Perplexing passages can be found throughout the Bible. Passages that have created differences in opinions throughout the church’s history. To find someone who has a new interpretation of a passage is nothing new. Any time spent on the internet would give you a plethora of perplexing passages. When I speak of perplexing passages, I speak of those that we would understand the passage differently but still fall within the same camp. These perplexing passages create a different understanding of what the Bible teaches. Only one interpretation can be right. I am not saying that the Bible can be made to say what I want it to say. But in terms of biblical interpretations, only one can be correct. For example, we can agree with Baptists on many aspects of doctrine, but we will differ on our definition of the church. Baptists would say the church is those who profess faith in Christ. Presbyterians would say the visible church is those who profess faith in Christ and their children. Now only one of us can correct. Our differences come down to specific passages and how we use scripture to interpret scripture.
This week we look at Mark chapter 13, and this chapter, one commentator explains, is, “one of the most perplexing chapters in the Bible to understand, for readers and interpreters alike.” We have difficult phrases, “the abomination of desolation,” or “that tribulation.” We have simple terms like these things, those days, and the day. However, there are many various interpretations of what they speak of. We have scholars who have come up with terms like, idealist, preterist, historicist, and futurist, because those terms make everything clearer. To add to this perplexing passage, what scriptures are we to use to help us interpret scripture, Daniel, Revelation, or others. But the rule of Scriptures interpreting Scripture is let the clearer passages of Scripture help us interpret the less clear passages of Scripture. Few people make bold claims; such as, “I know and understand Revelation clearly.” I thought maybe the best way to approach this passage was to hurry through the chapter and get to a chapter that is less perplexing. However, this chapter can be difficult for us to wrap our heads around, but it is rich with application about how we are to live today. I also believe that if we work through this passage, it will not be as perplexing to us.
I. Leaving the Temple
There is a change of scene. If we were reading this merely as a historical narrative, then we would easily pass over this comment. However, it is not only a historical fact of what Jesus and his disciples did. It is also one of theological significance. That the prior section of Mark, as we have pointed out frequently, is Jesus’ temple ministry. Jesus had entered the temple three times previously; Mark 11:11, after the anti-climactic entry where the temple of empty. Mark 11:15, where Jesus entered the temple and told the leaders that they had made it a den of robbers. This event was sandwiched between the lesson from the Fig tree. That the temple was like a fruitless fig tree that was to be curses. Then finally, in Mark 11:27 when Jesus came into the temple and was greeted by the religious leaders. All this in contrast to the widow and her two small copper coins. Jesus the prophet had come and warned them they were the wicked tenants not caring for the Lord’s vineyard, which is the temple. That they were not giving to God what was God’s. They denied God’s word and his power. They did not love God with their whole heart, soul, mind and strength and they did not love their neighbor as themselves. Jesus has spoken God’s word; they did not perceive or understand. Now, Jesus leaves the temple. The Father had sent the son to the wicked tenants, and they have sought to destroy him.
If we read this first verse simply as a change in scenes, I think we can see how these chapters are connected.
II. Looking at the Temple
As they are leaving, one disciple points out the wonderful stones and buildings. We have spoken of this temple before. It is not the temple and built by Solomon, because it was destroyed in 586 BC by King Nebuchadnezzar, who was the king of Babylon. It was the Second temple built by Ezra, yet maybe more accurately you might call it the second version of the second temple. This major renovation begun in 20 BC but truth be told, it is more of new construction. The Temple was not completed until 66 AD, so during Jesus’ earthly ministry. We often downplay the second temple compared to Solomon, but Herod’s renovation was quite a work of architecture. It took about 80 years to complete, and this is not because it was a government run project, but the size and scope of this renovation was enormous. The disciples point out these wonderful stones. These stones were nothing like we could really imagine. Making them transport them and installing them was an amazing feat of human ingenuity.
The stones were collected from a local quarry. Now I say they were collected, but it was not like you driving to Lowes and driving through the “pick up area” and someone placing your bags of mulch in the back of your truck. These stones, again stones, are not the right term, boulders. Were cut out with a chisel to fit a piece of timber down into this hole they had chiseled. They would then wet the wood, causing it to swell to break apart the boulder. They would square them off and then transport them. Now I have said that these are not stones, but boulders. Josephus, a Jewish historian, explains that some stones were about 37 feet long, 12 feet high and 18 feet deep. Some of these ‘stones’ would have weighed about 50 tons. The disciples are true to point out these stones and these buildings. It is hard to put into words things of beauty but even harder for to put into words beauty found in buildings. On one side, the size of the building is hard to describe, but also the many details of the building are hard to describe, like the edging of the stones.
Yet, one thing that we can understand is the appearance externally, yet the fruitless reality. Remember, as Jesus walked up to the fig tree that was covered in leaves, but when he finally looked closer, that was only leaves on it. It looked beautiful, but there was no fruit to be found (Mark 11:13). This is the temple, and the leaders in the temple. They externally have their flowing robes, seats of honor, and their long prayers, but they are fruitless figs trees. Jesus explains in the Gospel of Matthew that the Scribes and the pharisees are like nicely cleaned tombs that outwardly appear beautiful but internally only have dead people’s bones. He states that they, “outwardly appear righteous to others, but within [them] are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness” (Matt 23:28). Then later, Jesus laments over Jerusalem, “your house is left to you desolate” (Matt 23:38). The temple and her leaders might be beautiful, but they seek to kill the king’s son, so that they may have the vineyard to themselves.
III. Leveling of the Temple
Jesus responds to the disciple’s comment on the stones and buildings. He explains to them that this temple will be destroyed. These stones that you see now will not be a building anymore. This enormous complex which was about the size of two football (American) fields. Which had been under construction for about 50 years. Yet all of this would be no more. The vineyard will be handed over, the wicked tenants cast out. Unless the Lord builds his house, people labor in vain (Ps 127:1). All these great stones that had been hand chiseled and transported will be no more. The prophet has spoken given his warnings and the people have not listened. This is the backdrop to Jesus’ teaching in Mark chapter 13, the longest section of teaching in the whole gospel of Mark. It is common that a godly man will give one final teaching before they die (Jacob, Moses, Joshua, and Samuel). The pharisees will mention Jesus taught he would destroy the temple and build it in three days (Mark 14:58). That we now understand that the temple was merely a shadow pointing to Christ, and once Christ had accomplished the work of the great high priest who sacrificed to satisfy the wrath of God, the temple made by the hands of men was not needed.
So, with this all as the background, we can quickly look at the disciple’s response to help us further understand this perplexing passage. That we see in the beginning of verse three, the place of Jesus’ teaching, they are now on the mount of Olives, which is why this is often called the Olivet Discourse. The mount of Olives was east of the Temple mount and sat 300 feet higher than the temple. From the top of the mount, you could look across the valley of Kidron and then could see the temple. Mark highlights this point, explaining that they sat opposite the temple. This is, again, important when we think about the context of this perplexing chapter. Jesus leaves the temple, the disciples point out the temple, and Jesus explains the temple will be leveled. Then begins the Olivet Discourse, where Jesus teaches with a clear view of the temple. The midrash explains that a person could stand on the top of the mount of Olivet and “look directly into the entrance of the Sanctuary.”
Jesus sits down to pronounce the judgment upon the temple. There is an allusion to Zechariah here as well, which speaks of the destruction of Jerusalem.
“Then the Lord will go out and fight against those nations as when he fights on a day of battle. On that day his feet shall stand on the Mount of Olives that lies before Jerusalem on the east, and the Mount of Olives shall be split in two from east to west by a very wide valley, so that one half of the Mount shall move northward, and the other half southward.” (Zech 14:3-4)
The connections to Mark chapter 13 and Zechariah 14 are many, and we will point some of them out as we continue to study chapter 13. Yet, let me make one brief observation. The first being that in Zechariah 14, the Lord is the one who stands on the mount of Olives pronouncing the Judgement upon Jerusalem. In Mark 13, it is Jesus who pronounces judgement upon Jerusalem, mainly the temple.
While on the mount of Olives, the four disciples, Peter, James, John and Andrew, ask Jesus two questions: “when will these things be, and what will be the sign when all these things are about to be accomplished?” (Mark 13:4). These two questions are connected to what has just been spoken of. That Jesus had just told them that, “there will not be left there one stone upon another that will not be thrown down.” Then the four disciples ask about ‘these things.’ There question is about this event of the destruction of the temple. They ask when will it happen? And what are the signs? We will look at Jesus’ teaching from the mount of Olives next time. However, the disciples are not asking what ‘these things’ are, but when and what are the signs. Often we can get hung up on the ‘these things.’
This can be a depressing chapter, mainly because of the content; destruction, desolation, wars, earthquakes, famines, persecution, tribulation and more. However, it is always important to see the end. Often, we must tell our children that a certain part of a movie might be sad, but we know that in the end it is happy. So, to for us, we are reminded that the Son of Man will return, with great power and glory. That even as we look at perplexing passages, something is not perplexing to us. Jesus Christ is going to return. As we continue to study through this passage, the context is helpful for us to understand, but also knowing the ending helps a lot.