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Watching for the End of the World

February 3, 2013 Speaker: Allen Snapp Series: Gospel of Mark

Topic: Eschatology Passage: Mark 13:1–37

All right, as we continue our trek through Mark, this morning we come to what is probably the most difficult chapter in the gospel of Mark. As I mentioned last week, chapter 12 records the last public moments of Jesus’ ministry as recorded by Mark, and chapter 14 begins the Passion Narrative. So chapter 13 is a bridge between Jesus’ public ministry and his arrest, trial, and execution, but honestly it’s not the kind of bridge we would expect because what we have here is an apocalyptic vision and prophesy about his return and the end of the world.

Recently my family went to see “Lincoln” and I was interested to see in the previews how many movies are in some way about an apocalyptic end of the world. Maybe the fascination has been stirred because of all the speculation that the Mayan calendar predicted the end would occur on December 21, 2012. If you’re not a believer, or you’re just not familiar with the prophesies in the Bible, it may surprise you to know that the Bible is a book full of prophesies about the future, including some specific and apocryphal predictions about the end of the world.

Are we living in the days the Bible calls “the last days”? Will Jesus come back in our lifetime? And if we aren’t living in the last days, what do we do with Jesus’ prophecies? Is there any way that they can apply to us or instruct us how to live if we don’t happen to be living in the last days of human history? We’ve got a lot of ground to cover this morning so stay with me…

Mark 13:1-4 
As Jesus is leaving the Temple with his disciples, one of them points out the magnificent architecture of the Temple to Jesus. The temple was an amazing building. Built over a period of 46 years it was considered one of the wonders of the Roman world. It was built from massive stones that were either pure white or overlaid with gold. The ancient historian Josephus wrote this about the temple:

Being covered with massive plates of gold, the sun was no sooner up than it radiated so fiery a flash that persons straining to look at it were compelled to avert their eyes, as from the solar rays.

All this magnificence gave it the appearance of radiating the glory of God and it was natural for most Jews to equate the magnificence of the temple to the glory of God in their midst.

You would do a flip

When I was 11 years old I had the chance to go to Europe with my dad and stepmother. There I got to see amazing cathedrals like Paris’ Notre Dame and the Vatican’s Sisteen Chapel. And although at that point in my life I wasn’t very religious, I knew my grandmother was so I wrote her a letter and in that letter I remember saying that she would do a flip if she could see the church buildings there. I think I even drew a picture of her flipping. Now, I have a hard time imagining my 93 year old grandmother doing a flip – even back then – but I also misunderstood what it was she loved. She didn’t love church buildings or fancy architecture. She loved God, she loved the Savior, and she loved the church – not building but the family of God expressed in small communities of faith.

One of the disciples expects Jesus to do a flip over the magnificence of the temple but rather than confirm the temple’s beauty, Jesus predicts its destruction. Not one stone will be left standing on the other. This is a prediction of God’s judgment on the temple: the beauty of the building masked the corruption and hypocrisy that had permeated its walls through the religious leaders.

But it’s also a declaration that God’s presence was no longer going to be in Israel through a building. The temple was considered the house of God through which God dwelt among His people. But when Jesus came, the shadow of the temple gave way to the reality of God dwelling among His people in the person of Christ. John writes in his gospel,

The Word (that is, God) became flesh and dwelt among us…John 1:14

The temple would no longer be how God dwelt among His people – now He dwelt with man in the person of Christ, God with us. This is pretty shocking prediction to the disciples so a short time later, as they sat looking down on the temple from the Mount of Olives, Peter, James, John, and Andrew come and privately ask Jesus two questions: 1) when will these things be (the tearing down of the temple) and 2) what will be the sign when all these things are about to be accomplished (and we know from Matthew that “all these things” means the end of the age)?
We could really spend the next several weeks studying Jesus’ answer, but for the sake of time I’m going to break down Jesus’ answer into four sections and share briefly on each section. In the first section Jesus talks about the “beginning of birth pains”.

I. The beginning of birth pains (vv. 5-13)

The first sign Jesus gives is that things are going to get worse and worse as the earth hurtles towards its end: there will be false Christ’s, wars and rumors of wars, natural disasters like earthquakes and famines in various places and those who follow Jesus will be persecuted, even by people they love and trust, like brothers, and fathers and children.

The problem with this sign is that these things have been going on since Christ walked the earth. They aren’t unique to any particular age or time. And that’s the point. Jesus isn’t giving them a specific list of events that they can check off, “ok, this happened, now that’s going to happen, and then the next thing leads to the end…”

It will be more like birth pains. Birth pains tell you the baby’s coming but they don’t necessarily tell you exactly when. Birth pains can intensify for a time and then ease up for a time. Eventually the birth pains will grow so intense that you know the baby is coming and that’s eventually what will happen in human history. It will get worse and worse until it hits the tipping point and the earth hurtles towards its final days.

Jesus prepares his disciples – and he wants to prepare us – not by giving us a checklist of prophetic events to watch for, but by preparing us to suffer for his name’s sake. He calls us to be steadfast even in the face of great suffering and persecution. We may be hated on account of his name. Don’t be deceived, don’t be shaken, don’t be anxious, preach the gospel. The gospel must go forth to all nations before the end. It’s a call to be steadfast. In the face of suffering, in the face of natural disaster, in the face of betrayal, in the face of hatred, be steadfast. And Jesus gives us a promise to help anchor us in our steadfastness: the one who endures to the end will be saved.

II. The abomination of desolation (vv. 14-23)

Then Jesus gives this cryptic warning: when you see the abomination of desolation standing where he ought not to be (let the reader understand), then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains…

Now the phrase, abomination of desolation, may be an unfamiliar to us, but the Jews would have recognized it from the book of Daniel chapters 9 and 11 and it refers to the desecration of the temple by Gentiles. So Jesus is back to talking about the desecration and destruction of the temple here and he is warning his disciples that when they see the Gentiles emerge on the temple to flee from Jerusalem. This had a vivid fulfillment in the period of AD 66-70. The Roman general Vespasian marched on Israel, conquering its cities and then turned his attention to Jerusalem to overtake it. However in AD 68 Nero was overthrown and Vespasian stopped his siege of Jerusalem in order to return to Rome and be named the new Emperor of the Roman Empire. His son Titus resumed the siege of Jerusalem in AD 70 but by then many Christians, remembering Jesus’ words, had escaped the city and just in time. Those who remained in Jerusalem suffered terribly.

When Titus finally overtook Jerusalem a fire broke out in the Temple district, and the soldiers tore the temple apart stone by stone to get to the gold that melted in the fire, thus fulfilling Jesus’ prediction that not one stone would be left on another. So AD 70 is certainly in view in this prophecy, but I don’t think it’s the main fulfillment of it. Prophecies in the Bible often have multiple fulfillments – lesser fulfillments that lead up to its primary fulfillment. The suffering that occurred in Jerusalem for the years leading up to its overthrow is well documented and it was horrendous, but Jesus says in verse 19 that there will be such tribulation (trouble) as has never been from the beginning of creation and will never be again, to the extent that if the Lord had not cut short the days, no human being would be saved. This is much more than the siege of Jerusalem, and lines up with other prophetic passages that describe a series of escalating catastrophic events that would have wiped mankind off the face of the earth, if the Lord did not interrupt history when he did. Jesus continues a description of these cataclysmic events in verse 24.

III. The coming of the Son of Man (vv. 24-27)

Jesus describes something occurring that is unique – a cataclysmic series of disasters beyond anything this world has ever known – the sun will be darkened and the moon will not give light and stars will fall and powers of heaven will be shaken. Luke gives a sense of how frightening these events will be:

"And there will be signs in sun and moon and stars, and on the earth distress of nations in perplexity because of the roaring of the sea and the waves, 26people fainting with fear and with foreboding of what is coming on the world. For the powers of the heavens will be shaken.” Luke 21:25-26 (ESV)

John sees the same event in his apocalyptic vision:

When he opened the sixth seal, I looked, and behold, there was a great earthquake, and the sun became black as sackcloth, the full moon became like blood, 13and the stars of the sky fell to the earth as the fig tree sheds its winter fruit when shaken by a gale. 14The sky vanished like a scroll that is being rolled up, and every mountain and island was removed from its place. Rev. 6:12-14

We don’t know exactly what this means – but it describes a series of devastating changes in the heavens – our sun, moon, and stars. The picture of the sky vanishing like a scroll being rolled up and mountains and islands being removed is picturesque language that probably indicates some kind of solar disaster.

It’s interesting that at least two fairly recent movies, Melancholia and Seeking a Friend for the End of the World have to do with planets or meteors hitting our planet, thus bringing the world to an end. It’s as though there’s a fascination with the world ending by an interplanetary collision. There is some biblical support for at least part of the disaster coming from outer space.
But in these apocalyptic movies the climax is the disaster striking the earth and killing the entire population. Hopelessness is a theme that runs through both movies. and Melancholia in particular breaths hopelessness as one woman tries to shield her young son from the fear of dying by setting up a magic cave of sticks where mother, aunt, and child sit quietly crying as the planet plunges into earth. It is a moving, but utterly hopeless climax.

In the Bible, the coming disaster isn’t the climax. Hopelessness isn’t the climax. The coming of the Son of Man is the climax. The glory of God and the return of the Savior and all the eternal hope that that brings to all those who long for his appearing is the climax! Jesus borrows language from the book of Daniel as he describes the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory. Daniel writes this vision:

“I saw in the night visions,
and behold, with the clouds of heaven
there came one like a son of man,
and he came to the Ancient of Days
and was presented before him.
14 And to him was given dominion
and glory and a kingdom,
that all peoples, nations, and languages
should serve him;
his dominion is an everlasting dominion,
which shall not pass away,
and his kingdom one
that shall not be destroyed.

This indestructible kingdom is the indestructible hope of every Christian, and it is the reason we are to be willing to suffer in order that others might know this indestructible hope. Jesus came to die for our sins on a cross. He’s coming again to gather his elect from all corners of the earth to be with him forever. Sharing that hope with a world that is on a collision course with destruction is our purpose and our mission and our calling.

So, in light of this, how should we then live? One word: watching.

IV. Encouragement for Jesus’ disciples to watch (vv. 28-37)

a. We should be watching because long delay will give way to sudden fulfillment

The parable of the fig tree tells us that when one thing happens, something else is close behind. When the fig tree puts out its branches, summer is not far away. When these things begin – the great tribulation, and the cataclysmic events in the heavens and earth – the end is not far behind. It won’t be long. I don’t think he’s trying to say that all this is going to happen very soon and in his disciple’s lifetimes because He says that he does not know the day or the hour, only the Father knows. There are indications in this passage and the parallel passages that long delay is expected. His message here isn’t immediacy, its proximity. When this happens, that is not far behind.

b. We should be watching for Jesus’ return, not predicting the date of his return

Over the years, many people have tried unsuccessfully to predict the day of Jesus’ return. It’s really pretty simple: we do not know and we should not try to predict. We can be aware of events and what might seem to possibly be biblical prophecies being fulfilled, and that should definitely affect us, but not by making us try to figure out times and meanings and such. Jesus doesn’t encourage us to set dates or speculate about who the antichrist is. He commands us to be ready. To watch. And to stay awake. And that brings me to my final point this morning.

c. Every generation of believers should be eagerly watching for Jesus’ return, expecting it to be in their lifetimes

I was listening to an interview with different actors in Seeking a Friend for the End of the World, and they were saying what they would do if they learned that the world was going to end in three weeks. One guy said he’d go crazy and stay drunk the whole time. Another actor said he’d want to go and hear Elton John sing “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” while the meteor is approaching us – he can’t imagine a better way for the world to end. Steve Carell says he’d probably eat a lot of junk food, starting with Chinese food and making his way to pizza, cupcakes, and then brownies. Others might want to build a “magic cave” to hide in.

Christians have something far better than a magic cave or getting drunk. We are to be watching for Christ’s return and I believe every generation should be expecting his return in their lifetime – we should expect his return in our lifetime. It should be far more a part of our hope and our excitement than I think it is for a lot of us. There can be a mistaken attitude that because we shouldn’t predict when Jesus will come, we shouldn’t even be thinking about it. That is 180 degrees opposite of the early church.

The eager expectation of Christ’s return was an important characteristic of the early church. Paul mentions baptism 14 times and the second coming of Christ 50 times!

• Paul looked forward to the crown of righteousness that would be his on that day and not his only, but “to all who have loved his appearing.” 2 Tim. 4:8
• Paul describes God’s grace as producing godly men and women who are “waiting for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ…” Titus 2:13 (ESV)
• Paul tells us the Thessalonians were waiting for the Son from Heaven (I Thess. 1:10).
• The next to last words in all the Bible is the prayer of Apostle John, “even so, Lord, come Lord Jesus!” That is the heart of all the apostles – waiting and watching for the second coming of Christ.

The first disciples were eagerly watching for Christ’s return, fully expecting him to come back in their lifetime. I think the Lord intended for every generation of believers to follow their example.
Watching has a two-fold nature: watching for the Lord’s return and watching one’s own soul. Because we are watching for Christ, we are watching our souls. Healthy sense of accountability that leads us to be faithful and steadfast and pursue holiness.

In the end, we may not be the generation that sees the return of the Lord. But it is the anticipation of the return of the Lord, not the thought that one day we will die, that is to be our motivation for living a godly, unworldly, unselfish, loving, Christ-centered life. John Linton preached this many decades ago:

In much of our modern preaching we urge people to live holy and work diligently because death is swiftly coming. But that is never the Bible argument. The Bible argument always is, Christ is coming! Be ready when He comes!

Christ is coming! Let’s encourage one another with this hope. We don't need to seek a friend for the end of the world - we have a friend for the end of the world - it's Jesus! Let’s seek to be ready when he comes! Jesus closes with this exhortation ( I like it in the NIV):

What I say to you I say to everyone: watch! Let’s pray.