When I was growing up there was a lot of speculation about “end times.” Who was the antichrist? When would Jesus come again? Everyone had a theory and a book to promote it. And with the threat of nuclear holocaust and the cold war looming, it seemed that Armageddon wasn’t far off. Popular interest in the end times were exemplified by movie titles like “The Mark of the Beast,” songs such as “666,” and book series like “Left Behind.”
Does it seem like interest in the end times has waned? To some extent many believers have perhaps given up on the end times. They prefer the widespread eschatological category of “pan-millennial,” that is, “it’s all going to pan out in the end.” But the biblical passages dealing with the end times are still there for us to deal with them. How are we to interpret them?
One such passage is Mark 13. This chapter, sometimes called the “Olivet Discourse” or the “Little Apocalypse,” is the only time in this short gospel in which Jesus teaches his disciples about future events. We would do well to identify which events as well as what it has to do with us. This will be difficult to do in this short article, but I think it might be possible to at least lay the groundwork for understanding what Jesus intended to teach his disciples, and by extension what he wanted us to know.
The entire discourse is in answer to the disciples’ question about the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem. Jesus had just told them that the temple complex would be completely destroyed (13:2). If one takes into account the parallel passage in Matthew 24:3 it is clear that the disciples had questions about three things: the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem, Jesus’ coming, and the end of the age. In response to these questions Jesus encouraged them in three things: “Do not be alarmed” (13:7), “Be on guard” (13:9, 23, 33), and “Stay awake!” (13:33, 37).
Jesus began his discourse by discussing the events leading up to the destruction of the temple and the city of Jerusalem (13:5-23). Imagine Jesus sitting on the Mount of Olives, overlooking the temple mount, explaining what would soon happen to the great city. This is the context in which he taught them. He told them that many would attempt to lead them astray in His name, that there would be wars and rumors of wars, and that there would be various natural disasters. All of these “are but the beginning of the birth pains” (13:8), “but the end is not yet” (13:7). These described the political and natural signs leading to the destruction of Jerusalem.
He then showed them how they would be treated prior to that time. They would be arrested and beaten, testifying before both religious and political authorities. These authorities, in fact, represented the peoples of the known world at that time. The disciples would even be rejected by their own families, hated for the sake of Christ. These signs would occur to the church prior to Jerusalem’s destruction. For a snapshot of how these were fulfilled in the church prior to AD 70, one has only to read how believers were treated in the book of Acts.
Then Jesus referred to “the abomination of desolation.” This apocalyptic language from the book of Daniel is used by Jesus to describe the destruction of Jerusalem. Luke helps us in his parallel passage when he speaks about Jerusalem surrounded by armies. This seems to point to the events of AD 70, when the Jewish people were slaughtered by the waves of Roman soldiers who came through the region of Palestine. But what of the abomination of desolation? This would refer either to the time when zealots murdered the priests in the temple or when the Roman standards were erected over the destroyed site of the temple. The events of this time were devastating, a tribulation that would have completely destroyed His people had God not cut the time short.
Jesus then turned the disciples’ attention to his second coming. Once again he used apocalyptic language to describe his coming, which will be accompanied with cosmic signs. The end of the age is also mentioned in the same context, when “he will send out the angels and gather his elect” (13:27).
The final paragraphs of chapter 13 are illustrations to help his disciples understand that these events will be both expected and sudden. The illustration of the fig tree shows that his disciples could expect the events to unfold naturally from other events. The illustration of the returning master shows that the events will happen suddenly.
Jesus’ words to his disciples—and to us—are not meant to provide us with a detailed play-by-play of end times. In fact, much of what he told his disciples in Mark 13 occurred within the generation of his disciples, within a period of forty years. But what he told his disciples he tells us: Don’t be alarmed by political upheaval and natural disaster. Be on guard against false teaching and prepared to testify to the Gospel and for the sake of Christ. Stay awake and be ready for his coming! With these warnings many of the believers of the first century were able to avoid the devastation of AD 70 and to persevere through persecution. We live in times not very different, for believers everywhere still experience natural disasters, wars and political upheaval, persecution and hatred. We eagerly wait for Christ to come and restore all things under his authority. His warning still applies to us: Don’t be alarmed! Be on guard! Stay awake!