Why Mark 13 is so hard for me

When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be frightened.  These things must take place, but that is not yet the end (Mark 13:7).

I used to know a lot more about Bible prophecy than I do now.  –Warren Wiersbe in his mature years

They canceled Sunday School at my church for tomorrow morning. Some kind of issue with a busted water pipe in the fellowship hall area where construction people were doing something. So, we’ll be having church in the auditorium of a private school at 10:30 am.  And I am not unhappy at all about it.

The Sunday School lesson–which I was scheduled to teach–was really difficult to get my mind around.  Mark 13 is our Lord’s Olivet Discourse, with its counterparts in Matthew 24 and Luke 21.  Each of the three has its own uniqueness but for the most part they’re much alike.

Prophecy is hard for me.  And I don’t mind admitting it.  There is a little history to this.

As a college student, I worked for a preacher in downtown Birmingham. Reverend Jim Irwin owned the Upper Room Bookstore which I operated the summer between my freshman and sophomore years.  Brother Jim pastored a small church and had a radio program called “The Radio Bible School.” One night a week he held a Bible class in the bookstore for anyone wishing to attend. It was my job to type up his handouts, which is how I learned his views on prophecy.  On paper at least, he seemed to have it all figured out: The Lord was on the verge of returning and all the prophetic signs were being fulfilled even as we speak. Jesus was due to set foot on Planet Earth at any moment.

That was 1959.  Sixty-four years ago.

A big thing back in the day was the year 1948, the establishment of the nation Israel.  After all, taught the prophecy experts, didn’t our Lord say that “this generation would not pass away before all these things came to be”? That’s Mark 13:30. This clearly means, so they would teach, that within one generation of the establishment of Israel all these prophetic signs would be fulfilled. And how long is a generation?  Most said 25 years.  Some said thirty or thirty-five.

It’s been seventy-five years.

I learned early on that expounding on Bible prophecy was easy and easy to get wrong. As someone has said, “The graveyards are littered with the bones of prophecy experts.”

In time, I would learn prophecy “experts” have been getting it wrong for two thousand years.  This week when I typed in “false predictions on the Second Coming” the internet went crazy.  There are so many of them.  And it’s not just a recent fad.  Every century since Jesus went back to Heaven has produced its experts who were wrong.  Some of the more recent–and very wrong–experts include–

In 1844, William Miller

In 1847, George Rapp

In 1861, Joseph Morris

In 1863, John Wroe

In 1874, Charles Taze Russell, the first president of the Jehovah’s Witnesses.  He set the pattern for this group of false teachers and they followed the pattern for a long time.

In 1891, Joseph Smith, the founder of the LDS church.  Mormons, I’m told, deny it (as they do so many of Smith’s earlier errors), but it’s true.

In 1901, Catholic Apostolic Church. Whatever that is.

In 1914, the Jehovah’s Witnesses again.

In 1917 and again in 1930, Korea’s Sun Myung Moon.

In 1935, 1943, 1972, and 1975 Herbert W. Armstrong of the (radio) Worldwide Church of God. In my younger years, it was hard to turn on the radio at night without hearing this self-appointed expert.  That church disavowed him soon after he died.

In 1988, Hal Lindsey who wrote “The Late Great Planet Earth,” a best-seller.

In 1988 also, Edgar Whisenant

In 1994, also in 2011, Harold Camping.

In 2011, 2012, and 2013, Ronald Weinlaud

In 2012, Jack Van Impe, a television evangelist.

In 1975, after another Jehovah’s Witness prophecy of Jesus’ return did not happen, that religion had one million defections. People had finally had enough! In the 1980s, when I pastored in Charlotte, NC, a woman who had been victimized and disappointed by that religion would occasionally come to me for counsel.  Why she came to the pastor of a Southern Baptist Church is a mystery, but that false religion had so poisoned her against traditional Christian churches, she would have died before she set foot inside one of our worship services.  I have no idea whether I helped her or not.

Things in Mark 13 I do not understand…

  1. What portion of this discourse refers to the coming destruction of Jerusalem (which happened in AD 70) and what portion refers to the Second Coming and perhaps the end of the world as we know it? Do they overlap? If so, where? (see my quote from Dr. William Hendriksen below.)
  2. What does abomination of desolation mean? (13:14)  Everyone seems to have his own idea.
  3. How much of Mark 13:24-25 (darkened sun and moon, stars falling, heavenly powers shaken) is literal and how much is figurative? Some say this refers to nuclear bombs, others that they represent human powers, and still others many things.
  4. And what does Mark 13:30 mean (“this generation will not pass away…”)?

It would be funny if it were not so tragic, but many persons who will read this will be impatient with me because (as they will insist), “Anyone with a brain knows it means…” (whatever).  And their answer will be different from the interpretation of a thousand others who have expounded on that.

In 1990 when I went to pastor in New Orleans, I was warned about a lady in my congregation who was a self-appointed expert on prophecy.  Our assistant pastor said, “She kills every class she teaches, Pastor.  I hope you will not let her teach her doctrine.”  So, when she came to me with a request that she be allowed to teach her “considerable knowledge of God’s Word” to a class, I told her she could teach a class on one condition:  At the end of every class period, she must announce to the class, “This is how it seems to me, but I could be wrong.”

“Oh no!” she insisted.  “I would never do that!”

I said, “So, that’s why you will not be allowed to teach your doctrine in this church.”

She never forgave me, and I remained as pastor for 14 years, then continued as a member for another 12.  A later pastor did her funeral while I sat on the back row and asked the Father to have mercy and to forgive her presumption.

Humility is the order of the day–

Kent Hughes says in his commentary on Mark, This is by far the most difficult passage in Mark–and with its parallels in the other gospels, one of the most difficult texts in the New Testament. 

Hughes quotes G. K. Chesterton: It is only the fool who tries to get the heavens inside his head, and not unnaturally his head bursts.  The wise man is content to get his head inside the heavens.

I recall in the early 1990s when the United States was involved in Desert Storm, some pastors I knew preached that this could be the fulfillment of Scripture as Armageddon was upon us.  They were wrong.

One pastor said a man approached him to say he personally believed the end of the world was near because “the United States debt is so out of control.” That was a generation ago, and the debt continues to multiply.

As I type this, Israel is in the act of invading Gaza.  Every night the news tells of bombings and killings.  And yes, we hear pastors and other “experts” announcing that this could be the end.

I remind the reader that in World War II over 100 million people were killed.  A hundred million.  And yet that was not the end.

I want to quote what Professor William Hendriksen said in his commentary on Mark concerning Jesus’ teachings in Mark 13:14-13–

Two–or even more–events are viewed as if they were one.  The traveler views the future as a distant mountain range, one peak rising after another.  The closer you get to one peak, the more distance on to the next. (From Joe: This is called “prophetic foreshortening.”)

Example:  The Old Testament speaks of Jesus’ first and second comings together: In Isaiah 11:1-4 and 61:1-2.

It speaks of Pentecost and “the great and terrible day of the Lord” together in Joel 2:28-31.

So here in Mark 13 two huge events are intertwined–

–God’s judgment upon Jerusalem

–The tribulation which results in the final judgment at the close of history.

No exegete (scholar) is able to untangle what is here intertwined. (end of Hendriksen quote)

Don’t miss that: “No exegete is able to untangle what is here intertwined.”

We know for certain that–

–Jesus will return.

–This age will end.

–God will make a new heaven and new earth..

–Righteousness will be enthroned.

–The faithful will be rewarded.

–Satan will be banished.

–And no one knows when or exactly how this is going to happen.  Even if they vow they do.

–Therefore–to repeat myself–humility in approaching this is the order of the day.


4 thoughts on “Why Mark 13 is so hard for me

  1. I used some of these comments when teaching Mark 13 in SS this am. I am curious. Are you using the “Through the Bible Series” from Bogard Press in Texarkana?

    I remember in the mid 1960s two men in the church my family attended studied out that Jesus would return in 1969. I was around 10 and went to my Daddy all worried that I would not get to grow up. Daddy reassured me. He said he had heard that talk when he was a boy too. He was born in 1907. Crazy things, like the World War, a devastating flu epidemic and a world wide depression were all fodder for date setters in his early years. He would not set a date but did say sometimes that he believed the Lord would return in his lifetime. Daddy had a long life. He died in 2004 at age 96. I am now 69 myself and wouldn’t mind at all if Jesus returns in my lifetime, but I learned not to say I believe He will in that period of time, even if I make 96 or more, but I believe He can. Thank you for your thoughts.

  2. Great commentary, Joe!
    You were always great at explaining difficult concepts back in the day at FBC in Columbus and I often find your notes in my margins.
    You wrote some comments recently about the SBC dictates on women ministers. You spoke my (largely unpopular) thoughts much more elegantly than I could. I can’t find that post on your Facebook page. Can you tell me where to locate it?

  3. Hi it’s time for me to Take over. Jerry Lee Lindsey I’m at this address 1890. Or 1898 county Rd 298, Florence, Alabama,,35634.im born March 3 1982, brown hair color And eyes.5,6 130pouns got scar of the right hand of GOD and the devil.

  4. My social security number has a 13 right dead in the center of it I’m in zip City Alabama the address is 1890 county road 298 Florence Alabama 35634

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