It’s (not) the end of the world...
This week I was due to preach on Mark 13, but for various reasons it didn’t happen. Instead, I thought I’d write a blog post using the material I gathered as part of my studying for the sermon.
Be on your guard
Jesus’ teaching in Mark 13 was given in the days leading up to his arrest. Every day he was in the Jerusalem temple teaching the crowds. One day they were leaving (v1) and the disciples were – I think understandably – impressed with the huge stone structure. The modern equivalent might be a huge cathedral with a vaulted ceiling, or an enormous skyscraper.
But Jesus put a bit of a downer on their excitement: ‘Not one stone here will be left on another; every one will be thrown down’ (v2). That sparked a much longer conversation, as the incredulous disciples asked him later (v4), ‘When will these things happen, and what will be the sign?’
I think understandably, they wanted to know when it was going to happen, so they could make sure they were far away!
As Jesus’ response showed, that was the right attitude to have: ‘How dreadful it will be in those days for pregnant women and nursing mothers... pray that this will not take place during winter’ (v17-18).
But he also told them they would not be able to avoid the trouble that was on its way: there will be deceivers (v6, v21-22), alarming rumours (v7-8), they will be arrested and beaten (v9-11), betrayed even by their own families (v12) and hated by ‘everyone’ (v13). It’s a pretty bleak picture, but as we know from Acts and later history, entirely true.
Why did Jesus tell them all this? As the saying goes, ‘forewarned is forearmed’ – he wanted them to be ready. ‘Watch out’ (v5), he said, ‘do not be alarmed’ (v7), ‘be on your guard’ (v9 & 23), ‘do not worry’ (v11). Knowing what was to come, his disciples wouldn’t be surprised when things start to go a bit Pete Tong – and they wouldn’t lose confidence in Jesus.
‘Such things must happen,’ Jesus said,’but the end is still to come’ (v7). And, ‘the one who stands firm to the end will be saved’ (v13). In other words, it will get really bad, but never so bad that I can’t bring you through to the other side. He doesn’t promise it’ll be easy, but he does promise that no matter what the world throws at us, it will never be enough to shake us out of his hands.
This is exactly what ‘apocalyptic’ literature in the Bible is intended to do: to reassure God’s people that no matter what happens, God has not abandoned them, not is he unable to bring them safely through trouble to the other side. The word ‘apocalyptic’ means ‘lifting the veil’ on normally hidden spiritual realities – as much about present spiritual realities as the future.
The question that has long vexed interpreters is this: what exactly is Jesus talking about here? The context suggests he is talking about the destruction of the Jerusalem temple – which happened in AD70 (on 30 August, if you’re interested). The siege lasted nearly five months, and was horrendous for the Jewish people inside the city – so perhaps Jesus’ warnings in v14-19 were to tell people to escape the advancing Roman army?
But that doesn’t make sense of v14, because, if the ‘abomination that causes desolation’ was the Roman soldiers desecrating the temple with their standards and emperor-worship, that didn’t happen until after the siege was ended, so is hardly an appropriate warning!
And, in v24-27 Jesus is quite clearly talking about the end of days, when ‘angels’ will ‘gather the elect’ after ‘the Son of Man’ comes ‘in clouds with great power and glory’. That has quite clearly not happened yet, so maybe the whole passage is about the end times. But then, how can we understand Jesus saying (v30), ‘this generation will not pass away until all these things have happened’? Trying to mis-translate genea as ‘race’ instead of ‘generation’ won’t get us out of this particular hole... especially as Jesus says (v32) that he doesn’t know the day or the hour this will happen!
To get a handle on all this we need to head into the Old Testament, to the book of Daniel.
The phrase ‘abomination that causes desolation’ was not new in Jesus’ teaching; it comes from what we know as Daniel 12. There it seems to be referring to Antiochus IV of the Seleucid Empire, in around 167BC (he nicknamed himself ‘Epiphanes’ which means ‘God made manifest’). He spent years attacking Israel, including outlawing Jewish worship and culture (even to the point of forcing them to eat pig flesh). He set up an altar to Zeus in the temple, and slaughtered those who refused to worship him.
However, as Dale Ralph Davis points out in his commentary on Daniel (BST), Antiochus wasn’t quite as Daniel’s vision suggests (p156). Antiochus fits much of Daniel’s vision, but not all. So perhaps something else is going on – in both Daniel 12 and Mark 13.
Davis suggests that Antiochus is a ‘type’ or ‘scale model’ or ‘foreshadowing’ of a future king who will be the final enemy of God’s people (p158). If he is correct, the ‘abomination that causes desolation’ in Mark 13 is another ‘type’ or ‘scale model’ or ‘foreshadowing’ of that same final enemy.
And I would want to expand that way of reading Mark 13.14 to the rest of the chapter; prophecy in the Bible often works like that, with multiple fulfilments, each building towards and foreshadowing the final fulfilment. That means Jesus is talking at the same time about the destruction of Jerusalem and the final days to which the desecration of the temple and the destruction of Jerusalem point.
So Jesus was talking at the same time to the generation who would see the destruction of the temple and to the generation who will one day see the final days and to the generations in between who will experience trouble and hardship which, like the destruction of the temple in AD70, foreshadow those final days.
Many people have tried to identify people as the ‘antichrist’, from the Pope to Adolf Hitler. But frankly that is a waste of time, and completely misses the point of what Jesus was teaching his disciples (and us).
‘You do not know when that time will come,’ Jesus says (v33), ‘So be on guard! Be alert!’ Don’t worry about when it’s going to happen, or even about what is going to happen, because God is bigger than all of this.
Instead, Jesus says (v37), ‘What I say to you, I say to everyone: “Watch!”’
Jesus has warned us in advance, so we know what is to come, to keep our faith firm in the only one who can carry us safely to the end. He has ‘lifted the veil’ on what’s happening behind the scenes now and in times to come: evil crashes against good, but will ultimately fail.
So, keep watch, and do not worry.