Julie Rowe’s prophecies of an imminent end of the world have been getting a bit of attention lately. So this might be a good time to review Jesus’ teachings on the matter.
I’m going to reproduce the text of Mark 13 and then discuss it verse by verse. (You may initially find my interpretation unusual; stick with me at least until verse 30, OK?)
1 And as he went out of the temple, one of his disciples saith unto him, Master, see what manner of stones and what buildings are here! 2 And Jesus answering said unto him, Seest thou these great buildings? there shall not be left one stone upon another, that shall not be thrown down.
The disciples, bless their hearts, are awed by the physical grandeur of the temple. Jesus points out that its imposing physical presence will not stop it from being destroyed (which will happen about 40 years after Jesus’ death).
3 And as he sat upon the mount of Olives over against the temple, Peter and James and John and Andrew asked him privately, 4 Tell us, when shall these things be? and what shall be the sign when all these things shall be fulfilled?
It’s common in Mark for the disciples to ask privately for more info about things they don’t understand. Here, they want a sign so that they will know when the destruction of the temple will be. They seem to have conflated the end of the temple with the end of the world. (Hence: these things, plural, referring to the destruction of the temple and the end of the world.)
The very first thing Jesus does when they ask for a sign is to warn them that people will try to trick them. Rule number one is that when it comes to signs: people will try to deceive you. The most important thing for you to know is not some particular sign, but that on this topic, deceivers are many.
Note that the deceivers deceive by claiming to be all religious and holy. This is probably why people are so likely to be deceived. Jesus says that many people will in fact be deceived. This is important: the kind of people who are overly-concerned with the signs of the times are the kind of people are particularly susceptible to being deceived.
Keep in mind that Jesus is responding to their request for a sign. And after warning them not to be tricked, he then tells them that wars and rumors of war are not cause for being troubled because they do not mean that the end is at hand. Wars are things that happen in a fallen world. They are not a sign of the times; this is the entire point of this verse.
Again: wars happen. Earthquakes happen. Famines and other troubles happen. These are not the end. They are, rather the “beginning.” They do not mean that the temple is about to be destroyed.
9 ¶But take heed to yourselves: for they shall deliver you up to councils; and in the synagogues ye shall be beaten: and ye shall be brought before rulers and kings for my sake, for a testimony against them.
The word “but” signals a shift. Jesus had been talking about things that they didn’t need to worry about. Now, he is going to shift. But he is not shifting to giving them the sign that they asked for. (Remember that request?) Instead, he’s telling them what is going to happen in the meantime. Short answer: they will be persecuted as they share the gospel. This is what they need to worry about. They don’t need to worry about the signs of the times. They need to worry about their assignment, which is to share the gospel.
10 And the gospel must first be published among all nations. 11 But when they shall lead you, and deliver you up, take no thought beforehand what ye shall speak, neither do ye premeditate: but whatsoever shall be given you in that hour, that speak ye: for it is not ye that speak, but the Holy Ghost. 12 Now the brother shall betray the brother to death, and the father the son; and children shall rise up against their parents, and shall cause them to be put to death. 13 And ye shall be hated of all men for my name’s sake: but he that shall endure unto the end, the same shall be saved.
These verses go in to more detail about what will happen when they share the gospel. Jesus is not giving them the sign they asked for about the destruction of the temple. He’s telling them what they do need to worry about, which is their commission to share the gospel.
14 ¶But when ye shall see the abomination of desolation, spoken of by Daniel the prophet, standing where it ought not, (let him that readeth understand,) then let them that be in Judæa flee to the mountains:
This verse is notoriously tricky to interpret. I won’t get into the details here, but long story short: when they see the abominating desolation in the temple (which is probably the presence of Zealots in the temple), then it is time to act. This is something that will happen about 40 years after Jesus dies. Jesus gives them specific instructions to follow when it is almost time for the temple to be destroyed. Jesus is finally giving them the sign that they asked for about what will happen immediately before the destruction of the temple. But note the larger context of this chapter: Jesus first told them not to be deceived, then told them that they really needed to be worrying about their own missions before the destruction of the temple (and their mission is what gets the most airtime), and then finally gave them one sign.
15 And let him that is on the housetop not go down into the house, neither enter therein, to take any thing out of his house: 16 And let him that is in the field not turn back again for to take up his garment. 17 But woe to them that are with child, and to them that give suck in those days! 18 And pray ye that your flight be not in the winter. 19 For in those days shall be affliction, such as was not from the beginning of the creation which God created unto this time, neither shall be. 20 And except that the Lord had shortened those days, no flesh should be saved: but for the elect’s sake, whom he hath chosen, he hath shortened the days. 21 And then if any man shall say to you, Lo, here is Christ; or, lo, he is there; believe him not: 22 For false Christs and false prophets shall rise, and shall shew signs and wonders, to seduce, if it were possible, even the elect. 23 But take ye heed: behold, I have foretold you all things.
At this point, Jesus gives more detail about how they need to react to the sign. Notice that these are not more signs, but rather counsel that emphasizes the need to act quickly when the sign comes and expresses special concern for pregnant women and nursing mothers at that time. Again, the warnings about deceivers are repeated: Jesus makes the point that a huge threat to them is from deceivers.
24 ¶But in those days, after that tribulation, the sun shall be darkened, and the moon shall not give her light, 25 And the stars of heaven shall fall, and the powers that are in heaven shall be shaken.
I know this sounds like a sign of the end times. But I don’t think the disciples or Mark’s early audiences would have understood it that way, however. Celestial bodies are symbols for the nations in many scripture texts and we have evidence from early Christianity that they did not take this kind of language literally. So it is not likely that this was intended to be understood as describing literal events in the sky at “the end of the world,” but rather to be understood as describing the political drama attendant to the destruction of the temple.
I know this sounds like a sign of the end times. But I don’t think the disciples or Mark’s early audiences would have understood it that way, however. (See what I did there?) The phrase “Son of man coming in the clouds” is a quotation from Daniel 7:13. There, it describes the son coming to heaven—not to earth—and being enthroned in the heavens. So while it is possible that this language is wrenched out of context to describe Jesus’ Second Coming, it is more likely that it describes his enthronement after his mortal life.
I know this sounds like a sign of the end times. But I don’t think the disciples or Mark’s early audiences would have understood it that way, however. (Yes, again.) If the previous verse referred to Jesus’ enthronement (not to his return), then this verse most likely refers to the gathering via missionary work that happens during the time before Jesus’ return. Given the emphasis above on the disciples’ mission, it probably makes more sense for this verse to refer to missionary work than a post-Second-Coming gathering of the righteous to heaven.
28 Now learn a parable of the fig tree; When her branch is yet tender, and putteth forth leaves, ye know that summer is near: 29 So ye in like manner, when ye shall see these things come to pass, know that it is nigh, even at the doors.
Jesus uses a parable to suggest that the sign (the abomination in the temple) indicates quick fulfillment.
30 Verily I say unto you, that this generation shall not pass, till all these things be done.
So maybe you haven’t been entirely convinced by my analysis that everything Jesus has said up to this point is not about the end of the world but rather about the destruction of the temple. Well, I will be the first to admit that this chapter has some tricky parts and some loose threads. But I ask you this: if what Jesus has been talking about is the end of the world, then how do you explain the fact that he here says that the people currently alive will still be alive when the things which he has been talking about will happen? Do you think he was a false prophet? It seems to me that this verse demands that we regard the previous verses to concern not the end of the world but rather the destruction of the temple which did in fact happen during the lifetime of the generation who was then alive. Note that this verse begins with “verily I say unto you,” which is what Jesus says when he means business. The next verse is also designed to emphasize the truthfulness of his words. In other words, the bit about these things happening while his audience’s generation was still alive is literally surrounded by attestations of its truthfulness. So maybe we need to consider the fact that Jesus has, up to this point in this chapter, been talking about things that would happen during his disciples’ lifetimes.
31 Heaven and earth shall pass away: but my words shall not pass away.
This verse suggests that Jesus’ words are more trustworthy and reliable than heaven and earth. It is not necessarily or primarily a prediction that heaven and earth will end. Rather, it is comparing the likelihood of the ending of heaven and earth to the likelihood of Jesus being wrong about what he just said. Its conclusion is that heaven and earth are more likely to fail than Jesus’ words.
Note the “but,” which implies a shift in topic. Note the singular “day and hour” as opposed to the plural “these things” above. Jesus is now talking about something other than what he was previously talking about. It appears that the disciples had, in their minds, mashed up the end of the temple and the end of the world, but here Jesus is separating them.
And do you know what Jesus has to say about the end of the world? He says that he does not know when it will be. He does not give them any signs of the end of the world. (How could he give them any signs of the end of the world when he doesn’t know when it is?) This is yet more evidence for reading this chapter as not being about the signs of the end of the world.
Jesus does, however, give them some counsel (but not signs) for the end. They are supposed to watch and pray. They will not know the timing of the end and they will be given no signs of the end. (If they were given signs, then they would know the timing–like they did with the destruction of the temple.) They are told to watch and to pray. That’s all they need to know about the end.
34 For the Son of man is as a man taking a far journey, who left his house, and gave authority to his servants, and to every man his work, and commanded the porter to watch. 35 Watch ye therefore: for ye know not when the master of the house cometh, at even, or at midnight, or at the cockcrowing, or in the morning: 36 Lest coming suddenly he find you sleeping.
Jesus not shares a parable that makes a point that they do not know when the end is and that they will not be given signs of the end. Their role is to be vigilant at their tasks–not to watch for signs of the end but to be always ready.
I like how this line makes clear that this chapter is not just for a select inner group of disciples, but for everyone. No disciple is given signs of the end time; they are all to be prayerfully about their ministry.
While modern readers often view this chapter as presenting “the signs of the times,” in its Markan context, Jesus’ words serve to minimize the focus on these signs and substitute instead an attitude of watchfulness and an emphasis on discipleship, even under persecution. They are counseled not to believe most of what they hear from those who teach and prophesy about the future.
The theme of discipleship has frequently been overlooked in this chapter despite a general recognition that discipleship is the signal theme of Mark’s Gospel. It is significant that what might initially appear to be typical apocalyptic material (such as reference to wars and earthquakes) instead becomes warnings to the disciples not to focus on these things. Instead, there is a warning that they can expect to be persecuted as they preach the gospel.
Obviously, there are other scriptures and teachings about the end of times to which one might refer. Some of them might provide different or additional information. But I think it is worth looking at our oldest source for Jesus’ life to see how Jesus tamped down speculation and discussion about signs of the end in favor of a reminder to attend to preaching the gospel and to remaining prayerful. It’s still good advice.
Look, I get the fascination with the end of days: I love me a good post-apocalyptic novel as much as the next bored housewife. And I get that it’s really fun to think about Those People finally getting what they have coming to them. And imagining that the end will come soon is far more exciting than the thought of 28 more years of paying your mortgage. But the entire point of this chapter is that your job is sharing the gospel and praying, not obsessing over signs. And if Jesus himself doesn’t know the time of his return, then neither can you.
tl;dr: All that stuff that you thought was about the last days was actually about the destruction of the temple, which happened shortly after Jesus died. All Jesus has to say about the end times is that (1) neither you nor he knows when it is and (2) your preparation for it is to watch and pray. Also, there are lots of warnings about people trying to deceive you.