“But be on your guard. For they will deliver you over to councils, and you will be beaten in synagogues, and you will stand before governors and kings for my sake, to bear witness before them. And the gospel must first be proclaimed to all nations. And when they bring you to trial and deliver you over, do not be anxious beforehand what you are to say, but say whatever is given you in that hour, for it is not you who speak, but the Holy Spirit. And brother will deliver brother over to death, and the father his child, and children will rise against parents and have them put to death. And you will be hated by all for my name’s sake. But the one who endures to the end will be saved.
Mark 13:9-13 ESV
In Revelation 13, the apostle John beheld two terrifying beasts. The first rose up out of the sea, and it looked like an amalgamation of the beasts that the prophet Daniel saw rising out of the sea in his own vision. Satan, the great red dragon, gave this beast his own power and authority and throne. And though the beast was worshiped by the world, God permitted it “to make war on the saints and to conquer them” (13:7).
The second beast arose from the earth, and though it had the horns of a lamb, “it spoke like a dragon” (13:11). It was given the authority of the first beast to perform signs and wonders that the world would worship the first beast. It was also this beast that “causes all, both small and great, both rich and poor, both free and slave, to be marked on the right hand or the forehead, so that no one can buy or sell unless he has the mark, that is, the name of the beast or the number of its name” (13:16-17).
Interestingly, John concludes both descriptions of the beasts with an editorial note to we the readers. In 13:9, he writes, “If anyone has an ear, let him hear: If anyone is to be taken captive, to captivity he goes; if anyone is to be slain with the sword, with the sword he must be slain. Here is a call for the endurance and faith of the saints.” Then in 14:12, which comes after an angel issues a warning of judgment upon all who take the mark of the second beast, John writes again, “Here is a call for the endurance of the saints, those who keep the commandments of God and their faith in Jesus.”
I believe these two calls for endurance are located at the very center of the book because they capture the overall message of the visions that John was given. Tribulation will happen. God’s people will be killed. But Christ will return and triumph ultimately over all the powers of darkness. Therefore, we must endure these trials until the end comes, which as the hymn says is either “till He returns or calls me home.”
Our present passage is a direct continuation from last week’s text. There Christ spoke of the false messiahs, wars, earthquakes, and famine that would mark the days leading up the temple’s destruction but would by no means indicate that the judgment was coming at any particular time. Here Christ gives us a fifth category that is certainly worth a more detailed description than the afflictions that are common to all men: persecutions.
Rather than moving verse by verse through this passage, we will study it in two sections. First, we will consider Jesus’ warning of arising persecution. Second, we will consider what comforts Christ gives amid these warnings.
BE ON YOUR GUARD // VERSES 9, 11-13
The first phrase in our passage emphasizes both the continuation of thought and the escalation of tone: But be on your guard. Although false messiahs, wars and rumors of wars, earthquakes, and famines are not signs that would directly point to the timing of the temple’s destruction, Jesus warns His disciples to keep their guard up. The duty of a guard is, of course, to protect something of value, to vigilantly watch over it. Indeed, guards are only set to protect what may be stolen or destroyed. For what then must we be on guard?
I think this command is very closely related to Jesus’ warning in verse 5 against being led astray. Just as false messiahs would appear to lead many astray, so now Christ warns of persecutions that will tempt many to fall away. Thus, we must be on guard and wary of the tribulations that would arise. And here is how Jesus describes those tribulations:
For they will deliver you over to councils, and you will be beaten in synagogues, and you will stand before governors and kings for my sake, to bear witness before them. And the gospel must first be proclaimed to all nations. And when they bring you to trial and deliver you over, do not be anxious beforehand what you are to say, but say whatever is given you in that hour, for it is not you who speak, but the Holy Spirit. And brother will deliver brother over to death, and the father his child, and children will rise against parents and have them put to death. And you will be hated by all for my name’s sake. But the one who endures to the end will be saved.
Again, just as Jesus foretold the many wars and natural disasters that were to come, here He also warned of outright persecution, of people and rulers that would actively oppose Christ’s disciples. Notice that the language of being delivered over to rulers is the very same language that Jesus used while predicting his death and resurrection on their way to Jerusalem (9:31, 10:33). This implies that many of Jesus’ disciples would meet suffering and betrayal similar to what Jesus Himself endured. Indeed, just as Jesus was betrayed by one of His closest followers, so will Christians be delivered over by their own siblings, parents, and children, that is, their closest kin.
Like last week’s text, I believe that these words are specifically directed at the forty-ish year period between Jesus’ death and resurrection and the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem. Indeed, between Acts, the Epistles, historical documents, and early church traditions, we know that such persecutions did, in fact, occur. Acts particularly gives us accounts of the apostles being beaten in synagogues, delivered over to councils, and summoned to bear witness before governors and kings. All of this was especially severe for Roman Christians under the rule of Nero in the years prior to the temple’s desolation.
Although we tend to think only of those who joyfully faced martyrdom during these times, we must remember that there were plenty of Christians who caved under the assault, denying Christ and often betraying their brothers and sisters in order purchase their own safety. Indeed, throughout early church history, one of the greatest controversies that churches faced was how to receive again in times of peace those who denied Christ and their brethren during times of tribulation.
Indeed, at many points, Christians would have certainly felt the reality of Jesus’ words: You will be hated by all for my name’s sake. And that is certainly how Paul thought of the apostles’ ministry, for he wrote these words in 1 Corinthians 5:9-13:
For I think that God has exhibited us apostles as last of all, like men sentenced to death, because we have become a spectacle to the world, to angels, and to men. We are fools for Christ’s sake, but you are wise in Christ. We are weak, but you are strong. You are held in honor, but we in disrepute. To the present hour we hunger and thirst, we are poorly dressed and buffeted and homeless, and we labor, working with our own hands. When reviled, we bless; when persecuted, we endure; when slandered, we entreat. We have become, and are still, like the scum of the world, the refuse of all things.
Yet even though these words are specifically spoken of the apostolic period before the temple’s destruction, they certainly have application beyond AD 70. Just as false messiahs, wars, earthquakes, and famines did not cease after that first century event, neither has persecution of Christ’s church passed away. Later in the Roman era, the persecutions under Marcus Aurelius and especially Diocletian were just as severe as those under Nero. In the time of the Reformation, we can note the multitudes of Protestant martyrs all across Europe. Even today, as R. Kent Hughes notes, “announce your conversion in a Muslim country or in a hard-line Communist country and Jesus’ words take on a terrible reality.” Presently, there are millions of our brothers and sisters around the world for whom these verses are painfully descriptive of their own lives.
J. C. Ryle, as always, gives us a fitting word of exhortation:
We shall do well to lay these things to heart, and to ‘count the cost’ of being a Christian. We must think it no strange thing if our religion brings with it some bitter times. Our lot, no doubt, is cast in favourable times. The lines of British Christians [and we may add to Ryle’s words, Western Christians in general] are fallen in pleasant places. We have no reason to be afraid of death or imprisonment, if we serve Christ. But for all that, we must make up our minds to endure a certain proportion of hardship, if we are real, thorough, and decided Christians. We must be content to put up with laughter, ridicule, mockery, slander, and petty persecution. We must even bear hard words and unkindness from our nearest and dearest relations. The ‘offence of the cross’ is not ceased. ‘The natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God.’ They that are ‘born after the flesh’ will persecute those that are ‘born after the Spirit’ (1 Cor. 2:14; Gal. 4:29). The utmost consistency of life will not prevent it. If we are converted, we must never be surprised to find that we are hated for Christ’s sake.
It seems that we American Evangelicals ought to particularly take these words to heart, for we have tolerated much ever-increasing wickedness over the past several decades in the name of being thought well of by non-believers. Of course, by this I do not mean that we should not pursue a good reputation before the world. We certainly should labor to give the world every reason to behold the sincerity of our love and integrity.
What I mean instead is that many evangelicals have been guilty of attempting to appeal to the world by looking like the world. This is particularly seen in attempts to engage or redeem the culture, which very often take on the flavor of simply trying to look relevant in the world’s eyes. Indeed, there are many Christians who fear that if they are not up to date with the latest media sensations, they will not be able to speak to the culture around them. I would argue that the most disruptive witness, however, is a counter-cultural refusal to engage in the world’s entertainment. Was that not the Christian witness to the Romans by refusing to attend the colosseum games? And lest we think that we are morally superior to the Romans, let us consider that they would have just as easily been entertained with modern special-effects violence as we are, for one of the chief concerns in gladiator games was how to have the most blood without actually killing the participants (after all, people may have been expendable, but they were certainly not an unlimited resource).
Again, while we should not give the world any reason for slander against us, we ought to also be prepared for hatred simply for following Christ and for not participating in the vanities of the world. In the Pilgrim’s Progress, Faithful was martyred for that very reason. His refusal to buy the trinkets of Vanity Fair exposed their meaninglessness, and the townsfolk hated him for it. Such hatred was given to Christ, and He promised that it would be given to us as well, provided that we actually look like Christ rather than like the world.
LIGHT IN THE DARKNESS // VERSES 10-11, 13
After taking a survey of our passage’s warnings, let us now turn to the glimpses of hope, the rays of light in the darkness of affliction, that Christ promises us. Both Henry and Ryle are right to see three: 1) the sure spread of the gospel, 2) the empowering of the Spirit, and 3) the promise of salvation at the end of our trials. Let us look that them one by one.
First, in verse 10, after noting that His disciples would be delivered over to the rulers, Jesus gave this promise: And the gospel must first be proclaimed to all nations.
Perhaps we should begin by asking what must the proclamation of the gospel to all nations proceed? If it must first be proclaimed, then what is Jesus suggesting would follow? Matthew 24:14 is the parallel verse from that Gospel, and it reads, “And this gospel of the kingdom will be proclaimed throughout the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come.” Thus, many take Jesus’ words to mean that the gospel must be declared to all the world, to all nations, before his second coming and the end of this world that He will bring. Yet because of the context of this verse, I think it better to understand this end to be mean the end of the temple rather than the end of the world (although let us always remember that the end of the temple was a prefiguring of the world’s end, a type of the great judgment that is still to come).
But if that is the case, did Jesus’ words prove untrue? Are we not, after all, still proclaiming the gospel to nations that have not heard? If so, how could the whole world have received the gospel before AD 70?
Sam Storms cites how numerous biblical texts use Matthew’s phrase the whole world to answer those questions. He writes:
Writing before the fall of Jerusalem in 70, Paul says to the Colossians: “Of this you have heard before in the word of the truth, the gospel, which has come to you, as indeed ‘in the whole world’ it is bearing fruit and growing – as it also does among you, since the day you heard it and understood the grace of God in truth” (1:5b-6; emphasis mine; cf. Col. 1:23b). Similarly, in his letter to the Romans Paul writes: “I thank my God through Jesus Christ for all of you, because your faith is proclaimed in ‘all the world'” (Rom. 1:8; emphasis mine). Again, in Romans 10:18, Paul says in regard to gospel proclamation that “Their voice has gone out to all the earth, and their words to ‘the ends of the world’ [oikoumenes; emphasis mine].” Furthermore,, in both Colossians 1:6a and Romans 1:8, the word “world” is a translation of the Greek ‘kosmos,’ a term that is broader and far more encompassing that merely “the inhabited earth” (oikoumene). Thus, if Paul can confidently say that in his day the gospel is bearing fruit and the faith of the Roman believers is proclaimed in all (or the whole) kosmos (“world”), we should not struggle in the least to embrace our Lord’s prediction that the gospel of the kingdom, within the same general time frame, would be proclaimed to the Gentiles throughout the oikoumene (“inhabited earth”). The point here is simply that what appears to be “universal” or “global” language to our ears today has a much more restricted meaning in the first century.
I believe that Storms is right. Before the end of the temple, the gospel was proclaimed to all nations of the known, first century world. Of course, if that is the case, that does not mean that this verse is now useless to us. Instead, the known world has expanded a great deal in the millennia that have followed the events of AD 70, and there is now before us much of our twenty-first century world that has not yet heard a thorough proclamation of the gospel. Thus, the church is by no means able to cite this verse as proof that the Great Commission has been fulfilled. Rather, this verse ought to comfort us with the hope that the gospel must be proclaimed to all nations, and no fire of persecution is hot enough to hinder that work. We should look at this promise and remind ourselves that the gospel has gone forth to all the nations once before, and it shall continue to do so! Indeed, even when persecutors attempt to squash the gospel, we can take heart in Paul’s comfort while imprisoned and soon to be executed:
Remember Jesus Christ, risen from the dead, the offspring of David, as preached in my gospel, for which I am suffering, bound with chains as a criminal. But the word of God is not bound!2 Timothy 2:8-9
The second comfort that Christ gives to His followers as they endure persecution is the promise that the Holy Spirit will give His people the words that they ought to speak. In Matthew’s Gospel, this same promise was given to the disciples before Jesus sent out the twelve into the villages of Galilee. But even there Jesus was clearly speaking of the time that they would be sent out after his ascension, for they were not brought to trial before governors and kings during that short-term work. Yet Acts reveals that the apostles certainly were brought to trial and given the opportunity to bear witness for Christ. We see this with Peter and John in Acts 4, with all the apostles in Acts 5, with Paul in Acts 23, 24, and 26. But this was not a promise exclusively to the apostles, for in Acts 7 read of Stephen making one of the New Testament’s greatest sermons before the council had him stoned to death.
Again, while this promise had a definite fulfillment in the first century, we can still see it ringing through church history beyond AD 70. The account of Polycarp’s testimony before his martyrdom and Luther’s famous statement at the Diet of Worms are but two great examples.
Indeed, we ought to notice what this promise tells us about why God allows His people to be brought before rulers: to bear witness. God uses the delivering over of His saints to herald the gospel to even kings and governors. And though that task may rightly sound too great for us, our hope is not in our own clever or persuasive words but in the sufficiency of the Holy Spirit.
The third and final comfort within our text is this promise: But the one who endures to the end will be saved. Again, we might ask which end does Jesus have in mind. Interestingly, I think He means here something other than either the destruction of the temple or the end of the world. I believe we should take this to mean our end, however that might occur. For some (perhaps even us!), their end will also be the end of the world for they shall live to see Christ’s return with their own eyes, yet for everyone not alive at the time of Christ’s return, their end is their death.
And this fits with Jesus’ warnings, for when it comes to persecution, death is the farthest that Christ’s enemies can go. Even the mightiest of men can only destroy the body. This knowledge is precisely what made Paul, weak though he was, such a bewilderment to the rulers of his day. Their greatest threats were useless against a man for whom death was gain and whose end was only the beginning of his salvation.
Brothers and sisters, let us consider this fact well: we have only a lifetime to run our heavenly race with endurance and then comes an eternity of rest and joy unhindered and unending. The Christian life is one of unconquered endurance, of steadfastly persevering to the end. We see this displayed in the book of Revelation. Each message to the seven churches in chapters two and three ends with the phrase, “to the one who conquers…” Yet as we discover throughout the book, that conquest comes by endurance until Christ the conqueror returns for His bride.
As difficult as this will be, we should note that it is a marvelous example of Christ’s yoke being easy and His burden being light. Our Lord is not calling most of us to assault Satan’s strongholds; He will do that Himself, usually through the most unexpected of ways. No, He calls us simply to endure, to be faithful under the multitudes of trials that we must face in this life. This ought to remind us very much of the command to stand firm in Ephesians 6.
As thankful as I am for books like David Platt’s Radical that aim to call Christians out of our cultural slumber, I fear that through them many Christians fail to see how radical Christ’s call to ordinary, everyday faithfulness really is. In his book Don’t Waste Your Life, John Piper, after praying that thousands would indeed be called to the mission field to proclaim Christ to the nations, also says this:
But make no mistake, the “war” that I have in mind when I speak of a “wartime mind-set” or a “wartime lifestyle” is not being fought along geographical lines. It is being fought first along the line between good and evil in every human heart, especially the hearts of Christians where Christ has staked his claim, and where he means to be totally triumphant. The “war” is being fought along the line between sin and righteousness in every family. It is being fought along the line between truth and falsehood in every school… between justice and injustice in every legislature… between integrity and corruption in every office… between love and hate in every ethnic group… between pride and humility in every sport… between the beautiful and the ugly in every art… between right doctrine and wrong doctrine in every church… and between sloth and diligence between coffee breaks. It is not a waste to fight the battle for truth and faith and love on any of these fronts.
Indeed, it is precisely upon these very ordinary fronts that almost all of us are called to endure to the end. Every day we are given a multitude of opportunities to turn aside from Christ, however slightly, and to embrace the world a little more. The ordinary life of a foreigner in a foreign land is difficult. It is difficult to have speech and deeds that are unlike everyone else. Yet this difficulty is compounded because we are children of light sojourning in a world of darkness, and the children of darkness hate the light because it exposes their wickedness. This is why the world values affirmation so highly; they believe that if they can get everyone around them to approve of their wickedness then their own internal guilt will pass away.
We must strive to live as the light of the world and be prepared to be hated by all who love the darkness. The call for all of God’s saints is to endure to the end, to stay faithful to Christ “till He returns or calls me home.”
As we come to the Table of our King, let us confess that such faithful endurance is not within us. We are far too weak to even bear so light a burden and so easy a yoke. Instead, just as we have been saved by the grace of God alone, we must also be sustained by God’s grace alone. Only by being held fast by Christ can we endure to the end. Only through His body and blood may we be given strength and fortitude to face the assaults of the Enemy this coming week. Therefore, as we eat and drink this morning, let us taste and see the goodness of God, who “will not forsake his people” nor will He “abandon his heritage” (Psalm 94:14).