MARK 13:1-37When I was but a wee little lad, I recall lying in bed listening to a conversation my mother and my uncle, her brother, were having in the other room. The sunset had been particularly striking that evening, and the splashes of brilliant red reminded them of fire. They began talking about the end of the world. According to the Bible, one of them said, the world would be destroyed by fire. I was scared stiff!
Perhaps that incident led to my fascination with eschatology when I was a teenager. I read books. I listened to radio preachers describe how the end times were near, how Hitler was the antichrist, and Russia was the Bear of the North. I decided I was a premillennialist, believing that at the second coming of Christ, Christians will be lifted up to meet Christ in the air. Then the tribulation will come of terrible catastrophes, culminating in the Battle of Armageddon where Satan will be defeated, and 1,000 years, a millennium of peace will precede the Final Judgment. Oh, how I wanted to be ready for the rapture and miss the Great Tribulation and Armageddon.
Now, I didn't get this stuff in my Methodist Church. The end of the world was not often discussed, and when it was mentioned, it was in general terms. I had to go elsewhere for information about the second coming.
In one of my former congregations, a couple left our church. They had joined a Bible study in their neighborhood that emphasized prophecy and the end times. When I learned they were going to another church, I visited them and spent the evening trying to give them my perspective on the end times. By then it was too late. They were convinced of their new beliefs, and were upset with our church because "we didn't preach the second coming". By rarely mentioning what our church believes about the end times, we created a vacuum which was easily filled by apocalyptic alarmists. By not teaching my beliefs, I was not giving my congregation a basis from which they could evaluate other beliefs.
There is a compelling fascination with the end times. Especially now as 1999 winds down, scare preachers and authors are having a field day. Jerry Falwell is at it again. According to the San Francisco Chronicle, Falwell is joining those who see Y2K as a sign of the end times. He is warning of God's wrath coming on New Year's Day. "God may be preparing to confound our language, to jam our communications, scatter our efforts and judge us for our sin and rebellion against his lordship."
In the next few minutes, let me set you straight! Of course, you can believe what you like about the end times, but I owe it to you to tell you what I believe. Then, you can decide.
There is no theological significance in the end of a century and the beginning of a new one. Calendars are made by humans, not by God. If something significant were to happen on Jesus' 2,000 birthday, it would have already happened. Most scholars believe the birth of Jesus was about 4 BC in our calendar. We celebrated Jesus' 2,000 birthday in 1996.
I believe that most of the events in the Bible that modern alarmists define as current or future have already happened. Let me repeat: most of the events have already occurred. Some passages in the Bible, primarily in Daniel, Revelation, and Mark 13 are called apocalyptic. In fact, some of the verses in Mark 13 are quotes of Daniel. Apocalyptic (which means revelation, prophecy) literature is characterized by a pessimistic view of history, anticipation of the end of the world in an imminent crisis, and visions of cosmic upheaval.
Mark 13 is an example of apocalyptic literature. Please take your Bibles and let us look at the events that have already happened. The first 22 verses describe the destruction of the temple and the city of Jerusalem which occurred in 70 AD by the Roman army, led by Titus. The last stronghold was the battle at Masada when Jewish Zealots committed suicide rather than surrender. Those were terrible times when the people (like in Kosovo today) had to flee to the mountains (verses 14-17). They had to hurry, they "must not go down or enter the house to take anything away; the one in the field must not turn back to get a coat. Woe to those who are pregnant and to those who are nursing infants in those days!" Sounds like a paragraph out of a news report on Kosovo. History does repeat itself.
Look at verse 14, "the desolating sacrilege set up where it ought not to be (let the reader understand)." Daniel 9:27 called it an "abomination that desolates." In 168 BC, Antiochus Epiphanes profaned the holy temple by making it a sanctuary of Zeus, the Greek Olympian god. In 38 AD, the Zealots were increasing their skirmishes against the Roman army, and Emperor Caligula, the mad emperor, gave orders that his statue should be erected in the holy Jewish temple at Jerusalem. The original readers of Mark 13 would indeed understand the reference to the "desolating sacrilege set up where it ought not to be." Incidentally, public reaction was so strong, the emperor changed his mind.
In 70 AD the temple was destroyed, never to be rebuilt. A Muslim mosque now sits on the temple site. Jerusalem was also destroyed. People fled. Christians were persecuted. Mark 13:1-23 has already occurred. But, what about the events that have not yet happened? Mark 13:24-27, "But in those days, after that suffering, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken. Then they will see 'the Son of Man coming in clouds' with great power and glory. Then he will send out the angels, and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven." The Son of Man has not yet come in clouds.
Mark also includes the troublesome prediction, verse 30, "Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place." "This generation" is referring to those who were alive at that time. How do we explain?
Let's look briefly at how the delay of the second coming was handled. Of the four gospels--Matthew, Mark, Luke and John-- Mark was the first to be written. Mark wrote the gospel to preserve the stories told by Peter. They lived in Rome probably during the destruction of Jerusalem.
Both Mark and Matthew, which was probably written next, include a sentence that accounts for delay, Mark 13:10 and Matthew 24:14, "And this good news of the kingdom will be proclaimed throughout the world, as a testimony to all the nations; and then the end will come." The end did not occur with the destruction of Jerusalem because the good news must first be proclaimed. Luke, written next, hints that there will be a delay, 21:24, "until the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled." During the "times of the Gentiles", the gospel is preached to Gentiles.
During this time period, Paul was writing letters to churches. His first letter is what we call 1 Thessalonians. Because they expected the imminent return of Jesus, the Thessalonian Christians were confused and concerned when some Christians died. What will happen to them, they asked. Paul's answer, 1 Thessalonians 4:16-17, "The dead in Christ will rise first; then we who are alive." As time went on and the Son of Man had still not returned, Paul ceases to mention the second coming or the end of the world in his later letters.
John is the last gospel to be written, probably after the turn of the century, 80 or so years after Jesus. According to some scholars, John handled the delay issue by reinterpreting the second coming: the coming of the Holy Spirit is the second coming of Christ. Personally, I'm not willing to adopt this radical explanation of what is called "realized eschatology," that the coming of the Son of Man has been realized, has already happened.
What does Mark 13 mean for us today? Even after he stated that "this generation will not pass away," Mark cautioned, 13:32, "But about that day or hour no one knows." Not even the Son of Man knows, Mark conceded. Rather than trying to figure out a time table as the end of the world alarmists do, be ready. Keep alert. Whenever folks try to predict the end, Mark's advice is, "No one knows. Keep alert."
The good news for us, as it was for the early church, is that life as we know it will end someday. The struggle between good and evil will be over. God will triumph. No matter how much the evidence is to the contrary; no matter how often evil seems to win; the Son of Man will come in his glory, and Satan will be defeated. It is not necessary to take these images literally. It would be difficult for Christians in China and in the U. S. simultaneously to see someone coming in the clouds! The message of the biblical images is God wins!
Mark 13 invites and encourages us not to be discouraged. Mark 13:13, "The one who endures to the end will be saved." There will be wars and rumors of wars. Nation will rise against nation. There will be earthquakes. There will be famines. To which we might add on a personal level, there will be cancer. There will be heart attacks. There will be turmoil in relationships. Loved ones will die. But, Mark counsels, "Do not be alarmed. The end is still to come." There will be an end. There will be victory. There will be glory.
Don't be confused by the end of the world alarmists. No one knows. Perhaps this will be the last generation. Who knows? Be ready to meet the Lord. Get right with God. Confess your sins, get your priorities straight, trust in Jesus, our Lord and Savior. Live each day as the last.
© 1999 Douglas I. Norris