(30/11/08 and 27/11/11)
What is Jesus talking about? Mark 13 begins with his disciples marvelling at the temple buildings. Jesus’ response is to tell them that those buildings will be completely destroyed. ‘When?’ ask his disciples. ‘What warning will we get?’ Theologians tell us that rest of the chapter answers those questions, by predicting in apocalyptic terms the fall of Jerusalem and the terrible times associated with it. History tells us that the Romans sacked Jerusalem in AD 70, within the lifetime of that generation (v. 30).
Ordinary readers feel there is more to this passage than that. I think they are right. The sacking of Jerusalem did not exactly come like a thief in the night. The war started after massacres of Jews by Romans and Romans by Jews; in AD 67 the Romans subdued the rest of the country before laying siege to Jerusalem itself in AD 70, and the siege was a long drawn out process involving the building of a five mile wall and huge mounds of earth against the innermost wall. Before the siege began, the Christian community recognised that Jesus’ predictions were about to come true and fled from the city. Much of Mark 13, and parallel passages in Matthew 24 and Luke 21, were fulfilled at that time. But not everything. So the question remains, is Jesus talking about something else as well? Something much more sudden and unexpected?
In Matthew 24, Matthew’s version of this conversation, we read that the disciples asked another question: ‘What will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?’ It seems to me that Jesus answers at the same time both the question about Jerusalem and the question about his coming. It is possible that the disciples expected the end of Jerusalem and the coming of Christ to be part of the same event, or at least to be very close together. (Some Old Testament passages might have encouraged that thinking, such as Ezekiel 38-39, and Joel 3.) We must not be surprised therefore that the two answers are difficult to disentangle. However, it seems to me that in the gospel reading for today, Jesus is speaking more about his second coming at the end of time. (Verses 28-30 seem to be the exception: ‘These things’ are probably the events around the fall of Jerusalem; ‘that day’, ‘that time’ in verses 32-33 probably refers to the time of his coming.)
What does Jesus tell us about his coming to earth again? He tells us it won’t be like the first Christmas, when he came incognito, born as a helpless baby. This time it will be as King in all his glory – ‘coming in clouds’ reminds us of the many times in the Bible that God’s presence is indicated by a cloud. This time will be the final harvest, the ‘ingathering’ of all his people. (Paul gives more details in 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 which we looked at a few weeks ago.) But above all, it will be sudden and unexpected – we will not be given any more preparation than we already have. (Paul does say in 2 Thessalonians 2:3 that ‘the man of lawlessness’ will come first, which seems to be equivalent to the ‘antichrist’ John speaks about in 1 John – though he says in 1 John 2:18 that many antichrists have already come, which doesn’t help us fix a timetable!) The message for us is to be prepared: ‘Watch!’ In other words, we are to live each day as if we expect Jesus to arrive any moment. And that is a good way to live, even if he does not come for another thousand years.
1) How helpful is it to try to imagine what Jesus’ coming will be like?
2) How can we better prepare ourselves for his coming?
Mark 13 is a chapter in which Jesus is talking about the future. The chapter begins with the disciples admiring the awe-inspiring buildings of the temple in Jerusalem. Jesus replies that soon not one stone will be left on another. When they get the chance, the disciples ask him to explain.
At this distance it is hard to get into the minds of the disciples. They, with many other Jews, were looking forward to the time when the Messiah would come and put the world to rights – and would vindicate his people, giving them honour and responsibility in place of the humiliation and brutality they were currently experiencing under the Romans. The temple was the focal point of their hopes. Although its high priests were corrupt politicians, the people still regarded it at the place where God was most ‘at home’ on earth. The temple had been destroyed once before, but in those days the nation had deserted God and worshipped idols. Now, however, everything was being done in accordance with God’s law. It was inconceivable that the temple would be destroyed again. Yet that is exactly what Jesus said would happen.
When asked to explain, Jesus warned them that the future would be much harder than they could imagine. Within a generation the temple would be gone, and Jerusalem would have experienced suffering more terrible than anything before or since. His words came true. In AD 69 the Romans besieged Jerusalem; it fell in AD 70, after the most horrendous time. But the Christians had escaped; they had heeded Jesus’ warning and left before the siege began.
Many Bible scholars believe that all of Mark 13 refers to the destruction of Jerusalem – even the language about the sun and the moon and the stars, and the ‘coming of the Son of Man’ to God to receive all authority in heaven and on earth. However, other passages in the Bible remind us to expect an event which will put all other events in the shade: the coming to earth of the Lord Jesus Christ in great power and glory.
When Jesus told his disciples to watch, he did not mean them only to watch out for the forthcoming destruction of Jerusalem and the signs that foreshadowed it. They were to watch for the end of the world as we know it, an end that will come without further warning. And they were to watch for it as servants look forward to the return of the house owner – with hopeful anticipation. For although the ‘Day of the Lord’ is a day of judgement when evil gets its just deserts, it is at the same time a day of salvation, when creation is liberated from sin and death. The end of the old order clears the way for the perfect new order which God has been planning all along. We don’t know when it will be; but we know we must be ready. Are we?
1) Why is it important to know that Jesus is coming to earth again?
2) What hinders us getting ready?