And as he came out of the temple, one of his disciples said to him, “Look, Teacher, what wonderful stones and what wonderful buildings!” And Jesus said to him, “Do you see these great buildings? There will not be left here one stone upon another that will not be thrown down.”
And as he sat on the Mount of Olives opposite the temple, Peter and James and John and Andrew asked him privately, “Tell us, when will these things be, and what will be the sign when all these things are about to be accomplished?” And Jesus began to say to them, “See that no one leads you astray. Many will come in my name, saying, ‘I am he!’ and they will lead many astray. And when you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed. This must take place, but the end is not yet. For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be earthquakes in various places; there will be famines. These are but the beginning of the birth pains.
Mark 13:1-8 ESV
In regards to the end times, Christians can easily fall into two opposite reactions. The first is to become obsessed with the topic of eschatology. These Christians are always on the lookout for the “signs of the times” and are often absolutely positive that Jesus is coming soon. The summary of their argument is typically to appeal to how chaotic the world is becoming, which means that Jesus must be returning soon. The second is to avoid eschatology at nearly every opportunity, content to simply believe that Jesus is coming back at some point.
The one who obsesses over discerning the end can easily run into many problems. Indeed, like the disciples after Christ’s ascension, it can be all too easy to stare at the sky in wait for His return. Yet there are problems with the other stance as well. Treating the end as out-of-sight-out-of-mind is clearly not how the biblical authors expected us to live. Rather, the end of all things ought to be a matter of great comfort as well as sobriety.
I raise these viewpoints precisely because in chapter thirteen Mark records Jesus’ Olivet Discourse, which is the apocalyptic teaching found in the Synoptic Gospels. As we move through this chapter in the coming weeks, let us guard ourselves from both unhealthy stances.
JUDGMENT FORETOLD // VERSES 1-2
Our text begins with these important words: And as he came out of the temple… While it is right to see this teaching (the largest in Mark’s Gospel) as its own distinct section, it must not be divorced from the events of chapters eleven and twelve. Upon entering Jerusalem on a donkey, Jesus immediately went to the survey the temple. The next day He cleansed the temple of its moneychangers and merchants. The four questions from the religious leaders were all made in the temple, as well as the events that we studied last week. Thus, the setting of this chapter is Jesus exiting the temple following all those previous hostilities.
Along their way out, we are then told that one of Jesus’ disciples commented to Him: “Look, Teacher, what wonderful stones and what wonderful buildings!” This was certainly a true statement, for the temple of Jesus’ day was a wonder to behold. Throughout Israel’s history, there have been two temples. The first is often called Solomon’s temple because it was King Solomon who oversaw its construction and presided over its dedication. It was destroyed, however, by the Babylonians after Zedekiah rebelled against Nebuchadnezzar. The second temple was built by the exiles who were allowed to return under Cyrus of Persia. Its foundation was quickly laid but left unfinished for fifteen years because of threats from neighboring peoples. The prophets Haggai and Zechariah encouraged the people to finished building the temple, and they did so. Originally, the second temple was significantly smaller than Solomon’s, and Ezra records that when its foundation was laid many who remembered the first temple’s glory wept for their loss.
That changed whenever Herod the Great was given control over Judea by Rome. He began a lengthy building project that ended with the second temple being twice as large as Solomon’s temple. R. C. Sproul describes it for us:
The temple complex covered about thirty-five acres. The sanctuary stood one hundred and fifty feet high, as did the temple wall. The columns that held up the portico were so massive that three large men could barely encompass them by touching fingertip to fingertip. Josephus tells us that some of the stones that made up the temple were sixty feet long, eleven feet high, and eight feet deep, with each stone weighing more than a million pounds. Other historians of antiquity said Herod’s temple looked like a mountain of marble decorated with gold. The temple complex was architecturally stunning and must have looked strong enough to stand for a thousand years or more.
Thus, it would seem that this disciple was struck with the wonder of this sight. Of course, perhaps the disciples also intended to sort of cheer Jesus up, almost as if to say, “Things inside the temple might be pretty bad, but isn’t the building beautiful!”
I can imagine Jesus’ response knocking the wind out of his disciples: “Do you see these great buildings? There will not be left here one stone upon another that will not be thrown down.” The temple, beautiful was it was, would be utterly destroyed because of the corruption that had taken root within its walls. J. C. Ryle makes this point:
Let us learn from this solemn saying, that the true glory of a church does not consist in its buildings for public worship, but in the faith and godliness of its members. The eyes of our Lord Jesus Christ could find no pleasure in looking at the very temple which contained the holy of holies, and the golden candlestick, and the altar of burnt offering. Much less, may we suppose, can he find pleasure in the most splendid of worship among professing Christians, if his Word and his Spirit are not honored in it.
Of course, I do not think there is much danger of us reveling in the beauty of our church buildings today (at least among more Reformed-leaning Protestants). In fact, I think that the pendulum has swung too far and that churches might benefit from a valuing architecture again. Yet his point may best apply if we think of a church service’s production value or perhaps the splendor of a multitude of programs, activities, and outreaches. Just as the beauty of the temple’s design could not cover up the corruption within, these outward displays cannot make up for a lack of faith and godliness of a church’s members. We also see this principle in Jesus’ message to the church of Ephesus, where He commended their outward faithfulness but warned them to repent of their lovelessness or their lampstand would be removed.
THESE THINGS // VERSES 3-4
Moving into verse 3, we are told that Jesus sat down on the Mount of Olives opposite the temple. The Kidron Valley lays between the Mount of Olives and Mount Zion upon which Jerusalem sits, yet the Mount of Olives is taller, making its view of the temple spectacular. Jesus will return to the Mount of Olives in chapter fourteen to pray in a garden upon its slope, Gethsemane. We call the teaching of Jesus that begins properly in verse 5 the Olivet Discourse because it was given to His disciples upon the Mount of Olives.
Jesus clearly brought them to this location for the purpose of teaching them more about the temple’s destruction. After all, how could they have thought about anything else once Jesus told them that the greatest religious, cultural, and political structure within their world would be utterly ruined? Indeed, His intent in verse 2 was certainly to have His disciples ask the questions that they asked in verse 4: “Tell us, when will these things be, and what will be the sign when all these things are about to be accomplished?”
This is the guiding question for understanding the Olivet Discourse because this is the question that Jesus is explicitly answering. And the question contains two distinct parts: when will these things happen and what will be the signs that these things are about to be fulfilled. Yet the question is centered upon ‘these things,’ which are throwing down of the buildings and stones of the temple that Jesus predicted in verse 2. This means that the Olivet Discourse here in chapter thirteen is primarily about the destruction of the temple.
Now this chapter certainly is apocalyptic, and there are parts that clearly describe Christ’s second coming, for which we are still waiting with eager anticipation. Yet what we are about to read is not primarily about some time of tribulation still come; instead, it is about a horrendous period of tribulation that has already come to pass whenever Jerusalem and the temple were razed to the ground in AD 70 under the command of Titus the Roman.
We will describe this event in more detail in the coming weeks, but it is to this destruction that most of Jesus’ words here point. Of course, this chapter is still apocalyptic because it is unveiling things that were yet to come. And there are still certainly points of application for us today to draw upon as we read this passage, for we know that all Scripture is profitable to us (2 Timothy 3:16). Yet it is important for us to understand going into this study that Jesus is not primarily speaking about the end of the world as we imagine it; rather, He is mainly teaching His disciples about the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple that would occur within their lifetime.
Indeed, even the setting of this teaching points to this reality, for just as Jesus spoke from the Mount of Olives overlooking Jerusalem and the temple, so was He about to give His disciples an overview of the decades ahead of them.
THE END IS NOT YET // VERSES 5-8
In verse 5, the actual Olivet Discourse begins, and we will only cover through verse 8 this week. Let us begin, therefore, by reading this first paragraph in its entirety:
See that no one leads you astray. Many will come in my name, saying, ‘I am he!’ and they will lead many astray. And when you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed. This must take place, but the end is not yet. For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be earthquakes in various places; there will be famines. These are but the beginning of the birth pains.
Here Jesus describes what so many call the signs of the times, harbingers that the end is near. We can break them into a list of four: 1) false prophets and/or messiahs, 2) wars and rumors of wars (which encompasses the other phrase “nation will rise against nation…”), 3) earthquakes, and 4) famines. There are many commentators who do an excellent work of listing a multitude of examples from each of these four categories that took place between AD 30 and 70. For example, Sam Storms cites Seneca’s lament of many earthquakes in his day, saying:
How often have the cities of Asia and Achaea fallen with one fatal shock! How many cities have been swallowed up in Syria! How many in Macedonia! How often has Paphos become a ruin. News has often been brought to us of the demolition of whole cities at once.
Yet the problem with such lists is that they very often treat the period before the temple’s destruction as unique, whereas history tells us otherwise. While certainly times experience greater upheaval and tumult than others, these signs were very clearly not limited to that time period. Indeed, many point out their prevalence today. Indeed, let’s take a brisk walk through them to see if we are truly living in the last days.
As for false prophets and false messiahs, that is certainly the case. On a global scale, are not both the pope and Mohammed false prophets leading astray billions in the name of Christ? Or how about the faith healers who “perform signs and wonders to lead astray, if possible, the elect” (v. 22)? Or what of the cults of Mormonism and Jehovah’s Witness?
Sign #1: check.
What about wars and rumors of wars? We certainly have those as well. The present war between Russia and Ukraine continues to rage, and the fuel consequences are about to plunge much of Europe into a very cold winter. Meanwhile China is salivating over Taiwan, and our own dear president here in the U.S. is making speeches, inspired by great leaders such as Mussolini and Emperor Palpatine, that call his political opponents an existential threat to the soul of the nation.
Wars and rumors of wars: check and check.
On to earthquakes. In the previous decade (2011-2020), there were a 83,313 recorded earthquakes over 5.0, which resulted in 43,075 recorded fatalities.
Sign #3: check.
Last but not least: famines. This one may not seem to fit the bill because we currently live in the only period of history when obesity is a greater problem than starvation. Yet our present world was never the case before, and we are not guaranteed that it will last. Indeed, Peter Zeihan, who predicts the impending collapse of the globalized supply-and-demand system, ends his book The End of the World Is Just the Beginning with these cheery thoughts:
The same webwork of sacrosanct interconnections that has brought us everything from quick mortgages to smartphones to on-demand electricity has not only also filled 8 billion bellies, it has done so with the odd out-of-season avocado. That’s now largely behind us. The web is failing. Just past the horizon looms a world of lower and less reliable agricultural yields, marred by less variety. A world with less energy or fewer manufactured goods is the difference between wealth and security or poverty and conflict. But a world with fewer foodstuffs is one with fewer people.
More than war, more than disease, famine is the ultimate country killer. And it is not something that human condition can adjust to quickly or easily.
It is the magic mix of industrialization and urbanization that makes modernity possible, and it is precisely those intertwined factors that are under such extreme threat. Weaken the pair, much less break them down, and it will take at bare minimum a generation to rebuild a mix of financial access and manufacturing supply chains and technological evolutions and labor forces that are capable of feeding 8 billion people. And in the time that it takes to do ‘that’… we will no longer ‘have’ 8 billion people.
The history of the next fifty years will be the story of how we deal with (or fail to deal with) the coming food shortages. How those shortages (some continental in scope) will create their own changes in circumstance. How political and economic systems the world over will grapple with the one shortfall that matters more than everything else combined.
So, famine? Perhaps a coming check. It is certainly possible. Indeed, if we are so confident in the modern supply chain that we believe a food shortage is impossible (at least in the West), then perhaps we have erected modernity into another Tower of Babel, which would make it all the more plausible that the LORD would bring it crashing down for a time.
According to all of these signs, we are clearly living in the end times, right? Actually, yes. But maybe not in the way that many think. According to the New Testament authors, the end times, the final age of this world, began during their day. For two thousand years, the world has been coming to an end. In fact, the next direct revelation from God to humanity will come with Christ in the clouds as He destroys the present heavens and earth in order to establish new ones.
And in the meantime, history is filled with stunningly apocalyptic events, such that those living must have surely felt that the end was near. The destruction of the temple was certainly one, as was the fall of Rome. Or maybe we should look at the Crusades. How about the Black Plague’s elimination of one-third of Europe? Would the Viking raids in England qualify? For the children who were enslaved after watching their fathers killed, their mothers raped, and their houses burned, I should think so. The Irish Potato Famine? Surely the volcanic winter that came over the world following Krakatoa’s eruption in the 1880s counts. Or when the Yellow River flooded in China that same decade and killed around 2 million people. Or ought we to consider the Haitian earthquake of 2010 or the 2004 tsunami in Indonesia? And we have not even mentioned the time when our country was so divided that we killed each other by the thousands for about four years. Nor the War to End All Wars, whose sequel could not wait any longer than two decades.
What, then, should we make of these signs?
Notice that Jesus is not calling these signs at all. Indeed, He mentions these four categories precisely because we are so prone to read them as supernatural signs, yet our Lord is specifically warning us against doing that. As Storms notes:
The main point is that these are not signs of the impending destruction of Jerusalem nor are they signs of Christ’s second advent. These events are only the beginning of birth pains. They serve no purpose at all in telling us when or how soon Jesus is coming back.
False prophets, wars and rumors of wars, earthquakes, and famine are the ordinary state of our broken, sin-scarred world. They are certainly devastating, and it is because of their devastation that we long to see them as signs of the end. But all of these are only the beginning of birth pains, which certainly mean that the birth will happen sooner or later. But how many women have gone to the hospital after thinking that her contractions meant the baby’s immanent birth only to find herself waiting for days or even weeks longer?
No, these are all things that must take place but are not themselves signs of the end. Indeed, even with all of this, the end is not yet. We are certainly living in end, but the only thing these things signal is that the time of fulfillment is coming. They do not tell us how close that time is.
This is why Jesus began by saying, “See that no one leads you astray.” In the face of global (or even local) calamities, it is easy to lose biblical perspective. They are times when people are ripe for falling into the deceptions of false prophets and false messiahs. For Christians living during the apostle’s day, a particular temptation was to appease the antagonist Jews by following Jewish practices in addition to following the teaching of the apostles. This warning that the temple would be entirely decimated would have been a particularly strong guardrail for all who kept it near their hearts.
Today, we find plenty of false religions vying for our hearts as well. Mormonism, Jehovah’s Witness, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, and countless others are ready to happily set their hope before us as well as the list of good works required to achieve it. On the other hand, secularism vacillates between being humanistic and nihilistic, between preaching to us that human progress will triumph over even death itself one day and that death’s inevitability makes life ultimately meaningless so “let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die” (1 Corinthians 15:32).
This is not even counting the multitude of false teachers that declare that suffering and tribulation can be avoided by those who possess enough faith. Brothers and sisters, the Christian hope is not that we may avoid the disasters of this world; it is that Christ will sustain us through them. Let us hear from Christ directly: “In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world” (John 16:33). False prophets, wars, earthquakes, and famines will continue to occur until the very end of the world, for they are the way of the world. Yet we need not fear them, for Christ has already overcome the world. He is already sitting at the right hand of the Father as all things are being placed under His feet, and when He returns, He will not only judge both the living and the dead but will also renew all of creation. The earth itself will be made new.
But if these things are not signs that the end is near, what respond are we to have to such disasters? Let us visit briefly two texts. First, I believe we can look to Luke 13:1-5 for a clue:
There were some present at that very time who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. And he answered them, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans, because they suffered in this way? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish. Or those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them: do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who lived in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.”
In this passage, we find two disasters. The first is of human bloodshed, as we see on grander scales during war. The second is a natural disaster, of which earthquakes and famine are also larger displays. After warning against believing that such things necessarily happen to strike particular sinners, Jesus says that we ought to use such reminders of death as an opportunity to repent. For non-Christians, God very often uses the tribulations of this world to call them to Himself, to set their eyes upon a hope that cannot be shaken and upon a Savior who endured far greater affliction to deliver sinners from their sin. For Christians, such tribulations are a reminder that this world is not our home but that we are pilgrims journeying toward a better city. They are also ought to encourage us ever more to proclaim the gospel to the lost, calling all to repent for none of us are guaranteed tomorrow.
We might also consider Acts 1:6-11:
So when they had come together, they asked him, “Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?” He said to them, “It is not for you to know times or seasons that the Father has fixed by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.” And when he had said these things, as they were looking on, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. And while they were gazing into heaven as he went, behold, two men stood by them in white robes, and said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into heaven? This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.”
The return of Christ ought to be our blessed hope that strengthens and encourages all that we do, yet the key is that there is still work to do before that end comes. Indeed, we should long for Christ to find us diligent in His service when He returns rather than metaphorically (or even literally!) staring up at the clouds in anticipation. Christ may very well return in our lifetime, just as the temple was destroyed during the apostles’ generation, or His coming may be still a thousand years or more away. Regardless of the timing, He may easily call us to Himself through war, earthquake, famine, or (as we will observer next week) outright persecution before that day. Therefore, let us be faithful to serve our King with whatever time He allots to us.
As come now to the Table of our King, let us look upon the One who was crushed and pierced for our transgressions and remember that whatever may befall us, we have been adopted by the Most High as sons and daughters. And as remember once more the Father’s giving of His only Son upon the cross, let us taste and see the goodness of His promise to graciously give us all things.
 Storms, Kingdom Come, 238-239.