Mark 13 should be read and studied carefully in connection with Matthew 24 and Luke 21. All three chapters give us a report of our Lord’s Olivet discourse, in which He traced prophetically the conditions that were to prevail in Palestine and among the Gentile nations after His rejection and resurrection. His prophecies included the destruction of Jerusalem under Titus and—going on to the climax—the second coming of the Son of man and the establishment of the kingdom of God on earth in power and glory. It is noteworthy that when He spoke in His servant character as the prophet of Jehovah, He declared His self-limitation: “Of that day and that hour knoweth no man, no, not the angels which are in heaven, neither the Son, but the Father” (Mark 13:32). As the perfect Servant He chose not to know what the Father was not pleased to reveal (Deuteronomy 18:15, 18-19).
We do not find in these three chapters any mention of the church of the present dispensation. When Jesus spoke these words, the truth as to the body of Christ was still unrevealed. This mystery was not made known until it was given by special illumination to the apostle Paul and through him to others some time after the present age of grace began. Therefore in reading the Olivet discourse we do well to recognize its strictly Jewish character. While the discourse reveals much hitherto kept secret, there is no intimation in it of the origin, course, or destiny of the church—the heavenly people now linked by the Spirit with the risen Christ.
Many of those who heard this address were incorporated into the church of the present dispensation by the baptism in the Holy Spirit on Pentecost and after. Yet all who heard are viewed as the Jewish remnant waiting for the consummation of the Old Testament prophecy—the setting up of Messiah’s kingdom when the once-rejected Servant of Jehovah will return to rule the nations with the iron rod of inflexible righteousness (Psalm 2). The elect in view throughout the discourse of Mark 13 are therefore the early saints—both Jews and converted Gentiles in the last days (the seventieth week of Daniel 9)—who are to be gathered from all parts of the world to welcome the King when He sets up His throne on mount Zion. If these considerations be kept in mind much confusion will be avoided.
Characteristics of the Present Age (Mark 13:1-8)
Jesus and His followers left the city on the evening of the day in which He had been in controversy with the unbelieving leaders regarding several definite questions. As they left Jerusalem the disciples took pardonable pride as Jews in calling His attention to the magnificent buildings of the temple and nearby palaces. Doubtless they thought that Jesus would soon take these over, and they would dwell in them with Him and help Him administer the affairs of the kingdom. But to their amazement He declared that of all those great buildings not one stone would be left upon another, but all would be razed.
Pausing, Jesus sat on the mount overlooking the temple, and four of the disciples—Peter, James, John, and Andrew—asked Him privately, “Tell us, when shall these things be? and what shall be the sign when all these things shall be fulfilled?”
In Mark 13:5-8 the Lord outlined the course of the present age and speaks of the general characteristics that will prevail during the time of His physical absence from the world. There will be no improvement in morals or in the affairs of nations. The Prince of Peace has been rejected. Consequently there can be no lasting peace until He returns to reign and put down all unrighteousness.
Many false christs were predicted and the predictions have been abundantly fulfilled, but the true sheep of the flock have not been deceived by the voices of these strangers. There will be wars and rumors of wars because the only One who could have saved the nations from these calamities has been spurned and crucified. Jesus clearly foresaw all this and therefore pictured exactly the age following His rejection by the world and His ascension to Heaven.
Ever since He left this earth, that which is outlined in verse 8 has been exemplified. Nation has risen against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. Great disturbances have filled men’s hearts with dread, while famines and other troubles have made this world a scene of sadness and distress. Yet these things are but the beginning of sorrows, even though they have continued for nearly twenty centuries. The worst of all suffering is yet in the future.
Far worse are the dangers to which men are to be subjected in the time of the end, when God’s final judgments are falling on the earth. But even then—in the time of Jacob’s trouble and the era of trial that is to come on all those who dwell in the world—the message of the gospel will be proclaimed until the final consummation of the age.
Signs of the Last Days (Mark 13:9-13)
We of this present age may appropriate the words of Mark 13:9-13 to ourselves when we are in similar circumstances, but it is important to see their exact application. The suffering saints referred to here are clearly those of Israel who will be God’s final witnesses after the church as we know it has been caught away to Heaven and the last week of Daniel 9 has begun. Then God will raise up a host of wise ones (the Maskilim of Daniel 12) to bear testimony and proclaim the gospel of the kingdom among all nations. These saints will be the special objects of Satan’s enmity and will be exposed to fearful suffering and relentless persecution. Nevertheless the gospel must be proclaimed to all nations before the end will come.
While portraying this time of persecution, Mark 13:11-13 also gives comfort and encouragement to those who will suffer arrest and imprisonment in those dark days. The Holy Spirit of God will enable them to answer those who accuse them falsely. The saints will be enabled to answer in a manner that their adversaries will not be able to resist. This passage might seem to apply only to this present dispensation of grace when the Holy Spirit indwells all believers. But we need to remember that even when His present work in the church comes to an end and He no longer personally indwells the saints, He will still be omnipresent. He will be with all who turn to Christ in those dark days, even as He was with Old Testament saints before Pentecost.
Betrayal by one’s own relatives, even unfilial children giving evidence against godly parents, will call for great patience on the part of those who will be witnesses to the coming King in that time of stress. Those who confess Christ as earth’s rightful King will be tried to the utmost. They will be hated by all who are subject to the power of Satan working through the atheistic governments of the last days. “But he that shall endure unto the end, the same shall be saved.” This is not to say that salvation in that hour of crisis will depend on individual faithfulness, but rather that endurance to the end is the evidence of reality. Mere profession will break down then, as now. But if one has actually been regenerated, no matter what he may be called on to endure, he will be given power to continue in the path of devotedness to the Lord.
The Great Tribulation and Christ’s Second Coming (Mark 13:14-27)
It is clear from the ninth chapter of Daniel that the last week will be divided into two parts. The entire period is called a “time of trouble” (Daniel 12:1), and “the time of Jacob’s trouble” (Jeremiah 30:7). But it is the last part—the three and a half years beginning with the full revelation of the man of sin—that is designated “the great tribulation.” This will be ushered in by the setting up of the abomination of desolation predicted in Daniel 12:11.
We need to distinguish between “the abomination that maketh desolate” spoken of in Daniel 11:31, which refers to the image of Jupiter set up in the temple by Antiochus Epiphanes in the distant past, and the “abomination that maketh desolate” of Daniel 12:11, which refers to a desecration yet to take place. It is this latter abomination of which our Lord was speaking. Whether the abomination will be a literal image of the beast (Revelation 13:14-15) to be erected by the false prophet, the lamb-like beast (the antichrist) of the last days, or a symbol of some secret agency acting on behalf of the blasphemous head of the coming world empire, we may not be positive. But in the light of the Lord’s words the remnant living in that hour of trial will understand. They will also know that the power of evil can last only 1260 days thereafter, and at the end of that time the kingdom will be set up. The great tribulation therefore will go on throughout three and a half years after this abomination is revealed. This will be the time when the wrath of God will be poured out on apostate Christendom and apostate Judaism. To Christians the promise is given that they will not be exposed to wrath. We look for our Lord Jesus to snatch us away from the wrath to come (1 Thessalonians 1:10).
The instructions given in Mark 13:14-18 apply particularly to the Jewish remnant in Palestine during the reign of the beast and the antichrist. As in the days of Titus, warning is given to the remnant to avoid the city and to flee to the wilderness where they will be protected from the wrath of the devil expressed through the antichrist.
Daniel predicted “a time of trouble, such as never was since there was a nation even to that same time” (Daniel 12:1). In Mark 13:19 Jesus used similar language. So terrible will be the catastrophe that will fall on the nations that except the Lord shorten the days “no flesh should be saved.” But He told us that for the elect’s sake—referring to the elect of Israel and those who will be spared out of the nations— those days will be shortened.
Three and one-half years equals approximately 1278 days. But the power of the beast will be limited to 1260 days. The period will be shortened by 18 days to permit the salvation of many from actual destruction.
In that awful time of strong delusion and hardness of heart many will be misled by false christs and false prophets, as well as by the supreme antichrist at Jerusalem. But the elect of God will be preserved from the deceivers’ blinding influence. To the elect Jesus said, “Take ye heed: behold, I have foretold you all things.”
Observe that all the portents described in Mark 13:24-25 and the actual return of the Son of man are to take place immediately “after that tribulation” and therefore have not yet taken place. It is certain that the prophecy of the great tribulation (Mark 13:14-23) does not refer to any event already fulfilled—for instance, the destruction of Jerusalem or persecutions of the church under either pagan or papal Rome—for the Lord’s second advent is still in the future. How near it may be none but God can say; but it is still the expectation of the people of God, and not something to which they can look back.
Christ’s coming to the earth will be attended with great natural convulsions. Everything that can be shaken will reel to and fro like a drunken man and supernatural events will occur among the heavenly bodies. In this nuclear age we can readily see how literally these words of Jesus can be taken.
Note the difference between this stage of the second advent and that depicted in 1 Thessalonians 4. In Mark 13 the Son of man comes to the earth with power and great glory. In 1 Thessalonians 4 the Lord descends from Heaven, but calls His saints to meet Him in the air. In Mark 13 He sends forth His angels to gather His elect (the remnant out of Israel and the nations waiting for His return) from the four winds, from the uttermost part of the earth to the uttermost part of Heaven. In 1 Thessalonians 4 the saints of the past ages and of the church, the body of Christ, will be raptured (caught up) to meet Him in the air in order to return with Him in glory when the passage in Mark 13 is fulfilled.
Our Duty to Watch (Mark 13:28-37)
In this section of Mark 13 the fig tree is used as a symbol of Judah, or the Jewish people. It speaks of Israel nationally. When the fig tree puts forth her leaves one may know that summer is near. “So… when ye shall see these things come to pass”—that is, when the Jews once more acquire national consciousness and the predicted signs begin to come to pass—you will know that the consummation (the coming of the King) is at hand. Until that day the unbelieving Jews will abide. All Satan’s efforts will be unable to destroy them. No matter how unbelievers may scoff, God’s Word will stand. Heaven and earth may pass away, but His words will never pass away.
It is useless to try to work out some chronological system to determine the time of His coming. This is a secret, unrevealed even to angels. Even the Son, as man on earth, chose not to know. It is the Father’s prerogative to set the time, as Jesus also declared in Acts 1:7. How slow men have been to accept this, and what blunders they have made by attempting to compute the time of His return.
Like a man gone on a journey who gave instruction to his servants as to their duties in his absence but did not intimate the day or hour of his return, so Jesus our Lord has ascended to Heaven. He declared that in due time He will come again but He did not name the time. Meanwhile we are here to serve Him. He has appointed “to every man his work, and commanded the porter to watch.” It is for us to take heed to His words, to watch and pray, as we wait for the fulfillment of His promise. Because of the uncertainty of the hour when He will come back to earth all His servants should ever be on the qui vive, waiting and watching expectantly lest coming suddenly He find them sleeping. To every one the word is spoken—“Watch.”