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Right Questions

Mark 13

If there is any one topic which is taught with more fervor (and venom) that the return of Christ, I do not want to teach it. Prophecy in the Bible stirs up deep emotions in the partisans of the various theories of interpretation. Of those controversies, none is more heated than the debate over when Jesus is returning.

Which, if you think about it for a minute, is rather silly. Jesus told us that only God the Father knows the time. Indeed, in today’s Scripture, see how little Jesus says about future events – and how much more concerned he is to find us watchful.

The Holy Bible, New International Version


1As he was leaving the temple, one of his disciples said to him, “Look, Teacher! What massive stones! What magnificent buildings!”

2“Do you see all these great buildings?” replied Jesus. “Not one stone here will be left on another; every one will be thrown down.”

3As Jesus was sitting on the Mount of Olives opposite the temple, Peter, James, John and Andrew asked him privately, 4“Tell us, when will these things happen? And what will be the sign that they are all about to be fulfilled?”

5Jesus said to them: “Watch out that no one deceives you. 6Many will come in my name, claiming, ‘I am he,’ and will deceive many. 7When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed. Such things must happen, but the end is still to come. 8Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be earthquakes in various places, and famines. These are the beginning of birth pains.

9“You must be on your guard. You will be handed over to the local councils and flogged in the synagogues. On account of me you will stand before governors and kings as witnesses to them. 10And the gospel must first be preached to all nations. 11Whenever you are arrested and brought to trial, do not worry beforehand about what to say. Just say whatever is given you at the time, for it is not you speaking, but the Holy Spirit.

12“Brother will betray brother to death, and a father his child. Children will rebel against their parents and have them put to death. 13All men will hate you because of me, but he who stands firm to the end will be saved.

14“When you see ‘the abomination that causes desolation’£ standing where it£ does not belong—let the reader understand—then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains. 15Let no one on the roof of his house go down or enter the house to take anything out. 16Let no one in the field go back to get his cloak. 17How dreadful it will be in those days for pregnant women and nursing mothers! 18Pray that this will not take place in winter, 19because those will be days of distress unequaled from the beginning, when God created the world, until now—and never to be equaled again. 20If the Lord had not cut short those days, no one would survive. But for the sake of the elect, whom he has chosen, he has shortened them. 21At that time if anyone says to you, ‘Look, here is the Christ£!’ or, ‘Look, there he is!’ do not believe it. 22For false Christs and false prophets will appear and perform signs and miracles to deceive the elect—if that were possible. 23So be on your guard; I have told you everything ahead of time.

24“But in those days, following that distress,

“‘the sun will be darkened,

and the moon will not give its light;

25 the stars will fall from the sky,

and the heavenly bodies will be shaken.’£

26“At that time men will see the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory. 27And he will send his angels and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of the heavens.

28“Now learn this lesson from the fig tree: As soon as its twigs get tender and its leaves come out, you know that summer is near. 29Even so, when you see these things happening, you know that it is near, right at the door. 30I tell you the truth, this generation£ will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened. 31Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away.

32“No one knows about that day or hour, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. 33Be on guard! Be alert£! You do not know when that time will come. 34It’s like a man going away: He leaves his house and puts his servants in charge, each with his assigned task, and tells the one at the door to keep watch.

35“Therefore keep watch because you do not know when the owner of the house will come back—whether in the evening, or at midnight, or when the rooster crows, or at dawn. 36If he comes suddenly, do not let him find you sleeping. 37What I say to you, I say to everyone: ‘Watch!’”

Mark 13:1 through Mark 13:37 (NIV)


It is useless to start such a lesson without at least examining the prophetic content. The curiosity of the average Christian pops up and asks, “When do you think he is returning?” My answer is always the same: soon. Why?

Short and long views

One of the most frustrating things about interpretation of the prophecies of the Bible is simply that the same prophecy may have a short and long view. For example, it’s generally held that the “abomination that causes desolation” was adapted from an earlier sacrilege (which led to the Maccabean revolt). Most scholars think this prophecy was filled in the short view in AD 70 when Roman forces sacked Jerusalem. Others hold that it will be seen again – after the construction of the Millennial Temple. The date for that latter event is undetermined.

Another example: the “days of distress.” Many identify these days as being synonymous with the Great Tribulation in Revelation. Again, depending upon your interpretation, that is either the Diocletian persecution or an event yet to come.

Translation itself can become a victim of one’s view of prophecy. Look at verse 30. See the phrase “this generation?” It can be interpreted (and translated) differently depending upon your point of view:

  • If you hold that this passage is talking about the Roman sack of Jerusalem (and nothing more) then “this generation” means the people walking about with Jesus.
  • If you hold the views commonly associated with pre-millennialism, it means that whatever generation sees such destruction will see the return. This is why many writers “know” that Jesus will return before the year 2017 – because that would be one generation (70 years) from the founding of modern Israel.
  • The word for generation can also be translated as “race.” This could be a prophecy that the Jewish people will not disappear as a people before the Lord’s return.
Impact of prophecy

What makes this task more difficult is that people want to know not only what is prophesied but “what it means” – the impact on them in their daily lives. By way of example, let’s suppose that passage really did reflect on the sack of Jerusalem. What Jesus did not tell us is this: it would serve as the baseline point of separation between the Jewish church and the non-Jewish church. Read through Acts; a common problem is that the Apostles (who are Jewish) preach to the Gentiles – who are not under the Law. Just what parts, if any, of the Old Testament Law would apply to the Gentiles?

The sack of Jerusalem ended the Old Testament sacrifice system. That was not prophesied. I suspect the disciples assumed that after the destruction the Jews would (as they had before) build again. Instead, they were dispersed all over the world. The system of sacrifices was gone; it no longer appeared as an alternative to the Christian.

Interestingly, this destruction took place 40 years after the earliest date for the Crucifixion. Here again: one generation. In the sight of that generation it happened – but could they have foreseen the consequences? I doubt it.

Trigger Events

It is the habit of God not to tell us more than is good for us. In this passage he gives three “trigger events” and mentions one other time period.

The trigger events are:

  • The preaching of the Gospel to all nations. In some views this is already fulfilled. “Nations” in this context would refer to the nations in the Roman Empire (everyone outside would be “tribes.”) Other views take it in the sense we would have it today.
  • The “abomination of desolation” will be set up in the Temple. As discussed, this could be what happened in AD 70, or it could be something which happens in the future.
  • Finally, there are astronomical signs. Until recently, these were interpreted as signs not in the heavens but in politics (remember Joseph’s dream?)

All of these things we are told to watch for. In addition, there is one other period mentioned here – the “day of distress.” It is generally agreed that this is synonymous with the Tribulation (or part of it).

So, keeping our eyes open to what might be happening around us, we come to the point:

Knowing when Christ will return is trivial compared to being ready for it. Think of it this way: the soldier does not know when the next battle will be, or where the next war will be. The soldier, however, trains for war all the time. That way, he will be ready.

Until then, Instructions

The real question, then, is what do we do until He returns?

Signs in the world around us

It’s important to know the difference between an event which has significance in prophecy and one which is simply overwhelming at the time. Jesus tells us quite specifically these things:

  • Many people will show up, preaching in the name of Christ, who will attempt to lead the church astray.
  • Some of those people will have the ability to simulate miracles, too.

It’s interesting to note that some of these people have turned up in the midst of crisis. In crisis we seek a solution, and the thought that God has returned (or is about to) is wonderfully comforting. So we need to see those events which are NOT prophetic:

  • War
  • Rumor of War (remember the Cold War?)
  • Earthquake (or, I suppose, any other disaster in nature)
  • Famine.

Those are pretty heavy events – and Christ simply says, “Expect it.” Don’t think too much of it.

Signs to individuals

Christ now outlines for us what we should expect, and what to do about it. First, as individuals, we must be on our guard. In particular, we should

  • Expect to get into trouble with the civil authorities for preaching Jesus Christ.
  • But – it’s encouragement – he tells us that when you are on trial for the Gospel, the Spirit will provide the words. (Good news for those with butterflies.)

On a more personal level, we should expect to be betrayed and hated. Our Lord went through this. He was betrayed by a friend. We are told here that we will be betrayed by our own children, or our own parents and so on. This is hard to take. But Christ makes it clear. He is God. You will worship him, and him alone, or you cannot be his disciple. He comes first.

Christ also tells us that we will be hated. Many of us see that venom today from those who are “politically correct.” It sometimes surprises us to see the bitterness of hatred people hold just because we are Christians. We should take it as a badge of honor.

More than that- we need to remember that we are betrayed and suffering only until he comes – which is “soon.”


This sounds so much like pessimism that it’s important to point out the encouragement that Christ gives us here.

  • His prophecy is sure. The sack of Jerusalem was prophesied; it came as directed.
  • The Holy Spirit is in us. If you are a Christian, the Holy Spirit is not only the comforter but also the deposit of God – guaranteeing you a share in the victory.
  • God will cut short the days. He knows how miserable it will be; he will therefore make them short so that we have a hope of enduring them. This is another sign of God’s mercy.
  • Christ’s words will never pass away. No matter how much the world rages against him, his kingdom is forever. His words are eternal – and given to you.
  • Christ will return in power. Then we will know the date. We will also know our Lord.

Until then? Watch!

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