The Deception of Many (13:4–6)
Having crossed the Kidron Valley and ascended the Mount of Olives, Jesus and the disciples looked back at the temple complex. As Jesus was sitting on the Mount of Olives opposite the temple, Peter and James and John and Andrew were questioning Him privately. These two sets of brothers comprised the innermost circle of Jesus’ disciples. Having heard prophecy of the temple’s destruction, they were eager to learn more about what the future held. Hence, they asked Him, “Tell us, when will these things be, and what will be the sign when all these things are going to be fulfilled?” According to the parallel passage in Matthew 24:3, their full question was, “Tell us, when will these things happen, and what will be the sign of Your coming, and of the end of the age?” As Matthew’s account indicates, their question was bigger than just an inquiry into the coming ruination and carnage at the temple. They wanted to know about the end of the present age.
As noted above, the disciples (like other first-century Jews) envisioned only a single coming of the Messiah. But God intended the Messiah to come twice—once as the Suffering Servant (cf. Isa. 53:1–12) and again as the conquering King (cf. Rev. 19:11–19)—with an extended period of time elapsing between His two advents. In order to help them understand that reality, Jesus gave His disciples a detailed reply to their question. In fact, the response found in Mark 13 (and the parallel passages in Matt. 24–25 and Luke 21) constitutes the longest recorded answer given by Jesus to any question He was asked. Clearly, the Lord intended it as vitally important truth for His followers to grasp.
Verse 5 marks the actual beginning of the Olivet Discourse, in which Jesus explained what would take place throughout the world, with a particular emphasis on those events that will immediately precede His return to earth. Having already predicted the imminent demolition of the temple and its operations (v. 2), Jesus shifted His focus to the distant future in verses 5–37. Some interpreters (who deny that there will be a future earthly kingdom) insist that everything Jesus foretold in the Olivet Discourse was fulfilled in a.d. 70, around the time of the temple’s destruction. But such a concept is untenable for a number of reasons. First, the fact that Jesus used the figure of birth pangs (13:8; cf. 1 Thess. 5:3) indicates that He was speaking about the end of the church age, not the beginning. After all, labor pains do not occur throughout the entire pregnancy but only at the end. Since the destruction of the temple occurred early in church history, the figure of birth pangs could not apply to that event. Second, the Lord indicated that “the gospel must first be preached to all the nations” (v. 10), something that clearly had not occurred by a.d. 70. Third, Jesus spoke about the “Abomination of Desolation” (v. 14), the ultimate desecration of the Antichrist in the temple during a period just before the second coming (cf. Dan. 9:27; 11:31; 2 Thess. 2:4; for further details see, John MacArthur, The Second Coming [Wheaton: Crossway, 2006]). That event did not take place in a.d. 70, and in fact has not yet occurred. Fourth, the Lord also spoke of “a time of tribulation such as has not occurred since the beginning of the creation which God created until now, and never will” (v. 19). Those words cannot refer to the destruction in a.d. 70, since they speak of a time when the calamity on earth will be worse than it has ever been in all of human history, even during the time of the flood (cf. v. 20; cf. Matt. 24:38). Finally, Jesus identified heavenly signs that would accompany the end of the age, including the darkening of the sun and moon, and the falling of the stars from heaven (vv. 24–25). Obviously, such cosmic catastrophes have not yet taken place. When they do, Jesus warned that those alive at that time should recognize that He is about to return (v. 29). As He explained, the generation that experiences those end-time events will be the same generation that is alive at the second coming (v. 30), meaning that all of the final cataclysms on earth will occur within the span of a single generation. Since nothing remotely like a global and cosmic upheaval of the magnitude described in the Olivet Discourse occurred in a.d. 70 nor yet in earth’s history, the specific fulfillment of these universal judgments must still be future.
In answer to the disciples’ question, the Lord delineated some specific birth pangs, or warning signs, that would precede His return. First, as Jesus began to explain to them, the world will be subjected to relentless deception by spiritual frauds. He told them, “See to it that no one misleads you. Many will come in My name, saying, ‘I am He!’ and will mislead many.” The imperative see translates a form of the Greek word blepō. In this context, it means more than merely “to see” but carries the sense of “beware” or “take heed.” In verses 22–23, Jesus repeated the same warning: “For false Christs and false prophets will arise, and will show signs and wonders, in order to lead astray, if possible, the elect. But take heed; behold, I have told you everything in advance.” Jesus’ followers were to watch out for false teachers (cf. 2 Tim. 3:13; 2 Peter 2:1–3; 1 John 4:1–3), so that they would not be misled. Though there have been many counterfeit messiahs and false prophets throughout history, both before and after the time of Christ, their numbers will vastly increase at the end of the age. Their work of deception foreshadows that of the ultimate false teacher who will be revealed during the time of the tribulation—the Antichrist (cf. Dan. 8:23; 11:36; 2 Thess. 2:3; Rev. 11:7; 13:1–10). Though he will mislead many (cf. 2 Thess. 2:3–4), even the Antichrist will be unable to deceive the elect (cf. John 10:3–5).
5–6 The first word of the discourse proper is blepete (“watch”). This word recurs throughout the passage (cf. vv. 9, 23, 33)—a clear indication that admonition is Jesus’ main concern. He begins by warning the disciples against false claimants to messiahship. This is apparently what “in my name” and “I am he” (i.e., the Messiah) refer to (v. 6). That Jesus said there would be many such false messiahs suggests that his statement should be understood broadly to refer to various kinds of “messianic” figures. Eschatological expectations were high in first-century Palestine, and at various times individuals claiming to be God’s agent of deliverance gained prominence. In Acts 5, the rabbi Gamaliel speaks of two such messianic pretenders: Theudas, who “claimed to be somebody” (a messiah?), and Judas the Galilean, who led a tax revolt against the Romans (5:36–37). Similarly, in Acts 21:38 Paul is suspected by the commander of the Roman temple guard of being a certain Egyptian who led four thousand Jews to the Mount of Olives in a messianic action. Josephus (J.W. 2.13.4–6 §§258–65; cf. J.W. 6.5.4 §§312–13) describes some of these prophetic and messianic figures and more. In one account he relates how a group of “wicked men” deceived the people by claiming divine inspiration and leading them into the wilderness to await a sign of God’s deliverance. The procurator Felix responded by sending troops to destroy and disperse them. Writing in the wake of the destruction of Jerusalem, Josephus takes a pro-Roman view and describes these messianic figures as dangerous brigands whose actions were disastrous for the Jewish nation. Beasley-Murray (Commentary on Mark Thirteen, 31) speaks of the situation in Palestine before AD 70 when he writes, “Whereas the popular messianism hardly ever produced a claimant to the messianic office in the strictest sense, it both fostered and was nourished by men who asserted the possession of messianic authority or who regarded themselves as forerunners of the Kingdom.”
5–6 Jesus’ response forms an extended prophecy designed to prepare his followers for the period of distress which must precede the coming of the Son of Man. The reply provides an answer to the question of verse 4 concerning the destruction of the Temple. At the same time it serves to bring this incident within the perspective of the events which are preliminary to the end of time. The purpose of this first section of the discourse is to discourage a false sense of imminence and to urge vigilance in the turmoil and stress which precedes the catastrophe overtaking Jerusalem. The primary element in Jesus’ counsel is exhortation motivated by deep pastoral concern for his people. In solemnly warning the disciples about the danger of deception by false prophets or by a misreading of the significance of contemporary events, Jesus stood in the main line of the prophetic tradition. The formulation of his prophecy has been strongly influenced by the language of the OT, which furnishes parallels to nearly every phrase in this section.
The admonition “take heed” introduces a call to vigilance which is sounded throughout the chapter, appearing again in verses 9, 23 and 33. In verse 5 it is prompted by the ever present danger that the people of God may be led astray by false leaders who appear in a situation of crisis. In the OT it is the false prophets who lead Israel astray (e.g. Jer. 23:13, 32; 29:8f.), and this understanding of verse 6 is reflected in the Old Latin MS k, which reads “for many false prophets (pseudoprophetae) shall come in my name and say I am he.” The Greek text, however, is not as clear as this. The interpretation of the peril that is seen depends upon the nuance expressed in the related phrases “in my name” and “I am he.” The first phrase was a technical expression designating an appointed emissary or representative (see on Ch. 9:37, 39) and would ordinarily mean “claiming to be sent by me.” Its close association with the ambiguous “I am he,” however, points in another direction. In the Semitic world the “name” of a person denotes his dignity and power. Understood in this manner, “in my name” signifies “arrogating to themselves the title and authority which properly belong to me.”42 The enigmatic phrase “I am he” is intelligible in this light. As used by Jesus, these words have been generally understood to constitute a claim of dignity which finds its significance in God’s own self-designation. The deceivers will claim this dignity for themselves. Thus Jesus cautions his disciples that men will emerge in the crisis who will falsely claim to have the theophanic name and power of the Messiah and they will lead many astray.44 Their intention will be to lead men to believe that the time of vigilance is past.
The reference in verse 6 is to be understood primarily in terms of the messianic pretenders who throughout the first century won momentary support from segments of the Jewish population by the promise to provide the tokens of redemption that would validate their claims. A succession of false messiahs appeared and gathered followers, but the movements which took their impetus from them were dissipated with their capture and death. They represented a misplacement of hope that could only yield deception and disaster.
13:5 / Watch out that no one deceives you: The verb here for “deceive” appears also in v. 6 and in v. 22 in a more intensive form in the Greek, showing that the concern about deception is a major theme of the passage.
13:6 / In my name can describe someone who is a follower of Jesus (cf. the same or similar constructions in 9:37–41; 13:13); but the people referred to in the present verse are said to claim I am he—perhaps implying that they claim to be the Christ. It is also possible that their claim is an allusion to the divine name for God (cf. discussion and notes on 6:50) and amounts to an assertion of their own divinity!
13:5 Watch out. This is the first of many warnings to “beware” (vv. 9, 23, 33), calling for spiritual vigilance in a dangerous situation. In this discourse (vv. 5–6, 21–23), the “deceivers” are false messiahs (Christ’s day) and false teachers (Mark’s day) who lead the people into “stumbling” (9:42) or spiritual apostasy.
13:6 Many will come in my name. The first false sign of the end is the presence of false Messiahs and the lies that they proclaim. In the first century there were many false, self-proclaimed messiahs (note Theudas and Judas the Galilean in Acts 5:36–37, and many others in Josephus, J.W. 2:261–63, 433–56; 6.285–87; 7.437–39), and in the early church false teachers (the “many antichrists” in 1 John 2:18) often led people into dangerous heresies. “In my name” means not that they will claim to be Jesus himself but rather that they will seek to take his messianic office as their own. In 2 Thessalonians 2:3 this becomes the great “apostasy” (apostasia) that heralds the end of history.
|God’s Wrath against an Apostate People
Throughout the Old Testament God first warned and then carried out curses upon the nation when it fell into apostasy (see Deut. 28:15–68). The wilderness generation wandered in the desert for forty years and then died without entering the promised land (Ps. 95:7–11). In the book of Judges the people of Israel were delivered over to the Philistines and enslaved again and again as they turned away from God. The Assyrian and Babylonian exiles were the direct result of apostasy in the land. In all these instances God was working redemptively to bring them back to himself, and that is the case with the destruction of Jerusalem as well. The turn to the Gentiles was intended to make Israel jealous and to bring a “remnant” back to God (Rom. 11:1–24). God’s discipline is redemptive at the heart, but there is a time when people have gone beyond the pale, and then God’s wrath is the only answer. There is also a punitive side to the work of the holy God, who is a God of justice as well as of love and mercy. The events of AD 68–70 are, in a sense, the covenant curses falling upon a nation that has abandoned God and rejected his Son (see Mark 12:1–9).
13:5. A more detailed account of what Jesus said to the disciples can be found in the parallel passages in Matthew 24–25 and Luke 21. For instance, Luke’s emphasis with the Olivet Discourse centers on the fall of Jerusalem and the captivity of the Jews and domination of the city by the Gentiles. Mark emphasizes the danger to faith that will arise in the time that follows Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection. In fact, Jesus started by saying, Watch out that no one deceives you. At least three times Jesus warned his disciples to “watch out” or “be on your guard” (vv. 5, 23, 33). In other words, “Do not be caught napping. Live life in alertness and awareness.”
13:6. Jesus began to answer the disciples’ questions by pointing out certain “non-signs.” These are signs that have deceived people throughout time. The first of the non-signs Jesus pointed out are claims of others to be the returning Messiah. Jesus taught that popular religious leaders will claim to be the Messiah and have solutions for the problems of life. Jesus warned his disciples not to be deceived by these imposters.
Over eight hundred people lost their lives by following the command to drink poisoned Kool-Aid from Jim Jones, in Jonestown, Guyana. Many people were killed in a fire that destroyed their compound in Waco, Texas, because of following David Koresh, who claimed he was the Messiah. Finally, over thirty suicides took place in Los Angeles, California, among a group called Heaven’s Gate because they followed a leader who claimed to know when God was returning. These people were barren in their souls. Their thirst for meaning and purpose caused them to follow these so-called Messiahs. Jesus warned us not to be deceived by such false prophets as these.
 MacArthur, J. (2015). Mark 9–16 (pp. 229–232). Chicago, IL: Moody Publishers.
 Wessel, W. W., & Strauss, M. L. (2010). Mark. In T. Longman III & D. E. Garland (Eds.), The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Matthew–Mark (Revised Edition) (Vol. 9, pp. 919–920). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.
 Lane, W. L. (1974). The Gospel of Mark (pp. 456–457). Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.
 Hurtado, L. W. (2011). Mark (p. 218). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books.
 Osborne, G. R. (2014). Mark. (M. L. Strauss & J. H. Walton, Eds.) (pp. 231–232). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books.
 Cooper, R. L. (2000). Mark (Vol. 2, p. 217). Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman Publishers.