Early in the twenty-first century, a group of people predicted a date for the end of the world. Basing their claim on the last date recorded on the Mayan calendar, they determined the earth would run its course by December 21, 2012. Of course, it didn’t, and believers in the theory were able to sigh in relief—and probably in a little embarrassment.
It might be tempting to look on such errors with ridicule. But the truth is that even professing Christians throughout history have claimed to possess similar insights. Whether under the guise of unbiblical prediction or prophetic interpretation, such men and women undermine Jesus’ own words on the matter: “Concerning that day or that hour, no one knows” (Mark 13:32).
Yet while false predictions abound, we shouldn’t let them deter us from affirming what the Bible does declare about our world’s end. The fact of Jesus’ return is a clear, biblical truth. It’s a cornerstone of Christian doctrine. In the Upper Room Discourse, Jesus told His disciples,
Let not your hearts be troubled. Believe in God; believe also in me. In my Father’s house are many rooms. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also. (John 14:1–3)
Immediately following His ascension into heaven, two angels reiterated Jesus’ teaching, saying, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into heaven? This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven” (Acts 1:11). Clearly, then, the promise of Christ’s return is something that His followers are encouraged not only to believe in but also to anticipate.
Jesus’ return is a cornerstone of Christian doctrine.
One of the most famous passages dealing with the events surrounding Jesus’ return is the Olivet Discourse, which appears in all three of the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew 24–25; Mark 13; Luke 21). Unable to conceive of a time without the temple in Jerusalem (Mark 13:1–2), the disciples tried to reconcile Jesus’ words concerning its destruction and the end of the age, asking, “When will these things be, and what will be the sign when all these things are about to be accomplished?” (v. 4). In a kind of telescoping fashion, in which Jesus collated these two events, Jesus responded with a series of three instructions (vv. 5–13). Just as this teaching offered clarity to His first-century followers, it continues to shape how we ought to live in light of Christ’s imminent return.
“See That No One Leads You Astray”
In His reply to the disciples, Jesus began with a sobering truth: some of His followers would be led astray by deceptive teachers and false Christians (Mark 13:5–6). Indeed, Roman and Jewish historians record the existence of all kinds of charlatans during this period. And we know by experience that that deception persists into our day too. Every generation must contend for the faith in the face of those who mismanage Jesus’ words or portray themselves as messiah-like figures. It’s these types of people who will “lead many astray” (v. 6).
Aware of this danger, we can do certain things to keep us from straying. We lean into the means of grace: reading the Bible, praying, worshipping with God’s people, enjoying the sacraments, embracing church discipline when needed, etc. When we attend upon these graces, we become beneficiaries of the strength God provides. As one coal taken out of the fire will quickly burn out, so neglecting even one of these gifts of the Lord to His church can threaten our perseverance.
“Do Not Be Alarmed”
Continuing in verses 7–8, Jesus spoke of the political conflict and natural disasters that are sure to come, not only in the disciples’ time but also well after it. Yet in the face of these concerning phenomena Jesus said, “Do not be alarmed. This must take place, but the end is not yet” (v. 7). The disciples would encounter tribulation, but they weren’t to think of it as a sure indication of the end. No one knows that day or hour (v. 32).
As such, we should be leery of any hermeneutic that ties specific political or natural events to the sure return of Christ. These disturbances will be part and parcel of our experience between Jesus’ first and second coming. Rather than predicting the time of the end, we should be concerned more with preparing our hearts to meet Christ at the end—whenever that may be (Mark 13:33–37).
Every generation must contend for the faith in the face of those who mismanage Jesus’ words.
Jesus described such unrest as “but the beginning of the birth pains” (v. 8). This is a helpful metaphor in two senses. First, it helps us understand the ambiguous nature of the timing surrounding the end. Though she has a due date, a pregnant woman doesn’t know exactly when she’s going to give birth. It may be a few days before or a few days after the predicted date, and she may even experience birth pains some time before delivering the baby. Second, the imagery speaks to the process whereby our desire for deliverance and fulfillment will be met. It’s through the painful process of childbirth that a woman enjoys the blessing of her newborn. And so, as it is with birth pains, we don’t know exactly when Christ will come again—but we have in them a guarantee of our present longing for salvation being met in His future return.
“Be On Your Guard”
The third instruction Jesus gave is in verse 9: “Be on your guard.” Having already told His disciples to expect political conflicts and natural disasters, He now spoke in personal terms, warning them of the suffering they would endure for His sake (vv. 9, 13). It’s not that His disciples would be disruptive in the culture, protesting in the streets. No, they’d be hated simply because of their association with God’s Son—hated by the Jews because they believed Jesus to be the Messiah and hated by gentiles because of their allegiance to Jesus as Lord. But as Jesus predicted and as the events of Acts confirmed, the apostles’ suffering also afforded them the opportunity to share the Gospel far and wide (v. 11).
We have a guarantee of our present longing for salvation being met in the future return of Christ.
Sandwiched between verses 9 and 11 is a perplexing but important statement: “The gospel must first be proclaimed to all nations” (v. 10). In context, it seems that Jesus has in mind the rapid expanse of the Gospel beyond ethnic lines and to all people without distinction. No longer would people encounter God in the Jerusalem temple. Instead, His people would be the very dwelling place for God, the people through whom the Gospel would be proclaimed (vv. 1–2).
We should be encouraged with this truth, for it speaks to the fact that God, in His patience, allows His voice to reach the ends of the earth so that all the nations of the world will have the opportunity to hear the Gospel. God’s people will endure suffering to the end, but we can be confident in the steady expanse of God’s kingdom until that day comes.
The discourse thus concludes with a juxtaposition of two realities for God’s people: trial for the sake of the Gospel and triumph for those who endure to the end (vv. 12–13). It’s true that familial relationships that tie men and women together will eventually be broken down under the Gospel’s impact (v. 12). But it’s also true—and the believer’s sure hope—that “the one who endures to the end will be saved,” receiving the crown of life (v. 13; Rev. 2:10).
Enduring to the End
The three instructions our Lord gave all have a bearing on whether we’ll endure to the end. If we’re led astray, we won’t endure. If we’re alarmed, we may become unsettled and fall away. And if we let our guards down against the realities of persecution, when it comes, we won’t continue to the end. Consequently, it’s imperative that we be doers of the Word, not hearers only (James 1:22).
We know that we must endure—but how can we endure? Simply, we endure by enduring—by striving with all of Christ’s strength in us (Col. 1:29). Jude writes, “Keep yourselves in the love of God, waiting for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ that leads to eternal life” (Jude 21).
We could say it this way: the one who is kept keeps. And if he’s not kept, he doesn’t keep. Those of us who are in Christ can have confidence that we’ll endure, for the ground of our salvation is in what Christ has accomplished. By His first advent, He has come and dealt with our sin. And the triumph of Christ’s first advent will be fully realized at His return.