We tend to read language about the end as univocal. That is, it means only and always one thing – the end of all things when God acts to finally and fully establish his kingdom forever. For us Westerners this is a natural and seemingly self-evident way to read this language. Thus, when Jesus speaks about the end in Mark 13 (par. Matthew 24 and Luke 21), he can only be speaking about the end of all things as just described.
The Old Testament background to this kind of language is its use of “the day of the Lord.” Careful examination of the use of this phrase reveals its elasticity. In regard to timing, it usually refers to future events, both those envisioned within history as well as beyond. In other words, there can be more than one or even a few “day(s) of the Lord.” Whether it be seen as a day of liberation for Israel, or judgment on Israel or foreign nations, or both, the phrase can be used to describe many events of liberation, restoration, or judgment. In this case the End is not “the” End but a day that either opened up new life and a new world for Israel or one that end life as she knew it in judgment, like the exile to Babylon.
Read in this way, Jesus speaks of the temple being destroyed (Mt.24:1-2). His disciples ask when this, “the end of the age,” the time of his coming, will occur (v.3). Jesus warns them of false messiahs, wars, famine and earthquake, their arrest and persecution on account of him, which, ironically, will give them occasion to preach the gospel. Then the end will come (vv.4-14).
Then will come great suffering associated with a sacrilege in the temple. Jesus instructs them on when and where to flee at this time and the type of weather to hope for. He repeats his warnings against false prophets and this is the time of the coming of the Son of Man (vv.15-28).
Then that coming of the Son of Man is described in all sorts of fantastical detail followed by Jesus’ warning for them to learn the lesson of the fig tree in order to know the signs of the times accurately (vv.29-44).
I want you to think about Jesus’ teaching here in the light of the elasticity of the events of an end that is not “the” end. What if Jesus refers here not to “the” end but rather to the end of Israel’s national existence as the people of God coming within a generation in their ill-fated war against Rome in 70 A. D.? Just reflect on that possibility till our next post.