“But in those days, after that tribulation, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken. And then they will see the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory. And then he will send out the angels and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven.
“From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts out its leaves, you know that summer is near. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that he is near, at the very gates. Truly, I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all these things take place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.
Mark 13:24-31 ESV
Thus far, in our study of Jesus’ Olivet Discourse in Mark 13, we have been repeatedly noting that Jesus’ words spoke specifically about the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple in AD 70, although there are plenty of implications for our own day as well. Of course, there are many who interpret most, if not all, of this discourse as future events still yet to occur. As we said, their interpretation is called futurism. Others view most, if not all, of this discourse as referring to the events of AD 70, which is called preterism. That is the interpretive view that I have been supporting. Of course, most theologians argue that Jesus speaks of both the temple’s destruction and His second coming; they simply disagree on which verses speak about which event.
The verses before us are similarly debated, so before we dive into matters of interpretation that must be held with open hands, let us remind ourselves about what we ought to agree upon. First, we should all agree that we are still awaiting Christ’s physical second coming to judge the living and the dead. Second, we should also agree that the judgment of Jerusalem in AD 70 was a localized foretaste of the judgment that Christ will bring upon all the world with His return. Keeping those as points of anchor, let us venture further into Mark’s Gospel.
AFTER THAT TRIBULATION // VERSES 24-27
But in those days, after that tribulation, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken. And then they will see the Son of Man coming in the clouds with great power and glory. And then he will send out the angels and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven.
These verses are clearly about Jesus’ second coming, right? How could they not be? The destruction of the temple was certainly apocalyptic for the Jews it befell, but it was not immediately followed by the cosmological events that verses 24-25 describe. Nor did was Jesus seen by all in the clouds. Neither did angels collect all of God’s elect from across the earth. We must have finally moved into speaking about Christ’s future then.
Many commentators would say yes, and to be honest, that is exactly how I intended to preach these verses. I read Sproul’s arguments for why all of Mark 13 refers back to the first century (note: he by no means denied the reality of Christ’s future second coming; he simply did not believe Jesus spoke of it in the Olivet Discourse). I thought he made good arguments yet remained unconvinced. I then read Sam Storms’ treatment and became largely convinced that these verses have also already largely been fulfilled. But let us take these verses one by one.
But in those says, after that tribulation… These words point explicitly to verses 14-23, which I believe to be the destruction of the temple. While those days can certainly be interpreted to mean the entirety of the church age in which we still live, I believe they have an immediate application to the first century. Storms argues that we have a hard time seeing how verses 24-25 could have been fulfilled in the first century “because we mistakenly seek to interpret and understand prophecy by reading the New York Times, the Drudge Report, or Time magazine, or by watching the evening news on TV rather than by reading the Bible.” He goes on to say:
Remember, Jesus was speaking to a people saturated by Old Testament language, concepts, and imagery. From the earliest days of their lives they memorized and were taught the Old Testament. Thus, when Jesus spoke to them of things to come he used the prophetic vocabulary of the Old Testament which they would instantly recognize.
Both he and Sproul reference such Old Testament passages of judgment as Isaiah 13:9-10, which is an oracle of judgment against Babylon:
Behold, the day of the LORD comes,
cruel, with wrath and fierce anger,
to make the land a desolation
and to destroy its sinners from it.
For the stars of the heavens and their constellations
will not give their light;
the sun will be dark at its rising,
and the moon will not shed its light.
Remember that Peter cited Joel 2 as being fulfilled by the outpouring of the Spirit at Pentecost, which included these words:
And I will show wonders in the heavens aboveActs 2:19-20
and signs on the earth below,
blood, and fire, and vapor of smoke;
the sun shall be turned to darkness
and the moon to blood
before the day of the Lord comes,
the great and magnificent day.
Many other such passages can be presented. Yet the judgment of Babylon through their fall to Persia nor the day of Pentecost came with those literal signs in the heavens. Instead, this language of a cosmic upheaval describes the changes that God was working upon the earth. The fall of Babylon would have indeed been a dramatic upheaval to all who lived to see it. So was the fall of Assyria to Babylon, the fall of Persia to Alexander the Great, the death of Alexander and the dividing of his empire. The fall of Rome was a likewise monumental moment in history, as was the breaking up of the British Empire and the establishment of the American world order following World War II. History is filled with global changes so great that the stars might as well have been falling to earth. Of course, the pouring out of the Spirit on Pentecost was a positive yet even more monumental change.
We should also note that during Christ’s crucifixion, the crux of human history, these cosmological signs were quite literal, and there is good reason to believe that 2 Peter 3:10-13’s descriptions will be essentially literal as well.
Nevertheless, the destruction of the temple (and with it the permanent closing of the Old Testament age) was a sufficiently drastic act of judgment to be described with such prophetic language.
Also, a careful reading of Revelation 12 reveals that it is not describing Satan’s fall from heaven as occurring in the long, long ago (perhaps before the days of creation) but instead during the first century with the coming of Christ’s kingdom, for it was Christ’s death and resurrection that disarmed the demonic powers (Colossians 2:15) and silenced his accusations against the saints. Perhaps it is possible that the casting down of Satan and his angels (or stars in Revelation 12:4) corresponded with the Jerusalem’s judgment, making Jesus’ words somewhat literal.
But what of verse 26? Notice that Jesus says nothing of His coming down to earth from the clouds. Instead, Jesus is referring to the great vision of Daniel in 7:13-14. After witnessing four beasts which represent the kingdoms of the earth, Daniel writes:
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.
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.
That is what verse 26 is describing. Before His humiliation described in the following two chapters, Jesus was already looking by faith toward His exaltation. Although He would soon be delivered over and crucified by the religious leaders that tried to ensnare Him in chapters 11-12, they would come to know of His resurrection, and some of them would experience the Father placing the Son’s enemies beneath His feet firsthand as they watched the temple burn to the ground. Thus, verse 26 is about Christ’s coming to the Father, not His coming back to earth. It “is not about the return of Christ at the end of history but about his enthronement as King of kings and Lord of lords in the very middle of history.”
Now on to verse 27. By angels, I do not think Jesus means the heavenly hosts as we think of them but rather we human evangelists. You will notice that the word evangelism contains the word angel. That is because angelos in Greek means messenger, and it can refer to God’s messenger spirits or to human messengers. Evangelists are preachers of the good message. Peter Gentry writes:
Through Christ-commissioned gospel preaching by faithful messengers, God gathers the elect into His kingdom from the four corners of the world (Matt. 28:19; Luke 24:19; Acts 1:8; 13:47; 17:30). The phrase “from one end of the sky to the other” does not indicate that the place of the action is in the sky (or heaven) above. The phraseology often signifies nothing more than “horizon to horizon” (Deut. 30:4; Neh. 1:9; compare Matt. 8:11; Luke 13:28-29). Thus, it speaks about evangelistic activity throughout the earth. In fact, it parallels “from the four winds,” that is, the four points of the compass. This, of course, Jesus promises in His ministry, despite the failure of His own people: “And I say to you that many will come from east to west, and sit down with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven. But the sons of the kingdom will be cast out into outer darkness” (Matt. 8:11-12; Luke 13:29 speaks about all four points of the compass).
Thus, this is not something that we are waiting for the angels of heaven to do someday. This is what we are tasked with doing right now. The good news of Christ’s kingdom went forth into the known world before AD 70, but now it must go into every corner of the globe until all of God’s elect are gathered together, which is what we do together each Lord’s Day anticipation of the great gathering still to come.
In fact, do verses 26-27 not have some parallel with Jesus’ Great Commission in Matthew 28:18-20? Those final words of Matthew’s Gospel begin: “And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.” Is that not what Daniel 7 describes, the Ancient of Days giving the Son of Man the everlasting kingdom over all things, all authority in heaven and on earth? And the call to be God’s messengers who gather God’s elect from the corners of the earth parallels with what Christ’s mission for His church: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations [aka in every corner of the earth], baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.”
Brothers and sisters, we ought to let this reality shape our evangelistic attitude week in and week out. Our Savior has sat down at the right hand of God the Father Almighty until the Father places all of His enemies under His feet. And Christ, the triumphant and reigning King, now sends us out as His ambassadors, as His messengers, “making his appeal [for sinners to be reconciled to God] through us” (2 Corinthians 5:20). Is your life, therefore, consistently declaring this message to everyone around you: “We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God” (2 Corinthians 5:20)?
Indeed, we are temples of the Holy Spirit in large part for this purpose. God no longer sends out His prophets to call people to come worship Him within the temple; instead, He now sends us into the corners of the world as His living, breathing temple, summoning all men to become as we are.
THIS GENERATION WILL NOT PASS AWAY // VERSES 28-30
Our text continues:
From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts out its leaves, you know that summer is near. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that he is near, at the very gates. Truly, I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all these things take place.
These verses, specifically verse 30, are among the most disputed in all of Scripture, let alone this discourse.
The lesson of the fig tree clearly means that we ought to properly discern the signs that our Lord has given to us, but again I do not think He has His second coming in mind but the destruction of the temple. The phrase he is near in verse 29 could also be translated as it is near, which we should take to mean the events described in verses 14-23. Yet even if it means he is near, we do not need to take this as Christ’s final return but as His coming in judgment against Jerusalem through the Romans (which again is how God repeatedly judges the nations in the Old Testament).
Indeed, the only signs that Jesus has given to look for relate to that act of judgment specifically. Thus, He is calling his first century disciples to be on their guard and to flee Jerusalem whenever the abomination of desolation comes to it. And as we noted last week, that is precisely what the Jewish Christians within Jerusalem did.
As a seal to His call for watchfulness, Jesus then promises them that this generation will not pass away until all these things take place. These words are prefaced with Jesus’ own equivalent of the prophets’ “Thus says the LORD…” What are to make of this statement?
Those who see many, if not all, of the words before as still to come obviously take this generation in a figurative sense. Most seem to take it to mean this present age, meaning that we are included in this generation. Others, such as Ryle, take it to mean the Jewish people specifically. I take it to mean the actual generation that Jesus was speaking to. Or even if this generation is taken literally, then the phrase all these things must be explained to only apply to the verses that describe the events of AD 70.
But, you may say, why am I interpreting Jesus’ words literally rather than figuratively as we did earlier? Great question! The reality of this passage is that some parts of it almost certainly need to be interpreted figuratively, and the only question is: which ones? To me, the sun and moon darkening and the stars falling from heaven is quite clearly more figurative than the phrases this generation or all these things.
MY WORDS WILL NOT PASS AWAY // VERSE 31
The final verse of our present passage reads: Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away. Here is a second seal upon all of Jesus’ predictions, a declaration that His words shall not and cannot fail. Interestingly, He begins this declaration with another declaration that is, I believe, His first explicit reference to the end of the world: heaven and earth will pass away.
Storms presents the argument that even this phrase could refer to the destruction of the temple, since the temple was designed to be the meeting place of heaven and earth, where humans could come near God’s holy presence. Perhaps there is an element of reality to that claim, yet I do not think it is altogether what Jesus means. The phrase heaven and earth is used throughout the Scriptures to denote all of creation, the whole cosmos, the entire universe, both visible and invisible, both physical and spiritual. Most famously we find it in Genesis 1:1, and we confess it in the creeds. Thus, when Jesus says, “Heaven and earth will pass away,” He is no longer speaking about the upheaval of Jerusalem in AD 70 but of the erasure of the created order as it now stands. He was speaking of what 2 Peter 3:10-12 describes:
But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a roar, and the heavenly bodies will be burned up and dissolved, and the earth and the works that are done on it will be exposed. Since all these things are thus to be dissolved, what sort of people ought you to be in lives of holiness and godliness, waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God, because of which the heavens will be set on fire and dissolved, and the heavenly bodies will melt as they burn!
That is a description of the great judgment, the one in which Christ will return to judge the living and the dead (which, of course, means everyone). God’s judgment upon the unbelieving Jews of the first century for rejecting the Messiah was warning and a foretaste at the beginning of the church age of the great judgment to come upon all the earth at its end. G. Campbell Morgan helpfully describes these two events as mountain peaks, which to the disciples of Jesus’ looked close together. Yet we are now in the valley between the two and now see that they are separated from one another by, at least, about two thousand years. The mountain peak behind us, the destruction of Jerusalem, is a memorial of what is still to come for all those who deny the great salvation offered by God’s own Son.
Hear again a warning from the book of Hebrews:
See that you do not refuse him who is speaking. For if they did not escape when they refused him who warned them on earth, much less will we escape if we reject him who warns from heaven. At that time his voice shook the earth, but now he has promised, “Yet once more I will shake not only the earth but also the heavens.” This phrase, “Yet once more,” indicates the removal of things that are shaken–that is, things that have been made–in order that the things that cannot be shaken may remain. Therefore let us be grateful for receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, and thus let us offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe, for our God is a consuming fire.Hebrews 12:25-29
Heaven and earth will pass away. All things will be shaken. The old will be removed entirely once and for all. Only Christ and those who belong to His kingdom will endure the tumult. They alone will pass through the fire of heavenly judgment, which will cast even the rebellious demons into everlasting damnation. This is only so because the everlasting words of the everlasting Word abide in us. Christ and His Scriptures truly are a sure and steadfast anchor for our souls, not simply through the afflictions and tribulations of this life, not even through the waters of death through which we must all once day go, but even through the end of all things and the renewal of all things.
Indeed, what else could endure the passing away of creation? Our Lord stood in loving community with the Father and the Spirit in eternity past before the heaven and earth were formed. This adds yet another blessing of our being in Christ, as Paul wrote to the Ephesians. For it is only Him who stands outside of creation as its Author who can keep us secure as creation is wiped away. Just as Noah and his family were secure from the waters of the flood inside the ark, Christ is the ark of our salvation, and when the great fire of God’s wrath consumes all things, only those within this ark shall be saved.
Recall the pitiful report of Josephus that there were some Jews who looked upon the burning temple with hope in the words of a false prophet that the Messiah put out the flames. Like Adam and Eve before them, they placed their confidence in the lies of the Serpent, and it cost them everything. Yet when the fire of God melts the heavens and the earth all around us on that great day, we need not fear, for our hope is rooted in the unfailing promises of the Word made flesh. And as 2 Peter 3:13 says, “But according to his promise we are waiting for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells.” We look not merely toward a new age but to a new creation entirely, one free for all time from the curse of sin.
As we come to our King’s Table, let us indeed be grateful for receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken and for serving a King who cannot be conquered (for by His death He won His greatest victory!). In this bread and cup, let us receive a foretaste of the heavenly feast that we will share with all of God’s gathered elect upon the new earth.
 Storms, Kingdom Come, 266.
 Cite from Storms, Kingdom Come, 272.