Mark 13:1-13

The World is a Mess!

Throughout his gospel account, Mark has emphasized Jesus’ role as a teacher. In addition to instructing his own disciples, Jesus is frequently found teaching the crowds of people who flock to him. The people see that Jesus teaches with real authority. Remarkably, however, Mark has recorded relatively little of the content of what Jesus has been teaching. Now in chapter 13 we get to hear the content of Jesus’ teaching which happens to be the longest section of Jesus’ teaching in the Gospel of Mark. Because Jesus was on the Mount of Olives when he spoke these words, it is known as the Olivet Discourse. This is one of the most difficult to understand passages, if not in the New Testament, at least in the gospel accounts. Many biblical scholars who are much smarter than me have written extensively on this passage and disagree with one another. We would do well then to approach this passage with humility but also with the recognition that God the Holy Spirit can illumine and make profitable for us even the most perplexing portions of Scripture.


A Note on the Context

The key to understanding this puzzling passage is found in the opening dialogue between Jesus and one of his disciples. Jesus has just finished his teaching in the temple and as they are leaving for the day an unnamed disciple begins to make small talk with Jesus, Look, Teacher, what wonderful stones and what wonderful buildings! (v.1). Indeed, the temple was quite a wonder to behold. Remember at this time the temple was still under Herod’s reconstruction project in which he doubled it’s original size. This disciple makes a remark about the wonderful stones. The ancient Jewish historian Josephus records this about the stones that were used to construct the temple:

“Now the temple was built of stones that were white and strong, and each of their length was twenty-five cubits [~37.5 feet] , their height was eight [~12 feet], and their breadth about twelve [~18 feet].” [Antiquities of the Jews 15.11.3]

Those are some big rocks! No wonder the disciples were impressed! At it’s highest point the temple stood 15 stories high. Twelve football fields would have fit inside. And of course the significance of the temple wasn’t just its size. This was where God had chosen to place his name. This was the meeting place between heaven and earth.

In response to this small talk Jesus drops a bombshell.  He says there will not be left here one stone upon another (v.2). Now this shouldn’t have been too big of a surprise for the disciples. The withering of the fig tree and the clearing of the temple foreshadowed the temple’s ultimate destruction.

What follows in verse 3 to the end of the chapter is an explanation of the coming destruction of the temple. However, in the midst of this explanation Jesus at certain points is clearly not referring to the end of the temple but to the end of time. The great source of confusion for us today, then, is when is he referring to the end of the temple and when he is referring to the end of time? As we study this passage my aim will be to focus on the big ideas of what is being said here and to ascertain how we might apply this to our lives. We’ll do this under three headings.


#1 The World is a Mess

Jesus does not present a very rosy view of the future for his disciples. This is one of things we ought to admire about Jesus – his forthright honesty with his followers. Particularly in evangelistic contexts our temptation is to water down some of the difficult teachings of the Bible or to just leave them out altogether. Have you ever heard Jesus presented to someone in this way: “Come to Jesus and he will solve all the problems of your life!” Of course from an eternal perspective this is completely true, but trials and hardships continue even after we come to faith.

Jesus lays out for his disciples those hardships which will certainly arise. He begins with the destruction of the temple, not one stone will be left upon another (v.1). The fall of the temple represented more than the collapse of a building – this was the collapse of a worldview.   If our church burnt to the ground, we would be upset. This represented significantly more than the loss of a church building.

Added to this Jesus warns of false teachers who will arise claiming to be the Messiah (v.4-5). He tells of future global disasters saying there will be political strife with wars and rumors of wars (v.7), nation rising against nation, and kingdom against kingdom (v.8). And not only will the political world order be disrupted, so too will the “natural” order be unsettled where there will be earthquakes in various places and famines (v.8). And this is just the beginning of the trouble (v.8).

In the midst of this mess going on in the world perhaps we think we will somehow personally escape. Not so says Jesus. You will be delivered over to the civil authorities to councils and to governors and kings (v.9). We knew we never could trust the civil government but certainly we can find solace in the religious authorities! Not so says Jesus, you will be beaten in synagogues (v.9). So we can’t trust the civil authorities and we can’t trust the religious authorities but certainly we can trust our own families to have our back. Not so says Jesus, brother will deliver brother over to death (v.12). In fact he says you will be hated by all for my name’s sake (v.13).

Notice that in all of this Jesus does not actually answer the disciples’ original question. They wanted to know when all this would take place and by what sign they would know it has come upon them (v.4). Jesus does not produce for them a blueprint concerning the end of the ages though some insist on treating this passage as though Jesus had. All of these events are just the beginning of the birth pains (v.8).


#2 God is at Work in the Mess

So we’ve seen that Jesus says the world is a mess. The political and even the natural world order are in turmoil. Our own personal world is a mess not because we have failed to be faithful to Jesus but precisely because we have been faithful to proclaiming the gospel (v.10) and to his name (v.13). The world is a mess but God is at work in the mess.

This passage is further evidence of the authenticity and of course divinity of Jesus. He told his disciples these things would happen before they happened. The temple was destroyed roughly forty years after this Olivet Discourse. History records what happened. Josephus (Jewish Wars, 6.5.1-2) writes:

While the holy house was on fire, everything that could be handled was plundered, and ten thousand of those Jews who were caught were slaughtered. There was no regard to age or extent of damage, but children, the elderly, non-religious persons, and priests were all slaughtered in the same manner. As such, this war affected all sorts of people and brought them all to destruction—from those who begged for their lives to those who defended themselves by fighting.

The flame carried a long way and made an echo together with the groans of those who were slaughtered. And because this hill was high, and the works at the temple were so great, one would have thought the whole city had been on fire. Nor can one imagine anything either greater or more terrible than this noise; for there was at once a shout of the Roman legions who were marching all together, and a sad scream from the rebels who were now surrounded with fire and sword…

 A false prophet was the occasion of these people’s destruction, who had made a public proclamation in the city that very day, that God commanded them to get upon the temple, and that there they should receive miraculous signs of their deliverance. Now there was then a great number of false prophets bribed by the tyrants to impose on the people, who denounced this to them, that they should wait for deliverance from God. This was done in order to keep them from deserting, and that they might be encouraged above fear and care by such hopes. Now a man that is in adversity easily falls for such promises; for when such a seducer makes him believe that he shall be delivered from those miseries

All this happened just as Jesus said it would happen! We shouldn’t think that God is ignorant of the turmoil we face.   Jesus gives his disciples a remarkable promise to count on in the midst of suffering — that the Holy Spirit (v.11) will give them the words to speak when they are handed over to the authorities.

As best we can tell the Gospel of Mark was written prior to the destruction of the temple, somewhere in the AD 60s.   This was the decade when persecution of Christians began to be widely noticed most notably at the hands of emperor Nero. Can you imagine how encouraging this teaching of Jesus would have been for the early persecuted church? To know that Jesus had warned them and that he was at work in the midst of it would have given them hope.


#3 Therefore, We Should Trust God in the Middle of the Mess

The world is a mess. God is at work in that mess. Therefore we should trust God.   This is what Jesus repeatedly tells his disciples in this teaching. In verse 7 he tells them not to be alarmed. Sometimes suffering surprises us. Jesus says don’t be surprised.   Further he says to be on your guard (v.9). As a solider is posted in times of war to look out for danger, so Jesus tells us to be on our guard. This is the posture we are to have – watchfulness and waiting. Don’t become comfortable with life in his world but always be alert. He addresses our hearts when he says do not be anxious (v.11). The command is directly accompanied with the promise of the Holy Spirit. This is the only way we could indeed not be anxious when we face the trouble Jesus describes here. And finally he tells us to endure(s) to the end (v.13) or as the NIV puts it to “stand firm.” If we stand, we stand only in the strength that Jesus provides. In summary, Jesus’ call here, which will be repeated throughout this discourse, is to trust God in the middle of these messes. This is a call to be watchful and faithful to him. He knows the future. He holds the future. Therefore we can trust him!


Discussion Questions

  1. What made the temple so significant for the Jewish people of Jesus’ day? What would its destruction symbolize for them?
  2. What questions do the disciples ask Jesus? How does he answer their questions?
  3. Jesus lists a number of events that the disciples and future Christians will experience. Which would be most difficult for you to have to personally deal with?
  4. What comfort does Jesus give his disciples concerning these coming events?
  5. Do you feel like you suffer in any way for your faith? How so?
  6. How does Jesus want us to think about suffering? Is suffering a sign of God’s displeasure with us?
  7. Jesus’ heart is for the gospel to be proclaimed to all nations (v.10). How can we – as a church and as individuals – be faithful to this call?
  8. Why do you think Jesus that says in v.13 “you will be hated by all for my name’s sake”? Why would the disciples have needed to know this? What should they do about it?
  9. How can we “endure to the end” (v.13)? Can we do this in our own strength?
  10. What is one thing you will do as a result of studying this passage?