Jesus Foretells the Future
1 As Jesus was leaving the Temple that day, one of his disciples said, "Teacher, look at these magnificent buildings! Look at the impressive stones in the walls."
2 Jesus replied, "Yes, look at these great buildings. But they will be completely demolished. Not one stone will be left on top of another!"
3 Later, Jesus sat on the Mount of Olives across the valley from the Temple. Peter, James, John, and Andrew came to him privately and asked him, 4 "Tell us, when will all this happen? What sign will show us that these things are about to be fulfilled?"
5 Jesus replied, "Don't let anyone mislead you, 6 for many will come in my name, claiming, ‘I am the Messiah.' They will deceive many. 7 And you will hear of wars and threats of wars, but don't panic. Yes, these things must take place, but the end won't follow immediately. 8 Nation will go to war against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be earthquakes in many parts of the world, as well as famines. But this is only the first of the birth pains, with more to come.
As Jesus heads out of the Temple in Jerusalem, one of his followers comments on the magnificent edifice. Jesus responds by declaring that it will be completely destroyed. Later a small group of his disciples approach Jesus privately to ask when this will take place and what signs they should look for. Jesus responds by listing several horrific events that must take place, although these will be only "the birth pains, with more to come."
The temple (Mark 13:1)
The Jerusalem temple, comprising one-sixth of the area of the city, "was built with large white stones, polished and generously decorated with gold."1376 Considered one of the wonders of the ancient world,1377 it was rebuilt and expanded to twice the size of Solomon's temple1378 by Herod the Great in an effort to appease the Jews. While the main structure was finished by 9 B.C., it took another 70 years (until A.D. 64) for the entire building project to be completed.1379 The courtyard alone was about four hundred yards wide by five hundred yards long.1380 As one commentator has put it: "The Temple seemed the summit of human art and achievement, and seemed so vast and solid that it would stand forever."1381 As another source puts it: "Rabbinic literature is not particularly favorable to Herod. Nevertheless, concerning Herod's temple it states, 'He who never saw Herod's edifice has never in his life seen a beautiful building.'"1382
When one of his disciples expressed admiration for the temple, Jesus responded by predicting the complete destruction of both it and the city of Jerusalem: "'these great buildings ... will be completely demolished'" (v. 2), which actually paralleled what had been recorded by the prophet Jeremiah (Jeremiah 7:11-14; 9:11).1383 "This wonder of the world would be completely destroyed. As in the days of the prophet Jeremiah, the destruction of the Jews' beloved temple would be God's judgment against them for turning away from him."1384 Jesus' "prediction was fulfilled literally within the span of a generation. In A.D. 70, after the temple area was burned contrary to Titus' directives, he ordered his Roman soldiers to demolish the whole city and level its buildings to the ground."1385 "It is believed that more than a million Jews, who had crowded into the city, perished."1386
Sign ... the Messiah ... wars ... earthquakes ... famines (Mark 13:4, 6, 7, 8)
Naturally the disciples wanted to know when these terrible things would take place. (Because "all this" and "these things" [v. 4] are both plural, we know the disciples had in mind more than just the temple's destruction. Compare Matthew 24:3.1387) And so they asked Jesus for both a time and a sign, seeing "no long interval between the temple's destruction and the end-time events climaxing in the coming of the Son of Man."1388
Jesus, on the other hand, went on to paint "a prophetic scene involving two perspectives: (a) the near event, the destruction of Jerusalem (A.D. 70); and (b) the far event, the coming of the Son of Man in clouds with power and glory."1389And so, "[l]ike much of Old Testament prophecy, Jesus predicted both near and distant events without putting them in chronological order. The coming destruction of Jerusalem and the temple only foreshadowed a future destruction that would ultimately usher in God's kingdom."1390
Notice how Jesus avoided providing a precise time, as well as the detailed cryptic signs or visions commonly associated with apocalyptic predictions. Instead, Jesus described in general terms what the disciples could expect and how they were to respond. Major spiritual deception, wars, false messiahs, earthquakes, and famines, said Jesus, represent the beginning, not the end.1391 Jesus' response should remind us that a personal relationship, rather than a prophetic revelation, is our greatest need. Which, not coincidentally, is in keeping with God's general purposes for prophecy: "Speaking through the prophets, God guided kings and people by telling them how to act in specific situations, warned people when they disobeyed him, predicted events that he would bring about, interpreted events when they came about, and demonstrated that he alone was both ruler of history and a God who relates personally to his people" (emphasis added).1392
Regarding the requested sign, one source explains:
What then is/are the sign(s) about which the disciples asked (v. 4)? On the one hand, everything that happens can function as a sign; that is, a sign of God's sovereign control of history and his care for his faithful people. If events turn out as Jesus predicted, then clearly God is in control.
But, on the other hand, if the disciples wanted signs that would help them predict the timing of the end, no such signs were supplied. In fact not a single event predicted in the chapter is called a sign. The word itself (semeion) does not appear at all in Jesus' answer, except in verse 22 where the disciples are warned against sign-givers. The disciples are told that various events are not to be considered evidences that the end has come (e.g., 13:7), and other events are called (only) the beginning of the travails (13:8).1393
Mislead ... deceive (Mark 13:5, 6)
Jesus responded to the disciples' request for a "sign" "in two ways: negatively, by warning them against false signs of the end (13:5-13), and positively, by stating the notable event that inaugurates unparalleled tribulation and by describing the Second Advent (13:14-27)."1394
The first item on Jesus' list is spiritual deceivers. As one paraphrase renders vv. 5-6: "Jesus began, 'Watch out for doomsday deceivers. Many leaders are going to show up with forged identities claiming, "I'm the One." They will deceive a lot of people'" (The Message). Jesus warned that "[m]any false messiahs will arise in crisis times, making use of His name (His title and authority), claiming, 'I am He.'"1395 He knew "that if the disciples looked for signs, they would be susceptible to being deceived" by such false messiahs.1396
Sadly, the tendency to let no crisis go unexploited has been played out time and again throughout the history of the Christian Church. As one source notes: "Some are petty and have this or that little sect of fanatics following them, some are grand like the popes in their long succession, some are out for the hard cash, some are viciously lascivious. They all use the revelation of Christ as their sheep's clothing. The sad thing is that they shall actually succeed in deceiving many, for all men have an affinity for religious error, and many yield to it with avidity and develop the strongest delusions. They have no limit in perverting to their own ends what the Scriptures say about the kingdom."1397
Wars ... earthquakes ... famines (Mark 13:7, 8)
The disciples would "hear of wars right at hand and rumors about wars in distant places."1398 However, these and other "contemporary events such as ... natural disasters" must not be interpreted "as indications that the end is at hand"1399 As one source rightly reminds us: "These disturbances in the physical realm are indeed foreshadowings and portrayals of that which, on a much more extensive and intensive scale, will take place in the realm of nature at the end of the age; but except in that very general sense they cannot be correctly termed signs."1400 As another source puts it: "The world of nature is affected in the same way by sin as is the world of men, and thus these disturbing manifestations are signs of the end. But not signs after which the end is at once due. No; more of these manifestations will be piled up, not always consecutively but often concurrently and simultaneously."1401 Jesus offered his warning lest his disciples drastically misinterpret these severe events to mean "that somehow God had lost control of his creation or that his promises would not come true. Just as false messiahs and religious frauds come and go, so do worldly crises. Even when the world's situation gets worse, God is in control."1402
Birth pains ... more to come (Mark 13:8)
"These are only a prelude, 'a beginning of birthpains,' much severer pains and writhings must be added before the new, heavenly eon comes to full birth."1403 Here "birth pains" (Greek odin) indicates the type of intense suffering associated with giving birth.1404 These pains "refer to the period of intense suffering preceding the birth of the new Age, the messianic kingdom. This emphasis - 'the end is still to come' (13:7) and 'these [things] are the beginning of birth pains' (13:8) - suggests that an extended period of time will precede 'the end.' Each generation will have its own wars and natural disasters. Yet all these events fall within God's purposes. Human history is heading toward the birth of the new Messianic Age."1405As one source puts it:
To be sure, the events here indicated have significance. They are stepping stones leading to the final goal. By means of them the end of the age is both foreshadowed and brought closer, and God's eternal plan is being carried forward. Moreover, when we realize that toward the end of the present dispensation the indicated disturbances will occur together (Matthew 24:33), will probably be more numerous, extensive, and fearful than ever before (Luke 21:11, 25-26), and are going to take place in connection with the great tribulation that will usher in the parousia, we may conclude that it would not be unreasonable to call the final outbreak of these terrors 'concurrent or accompanying signs.'1406
THE DAY OF THE LORD
Jesus' prophetic prediction is straight out of the OT. The imagery of childbirth, with its intense suffering, is used in the OT to picture "the anxiety and distress caused by war, affliction, or divine judgment."1407 What's more, we also find war, earthquakes, and famines repeatedly associated with God's judgment and/or the last days.1408 The "day of the LORD" was the name used by the OT prophets for the time when God would come in ultimate judgment to punish the wicked and reward the righteous (Isaiah 13:6, 9; Ezekiel 30:3; Joel 1:15; 2:1, 11, 31; 3:14; Amos 5:18, 20; Obadiah 1:15; Zephaniah 1:7-8; 2:2-3; Malachi 4:5). Equivalent expressions in the NT include: "the 'day of our Lord Jesus Christ' (1 Corinthians 1:8; cf. 2 Corinthians 1:14), the 'day of God' (2 Peter 3:12; Revelation 16:14), or 'the last day(s).'"1409 Put simply, "[i]n the NT the Day of the Lord is the second coming of Christ."1410
Major themes associated with the day of the Lord include:
Vindication. God will be vindicated. "In the battle between evil and God, it is God who is victorious and vindicated. He is the ultimate power to whom is given the final word and against whom no force can stand (Isaiah 2:17)."1411
Triumph. Good will triumph over evil. "[E]vil [will] be trounced and evildoers will in the end receive their due. There is justice after all. God will settle his accounts with all that is godless and anti-God, arrogant and pridefully hostile against the Almighty. On the other hand, the scenes about God's blessing and the recovery of an Edenic paradise have and will continue to offer hope for those whose trust is in God (2 Peter 3:13)."1412
Righteousness. Not only will righteousness prevail then, but the certainty of that day should lead us to want to live righteously right now. "The purpose of discussions about the day of the Lord, past or future, is to illumine the present. Peter's question is rhetorical but pointed. In view of the coming day of the Lord, 'What kind of people ought you to be?' (2 Peter 3:11)."1413
It is also worth noting that: "Many Bible students believe the Day of the Lord will be a long period of time rather than a single day - a period when Christ will reign throughout the world before He cleanses heaven and earth in preparation for the eternal state of all mankind. But others believe the Day of the Lord will be an instantaneous event when Christ will return to earth to claim His faithful believers while consigning unbelievers to eternal damnation."1414
Marks of a False Teacher
Throughout the history of the Church there have been individuals who have misled many by claiming unique insight into biblical prophecy. Indeed, this is the way many of the major Christian cults were born. There are several questions we can and should ask to test the genuineness of anyone - self-professed prophet or other - claiming to teach biblical truth:
Have their predictions come true, or do they have to revise them to fit what's already happened?
Does any teaching utilize a small section of the Bible to the neglect of the whole?
Does the teaching contradict what the Bible says about God?
Are the practices meant to glorify the teacher or Christ?
Do the teachings promote hostility toward other Christians?1415
??? One Bible commentator wisely counsels:
Beware of groups who claim special knowledge of the last days because no one knows when Christ will return. In fact, it's not important to know. Jesus tells us that the best way to prepare for the future is to stay faithful to him and away from imposters. We must not be sidetracked by promises for social, economic, military, or political reform. The only sure way for the disciples (and all believers) to keep from being deceived is to focus on Christ and his words.
Many Christians speculate on when and how Jesus will return. Charts and signs abound. Some churches predict the future with scientific zeal. But Jesus wants us to stay faithful to him even when imposters and violence seem to rule. He gives no charts, only a promise and a pledge. Don't guess about the future; instead, give your days to him until he comes.
Everything will happen according to God's divine plan. Our responsibility is to be prepared, to endure, and to continue to preach the Good News to all nations.1416