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.
“But be on your guard. For they will deliver you over to councils, and you will be beaten in synagogues, and you will stand before governors and kings for my sake, to bear witness before them. And the gospel must first be proclaimed to all nations. And when they bring you to trial and deliver you over, do not be anxious beforehand what you are to say, but say whatever is given you in that hour, for it is not you who speak, but the Holy Spirit. And brother will deliver brother over to death, and the father his child, and children will rise against parents and have them put to death. And you will be hated by all for my name’s sake. But the one who endures to the end will be saved. –Mark 13:1-13
Mark’s sequence of scenes in the Temple complex have come to an end with the close of chapter 12. Jesus has used three riddles (“Was John the Baptizer sent from God?” “The Parable of the Wicked Tenants,” and “David’s son as David’s Lord”) to help explain, albeit in symbolic language, what He was doing in condemning and shutting down the Temple. Now that this sequence is complete, the Temple is still not completely out of the picture. Right after leaving, one of the disciples is awed by the buildings and expresses this amazement. Jesus replies prophetically that the Temple will not just cease operations, but will be utterly and completely destroyed— “There will not be left here one stone upon another that will not be thrown down.”
They go east, just across the Kidron Valley from the Temple, up on the Mount of Olives. Here the disciples present understandably ask a question: “When will these things be…?” This may cause you some discomfort if you’ve fallen into the modern trap of believing this passage is about the end of the world. The question Peter, James, John, and Andrew ask is not about the end of the world, but about the end of the Temple. Jesus is talking about what will happen up until 70 AD when the Temple was destroyed. He has been alluding to this all through His ministry. Israel is in sin and judgment, for that will come through foreign armies, just as it has been throughout their history.
Now, just in case this seems a little far-fetched for you, consider that everything about Jesus’ prophecy will be fulfilled locally. Take for instance, “you will be beaten [flogged] in synagogues.” This persecution only took place in the earliest history of the church prior to 70 AD. Or, “you will stand before governors and kings for my sake, to bear witness before them.” The book of Acts is filled with exactly this sort of thing, all before 70 AD. There is nothing to suggest in this conversation that Jesus was talking about some future generation. He was answering the disciples’ question with an answer that applied to them. In the next verse beyond the passage above, Jesus says that those living in Judea will be able to escape the wrath to come by fleeing to the mountains. That, of course, could not be said of the Final Judgment, proving that most of us need to read this passage far more carefully in the future!
There is a particularly alarming section near the end of this passage: “And brother will deliver brother over to death, and the father his child, and children will rise against parents and have them put to death. And you will be hated by all for my name’s sake.” It is quite helpful to know that this is pertinent to the original audience of Mark’s gospel rather than necessarily something we should expect. It was dramatically fulfilled when the Christians in Rome were viciously persecuted by Nero.
Now that I’ve worked to correct the modern error of believing this prophecy is utterly future, we should take quite seriously that persecution is not over. The Kingdom has come, but certainly not fully. Many Christians today suffer persecution every bit as severe as those in the first century prior to 70 AD. Jesus tells us “the one who endures to the end will be saved.” No matter what may befall us, salvation to life in God’s kingdom awaits those who endure and do not forsake Him until that day. And that’s the gospel.
And as Jesus taught in the temple, he said, “How can the scribes say that the Christ is the son of David? David himself, in the Holy Spirit, declared, “‘The Lord said to my Lord, Sit at my right hand, until I put your enemies under your feet.’ David himself calls him Lord. So how is he his son?” And the great throng heard him gladly.
And in his teaching he said, “Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes and like greetings in the marketplaces and have the best seats in the synagogues and the places of honor at feasts, who devour widows’ houses and for a pretense make long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.”
And he sat down opposite the treasury and watched the people putting money into the offering box. Many rich people put in large sums. And a poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which make a penny. And he called his disciples to him and said to them, “Truly, I say to you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the offering box. For they all contributed out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.” –Mark 12:35-44
Mark has recorded scene after scene in the Temple courtyards, but now we come to the final one. It seems a little complicated at first because Jesus tells a riddle, using Psalms 2, 89, 110 and 2 Samuel 7, which appears to challenge the commonly held belief that the Messiah, the great coming king, would be born from the family of David. That’s not what Jesus is doing, but He is questioning the idea that the Messiah will be simply or merely a king from David’s family. This king will be David’s son, but more to the point, David’s Lord.
This may seem like an odd thing for Jesus to do at this point in the story, but it answers quite brilliantly the issue of the scribe in the previous scene asking about the most important part of the law. Jesus says the scribe is “not far from the kingdom.” Why is he close, but not in the kingdom? This is the answer: loyalty to Jesus Himself. Like the Rich Young Ruler, he’s very close, but lacks one thing. In both cases, it is loyalty to Jesus. It’s not enough to get a lot of things right, even watching for a “son of David” to be the king. One must follow with full loyalty, Jesus Christ, David’s Lord.
Then Jesus warns to “Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes and like greetings in the marketplaces and have the best seats in the synagogues and the places of honor at feasts, who devour widows’ houses and for a pretense make long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.” Yikes! That’s a bold and sobering warning. Of course, Jesus is not condemning robes or longish prayers, but those who use these things as a pretense. There is a stark contrast to what Jesus has just said: when David’s Lord became David’s son (that’s Jesus incarnate!), He in no way used such a position to gain popularity or wealth. Instead He gave all that He had.
Which leads to the next sub-scene where people were putting money into the offering box. There were some who were giving a lot, but not all that they had. In other words, they were close, but they lacked full loyalty. And then there was one who gave all that she had. Giving up one’s life is the theme of this final short scene of the series in the Temple courtyards. The scribes “who devour widows’ houses” are thoroughly outdone in the economy of the Kingdom by a widow who has a house in the Kingdom. David’s Lord, who gave all that He had, will make sure of that. And that’s the gospel.
And one of the scribes came up and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that he answered them well, asked him, “Which commandment is the most important of all?” Jesus answered, “The most important is, ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” And the scribe said to him, “You are right, Teacher. You have truly said that he is one, and there is no other besides him. And to love him with all the heart and with all the understanding and with all the strength, and to love one’s neighbor as oneself, is much more than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.” And when Jesus saw that he answered wisely, he said to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” And after that no one dared to ask him any more questions. –Mark 12:28-34
I find myself frequently thinking about how to prioritize things. We have important things, favorite things, essential things, irreplaceable things and so on. There are things in our houses that, should we wake up in the night to find the place very much on fire, we would grab before we evacuated if possible. Most things we’d leave behind. There are also important things to say to each other. I’ve been extraordinarily helped in providing pastoral care to those wrestling with the complexity of human relations by learning the five things that may need to be said, which are often neglected for one reason or another: “I love you,” “I forgive you,” “Please forgive me,” “Thank you,” and “Goodbye.” They may come in different forms and may seem rather mundane, but are some of the most important things to say.
Jesus has been asked a string of questions in the temple: “By what authority do you do these things?” “Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?” “Whose wife will she be?” Now He is asked another: “Which commandment is the most important of all?” This is where prioritizing comes in. What is the most important thing to say here? There is a lot of Jewish law, and He knows it by heart, but chooses succinctly and poignantly.
Jesus is not offering a way to construct a code of personal ethics with His answer. He is talking about worship. How’s that, you ask? Notice how He begins the answer: “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one…” This is called the Shema from Deut. 6. Any Jew, even those who are nearly nominal in their religious practice, from Jesus’ day to ours prays this prayer regularly every day. It is worship. We are made in God’s image as symbol interpreters and symbol makers to direct the world, and that is most cultivated in worship. It can’t be half-hearted either (like showing up to covenant renewal worship at church less than most Lord’s Days!). It is about “love[ing] the Lord your God” with all your heart, all your soul, all your understanding, and with all your strength. That is to say: everything, all of you. That is what must be poured out gladly in worship of the Lord our God.
Now here’s the reason this is much more about worship than a code of personal ethics. If we were doing what Jesus says here, then the Kingdom of God has come. The Kingdom of Heaven or the Age to Come (there are various names for it) has come when the will of God is done on earth as it is in heaven. That looks like exactly what Jesus describes in His answer to the scribe: perfect worship of God with our everything. It’s been all about the Kingdom coming for Jesus so far, and that’s still the case here.
There is a second point. The scribe has not asked, but it’s too important for Jesus to let go: “‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” This means showing everyone the same respect and care that we show to ourselves. Again, this is about Eternal Life in the Kingdom: everyone will perfectly love each other as himself/herself.
This lawyer agrees with Jesus (we’re certainly not used to seeing that!), and discussion turns to “burnt offerings and sacrifices.” This is amazing because Jesus and this man are standing right there in the Temple complex agreeing that the centrality of the Temple is at best secondary to Jesus’ answer, and probably made void by it. Again, this passage is about worship and how worship will work now that the Kingdom is coming with Jesus’ teaching and presence. Jesus offers him some very good news: “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” The Kingdom of God is God’s new world, re-made on earth, thus it has a new way of worship.
The law of God is sweeter than honey at the honeycomb, it makes wise the simple, and to be more desired than much fine gold. Here we find that the law of God points us to His Kingdom where we will live that law forever and ever. And that’s the gospel.