. That being said, it does seem likely that Jesus is looking forward, predicting continuing and escalating trouble in the world down through the ages. That trouble will often mean persecution for those who follow Jesus, though there is also a message of hope: deliverance follows the judgment. That deliverance, in its ultimate sense, will come with the in-breaking of the fullness of the kingdom and the coming of a new heaven and new earth. We can count on that!
Guidelines for understanding this passage
Here in Mark 13, Jesus unveils truth about himself and forthcoming events. In considering how to understand his message, three things should be kept in mind:
- When Mark was writing this to the churches in Rome, using open language was hazardous due to the political dangers. Thus he uses code language to conceal the meaning from outsiders, including Roman authorities. John did the same thing in using code language in writing the book of Revelation, some 20 years later.
- This code language is intended to reveal, not mystify, and certainly not to send Jesus’ followers off on a wild, speculative goose-chase. Beware prediction addiction!
- The main point of what Jesus is saying is to urge his followers to be faithful. His purpose is not to enable them to predict the future and to set dates. This is shown by the fact that not even Jesus knows the date of these things (Mark 13:32). But this we know (because Jesus promises it): In the shaking of all else, the words of Jesus remain unshaken (Mark 13:31)—a saying used in the Old Testament for the words of God himself. And so, prophecies (like this one) are ultimately about revealing Jesus to be the Messiah, the Son of God, and to reveal the true nature of his coming kingdom.
Thus ends The Little Apocalypse, a message concerning the judgment that comes when people respond to Jesus once they see him clearly. In the first century, when Jesus was revealed to both Jews and Romans, he was rejected and crucified—bringing calamity to Jerusalem and all Judea.
But as Jesus predicted, his death was not the end of the story. No, he rose from the dead, ascended to heaven, and came back to earth through the Holy Spirit to begin a ministry of further revelation that is impacting (as Jesus predicted) the entire world.
One day (and we don’t know when that day will be), Jesus will return bodily, in glory, to usher in the fullness of his kingdom, which now is present on earth and growing. In the meantime, our calling as followers of Jesus is not to be fixated on prophetic speculations, not to be overly-worried about world events, and certainly not to pull back into a cave of fearfulness. No, our calling is to do what Jesus told his original followers to do: share with others what we know of this Jesus and his coming kingdom—proclaim the gospel, for it is truth that delivers and transforms!
We’ll have a marvelous opportunity to do just that in the season of Advent that begins soon, leading up to Christmas and our celebrations of the Incarnation and birth of Jesus. Let us, dear ones, with Jesus, and by his Spirit, be about our Father’s business!