The return of Christ ought to be our blessed hope that strengthens and encourages all that we do, yet the key is that there is still work to do before that end comes. Indeed, we should long for Christ to find us diligent in His service when He returns rather than metaphorically (or even literally!) staring up at the clouds in anticipation. Christ may very well return in our lifetime, just as the temple was destroyed during the apostles’ generation, or His coming may be still a thousand years or more away. Regardless of the timing, He may easily call us to Himself through war, earthquake, famine, or (as we will observer next week) outright persecution before that day. Therefore, let us be faithful to serve our King with whatever time He allots to us.
And as he came out of the temple, one of his disciples said to him, “Look, Teacher, what wonderful stones and what wonderful buildings!” And Jesus said to him, “Do you see these great buildings? There will not be left here one stone upon another that will not be thrown down.”
And as he sat on the Mount of Olives opposite the temple, Peter and James and John and Andrew asked him privately, “Tell us, when will these things be, and what will be the sign when all these things are about to be accomplished?” And Jesus began to say to them, “See that no one leads you astray. Many will come in my name, saying, ‘I am he!’ and they will lead many astray. And when you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed. This must take place, but the end is not yet. For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be earthquakes in various places; there will be famines. These are but the beginning of the birth pains.
Mark 13:1-8 ESV
In regards to the end times, Christians can easily fall into two opposite reactions. The first is to become obsessed with the topic of eschatology. These Christians are always on the lookout for the “signs of the times” and are often absolutely positive that Jesus is coming soon. The summary of their argument is typically to appeal to how chaotic the world is becoming, which means that Jesus must be returning soon. The second is to avoid eschatology at nearly every opportunity, content to simply believe that Jesus is coming back at some point.
The one who obsesses over discerning the end can easily run into many problems. Indeed, like the disciples after Christ’s ascension, it can be all too easy to stare at the sky in wait for His return. Yet there are problems with the other stance as well. Treating the end as out-of-sight-out-of-mind is clearly not how the biblical authors expected us to live. Rather, the end of all things ought to be a matter of great comfort as well as sobriety.
I raise these viewpoints precisely because in chapter thirteen Mark records Jesus’ Olivet Discourse, which is the apocalyptic teaching found in the Synoptic Gospels. As we move through this chapter in the coming weeks, let us guard ourselves from both unhealthy stances.
Judgement Foretold // Verses 1-2
Our text begins with these important words: And as he came out of the temple… While it is right to see this teaching (the largest in Mark’s Gospel) as its own distinct section, it must not be divorced from the events of chapters eleven and twelve. Upon entering Jerusalem on a donkey, Jesus immediately went to the survey the temple. The next day He cleansed the temple of its moneychangers and merchants. The four questions from the religious leaders were all made in the temple, as well as the events that we studied last week. Thus, the setting of this chapter is Jesus exiting the temple following all those previous hostilities.
Along their way out, we are then told that one of Jesus’ disciples commented to Him: “Look, Teacher, what wonderful stones and what wonderful buildings!” This was certainly a true statement, for the temple of Jesus’ day was a wonder to behold. Throughout Israel’s history, there have been two temples. The first is often called Solomon’s temple because it was King Solomon who oversaw its construction and presided over its dedication. It was destroyed, however, by the Babylonians after Zedekiah rebelled against Nebuchadnezzar. The second temple was built by the exiles who were allowed to return under Cyrus of Persia. Its foundation was quickly laid but left unfinished for fifteen years because of threats from neighboring peoples. The prophets Haggai and Zechariah encouraged the people to finished building the temple, and they did so. Originally, the second temple was significantly smaller than Solomon’s, and Ezra records that when its foundation was laid many who remembered the first temple’s glory wept for their loss.
That changed whenever Herod the Great was given control over Judea by Rome. He began a lengthy building project that ended with the second temple being twice as large as Solomon’s temple. R. C. Sproul describes it for us:
The temple complex covered about thirty-five acres. The sanctuary stood one hundred and fifty feet high, as did the temple wall. The columns that held up the portico were so massive that three large men could barely encompass them by touching fingertip to fingertip. Josephus tells us that some of the stones that made up the temple were sixty feet long, eleven feet high, and eight feet deep, with each stone weighing more than a million pounds. Other historians of antiquity said Herod’s temple looked like a mountain of marble decorated with gold. The temple complex was architecturally stunning and must have looked strong enough to stand for a thousand years or more.
Thus, it would seem that this disciple was struck with the wonder of this sight. Of course, perhaps the disciples also intended to sort of cheer Jesus up, almost as if to say, “Things inside the temple might be pretty bad, but isn’t the building beautiful!”
I can imagine Jesus’ response knocking the wind out of his disciples: “Do you see these great buildings? There will not be left here one stone upon another that will not be thrown down.” The temple, beautiful was it was, would be utterly destroyed because of the corruption that had taken root within its walls. J. C. Ryle makes this point:
Let us learn from this solemn saying, that the true glory of a church does not consist in its buildings for public worship, but in the faith and godliness of its members. The eyes of our Lord Jesus Christ could find no pleasure in looking at the very temple which contained the holy of holies, and the golden candlestick, and the altar of burnt offering. Much less, may we suppose, can he find pleasure in the most splendid of worship among professing Christians, if his Word and his Spirit are not honored in it.
Of course, I do not think there is much danger of us reveling in the beauty of our church buildings today (at least among more Reformed-leaning Protestants). In fact, I think that the pendulum has swung too far and that churches might benefit from a valuing architecture again. Yet his point may best apply if we think of a church service’s production value or perhaps the splendor of a multitude of programs, activities, and outreaches. Just as the beauty of the temple’s design could not cover up the corruption within, these outward displays cannot make up for a lack of faith and godliness of a church’s members. We also see this principle in Jesus’ message to the church of Ephesus, where He commended their outward faithfulness but warned them to repent of their lovelessness or their lampstand would be removed.
These Things // Verses 3-4
Moving into verse 3, we are told that Jesus sat down on the Mount of Olives opposite the temple. The Kidron Valley lays between the Mount of Olives and Mount Zion upon which Jerusalem sits, yet the Mount of Olives is taller, making its view of the temple spectacular. Jesus will return to the Mount of Olives in chapter fourteen to pray in a garden upon its slope, Gethsemane. We call the teaching of Jesus that begins properly in verse 5 the Olivet Discourse because it was given to His disciples upon the Mount of Olives.
Jesus clearly brought them to this location for the purpose of teaching them more about the temple’s destruction. After all, how could they have thought about anything else once Jesus told them that the greatest religious, cultural, and political structure within their world would be utterly ruined? Indeed, His intent in verse 2 was certainly to have His disciples ask the questions that they asked in verse 4: “Tell us, when will these things be, and what will be the sign when all these things are about to be accomplished?”
This is the guiding question for understanding the Olivet Discourse because this is the question that Jesus is explicitly answering. And the question contains two distinct parts: when will these things happen and what will be the signs that these things are about to be fulfilled. Yet the question is centered upon ‘these things,’ which are throwing down of the buildings and stones of the temple that Jesus predicted in verse 2. This means that the Olivet Discourse here in chapter thirteen is primarily about the destruction of the temple.
Now this chapter certainly is apocalyptic, and there are parts that clearly describe Christ’s second coming, for which we are still waiting with eager anticipation. Yet what we are about to read is not primarily about some time of tribulation still come; instead, it is about a horrendous period of tribulation that has already come to pass whenever Jerusalem and the temple were razed to the ground in AD 70 under the command of Titus the Roman.
We will describe this event in more detail in the coming weeks, but it is to this destruction that most of Jesus’ words here point. Of course, this chapter is still apocalyptic because it is unveiling things that were yet to come. And there are still certainly points of application for us today to draw upon as we read this passage, for we know that all Scripture is profitable to us (2 Timothy 3:16). Yet it is important for us to understand going into this study that Jesus is not primarily speaking about the end of the world as we imagine it; rather, He is mainly teaching His disciples about the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple that would occur within their lifetime.