While Christians today get caught up on the “when” and the “how will we know”, the power of our passage is simply in the promise that Jesus will return. No one will miss it; no one can avoid it. This is great news for Christ’s followers and a terrible warning for His enemies. But we still have a responsibility: be ready!
Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away. Mark 13:31
[Editor's note: this Bible study supplement started as a printed newsletter for teachers, which is why it is so text-heavy. I am slowly adding older lessons to our website.]
Getting Started: Things to Think About
Happy Mother’s Day! Favorite Mom-isms. There’s a frighteningly great connection between moms and our passage in Mark. You don’t have to use it, but it’s fun . . .
Have your class share some of the things they remember Mom telling them growing up. If you need to prime the pump, here are some I remember, and some I found online:
What part of “NO” don’t you understand?
I don’t care who started it!
Just wait until your father comes home.
Are your hands broken?
No one ever said life was fair.
I brought you into this world, and I can take you out of it.
Don’t sit so close to the television.
I’m not going to tell you again.
If all of your friends jumped off a bridge, would you do it too?
If I’ve told you once, I’ve told you a thousand times!
It’s way past your bedtime.
I’m going to give you until the count of 3.
Someday your face will freeze like that.
Here’s the connection with our lesson: Jesus is giving a “last warning” to the people. In the case of those living in Jerusalem, judgment has been passed; but for everybody else, there’s still time to get their act together before God “counts to three”. There’s a little bit of this in every momism, isn’t there? Why do moms say these crazy things? It’s for our good (or at least, it should be). Why did Jesus announce this terrible news and ultimatum? It’s for our good. Kids don’t often want to hear about truth and consequences from their moms, and neither do we from God!
Happy Mother’s Day, everyone.
This Week's Big Idea: The Olivet Discourse (Matthew 24 and Mark 13)
If at all possible, I strongly encourage you to avoid end-times debates with this lesson. Lifeway deliberately chose the part of the chapter that focused on the inevitability of Christ’s return and our need to be vigilant and urgent with the time we have left in this life. However, I know that your class members will look at the verses immediately before our passage and ask questions. Go read the whole chapter right now! . . . Now, let me give you one way of understanding Jesus’ words. (It’s important for us to realize that we’re not supposed to know for certain exactly what Jesus meant other than He is returning.)
I. The Context: The Widow’s Mite (from last week)
How could anybody be impressed with such a measly offering when the temple complex was so ungodly expensive to maintain? Jesus’ response: don’t be so impressed; it’s all going to be torn down.
II. The Question: When Will It Happen? (13:1-4)
In Matthew, it is more clear that the disciples assumed the destruction of the temple would be a part of the end of time. Jesus answers the questions separately.
III. Part 1: Signs Before of the End (13:5-13)
Jesus starts by describing the terrible things that will happen on the earth that might fool people into thinking “the end has come!”: wars, famine, persecution (Mark adds false prophets and wickedness in the next section).
IV. Part 2: The Ultimate Deceptive Sign (13:14-23)
The disciples, and probably every other Jew, assumed that the destruction of Jerusalem (and its temple) would have been a part of the “end of history”. In fact, they were wrong. Jerusalem was destroyed, but it was just another war in a long history of them. It was very important for Jesus to correct this false understanding in His disciples so that future generations wouldn’t be confused or despondent when it happened.
When Jesus says “this generation won’t pass away before these things happen”, He was not talking about His return but the fall of Jerusalem (some of His followers were alive when it happened). What confuses Christians about this interpretation is Jesus’ use of language that describes this event as “worse suffering than anything that has happened before or since”; they assume it must refer to the “Great Tribulation” in Revelation. I explain what Jesus could have meant on the bottom (if you’re interested).
V. Part 3: What Really Matters about the End (13:24-37)
This whole passage began with a question: “when will this happen?” Jesus comes back around to it in the part we focus on in our lesson this week. Frankly, it doesn’t matter when Jesus comes back. The way we live our life should not change at all if we know Jesus comes back in a year or in a century. We all have tasks set before us, and we should address each one as if “the boss is coming to inspect this afternoon”. Unfortunately, some early Christians didn’t understand the message, and they lived their life with the attitude “why should I care about the future if Jesus is coming back any day now?” Paul scolds people who thought that way in some of his letters. The point is that JESUS IS COMING BACK. That is a promise (and a warning to all of those who reject Him). How would we live differently if He were coming back next month?
Our Context in Mark
Again, our context is Jesus’ conflicts in the temple complex. God’s people had lost sight of what was most important—they had gotten caught up in the financial and look-at-me aspects of religion and forgotten the spiritual. The irony to Jesus was twofold: everything the people had focused on was going to burn, and everything they had neglected would bring God’s judgment. When Jesus mentioned this to His disciples, they immediately got caught up on “when will this happen??” rather than “oh no, what do we need to do??” (Which, if you think about it, isn’t that exactly the same reaction Christians have today to end-times study? They get very distracted on trying to interpret the “signs of the times” and tend to ignore things like how God wants us to act as we get ready for Christ’s inevitable return.)
I’ve given you my outline for this chapter on the previous page. When the disciples ask for more information, Jesus starts by telling them about the terrible things that will happen before the end. Then I believe that 13:14-23 is an aside in which Jesus goes into great detail about one particularly close-to-home and cataclysmic thing that will happen before the end. (Even the Lifeway commentary says that Jesus is “clearly” talking about the Great Tribulation here. I firmly disagree with them; their interpretation makes 13:30 nonsensical.) The “true” signs of the end will be what we discuss in our lesson this week (13:24-27), but even those signs—which the disciples were very interested in—pale in importance to what matters most: what we need to be doing while we wait. If no one knows when Jesus will return, we need to be ready for it to happen at any moment.
Part 1: Seen! (Mark 13:24-27)
“But in those days, after that tribulation: The sun will be darkened, and the moon will not shed its light; the stars will be falling from the sky, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken. Then they will see the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory. 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.”
Start this section with a question: “What’s the most disappointed you’ve ever been for missing something?” I had a friend who missed the solar eclipse a few years ago; just forgot about it. When I was in elementary school, the shuttle was flown overhead on the back of that massive jumbo jet and we all went out to watch it (it was amazing), but one class forgot to come out and missed it. Jesus knew that there would be many people who would afraid they would miss His glorious return (and when you read Paul’s letters, you find out that’s true!); these short verses are for their benefit. You won’t miss it.
This is like one movie character telling another, “Wait here for my signal.” “But wait, what will the signal be??” “Don’t worry—you’ll know it!” And then things get tense and the person worries they missed the signal, and then something very enormous and unmistakable happens. The signal. That’s Jesus’ point here. There will be no mistaking when He returns. The signs are in the heavens. Technically, He could be describing when the sun burns out (see also below), but that’s probably a few billion years off. “Stars falling from the sky” does not actually have to mean shooting stars; the same language could be used to describe stars disappearing or “going dark”. Something like a massive volcanic eruption (or nuclear blast) could create the kind of effect Jesus seems to be describing. So, how will we “know” when it’s really the end? Again—we don’t know what the sign will be, but we will not be able to mistake it. So basically, anything we can imagine or predict won’t be the sign; there will be no mistaking it anywhere in the world, in any culture or people.
For those people who haven’t read the Bible, it will become clear what is happening when Jesus Himself appears in the clouds in glory. Even that will be unmistakably supernatural, as everyone on the globe will all experience it, and it will be more profound than whatever unbelievable heavenly event that just preceded it. There’s no sense in trying to predict it; it will blow our minds. Unlike Jesus’ first coming, which was humble and meek, His return will be anything but. He is coming back to gather His people and to reign. (This is one important reason why I reject the idea of a secret rapture of the church; Jesus is only coming back once, and it won’t be a secret.) This is one of the great promises and hopes of the Bible. It’s something we sing about regularly with rejoicing. And for good reason! Jesus told us this for our encouragement.
You might ask, “How will Jesus gather His elect from the earth and heaven?” Jesus’ words seems to be a reference to the Great White Throne Judgment in Revelation 20, but that event takes place after a whole bunch of things (like the Millennium) that Jesus doesn’t mention here. Who’s wrong? Mark or Matthew or John? None of them. One of the confusing elements of apocalyptic literature is the fact that it’s not intended to be detailed, organized, or clear like a history lesson. Jesus isn’t trying to describe the end of time. He’s simply jumping to the point: at the end of all things, Jesus will gather to Himself everyone who belongs to Him, no matter where they are or when they died. It’s not important how angels will do this. All that matters is that it will happen and Jesus’ followers will be brought to live with Him for all eternity.
Aside: The Signs of the Times
“How will I know what the sign is?” “Trust me, you’ll know.” Today, we have countless predictive computer models telling us everything from the weather to the stock market to the elections. (Editor's note: how's that working out for us?) In Jesus’ day, they had to watch for “signs”. Jesus actually mentions a version of the sailor wisdom, “Red sky by morning, sailor take warning; red sky by night, sailor’s delight” (Matt 16:3), affirming how people effectively learned how to read the weather. (By the way, the science behind that phrase is actually really interesting, and also way off topic.) But here’s Jesus’ point in Matthew 16: the people were willing to change their behavior and plans based on the signs in the weather, but they weren’t willing to change their minds based on the signs He had shown them about Himself. That’s how we’re supposed to understand the “signs” talk in Mark 13. The whole point of noticing signs is how it should affect the way we live our life; unfortunately, Christians today seem more interested in talking about the signs themselves than the events they portend. Jesus knew that would happen, which is why He spoke only in vague terms about the signs—and most importantly that even seeing signs would not be a guarantee that the event will immediately follow. We are always to watch and wait and be ready. The protects us from disappointment on the one hand, and from laziness on the other.
Part 2: Be Assured! (Mark 13:28-31)
“Learn this lesson from the fig tree: As soon as its branch becomes tender and sprouts leaves, you know that summer is near. In the same way, when you see these things happening, recognize that he is near—at the door. Truly I tell you, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things take place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away.”
Because Jesus had already used a fig tree as an illustration, it only makes sense that He does so again. In Matthew 16, Jesus used the “red sky at night” saying (see above); here He uses a similar proverb about how people interpret the “signs of the times” to predict the future. Farmers in Judea would use fig leaf sprouts to indicate seasons like sheep shearing. Jesus wanted His disciples to be equally observant about the signs of history. But there’s a strange twist to Jesus’ words: the signs don’t definitively indicate that Jesus is coming back at a certain time—all they do is prove that He is coming back soon. (And remember, Jesus has been coming back “soon” for 2000 years.) And that’s the point: we have all the proof we should need to know that Jesus is coming back “soon”. And that’s why Jesus said “this generation will not pass away until all these things take place”. Because Lifeway is convinced that Jesus has been talking about the end of time, it really has to hem and haw about what Jesus means by this declaration. I think it’s really simple. “All these things” refers to the signs that will appear before His return (of which the fall of Jerusalem is a chief example). Jesus is simply saying that every sign of His return will have taken place before the generation of His followers died. Which is true! Every one of the signs Jesus mentioned happened within a few decades of His ascension. In other words, we can truly say that we are living in the last days, and we have been since 70 AD and the fall of Jerusalem. When Jesus says that He could return at any moment, that’s literally true. We’re not waiting for any more signs! (People may ask, “what about the events of Revelation?” to which I have two ideas: one, those chapters may not describe what we think they describe; or two, and this is what I think, the whole event of the “great tribulation” is considered one massive prelude to Jesus’ return and thus understood as one event.) But again, the timing and the signs are not Jesus’ point—all that matters is that we know Jesus is returning. How will we live until He does?
Aside: Vigilant Servant
I really like this story: “A wealthy man owned a large vacation estate and employed a full-time gardener to tend the grounds. A visitor to the estate was very impressed with the beauty of the grounds and said to the gardener, ‘You keep these grounds as though you expect the owner to visit tomorrow.’ The gardener replied, ‘Today, sir!’”
That’s a great illustration of “vigilance”. Frankly, it doesn’t matter how glamorous or important we think our task is; our “employer” expects us to do whatever our job is with the idea that he will be by to “inspect” our work at any moment. And if that should be our attitude toward an earthly employer, how much more should it be for our God and Savior?
Part 3: Stay Ready! (Mark 13:32-37)
“Now concerning that day or hour no one knows—neither the angels in heaven nor the Son —but only the Father. Watch! Be alert! For you don’t know when the time is coming. It is like a man on a journey, who left his house, gave authority to his servants, gave each one his work, and commanded the doorkeeper to be alert. Therefore be alert, since you don’t know when the master of the house is coming—whether in the evening or at midnight or at the crowing of the rooster or early in the morning. Otherwise, when he comes suddenly he might find you sleeping. And what I say to you, I say to everyone: Be alert!”
For some reason, some people have a real problem with Jesus saying that He doesn’t know something. This is simple; part of the “plan” was for Jesus to be the member of the Trinity that came to earth and took on humanity. That included not knowing when He would return so that He could give this honest, earnest plea to His disciples: “I don’t know when I’m returning, so you need to be ready at all times!” Wouldn’t that be different if Jesus knew and just wasn’t telling them? “Watch” means “pay attention and be perceptive”; “be alert” means “stay awake and be vigilant”. Ask your class what jobs require those actions. Sure, some more than others, but just about every job demands us to do those things (feel free to let your class members share personal examples). Doesn’t Jesus give an excellent illustration of what He means? Could we explain it better than He did? I don’t think so. In Matthew, He also gives the illustration of the person who doesn’t know when the thief is coming to break in, and so he must stay alert at all times.
Here are two potential exercises for your class. One, have your class members describe a time they were caught “napping” on the job or in class (or being distracted in some way). I remember being caught on the phone once in seminary; that was embarrassing. Two, act it out. Pick one class member to “guard “ a possession, and pick everybody else to try to take it secretly. Give one try with the guardian being vigilant. Then give one try with the guardian being asleep. And then give one try with the guardian being distracted by the phone. It’s possible to do a simple task even when distracted, but it’s a whole lot harder. And the more complicated your task is, the harder it becomes to do.
So here’s where you want to end your class time. When Jesus says that we need to “be ready” and “alert” for His return, He’s speaking metaphorically...but of what? What does a Christian who is “ready” for Christ’s return look like? What are the things we’re supposed to be doing (using the illustration of the servant and master—what is the “job” of the servant that he fell asleep on)? In general, if there’s anything about our life that we would change if we knew Jesus was coming back say within the month, then we need to change that now. We shouldn’t wait until we get another sign of His return; we’ve gotten all of the signs we will get. Jesus is coming back soon!
Aside: How Bad Was the Fall of Jerusalem?
Like I said, Christians have really been thrown off by Jesus’ words, “In those days, there will be suffering unlike anything that has happened from the beginning of creation until now or ever will happen.” I’ll admit, when I read that, I immediate think “Great Tribulation” at the end of history. But then we have a big problem with His subsequent line, “This generation will not pass away until all these things take place” (Mark 13:30). It’s possible that Jesus is speaking of “the generation that experiences the Great Tribulation”, meaning it will all happen quickly. But that’s not the normal use of “this” in the New Testament. Rather, I think Jesus means “the generation listening to Him in Jerusalem”. And that means that I think the great suffering Jesus refers to is the Fall of Jerusalem in 70 AD to the Romans. The Romans literally dismantled the temple complex to the foundation and burned the entire city, killing everyone who did not escape beforehand. The historian Josephus described what happened in Jerusalem (cannibalism, torture, savagery, etc) and came to this conclusion: “the misfortunes of all men, from the beginning of the world, if they be compared to these of the Jews, are not so considerable as they were”. The destruction of Jerusalem (and Israel) was so catastrophic that multiple historians have described it as unparalleled judgment and suffering. That interpretation also makes sense of Jesus saying “or will ever happen”. It makes no sense to use that phrase of the last event to happen in human history.
In summary, I think that the “great suffering” Jesus describes right before our passage is the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD, the most awful event in human history. His point? Not even an event that bad is a sure sign of “the end”. We must remain watchful and ready for His return at any (unexpected) moment.
Closing Thoughts: How Will to Universe End -- According to the "Experts"?
I get a big kick out of atheists doing their darndest to explain the universe. On this topic, however, the discussion is interesting. The experts say that the universe is 13.8 billion years old. It consists of 0.01% radiation, 0.1% neutrinos, 4.9% normal matter, 27% dark matter, and 68% dark energy. Depending on what “dark energy” actually is and does (the experts don’t know), several things could happen in the future. (1/2) The universe continues to expand until it is so diluted that all mass essentially dissolves into nothingness or rips the fabric of space itself apart. (3/4) Dark energy starts to reign in the universe, causing it to contract until all matter converts into energy (think black holes) which either becomes the new universe or re “explodes” in a new, colder “big bang”. (5) Dark energy collapses into another form, causing the disintegration of every known particle and the violent end of the universe.
Depending on which of these options the experts lean toward, this could happen in a few billion years or many, many billions of years. As a Bible-believing Christian, here’s what I take away from “the experts”. Well, no credible scientist believes that the universe is eternal. The universe as we know it will end one day. Our sun will burn out one day. For eternity to be “real”, there must be a new kind of existence that’s not dependent on finite energy sources like the sun . . . which is exactly what the Bible describes. A new heaven and earth, because the old one has passed away. The primary difference between me and the experts? I believe that God will bring about the end of the universe sometime soon, and according to His own design. The experts might actually be right in how He ends it, but it will be by God’s hand and not some impersonal ratio between dark energy and dark matter.