In Mark 13, Jesus teaches his disciples about the calamities and catastrophes that will characterize life in the present age. He gives them practical counsel for dealing with disaster, and this passage provides us with wisdom for responding to a pandemic.
First, some context. In Mark 11:1-11, Jesus entered the Jerusalem temple, examined it, and left to return to Bethany. The next day, on his way back to the temple, Jesus cursed a fig tree (11:12-26). That symbolic action represents what unfolds in the rest of chapters 11-12 as Jesus delivers God’s judgment on the temple because of its corrupted leaders. It has become an idolatrous and oppressive institution that will be destroyed.
The disciples “heard” Jesus curse the fig tree (11:14), and they later “saw” that it had withered (11:20). The problem, however, is that they did not understand.
It was hard for them to believe that the temple would be destroyed. It was a massive and beautiful complex of buildings. It had enjoyed the blessing of God’s presence and there were psalms that celebrated God’s protection of it. If there was anything safe and secure in this world, surely it was God’s very own house!
As Mark 13 opens, one of the disciples reveals his illusions and misconceptions, “Look, Teacher! What massive stones! What magnificent buildings!” (v. 1). Rather than listening to Jesus’ declaration of judgment, the disciple is in awe of the impressive institution.
Jesus responds in v. 2: “Do you see all these great buildings? Not one stone here will be left on another; every one will be thrown down.”
He goes on to say that the temple will be destroyed in an awful calamity and that the present age will be filled with wars, the rise and fall of nations, earthquakes, famine, and death. And the catastrophes and ongoing destruction will even consume Christian disciples.
But there are specific ways that followers of Jesus are to respond.
First, do not be deceived by false promises of divine protection. In vv. 5 and 22-23, Jesus twice exhorts the disciples to be on guard against assurances that God will protect the city from disaster.
He says that some will claim to be the Christ and others will promise safety “in my name.” This expression recalls passages from the prophets in which God had declared judgment on the temple. False prophets were claiming that God would protect them from the disasters of war and famine.
Then the Lord said to me, “The prophets are prophesying lies in my name. I have not sent them or appointed them or spoken to them. They are prophesying to you false visions, divinations, idolatries and the delusions of their own minds. Therefore this is what the Lord says about the prophets who are prophesying in my name: I did not send them, yet they are saying, ‘No sword or famine will touch this land.’ Those same prophets will perish by sword and famine (Jer 14:14-15).
In the midst of this pandemic, we should likewise be on guard against false promises of divine protection. God has given us no such guarantees. Those who claim otherwise in the name of Jesus are like the false prophets of Jeremiah’s day.
The ideology of American exceptionalism has trained many of us to assume that our nation has a unique relationship with God and that we enjoy his protection. This is an idolatrous lie. If the city that God chose for his temple was destroyed, then no city, nation, mega-church, or Christian institution has any assurance that it is safe from catastrophe.
Second, do not speculate about the end times. Jesus mentions that Jerusalem’s destruction is not the end of the age, though it might feel like it (v. 7). The current age will be an unfolding series of disasters, but none of these are signs of the return of the Son of Man. That is a separate event, and Jesus describes that in vv. 24-27.
Calamities throughout history are preceded by signs, like the threats and saber-rattling in the run-up to wars. Disciples ought to read these signs and discern how to take wise action. But there will be no sign for when the Son of Man returns to judge and to save, and Christians should not look out for any indications of when this might take place. No one can know when this will happen, and not even Jesus knows (v. 32).
When he returns, creation will respond with convulsions (vv. 24-25). But creation’s upheavals are not signs that he is on his way. They will happen because he has already arrived.
During a pandemic, Christians may speculate as to what God is up to, wondering even about whether or not this is the end. Jesus specifically warns against this.
Third, take wise action. Jesus says in vv. 14-18 that the city’s destruction will be so awful that people in Judea should be prepared to flee. They should not attempt to gather their belongings. It will be especially difficult for pregnant women and he tells them to pray that the city’s destruction does not happen in winter.
In the midst of the current pandemic, we are being told to stay home and avoid large gatherings. Some Christians are minimizing the threat that experts warn us about and continue to gather and pressure officials to allow businesses to open.
Such responses are foolish and go directly against what Jesus says to do. Catastrophes lead to the loss of human life and Jesus instructs us to take action to avoid this.
Fourth, look out for the poor and the needy. Throughout Mark 13, Jesus exhorts the disciples to “watch out,” “be on guard,” and “be alert.” They must avoid falling asleep (v. 36).
He repeats these exhortations when he goes to pray in Gethsemane (14:32-42). He wants his disciples to be prepared to respond in a cross-shaped manner when he is arrested.
Jesus knows that this climactic moment will cause them to give in to their impulse for self-protection and to flee. If they pray like Jesus does, they will respond like him. But the fell asleep and so were not alert and prepared when Jesus was arrested, and they fled.
Being alert means living in the shape of the cross, and in Mark that means serving the poor and offering hospitality to the marginalized.
Calamities activate our self-protective impulse, and that draws us away from cross-shaped living. We will be tempted to hoard our money and possessions. We can resist this by considering how we can look after ourselves and our loved ones, while also remembering that there are many others who are needy and desperate. Churches that are not asleep, but awake to Jesus’ call on our lives will consider how to provide help.
Fifth, hope in the resurrection and in the kingdom of God. Jesus promises that everyone who loses their life in this age for his sake will gain it in the age to come.
Large-scale disasters incite fear and anxiety, but Jesus exhorts us not to be alarmed (v. 7). It is certainly sobering, but we are wise to remember that we have no assurances in this world, either that we will escape disaster or be preserved through catastrophe. We are assured that if we endure in the way of Jesus we will be raised from the dead and enter the life of his kingdom.
That is our hope.