SERMON: The Beginning of Birth Pangs | Mark 13:5–13
Shaun Marksbury | Grace Bible Church
Sunday Morning Service | December 16, 2018
Remember that Jesus had just decreed destruction on the temple. This context is vital to understand. In the parallel account, right before Jesus exists the city, Matthew records these words: “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, who kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to her! How often I wanted to gather your children together, the way a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were unwilling. Behold, your house is being left to you desolate! For I say to you, from now on you will not see Me until you say, ‘Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord!’ ” (Mt 23:37–39). So, as He exits the temple, Jesus says here in Mark 13:2, “Not one stone will be left upon another which will not be torn down.”
Jesus is clearly speaking to the Jewish nation at this point. He’s not rejecting His people who are a part of the nation, such as His disciples. He’s not talking about the spiritual temple of the church being torn down. He’s talking about the institution that has been His own since Exodus—a land and a nation that is rejected.
“Until.” Jesus gives this one word, and it appears with gospel hope. This is what Paul talks about in Romans 11:25–26, that “a partial hardening has happened to Israel until the fullness of the Gentiles has come in; and so all Israel will be saved.” Today, “they are not all Israel who are descended from Israel” (9:6), many are enemies of the gospel (11:28), but they are still “beloved for the sake of the fathers” and God’s gifts and calling of them “are irrevocable” (v. 29). Both Jesus and Paul see a time when the nation would repent, turning to Him and gaining life from the dead.
It’s at that point that He begins the Olivet Discourse. On the Mount of Olives, overlooking Jerusalem, the disciples ask, “Tell us, when will these things be, and what will be the sign when all these things are going to be fulfilled?” (v. 4). They’re confused; “they supposed that the kingdom of God was going to appear immediately” (Lk 19:11). That means that they expected Him to reveal Himself and lead the nation of Israel, so they didn’t understand how the destruction of the temple factored into the prophetic calendar.
When will these things be, and what will be the signal for it all to begin? The Olivet Discourse recorded in Matthew is even more expansive, covering two chapters. There, we have another clue. They ask, “Tell us, when will these things happen, and what will be the sign of Your coming, and of the end of the age?” (Mt 24:3).
Keep in mind that they didn’t think Jesus was leaving at this time and had to come again. They still don’t understand that He needs to suffer and die. Instead, they are asking when He will “come” by revealing His glory to everyone (the term Parousia is typically eschatological, but not always—cf. 2 Cor 7:6; 10:10).
So, considering that, they’re indeed wanting to know when the desolation and destruction of the temple will be. Yet, they’re also asking what sign to expect before Christ’s unveiled, coming kingdom and glory, and the end of the current age with the inauguration of the Messianic Reign. Remember that three of these men saw the Transfiguration and understood what Christ could do, and they are likely expecting that all of this will happen at the same time.
We need to keep as much of this in mind as possible. This may be the longest discourse in Mark, but Jesus’s reply has sparked much debate in Christian history. They ask Him when these things will be, and in the verses we’ve read, He said when they are not (vv. 7, 8). We’ll notice that some of these verses find correspondence in the Book of Acts, and other verses seem to describe the events surrounding the destruction of the temple in ad 70. Moreover, much of this seems to describe all of the church age, with its deceptions and persecutions. Unless we understand the context of the disciples expecting the deliverance of their people, we won’t fully understand Jesus’s response.
They’re asking about what they assume is one event. Jesus answers by covering both the destruction of the temple and the events surrounding His Second coming (as we read in Mt 24:3; cf. Mk 13:26). His answer has both a near and far element—descriptive of their time during the church age, but it looks to the time when He comes again. They will not know what the gospel and church age means yet, as it’s still an unrevealed mystery (cf. Rm 16:25–26), so He both warns them of what they’ll soon face as well as briefs them about the end.
In verse eight, He says, “These things are merely the beginning of birth pangs.” A mother’s contractions begin when the time of birth is near, and they grow more frequent and intense. The Apostle Paul also uses this painful imagery to write on the end-times—“While they are saying, ‘Peace and safety!’ then destruction will come upon them suddenly like labor pains upon a woman with child, and they will not escape” (1 The 5:3). This is in line with Old Testament imagery of judgment (Is 13:6–8; 66:7; Jer 6:24; Mic 4:9–10). In Mt 24:4–14, we see that this time described as the beginning of sorrows and tribulation as Christ’s return approaches.
So, Jesus’s response is exactly what His disciples needed. They needed to prepare for what they would face, as well as Mark’s Roman readers. His words also prepares all Christians throughout the centuries, including ourselves. Now that we have the completed canon of Scripture and can compare what Jesus says here to what He reveals later to John in Revelation, believers who will be alive when those. As such, all who read it gains the benefit, whether the Lord comes back immediately or tarries.
And Jesus began to say to them, “See to it that no one misleads you.
Many will come in My name, saying, ‘I am He!’ and will mislead many.”
Many will come in My name, saying, ‘I am He!’ and will mislead many.”
Jesus begins with a command to look out or to take heed. We mean the same when we tell children to look both ways before crossing the street; Jesus here warns of the danger of oncoming deception. This is the same word He used back in 12:38, commanding us to watch out for the hypocritical scribes. The first of four times He’s said to “watch” (vv. 5, 9, 23, 33). Because Jesus is answering their questions, deception will be one of the negative signs of the end.
Some dear believers believe that we are in the Kingdom now, but that cannot be, since all will be taught of Yahweh (Is 54:13). No one will need to teach his neighbor about God, for they will all know Him, “from the least of them to the greatest of them” (Jer 31:34). The period Jesus describes must be before that time, for they will have to contend with imposters.
He says that these deceivers will come in His Name. It could be that they come claiming to be sent by Christ or that they themselves are Christ. The parallel in Matthew 24:5 says that they come with the claim, “I am the Christ.” False Christs and prophets litter the last days (v. 22), and Jesus warns us to beware them (Mt 24:23, 24).
This warning has been vital for Christians throughout the years to avoid deception. After the destruction of the temple during the First Jewish-Roman War, Simon bar Kokhba lead a revolt against Rome in ad 132. This sparked the Second Jewish-Roman War, which lead to the final destruction of Jerusalem, the baring of Jews from the city, and his own death. More recently, David Koresh, leader of the Branch Davidians, claimed to be the Messiah. He was killed over twenty-five years ago in Waco, Texas. José Luis de Jesús, who was based in Miami, Florida before his 2013 death, claimed to be both the Second Coming of Christ and the Antichrist. Sporting a 666 tattoo, he claimed to have a two-million-member following in South America. There have been so many messianic claimants that there’s even a Wikipedia page chronicling them ().
Everyone of these men foreshadow the coming deceiver. In 1 John 2:18, we read, “Children, it is the last hour; and just as you heard that antichrist is coming, even now many antichrists have appeared; from this we know that it is the last hour.” Paul uses almost the same language as Jesus for the Antichrist (2 The 2:3–4; cf. Jn 10:3–5). When Jesus opens the first scroll in Revelation 6:1–2, we see this pretender ride forth with the false promise of peace. This is the one who speaks great boasts and will ultimately make war with the saints (cf. Dn 8:23, 11:36; 2 The 2:3; Rv 11:7; 13:1–10).
So, Christians have had to deal with imposters throughout the years—false teachers, false prophets, and false Christs. We all need to be on guard. Even so, this points forward to a coming time Jesus likens to a woman going into travail. When the labor pains of the tribulation starts, one final and ultimate false Christ will arise.
II. Jesus Warns of the Travail of Devastations (vv. 7–8)
“When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be frightened; those things must take place; but that is not yet the end. For nation will rise up against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be earthquakes in various places; there will also be famines. These things are merely the beginning of birth pangs.”
Not only must believers deal with falsehood, they must suffer much through warfare and “natural” disasters. These all occur within the sovereignty of God for His purposes. Let’s look at the first of these.
A. Desolation comes through war (7–8a).
Jesus says when you “hear of wars,” perhaps hearing battle, like we often hear the artillery of Fort Stewart here in Savannah. In other words, the battle lines are not far. He then speaks of rumors of war. This doesn’t mean whispered hints of a possible conflagration, or simple saber-rattling, but actual reports of battles beginning elsewhere.
He says, “Do not be frightened, those things must take place.” Man is sinful and bears the full weight of responsibility for his foolish and unjust acts that lead to war. Even so, we should never worry that God has lost control. He’s sovereign and controls the boundaries of nations, exercising sinless control over the events to bring about His desired end. In the past, He used wars for judgments on His people (e.g., Isa 10:28–34; Jer 24:10). Later, He allowed Grecian Empire and later the Roman Empire to rise, the apostles could spread the gospel over good roads to people speaking the same language. He allowed the horrors of World War II and the holocaust to win the Jews back their homeland in Israel.
Even so, Jesus says that is “not yet the end,” meaning the close of the age and His return (Mt 24:3). Sometimes, Christians will talk about reading the newspaper for prophetic significance with the Bible open, but that is the opposite of what Jesus says. He says that these newsworthy events are necessary and will continue until the close of the age, but they are not themselves indications that the end has come. In fact, in v. 19, He says there’s coming a time of “tribulation such as has not occurred since the beginning of the creation which God created until now, and never will.” All of the drama on the world stage that appears prophetic from time to time will pale in comparison to what is coming.
We can imagine the countless Christians who have struggled through the implications of warfare in their lifetimes, and war remains a constant reality. Again, though, this foreshadows coming events of greater intensity than the world has ever known. When Jesus breaks the second seal in Revelation 6:3–4, the second horseman of the apocalypse takes peace from the earth and warfare ensues.
Proving that the promise of peace from the first rider cannot hold, these nations will rise against one another. That unrest will mark the beginning of birth pangs and continue until the end. They will rise against Israel (cf. Dan 7:24; 9:27; 11:40–45; Zech 14:2–3), and the final battle will be Armageddon (Rv 16; 19).
B. Desolation comes through earthquakes (8b).
There are examples of earthquakes as judgment (e.g., Isa 13:13; 29:6; Nah 1:5–6). In Matthew 27:51, the earth shook in response to the crucifixion of our Lord. Indeed, there were several earthquakes of note in the first century. Of course, this has held true throughout the following centuries.
Again, nowhere does Scripture call Christians to engage in newspaper eschatology, counting the number of earthquakes and seeing if they might correspond to any news events. When God did this in ancient Israel in response to their sin, He always sent a prophet to let them know it wasn’t just a natural event. Jesus certainly doesn’t say that here.
He simply says there will be, not just earthquakes, but “great” ones (Lk 21:11). They start after the appearance of the false Christ and ensuing warfare. One is during the opening of the seals in Revelation 6:12–14, one large enough to affect the geography of every landmass on earth. Another will strike Jerusalem after God’s two witnesses are murdered, decimating the city and leaving 7,000 dead, none of which has not happened in history (Rv 11:13). Another earthquake with world-wide effects unrivaled in history will strike again in Revelation 16:18–20. All of these are the birth pangs marking the end.
C. Desolation comes through famine (8c).
Jesus also says that there will be famines in this verse. Again, there are examples of famines as judgment (e.g., Isa 14:30; Jer 11:22). And, again, there were plenty of famines in the first century, including one prophesied by Agabus (Acts 11:28). Christians have had to deal with these kinds of disasters as well, and they have often been times for the gospel to shine.
Like with the other events, this also points toward that time in Revelation. When the third and fourth horsemen ride, the result of the famine will be skyrocketing food costs and widespread death (Rv 6:5–6, 8). Death from the famine and other causes will result in the death of up to a quarter of the world’s population (v. 8).
If that were not all enough, Jesus gives one more description for us to consider.
III. Jesus Warns of the Travail of Persecutions (vv. 9–13)
“But be on your guard; for they will deliver you to the courts, and you will be flogged in the synagogues, and you will stand before governors and kings for My sake, as a testimony to them. The gospel must first be preached to all the nations. When they arrest you and hand you over, do not worry beforehand about what you are to say, but say whatever is given you in that hour; for it is not you who speak, but it is the Holy Spirit. Brother will betray brother to death, and a father his child; and children will rise up against parents and have them put to death. You will be hated by all because of My name, but the one who endures to the end, he will be saved.”
The second of four times He’s said to “watch” (cf. vv. 5, 9, 23, 33). In this case, Christians must watch their faith, ensuring that it is the quality to endure persecutions. In 1 Timothy 3:12, we read, “Indeed, all who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.” Health and wealth beliefs will fail a believer who undergoes such trials. A believer who doesn’t expect that suffering is part of this life may grow bitter with God when “punished” for doing “right.” We need to be richly filled with the Word of Christ (Col 3:16).
Jesus tells them to watch, and His use of “you” is the original is emphatic. Persecutions will come, and this is something that Christ’s disciples in the first century in particular will need to know. The same is true for believers throughout time, even in the time of tribulation; when Jesus opens the fifth seal, we see the results of tribulation persecution (Rev 6:9–11; see also 7:14–17). Still, persecution is necessary for the spread of the gospel, as we’ll see.
A. Persecution comes from Jews and Gentiles alike (v. 9).
Jesus tells His disciples they will face “counsels.” This literally means “sanhedrins,” the leadership of towns like the High Court of Jerusalem. The councils often met in synagogues, and the result of meetings in councils in synagogues is that they would be beaten. Councils could give forty strokes (Dt 25:1–3), but often administered thirty-nine (cf. 2 Cor 11:24). This became true immediately in the Christian church (Acts 4:21; 5:18, 40; 2 Cor 6:9; 11:23, 24).
So, Jesus is telling them that they will face Jewish inquisitions, but that is not all. He says that they will stand before governors and kings, Gentile designations at the time. We see early fulfillment of this in the Book of Acts (cf. Acts 12:1; 23:24; 24:27),
Jesus predicts that His disciples will do this “for My sake, as a testimony to them.” That brings us to the next point.
B. Persecution comes for the furtherance of the gospel (vv. 10–11).
Jesus’s words in the previous verse were clear, but He states the fact more explicitly here. “The gospel must first be preached to all the nations” (v. 10). In the next verse, Jesus assures us that the Holy Spirit will grant utterance, and then in v. 13, He again says this persecution is all for His name. As Tertullian famously said of persecution toward the end of the third century, “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.”
As we consider these points, we are also considering their future fulfillment, and v. 10 is interesting in that regard. In the parallel, Jesus said the end would not come until this has been fulfilled (Mt 24:14). Some would point to a number of verses that speak of the gospel going to all Gentile peoples, like Colossians 1:23, which says that “the gospel… was proclaimed in all creation under heaven.” Just because the gospel has gone to Jews and Gentiles in the first century doesn’t mean that the gospel stopped spreading, and it will continue until the end (which has not come yet!).
Christians down throughout the ages have continued to take the gospel to unreached areas throughout the years. Despite the opposition that may come, Christians are to continue in their gospel proclamation as much as possible. With every new tribe, language, and tongue that receives the gospel, this prophecy is one step closer to literal fulfillment.
Yet, even then, we are not in the end. After the opening of the seals, God elects and preserves 144,000 Jewish individuals to be saved and become gospel heralds (Rv 7:4–8; 14:1–5). Later, He will supernaturally empower His two prophets, just as He did with the prophets of old (Rv 11:1–13). After that, the supernatural proclamation of an angel flying through the heavens toward spreads the gospel to all the nations (Rv 14:6–8). Unless someone wants to make the argument that this was all fulfilled before ad 70, or at some other point between then and now, the work of gospel proclamation isn’t complete.
Still, Christ’s disciples need to steel themselves for the day of persecution so they will be ready to speak the gospel.
C. Persecution comes through betrayal (vv. 11a, 12).
In v. 11, Jesus says, “When they arrest you and hand you over.” The term, “hand you over” is the same term used to describe the betrayal of Christ. We can see that word fleshed out in v. 12, “Brother will betray brother to death, and a father his child; and children will rise up against parents and have them put to death.” There indeed was a partial fulfillment of this leading up to ad 70, where the desperate inhabitants of Jerusalem under the Roman siege engaged in all manner of wickedness.
We can see why Jesus says in Matthew 10:17, “But beware of men, for they will hand you over.” Here, in v. 13, Jesus says, “You will be hated by all”—Jew, Gentile, family, friends. The lost hate the gospel, and this will especially be true as the earth enters its final travail.
With all that said, we need a word of comfort, and our Lord gives it.
D. Persecution comes with God’s guidance (vv. 11b, 13)
Jesus tells His followers, “Do not worry beforehand about what you are to say, but say whatever is given you in that hour; for it is not you who speak, but it is the Holy Spirit.” He also says, “The one who endures to the end, he will be saved.”
These verses can be misunderstood and abused. First, remember that Jesus is talking about persecution for the sake of the gospel. I had to remind the men in the jail ministry that v. 11 doesn’t mean they should fire their lawyers and just believe that the Holy Spirit will give them words to say in the courtroom.
When Jesus will speak about the Holy Spirit, He’ll say, “When the Helper comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, that is the Spirit of truth who proceeds from the Father, He will testify about Me, and you will testify also, because you have been with Me from the beginning” (Jn 15:26–27). He goes on to say that one of the aspects of the Holy Spirit’s work is to glorify Christ (16:12–15). God the Spirit points us to the work of Christ, giving His ministers utterance and disclosing it to individual hearts and changing them for His sake.
As an example of this, speaking of his time in front of Emperor Nero, Paul writes, “But the Lord stood with me and strengthened me, so that through me the proclamation might be fully accomplished, and that all the Gentiles might hear; and I was rescued out of the lion’s mouth” (2 Tm 4:17). The Spirit’s words are right for the moment.
If the Spirit is able to so strengthen believers in times of persecution, then He can cause us to endure it until the end. In Romans 8:24–25, we read, “For in hope we have been saved, but hope that is seen is not hope; for who hopes for what he already sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, with perseverance we wait eagerly for it.” Later, we read that nothing, including tribulation, can separate us from the love of God (vv. 35–38). This means that salvation doesn’t come through an individual’s endurance of trials, but that an individual endures because of the Spirit’s work in life. Indeed, in the time of tribulation, this salvation is also wrought because God shortens the days (vv. 19–20).
This is why Jesus said we do not need to be afraid. He can protect us from all these travails, including persecution, if He so chooses. If He does call on us to testify of Him before a hostile audience, we know that He will give us the strength we need for the moment, keeping our faith from faltering. We don’t need to fear. We have hope that, despite what the Lord brings, He can carry us through.
Even though good Christians will disagree as to the meaning of this passage, there are good reasons to believe it refers to the future. The very imagery of “birth pangs” signal a closeness to Christ’s return. The text says that these events will be unlike any other point in human history, a fact which must make the events of the first century pale in comparison. Since the gospel must still be preached to all the nations, and no supernatural events have accompanied it in history, we have to assume that this still looks to the future. Finally, given the impeccable correspondence to Revelation, it seems that we are still awaiting the fulfillment of Jesus’s words here.
Indeed, there is still much more to talk about in this chapter. We’ll find the rest of the text corresponding with the latter half of the Tribulation period. We’ll discuss that next time, if the Lord wills and tarries.