As a follow up to my suggestions about Jesus’ “End of the World” discourse in Matthew 24, I offer today a reflection by New Testament Professor Tim Gombis on Mark’s version of this teaching by Jesus. Enjoy!
By timgombis (http://timgombis.com/)
*Originally given at Midtown Christian Community, October 9, 2010.
I’ve always been deathly afraid of passages like Mark 13. I grew up in an evangelical culture that would read passages like Mark 13 as wild and woolly predictions of end-times cataclysms, assigning biblical significance to contemporary events. Back in the 1980’s, the big fear was the Soviet Union and of course we all knew that America enjoyed Most Favored Nation status with God, so in some way biblical prophecies of gloom and doom were involved in current international relations. “This passage right here in Revelation has to do with the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty; and this one in Matthew probably refers to Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative.”
Such interpretive moves never sat well with me. Why would Jesus be talking to a bunch of illiterate fisherman about global politics 2,000 years down the road, and why would the Apostle John be concerned with Cold War stand-offs when writing words of comfort to the churches of Asia Minor?
I didn’t really have answers to all this, but when I come across passages like ours for this evening, I start to get really nervous and agitated and would just rather not deal with them at all. Perhaps Don feels the same way and so he dumped Mark 13 in my lap so he didn’t have to talk about helicopters with the heads of grasshoppers and armies of locusts coming west from Siberia to begin a world takeover.
What brought me a measure of comfort was the fact that the disciples ask Jesus the same question that many would have asked in the church where I grew up. “This is all so fascinating, Jesus, how will we know that it’s all about to happen? Do you have any charts that we could use to map all this out and trace it as it unfolds?”
Jesus doesn’t bother to answer their question, but instead in v. 5 begins to exhort them regarding what they should be concerned about. And again, in v. 32, Jesus admits that the Son of Man has not been informed about when this will all take place. Only God the Father knows this, so don’t worry about that, says Jesus. In the meantime, you have some responsibilities. And here they are.
Let’s walk through this passage a bit in order to understand the situation that Jesus’ disciples are in and what he tells them to do. That way we can invite Mark into our life together as a community and discover together what Jesus wants us to do.
For a while now in Mark, Jesus has been predicting the end of his life and the destruction of Jerusalem. God has rendered his verdict on Jerusalem and the temple as an institution. It is not functioning at all as God had intended, and Jesus has already condemned it to eventual destruction. This was pictured earlier in Mark by Jesus cursing the fig tree. Back then, Peter, after seeing the fig tree withered, had said, “Look, Teacher, the fig tree you cursed has withered.” Mark, the master storyteller, has one of the disciples open up Mark 13 with an almost exact quotation, “Look, Teacher, what massive stones! What magnificent buildings!”
Good readers of Mark are supposed to take the hint—the fig tree is the Temple; the temple is the fig tree.
Yes, impressive stones indeed! They will share the same fate as the withered tree.
Jesus goes on, in fact, to predict the temple’s destruction—not one stone will remain upon another. He is referring to the coming of the Romans to completely devastate Judea and Jerusalem. And when you read the history of all of this, it is stomach-turning. Much of what Jesus predicts happens, and even worse—pervasive cannibalism, people cooking dung in order to survive.
But Jesus’ instruction here is to be on guard. Watch out that you are not deceived by false Christs. Further, when you are persecuted, take comfort because the Holy Spirit will empower you to know how to act. When accused, just say what comes to mind and it will be God himself who will be giving you the words to say.
But this wave of persecution and intense suffering is not yet the end of the world, says Jesus in v. 7.
In fact, says Jesus, when you see something like what Daniel spoke about—the abomination of desolation—you need to get moving.
What’s going on here? Well, about 200 years previous to Jesus’ day, Antiochus Epiphanes defiled the temple with pagan sacrifices—the abomination of desolation, as Daniel talks about.
This is going to happen again, but this time it will be the Romans who come into the temple and defile it. The Roman emperor Caligula had a massive statue of himself set up in the temple and before the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70, the defilement of the temple is again imminent.
Jesus says that when this happens, it would be wise to flee to the north. For Mark’s readers in Jerusalem in the late 60’s, this would have been taken as an endorsement of the prophecy given in that church that they were to flee north to Pella in order to survive the coming destruction.
But Jesus again makes the point that these events are not the end. Before the end comes, the gospel must be preached to all the nations.
The instruction in Mark 13, therefore, is how Jesus’ disciples—including us—are supposed to live between the end and the end—the end of Jerusalem and the end of the world.
Certainly the end of Jerusalem must have felt like the end of the world for Jesus’ first followers. For thousands of years, the Jewish people have always had Jerusalem. How can you even conceive of following the God of Israel without God’s favorite city around? How can you even maintain the existence of the God of Israel, if his home city is destroyed? Usually if that happens, you’d have to assume that he’s not strong enough to defend it.
So, the end of Jerusalem actually would have really shaken up the first followers of Jesus, and it would literally have felt like the end of the world. It would have thrown them into confusion and turmoil.
Without Jerusalem and its temple—without the singular defining piece of real estate that oriented everything about their lives and their community self-understanding—how do we even go on from here?
That’s what Mark 13 is all about. And Jesus tells them to be on guard and watch out for false ways. Jesus has showed them the way—self-sacrifice; service to others; cultivating a community of cross-shaped social dynamics; self-giving unto death for the sake of others.
If anyone tells you otherwise, especially if they want to take up arms and overthrow Rome, do not listen.
He also tells them to remain faithful to their gospel task. The gospel must be preached, so keep at it. Remain faithful even in the face of persecution for the sake of Christ.
And thirdly, be wise. There is no virtue in staying in Jerusalem as it is surrounded by the Romans and finally completely destroyed. In fact, Jesus says they’re going to need to leave the city at some point, and if they wait too long, it’s going to be rough. What if some women are pregnant and it’s winter!? This is very unspiritual counsel that Jesus gives—but very practical. The cash value of this instruction is simply this—be wise. Don’t be foolish. Read the signs of the times and be ready to move if you need to.
So, while Mark 13 is loaded with all sorts of bizarre-sounding stuff, it’s actually a chapter loaded with practical counsel about living wisely when the world is coming apart. Even if it feels like all you know is coming crashing down—beware, because that’s not yet the end. The end will come, but only God knows when it will come. Just make sure he finds you being faithful to what you know you should be doing. Do that, says Jesus, and you’ll be doing all you need to worry about.
That’s Mark 13 for Jesus’ first followers. What about us? Let’s now invite Mark 13 into our community and let it do some work here. What does this crazy passage have to say to us?
Our world is not coming apart—at least for most of us. Sure, times might be tough, but none of us are yet resorting to cannibalism . . . so far as I know, anyway. Our lives are pretty comfortable, and our stresses don’t come from needing to survive, but from striving to get ahead or to ensure a comfortable future for ourselves and for our children.
Jesus keeps repeating himself throughout Mark 13—don’t get caught up in curiosities, and don’t worry about figuring out the end-times, but “be on guard,” “watch out for false Christs,” “watch out for anyone claiming to show you another way,” and finally, “watch!”
So let’s talk about this, and here are some questions to guide our discussion: What are our temptations? What are the ways we are tempted by false Christs? What are some alternative voices out there that call to us?
And what about possible ways our community needs to think about being wise? We’re considering a move to a new place—any wisdom for that? Is there anything else we need to keep in mind as our community is in transition?