Living in the Last Days
A sermon on Mark 13 by Coty Pinckney, Community Bible Church, Williamstown, MA 7/2/00
What would you do if you knew that Jesus was returning at midnight tonight? How would you spend the next 13 hours and 40 minutes?
What if you knew He would return one week from today? Or one month? How would your life change?
In our journey through Mark we have reached chapter 13, which contains some prophecies about Jesus’ return and the last days. There is much interest in this topic at present; indeed, The Indwelling by Tim Lahaye and Jerry Jenkins -- a fictional account of the years immediately preceding Christ's return -- is now in its second week atop the New York Times bestseller list of hardcover fiction. And whenever we begin to talk about these issues, certain questions come to the forefront: When will the end come? What will be the sequence of events? How will Jesus return?
The disciples show interest in those same questions, as we will see. But although Jesus’ response to their questions is His longest discourse recorded in Mark, He spends very little time responding to their immediate questions. Instead, He warns them and encourages them. He gives them instruction for how to live in the last days, rather than providing them with detailed information on when and how things will happen.
So that will be our emphasis this morning also. There are many puzzles in this chapter – one commentator labels this discourse the most difficult section to interpret in all the gospels. Those puzzles are interesting and of some importance. But we will focus not on the puzzles but on the lessons for living in the last days.
Recall that in our last two sermons in this series (How to Bear Fruit and Fertilizing Fruit Trees), we have focused on lessons for fruitfulness found in chapters 11 and 12. We will see that Jesus emphasizes four of those same lessons here in chapter 13, as especially important in the last days.
For we are living in those days at present. Scripture uses the term "last days" to refer to the entire period of time between Jesus' first and second comings. For example, on the Day of Pentecost, the Holy Spirit comes down on the disciples like flames of fire while they are at the temple, and some who are present believe they are drunk. Peter explains what is happening with these words:
This is what was spoken of through the prophet Joel: 17 ‘AND IT SHALL BE IN THE LAST DAYS,’ God says, ‘THAT I WILL POUR FORTH OF MY SPIRIT UPON ALL MANKIND; (Acts 2:16-17 NASB)
Peter says that Joel's prophecy about the last days was fulfilled -- at least in part -- on the Day of Pentecost, almost two thousand years ago. So in this sense, Peter lived in the "last days," Martin Luther lived in the last days, and we live in the last days.
What do we need to know in order to live lives worthy of His calling in these last days? Jesus gives us three commands, three instructions in this chapter:
Don't be deceived!
Take heed to yourselves!
We will structure the rest of our time together by focusing on each of those commands in turn. Listen for those commands as we read the chapter together:
1 ¶ And as He was going out of the temple, one of His disciples *said to Him, "Teacher, behold what wonderful stones and what wonderful buildings!" 2 And Jesus said to him, "Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone shall be left upon another which will not be torn down."
3 And as He was sitting on the Mount of Olives opposite the temple, Peter and James and John and Andrew were questioning Him privately, 4 "Tell us, when will these things be, and what will be the sign when all these things are going to be fulfilled?"
5 ¶ And Jesus began to say to them, "See to it that no one misleads you. 6 "Many will come in My name, saying, ‘I am He!’ and will mislead many. 7 "And when you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be frightened; those things must take place; but that is not yet the end. 8 "For nation will arise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be earthquakes in various places; there will also be famines. These things are merely the beginning of birth pangs. 9 "But you all take heed to yourselves; for they will deliver you to the courts, and you will be flogged in the synagogues, and you will stand before governors and kings for My sake, as a testimony to them. 10 "And the gospel must first be preached to all the nations. 11 "And when they arrest you and deliver you up, do not be anxious beforehand about what you are to say, but say whatever is given you in that hour; for it is not you who speak, but it is the Holy Spirit. 12 "And brother will deliver brother to death, and a father his child; and children will rise up against parents and have them put to death. 13 "And you will be hated by all on account of My name, but the one who endures to the end, he shall be saved.
14 ¶ "But when you see the ABOMINATION OF DESOLATION standing where it should not be (let the reader understand), then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains. 15 "And let him who is on the housetop not go down, or enter in, to get anything out of his house; 16 and let him who is in the field not turn back to get his cloak. 17 "But woe to those who are with child and to those who nurse babes in those days! 18 "But pray that it may not happen in the winter. 19 "For those days will be a time of tribulation such as has not occurred since the beginning of the creation which God created, until now, and never shall. 20 "And unless the Lord had shortened those days, no life would have been saved; but for the sake of the elect whom He chose, He shortened the days. 21 "And then if anyone says to you, ‘Behold, here is the Christ’; or, ‘Behold, He is there’; do not believe him; 22 for false Christs and false prophets will arise, and will show signs and wonders, in order, if possible, to lead the elect astray. 23 "But take heed; behold, I have told you everything in advance.
24 ¶ "But in those days, after that tribulation, THE SUN WILL BE DARKENED, AND THE MOON WILL NOT GIVE ITS LIGHT, 25 AND THE STARS WILL BE FALLING from heaven, and the powers that are in the heavens will be shaken. 26 "And then they will see THE SON OF MAN COMING IN CLOUDS with great power and glory. 27 "And then He will send forth the angels, and will gather together His elect from the four winds, from the farthest end of the earth, to the farthest end of heaven.
28 ¶ "Now learn the parable from the fig tree: when its branch has already become tender, and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near. 29 "Even so, you too, when you see these things happening, recognize that He is near, right at the door. 30 "Truly I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all these things take place. 31 "Heaven and earth will pass away, but My words will not pass away. 32 "But of that day or hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but the Father alone. 33 "Take heed, keep on the alert; for you do not know when the appointed time is. 34 "It is like a man, away on a journey, who upon leaving his house and putting his slaves in charge, assigning to each one his task, also commanded the doorkeeper to stay on the alert. 35 "Therefore, be on the alert—for you do not know when the master of the house is coming, whether in the evening, at midnight, at cockcrowing, or in the morning— 36 lest he come suddenly and find you asleep. 37 "And what I say to you I say to all, ‘Be on the alert!’" (Mark 13 NASB except the first phrase of verse 9, author's translation)
The passage begins with Jesus' last departure from the temple. The temple in Jerusalem was one of the wonders of the ancient world. Herod the Great had spent a large amount of money rebuilding the temple, and at the time of Jesus it was still not complete. Josephus reports that the stones were indeed massive, with some measuring 12 feet by 18 feet by 42 feet and weighing hundreds of tons. Constructing a building like this two thousand years ago was an engineering marvel.
So the disciples are suitably impressed with the engineering, and ethnically proud of the beauty of their temple. Furthermore, for them and for all sincere Jews, the temple was God's chosen place to meet with His people, the only place they were to conduct sacrifices.
But Jesus says, "This is all going to end; the time when God would reveal himself through this edifice is drawing to a close. For the physical temple is not what is important; it will be destroyed." (Jesus' prophecy came to pass in 70AD when Titus destroyed Jerusalem, leveling the temple.)
This statement astounds the disciples. So as they leave, undoubtedly they ask each other, "What is He talking about?" They climb the Mount of Olives outside Jerusalem, where they have a view of the entire city, with the temple in the foreground. As a result of their discussion, the disciples send the two pairs of brothers -- James and John, Peter and Andrew -- to inquire further. They ask two questions: When will this happen, and what will be the sign that all this is about to be fulfilled. Matthew gives more specifics about the second question, phrasing it, "What will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?"
As is frequently the case, Jesus' answer at first glance does not seem to answer their questions. For Jesus always gives us the answer that we really need to hear, rather than directly giving the us the information we seek. Instead of giving details of when this will happen and the signs of his coming, as we have seen He focuses on how we are to live as we await these events. The first command:
DO NOT BE DECEIVED
Verses 5, 6, and 21-27 focus on the person of Jesus. In verse 5, Jesus says: "See to it that no one misleads you. Many will come in my name saying, 'I am He!'" He tells us, "There will be many impersonators. Some will even perform signs and wonders. But don't be deceived, don't be drawn away from the truth."
In the immediate aftermath of Jesus' death, there were several people in Palestine who claimed to be the Messiah. Such claims have continued over the centuries even to the present day. For example, Sun Myung Moon of the Unification Church claims that he is the Messiah; Jehovah's Witnesses believe that Jesus returned invisibly in 1914. Many are deceived; more each year are drawn away from the truth by these false claims.
But others who continue to call themselves Christian are also drawn away from the truth into worshiping a false Messiah, through incorrect teaching about the person of Jesus. There are many today in Christian churches who say:
You see how important it is to be careful about our language? Each of these claims includes some truth, then twists that truth. It may look minor, but the difference is the difference between heaven and hell.
Jesus tells us not to be led astray by false claims about himself. How do we guard ourselves against these false teachings?
In this passage He provides us with two answers:
(1) The Method of His Return
When He returns, He will not come back as the babe in the manger. This time, as stated in verse 26, He will come in the clouds with great power and glory. The book of Revelation reiterates this:
BEHOLD, HE IS COMING WITH THE CLOUDS, and every eye will see Him, even those who pierced Him (Revelation 1:7 NASB)
No imitation Christs will come like this! They may be able to produce minor miracles, but when Jesus Himself returns, there will be no doubt. We will all know -- and either welcome Him as the One we have longed for, or cower before Him, knowing destruction is imminent.
(2) Depend on His Word
In verse 31 Jesus says, "Heaven and Earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away." So in order not to be deceived by false Messiahs or false teaching about Jesus, we need to depend on His word, the Bible. We must love it, delight in it, feed on it, let it dwell richly within us; we must desire it as a newborn baby desires mother's milk.
For any teaching which is not in accord with the whole counsel of the Bible is a false teaching.
If a teaching is not biblical, we must reject it.
So do not be deceived about Jesus or His word! As we saw in past weeks, the fruitbearer must acknowledge Jesus as God, and the fruitbearer must love the Word of God.
TAKE HEED TO YOURSELVES
Now look again at verses 7-20. What is described here?
Are these God's promises to us? Are these His promises to His people? Jesus' approach is rather different here from those who would have us use secular marketing techniques to build the church. Can you imagine the 30-second spot on television: "Come, follow me! And look what you'll get! Arrests, beatings, and hatred from everyone! Come one, come all!"
Why does Jesus describe all these terrible events? He will leave His disciples very shortly; shouldn't He encourage them?
He is encouraging them! He is encouraging us! Look at verse 23: "Take heed; behold, I have told you everything in advance." Jesus tells His disciples -- and us -- about the persecutions and hatred that will be ours, so that when they come we will not be surprised. We will not think that God has made some mistake. When we are being hated because of Him, when we are betrayed or persecuted, we can look back on Jesus' words and say, "Yes, He told me this would happen; I can still trust Him in the midst of this trial."
But Jesus does more than simply warn us that these things will happen; He tells us part of the reason why they must happen. In verse 8 He says that the wars, earthquakes, and famines "are merely the beginnings of birth pangs." Now, I have never given birth, but I have been at six births -- well, actually seven including my own, but I don't remember much from that one. I have noticed that the process of giving birth includes some pain. But once true labor begins, everyone knows that the end result will be great joy: the birth of this baby you have been anticipating for the last nine months. So, yes, there is pain -- but the pain will produce great joy in the end.
Just so with our persecution and suffering. Jesus says, "You will stand before governors and kings for My sake, as a testimony to them, and the gospel must first be preached to all the nations." (verses 9-10). God has always planned to use our arrests, persecutions, sufferings, and martyrdom as a primary means for spreading the gospel. Persecution and martyrdom are not mistakes. They are not the result of evil forces frustrating God's plan. What men intend for evil, God intends for good -- and He uses the evil decisions of men for His own glory and our good. And through His Spirit, He gives us even the words to say in those extreme circumstances.
So when Stephen is stoned and Saul begins to persecute the Jerusalem church severely, the scattered Christians preach the Word everywhere they go, spreading the gospel (Acts 8:4). When Paul is in prison, he preaches to kings and emperors -- and also spreads the good news to the guards and servants around him (Philippians 1:12-14). In 1555, when about to be burned at the stake in Oxford, Hugh Latimer said to his friend and fellow martyr Nicholas Ridley, "Be of good cheer, Master Ridley, and play the man, for we shall this day light such a candle in England as I trust by God's grace shall never be put out." And England in the next century had a massive revival, and produced some of the greatest leaders the church has ever seen.
Jesus' command is found in verse 9. Literally, this reads: "You all take heed to yourselves." The Greek is quite emphatic here, and not quite captured the usual translation, "Be on your guard." Jesus says to look after ourselves -- our thoughts, our reactions, our worries. We must guard ourselves, to make sure we understand that God is indeed sovereign, even when external events make things appear otherwise.
So Jesus tells us, "Expect trials and persecutions. I have told you ahead of time; don't be surprised when they come. But know that I am in control, I am sovereign over the affairs of men; you may die, but not one hair of your head will be harmed. I will use your sufferings for your good and my glory, by spreading the gospel through your faithfulness even to death. I will even give you the words to say in these circumstances. So be faithful!"
A wonderful example of this advice is contained in a letter from Martin Luther to Philip Melanchthon, dated June 27, 1530. Melanchthon was worried that the cause of the Reformation seemed to rest on so few shoulders, and that all that God had accomplished since the publication of the 95 Theses could go for naught. Luther writes:
With all my heart I hate those cares by which you state that you are consumed. They rule your heart . . . by reason of the greatness of your unbelief. . . . If our cause is false, let us recant. But if it is true, why should we make Him a liar who has given us such great promises and who commands us to be confident and undismayed? . . .
What good do you expect to accomplish by these vain worries of yours? What can the devil do more than slay us? Yes, what? . . .
I pray for you very earnestly, and I am deeply pained that you keep sucking up cares like a leech and thus rendering my prayers vain. Christ knows whether it comes from stupidity or the Spirit but I for my part am not very much troubled about our cause. . . . God who is able to raise the dead is also able to uphold his cause when it is falling or to raise it up again when it has fallen, or to move it forward when it is standing. If we are not worthy instruments to accomplish his purpose, he will find others. If we are not strengthened by his promises, where in all the world are the people to whom these promises apply? But more of this at another time. After all, my writing this is like pouring water in to the sea.
Do you see Luther's confidence? God is sovereign, He is in control. Satan may kill us -- and if so God will raise up others to advance His cause. It is His cause after all, not ours.
Luther is not telling Melanchthon to take his responsibilities lightly, but to rest knowing that God is in control, that Jesus prophesied that there would be opposition, and that we should not expect an easy time. Our task is to trust and to be faithful, and to leave the results to God.
In verse 30, Jesus emphasizes that opposition to the gospel will continue until the very end: "Truly I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all these things take place."
This statement is one of the puzzles in the chapter; some people claim Jesus thought he would return before all his listeners died; others claim he is referring to the Jewish race. But we will best understand Jesus' use of the word translated "generation" if we look at the way He uses it elsewhere. Every time Jesus uses the word other than in Mark 13 and its parallel passages, He clearly uses this Greek word to refer to the kind of people who oppose Him and His message. For example, here are all the other appearances of this word in Mark:
Mark 8:12 And sighing deeply in His spirit, He *said, "Why does this generation seek for a sign? Truly I say to you, no sign shall be given to this generation."
Mark 8:38 "For whoever is ashamed of Me and My words in this adulterous and sinful generation, the Son of Man will also be ashamed of him when He comes in the glory of His Father with the holy angels."
Mark 9:19 And He *answered them and *said, "O unbelieving generation, how long shall I be with you? How long shall I put up with you? Bring him to Me!"
In Luke 16:8, in the parable of the unjust steward, Jesus clearly uses this word not in the sense of a period of time but as a category of people:
And the lord commended the unjust steward, because he had done wisely: for the children of this world are in their generation wiser than the children of light.
Here "the children of the world in their generation" are contrasted with "the children of light." Similarly, Peter refers to the church as "a chosen race" in 1 Peter 2, using a word parallel to the one translated "generation."
So when Jesus says "this generation will not pass away until all these things take place," He is saying something similar to John 16:33: "In the world you have tribulation, but take courage; I have overcome the world." The trials and troubles and tribulations will not end -- don't expect them to end. But Jesus is in control. Trust Him.
Once again, two of our lessons for fruitfulness come into play here:
Our final command -- Be alert! -- appears three times in the concluding six verses of the chapter. Here Jesus addresses the question of "when" that the disciples posed. But He doesn't give the answer they expect. Instead He says, "You will not know when -- so stay alert always! Don't be lazy! Don't be lackadaisical! Don't be uncaring! Fulfill your calling, act in obedience by My power, and stay alert!"
To encourage constant diligence, Jesus tells the parable of the doorkeeper. The master goes on his journey, assigning a task to each of his servants, and asking the doorkeeper to guard the entrance. Ray Stedman says this concerning the parable:
Now, what is he to watch for? Is he to watch for the master's return? That is the way this is usually interpreted. But that is not it, for he is to start watching as soon as the master leaves. They know he will not be back right away. What then is he to watch for? He is to watch lest somebody deceive them and gain entrance into the house, and wreck and ruin and rob all they have. So Jesus' word is, "Be alert; don't go to sleep; watch! There are temptations and pressures which will assault you, to make you think that it is all a lie, to make you give up and stop living like a Christian, stop walking in faith, stop believing the truth of God. Watch out for that. And, in the meantime, do your work. Don't let anything turn you aside. Don't let anything derail you from being what God wants you to be in this day and age." This is the way you watch. We are not to be looking up into the sky all the time, waiting for his coming. That will happen when he is ready. We are to watch that we are not deceived.
Let's return to our original question: What would you do if you knew that Jesus would return at midnight?
This chapter tells us you will never know that. Furthermore, anyone who says He will return by a particular date is completely unscriptural. Jesus might return very soon -- maybe by midnight tonight. He might wait another 1000 years. We do not know.
But we can say more than this. For each one of us will meet Jesus at the moment of our death -- and either be embraced by Him as His precious bride, or rejected by Him, sent to our eternal punishment. When will that happen? A lot sooner than 1000 years for all of us! Maybe today; maybe this year; certainly within a decade for some of us here this morning, certainly within 110 years for everyone here.
So let's rephrase our question:
What will you do, knowing with certainty that you will meet Jesus soon -- within the next decade or century?
Jesus' warnings in this chapter are for each of us, right now:
You will meet Jesus; most likely you will have no advance warning. Are you ready?
This sermon was preached at Community Bible Church in Williamstown, MA on 7/2/00. The Luther quote is taken from the excellent compilation Luther: Letters of Spiritual Counsel, edited by Theodore Tappert and published by Westminster Press in 1955. I read this book after hearing Al Mohler use this quote and others in his excellent, second address to the Bethlehem Conference for Pastors in February, 2000. Tapes are available through Desiring God Ministries. The phrase "Luther is not telling Melanchthon to take his responsibilities lightly" is Mohler's. The Ray Stedman quote is taken fromhis sermon on this passage.
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