We come today to Mark 13, also known as the Olivet Discourse, which is one of the most dificult passages to interpret in the entire canon of Scripture. This chapter, in which Jesus promises His coming within a generation, has been the focus of much debate (vv. 30–31). Since two thousand years have passed since Christ gave the address in Mark 13, a far longer period than a generation, opponents of Christianity often say the chapter proves that Jesus should not be trusted as a prophet. On the other hand, many Christians share with such critics the belief that Mark 13 prophesies Jesus' return to consummate His kingdom, but they argue that certain aspects of the chapter mean that Jesus was not speaking of His own present generation; rather, He referred to a generation that was yet to come. Thus, they argue, Jesus' prophecy has not failed; it just has not been fulfilled yet and we are waiting to see the predicted events unfold.
As we will see, there are various reasons to believe that both the critical and wholly future interpretations of Mark 13 are incorrect. Jesus clearly predicts the future in Mark 13, so the text must be seen as a prophecy. Yet prophecies in Scripture, even if they have future reference, have a meaning that would be clearly understood by their original audience. To put all fulfillment of this text into the far-off future would mean that Peter, James, Andrew, and John (v. 3), the first hearers of this speech, could find little relevance in the passage for their own day. So, the critical view is right in saying that Mark 13 refers to events within the lifetime of the Apostles. However, it is wrong in saying that the passage is not about the far-off future at all, that Jesus' failure to return to consummate His kingdom in the first century disproves His claims. As we see throughout Scripture, prophecies that pertain to near-term events usually have a typological significance that points beyond the immediate context. Because God works in similar ways across history, later events may fulfill in a greater way what came before, repeating or alluding to earlier events in a manner that has greater significance.
It seems best, therefore, to read Mark 13 as a prophecy of nearterm first-century events that typify the final judgment at the end of history. The stage is set with Jesus' reference to the destruction of the Jerusalem temple in AD 70 (vv. 1–2), showing that the chapter is about the temple and city's fall to the Romans.
Difficult passages such as Mark 13 show us that we need to be careful when we read and interpret the Bible. Particularly with difficult passages, we must not jump to conclusions hastily, but we must think about the text thoroughly so as to avoid coming to the wrong idea about a passage. Let us study diligently, pray for God's help in interpreting the Bible, and examine how other texts interpret the harder ones.