Mark 13:14-37

Stay Awake!

The nineteenth century Baptist preacher Charles Spurgeon said concerning this teaching of Jesus that “it is confessedly very difficult to comprehend.” This seems to be a bit of an understatement!  As we noted last week the difficulty in understanding this passage arises in part from the fact that Jesus is addressing at least two topics – the destruction of the temple and his final return, and it is not always clear to which of these topics he is referring.

This passage is full of exegetical minefields that many teachers and preachers are content to steer well clear of.  But clearly Jesus thought it was important enough to share with his disciples. And the Holy Spirit saw fit to cause it be included in the Word of God and so we would do well to seek some understanding of it.   We will spend most of our time unpacking some of the more difficult parts of the passage.


#1 The Abomination of Desolation

Here’s a phrase we don’t hear too often!  This is made all the more perplexing by the parenthetical statement to let the reader understand (v.14).  Jesus is telling us to be sure we understand this and even still we scratch our heads. The abomination of desolation would have likely reminded his disciples of a similar phrase used in the book of Daniel in several places (c.f. Daniel 9:27, Daniel 11:31, Daniel 12:11). Many hold that this prophecy in Daniel was fulfilled in the intertestamental period when Antiochus IV (Ephiphanes), in his persecution of the Jews, erected an altar to Zeus within the temple and sacrificed a pig.  This episode is recorded in the first chapter of the apocryphal book of 1 Maccabees.  Regardless of whether or not this is the case, Jesus is clearly telling his disciples that there is a future abomination of desolation coming.

There are at least three possibilities for how this prophecy of Jesus was fulfilled.  Some hold that the abomination of desolation was fulfilled when the Roman emperor Caligula (AD 12-41) sought (apparently unsuccessfully) to erect of statue of himself in the temple in order that he might be worshipped.  Others hold that abomination of desolation was in some way connected with the Roman destruction of the temple in AD 70.  Still others see a connection between the abomination of desolation and “the man of lawlessness” described by Paul in 2 Thessalonians 2:3-4. So which is it? . The bottom line is we have no definitive way of knowing. However, it would seems that this prophecy saw at least its initial fulfillment within the lifetime of Jesus’ disciples.

In response to the appearance of the abomination of desolation, Jesus instructs his followers to flee to the mountains with great haste not even turning back retrieve a cloak (v.14-15).  This would have been contrary to the behavior of the people in peril in the ancient world who would have fled into town behind the protection of city walls.  And according to Josephus [see quote in last week’s blog] this was precisely what the Jews did during the Roman aggression – they ran into the temple and were there slaughtered in mass.



#2 The Great Tribulation

If you’ve ever heard of the Great Tribulation this is where this teaching finds its origin.  (See as well Revelation 7:14.)  This has been the subject of much Christian imagination including the somewhat recent Left Behind series.  Jesus doesn’t give his disciples a lot of details here concerning this coming tribulation.  However, this does not appear to fit the circumstances of the destruction of the temple since he says that this will a tribulation as has not from the beginning of creation and never will be (v.19).   In other words, there will be no parallel for his event in human history—it  will be the worst moment in all of history.  This is why I conclude that Jesus is referring to more than just the destruction of the temple.  In verses 24 and 25 Jesus borrows imagery of Isaiah (c.f. Isaiah 31:10, 24:23) to describe the sun being darkened and the moon failing to give its light and the stars falling from heaven.  This is in many ways an undoing of the creation and a return to Genesis 1:2 where “darkness was over the face of the deep.”   Again this is why I believe the tribulation to which Jesus here refers lies in the future. There may have been an initial fulfillment of the prophecy in the destruction of temple but ultimately it lies still over the horizon.  Or as Charles Spurgeon puts it, the destruction of the temple is  “kind of a rehearsal of what is yet to be.”  This dress rehearsal happened in AD 70, the main act is yet to be.


#3 The Arrival of False Christs

Jesus says here that its not that Christians will escape suffering during this coming tribulation but that for the sake of the elect God will shorten the days (v.20).   Yet it is during this painful time that false christs and false prophets will arise (v.22).  These are deceitful people who take advantage of the fear that runs rampant in difficult times.  We should be careful not to simply to view these false christs with human eyes because Jesus tells us that they will have the ability to perform signs and wonders (v.22).  In other words it will be hard to write them off because some of them will have spiritual power, but the like the magicians in Egypt (c.f. Exodus 7:22) their ability to perform wonders does not actually validate them.  Demons have power too.

In response to these false christs, Jesus says to be on your guard (v.23).  This is a good word for us.  In the midst of our own difficulties, where do we run?  Isn’t it often to a false messiah?  A false messiah doesn’t have to be another person.  It’s whatever we escape into when times are tough. It’s what we look to validate us and give us worth.  And if it’s not Jesus, it’s a false messiah!


#4 The Coming of the Son of Man

Jesus is coming back.  There will be a day when we will see the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory (v.26).  In other words history has an end!  It will end when Jesus returns.


#5 This Generation Will Not Pass Away

This is one of the most misunderstood verses in this entire passage. Atheist Bertrand Russell counts this as one of the “defects in Christ’s teaching” because supposedly Jesus taught that his final return would take place within that generation.

Remember that in this passage Jesus is addressing at least two topics – the destruction of the temple and his final return and it’s not always clear to which of these topics he is referring.  Bible commentator James Edwards is helpful in pointing out that sometimes Jesus uses the words like “these” and other times he says “those.”  “These things” seem to refer to that which is near for his disciples and “those days” refers to that which is far.  With the verse in question Jesus says this generation will not pass away until all these things take place (v.30).  He is not referring then to his return but to the destruction of the temple.


#6 No One Knows The Day

This is further reinforced by the very next paragraph where Jesus says that concerning that day (notice: “that” day not “this” day) no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son (v.32).  How could Jesus in one breath say “I will return before this generation passage away” and in the next “I don’t know when I am returning”?  He cannot. This of course creates another difficulty for us.  How is that the Son does not know.  We must understand this as referring to his human nature – to the humanity of Jesus not the divinity of Jesus.  Remember Jesus is fully God and fully man.  It is in his humanity that he can say he does not know.

So no one knows when history will end and Jesus will return. No one!  The angels don’t know.  Jesus didn’t know.  And so it is very perplexing when in practically every generation someone arises and says “I know!”    You don’t know.  No one knows!


#7 Stay Awake

The last words of this passage are a command — stay awake (v.37). Difficult times lie ahead.  Great tribulation.  False messiahs.  Stars falling from the sky.  In the midst of this Jesus says Stay awake!  What this boils down to is that Jesus wants his disciples (and by extension us) to be confident as we await his return.  We are not to be full of fear but full of faith.  Not running to false messiahs but waiting the return of the true messiah.  We are to live confidently in this midst of all the mess going on around us.


Discussion Questions

  1. Do you think about the return of Jesus often? Why or why not?
  2. What does Jesus mean by the “abomination of desolation”? What are people supposed to do in response to the abomination of desolation?
  3. According to verse 20 will Christians escape the coming tribulation? Why not? What promise does Jesus make in relation to this?
  4. Why are people so eager to follow the false christs and false prophets? How do you explain the fact that false messiahs have the ability to perform signs and wonders (v.22)?
  5. What false messiahs are you tempted to run to in times of distress?
  6. What do we learn in this passage about the return of the Son of Man?
  7. What is the lesson of the fig tree?
  8. To what is Jesus referring when he says this generation will not pass away (v.30), and how does it relate to what Jesus says in verse 32 and 33 that no one knows, including the Son, when the time will come?
  9. Jesus repeatedly says to “be on your guard” and to “stay awake.” How is this an appropriate response to Jesus’ teaching here?
  10. What is one thing you will do as a result of studying this passage?