Perhaps more than any other question a pastor receives are those which deal with the End Times. “Are these events in the End Times?” “Is this the mark of the beast?” “What do these current events mean?” “Where are these events described in End Times Scripture?” And so on. These questions do not bother me, per se. I am glad, in one sense, that we are so sensitive to current events and the expectation of the Lord’s return. But, in another sense, questions about the End Times only reveal just how much we are like Jesus’s apostles. We want “in on the secret” of the End Times. “Tell us, when will these things happen?” they clamor. “And what will be the sign when all these things are about to be accomplished?” (Mark 13:3–4). Little did they know that when they asked Jesus “when will these things be” that he would launch into a sermon all about the End Times.1 Only this sermon would not specifically resolve their questions. In fact, it probably raised more than it answered. But through it all, it would give them a better answer than even they imagined.
Jesus’s prophetic sermon, which constitutes the rest of the chapter (Mark 13:5–37), is multi-layered. Throughout the discourse, he alternates between immediate and future events — ones that would be fulfilled in just a few days from when he was speaking and ones that have still yet to be fulfilled even in our day. For example, in verse 2, Jesus forecasts the utter destruction of the temple structure. His words are clearly referring to the “building” just referenced by one of his apostles (Mark 13:1). Therefore, Jesus is making reference to what would occur in just a few decades, when Emperor Titus ransacked Jerusalem in 70 A.D., leaving the Temple Mount in ruins.
However, Jesus is also alluding to what would occur in only a few short days from when he was preaching, when he himself would be crucified on a Roman cross as a common criminal, thereby signaling the end of the old dispensation of religion through ritual sacrifice. No longer would the temple’s structure of separation be valid or even necessary. Everyone would be invited into the innermost temple court, the Holy of Holies, by grace through faith (Rom. 1:16–17). Everyone would be granted access (Rom. 5:1). Such is why the Synoptics make a point to record that upon Jesus’s death on the cross, the temple veil tore in two (Matt. 27:51; Mark 15:38; Luke 23:45).
Consequently, to understand the rest of Jesus’s sermon, you have to understand that he is referencing immediate and future events simultaneously — sometimes back-to-back. For instance, the Savior’s words of warning in verses 6–8 regarding “wars and rumors of wars” are very much indicative of our present day. Yet the flogging and hatred and betrayal of which he speaks in verses 9–13 is indicative of what awaited the apostles in the aftermath of his passion and death.2
It’s not hard to imagine the horrified looks on the apostles’ faces in this moment as their Teacher relays their coming trials and tribulations. It is, perhaps, a look with which you are all too familiar. There is much in our time that can worry us and make us anxious. But these times are not “bad news.” Jesus’s sermon details turbulent days and events that are imminent for those following him — events that make the hairs on the back of our necks stand up. Wars, earthquakes, famines — and that’s just the beginning (Mark 13:7–8). The tribulation that awaits this world will truly be a time of unprecedented sorrow (Mark 13:19). But even still, the troubles that come are not to be feared or fretted over. Rather, they are to be seen as the signals of the Lord’s imminent return.
Indeed, chaos is the clearest indicator that the Lord is on the move. Disarray is the prelude to rescue. The worse things get, the more hopeful we can be — precisely because of the assurance with which Jesus’s words afford us. Nothing we are seeing or enduring right now surprises or startles God. He is not caught off-guard. “None of the things happening in the world which surprise and startle me, surprise or startle God,” G. Campbell Morgan testifies.3 And so it is that these “bad times” are “good news” to those who know who is Lord and Sovereign over all the times.
After all, we are not the determiners or judges of the times. Jesus confesses to his disciples that “no one knows” the day or the hour when all these things should be (Mark 13:32–33; Acts 1:6–8). And yet, even still, that has not stopped men throughout the ages of history from trying to predict or “figure out” when the coming of the Son of Man will be — as if it is some sort of biblical puzzle that merely needs solving. But the fact of the matter is, there is no “secret Bible code” that needs to be unlocked. And anyone who pretends to know exactly when these events will occur and where and how and by whom is deceiving you. They’re nothing but a liar, a “false messiah” (Mark 13:21–22; 2 Pet. 2:1). “In this prophecy of Jesus,” Morgan continues, “there is an arresting insistence upon the fact that the time is not known.”
He goes on to say:
In those words He solemnly warned His disciples, and us, and the whole age, that we know not when. Not in this prophecy, nor anywhere else in the teaching of Jesus, nor in the whole New Testament is there a single declaration that can help us to fix, even approximately within the limits of a human almanac or calendar, the hour of the advent.4
In the apostle Peter’s day, as in our own, there were those that wished to brandish some superior spiritual insight by setting dates and times on the return of the Lord. In fact, Peter himself, like many in his generation, believed he was living through the End Times. “The end of all things is near,” he says near the end of his first epistle (1 Pet. 4:7). This is certainly a fascinating declaration, albeit a confounding one, seeing as nearly 2,000 years have passed since Peter wrote that. His brother-apostles James, Paul, and John, likewise asserted that the Lord’s coming was close at hand (James 5:8; cf. Rom. 13:11–12; Heb. 9:26; 1 John 2:18; Rev. 1:3). Are they all wrong then? Or were they just misinformed? Did they lead these early churches astray through a manipulated sense of Jesus’s Second Advent just like many in our time have done?
In short, no — we’ve been living the Last Days since King Jesus ascended to heaven to return to his rightful place “at the right hand of God” (Col. 3:1). And even still, notwithstanding where we are on the timeline of the “end of all things,” Peter’s counsel remains the same. “The end of all things is near; therefore, be alert and sober-minded for prayer” (1 Pet. 4:7). Such, too, was Jesus’s charge: “Watch! Be alert! For you don’t know when the time is coming” (Mark 13:33). We are not to be given over to such conspiracies or wild theories. Rather, we are to exhibit unbending faith in God’s arranging of all things.
We steward the “varied grace of God” during these Last Days by staying alert and composed in and through them. A modern translation of the apostle’s words might read, “Be calm and collected.” “Keep calm and carry on.” By this, Peter denounces the wild, manic thoughts concerning the End of Days by reiterating that far superior hands than his or anyone else’s have already orchestrated every event in the Last Days. The sovereign fingers of our Heavenly Father keep all events and times moving forward according to his purposes. Our task, then, is to watch and pray in faith.
The overarching meaning of apocalyptic Scripture isn’t to make us predictors of the future but to make us faithful in the present. “With regard to the future we have two things,” writes Father Stephen Freeman, “knowledge of the present-tense goodness of God that providentially works through and in all things for our good; hope in God who has promised to preserve us in His goodness. Within and through all of that runs the Cross.” All the days in the aftermath of Golgotha have been the prelude to the “end of all things.” And Christ has called us not to decipher or decode these times and events but only to hope to the end by watching and praying.
Commonly referred to as the “Olivet Discourse.” See Matthew 24, Mark 13, and Luke 21.
Such is what constitutes the Book of Acts.
G. Campbell Morgan, The Gospel According to Mark (Old Tappan, NJ: Revell, 1927), 282.