Mark 13 is a strong contender for status as the most disputed and obscure passage in the New Testament. Moreover, its difficulties can make it extremely distracting to readers, especially when we are focusing on the gospel narrative. Strangely, at the same time, there is no chapter of Mark whose main idea is so clearly spelled out. If we concentrate on this main point, as Mark wished readers to do, it will be easier to make sense of the details.
The chapter fittingly marks the end of Jesus’ ministry. These are words spoken as a final teaching, looking to the future when his followers will be without him, living and dying in uncertainty. The disciples’ comment about the spectacular architecture of the temple occasions the prediction of its destruction—which Jesus had already presaged in the ongoing critique in chapters 11 and 12. In this sense, chapter 13 is also the culmination of these three chapters.
The two questions of v. 4 are essentially one: the sign that it is about to happen will indicate when these things will be. The primary aspect of the dispute over chapter 13 is whether the disciples answer one question but Jesus answers another. Some believe Jesus stayed on topic (the temple’s destruction), some that he mixed in other concerns (the second coming and the end), and some that he had virtually nothing at all to say about the temple. For the one facilitating Mark as an evangelistic study, it will not be beneficial to get bogged down in sorting all of this out. Here is the point at which the main idea of the chapter is most helpful: whatever one’s position, we must all watch out and be ready.
In the absence of Jesus and the uncertainty about what God is up to, the best way of life is to watch out, beware, be vigilant and prepared. The catchword repeated throughout the chapter is “beware” or “look out” (13:5, 9, 23, 33). It is complimented by the emphatic exhortation to “stay awake” or “be vigilant” (13:35, 37). In the first place, Jesus is reorienting his hearers away from their preoccupation with signs. They must beware lest they be deceived by their eagerness to predict the future. Whatever events Jesus is talking about, or whatever events to which we may want to apply the teach- ing, the risk is the same: we are easily led astray by signs and portents.
The list of predictions of the end of the world in the last two thousand years would be comical if it were not for the seriousness with which so many hundreds of thousands have taken them. Even as I write this paragraph, it has been mere days since the date an evangelical pastor predicted to be the “rapture,” swindling Christians out of millions of dollars in the doing. At the same time, a Brazilian seer has all of Latin America stirred up with supposedly accurate predictions. 2011 has been a year of portentous events: uprisings across the Middle East and North Africa; devastating earthquakes and tsunamis; record-breaking killer tornadoes; ongoing financial crisis; and more. And there is no doubt that precisely these sorts of events fuel the sermons and books that far too many Christians, who have the words of Jesus in Mark 13, are eager to accept. These are not the signs we are looking for.
In the second place, they must beware because there is serious business to attend in the mean time. The disciples will not be spending their time cringing at every event, crouched at the ready to escape the immanent wrath of God. They will be too busy dealing with the repercussions of their testimony. Now, for the first time directly and explicitly, Jesus says that the proclamation of the gospel will take on global dimensions. Testimony to the nations will be the disciples priority (see “first” in 13:10). The situation will be dire, but perseverance even unto death, rather than strategizing escape, is the job description. We can again deceive ourselves if, when the hardship gets personal, we think the solution is for God to make it all stop and get on with vindicating us. The promise is salvation (13:13), but in the mean time, it is necessary that the gospel be proclaimed to all nations.
In the third place, they must beware because they will indeed want to avoid the events Jesus predicts. The catastrophe will be terrible, and he wants his followers to pay careful attention and get out of town before it’s too late. There will be a sign; he now answers their question. But he cannot resist repeating the warning. There will be false prophets, false saviors, false signs, and false pre- dictions. But the true sign will be, in fact, as obvious as the blooming of fig trees in spring. Getting wrapped up in the pomp and portents of deceivers is unnecessary. They must flee when the time comes. It will be clear enough for one who watches out.
Finally, Jesus says that he him- self does not know when exactly these events will unfold. This truth alone should be enough to lay to rest much of the hype that is prone to circulate through the church. The presumption of those who would calculate the dates of future events is colossal.
Mark 13 is not a code to be cracked, nor are the many world events that have happened since Jesus spoke these words. The chapter is Jesus’ final teaching, and it is about living a missional lifestyle as the kingdom story continues to unfold. It is about how to live, knowing vindication is yet to come, persevering through hardship “because of him” (13:9), ever ready for the master of the house to return (13:35). It is about the good news of the kingdom, preached to all nations, even as terrible news and horrific events on both global and personal scales threat- en to obscure the promise. But the promise is Jesus’ own word, which will not pass way, though heaven and earth pass away (13:31).
So, watch out!