Note to My Readers: from mid-June to mid-August (6/18 - 8/20), I will be taking a summer break from posting new articles for my Thursday and Friday slots. This will only affect my Thursday series on the global growth of Christianity, and my Friday series, the "Theological Bestiary" of birds, both of which will resume in late August. During the summer, I'll be dusting off some of my best essays from the first few years of this blog (a decade ago), as well as my verse play "Thus Ends the World," and re-posting them in the Thursday and Friday slots. All other weekdays will continue to feature new material throughout the summer.

Sunday, November 20, 2016

Sunday Scripture


Mark 13:1-8

13:1-2 – Anyone who has ever been fortunate enough to tour one of the great old cities of Europe (or any other such display of the wonders of civilization) will understand the disciple’s exclamation here: “What massive stones! What magnificent buildings!” Jesus does not directly downplay this disciple’s admiration—in his response, he does call these buildings “great”—but he wants to redirect the disciple’s focus. Remember, at the end of chapter 12, Jesus has just finished instructing his disciples not to trust in outward, ostentatious presentations of religious piety, but rather to look at the heart. This goes for buildings as well as people. A building may be beautiful to look at, but if it was built for show, for human adulation, rather than for the glory of God, its beauty must be seen, at least in part, as a misspent effort. One of the greatest aspects of Christian architecture has always been the way in which the building itself is intended to direct the attention of onlookers upward, to God, to the perception of spiritual realities rather than just to marvel at the beauty of the stonework and stained glass themselves. The buildings this disciple is looking at are quite probably the buildings of the Temple complex in Jerusalem (the setting of most of the stories in ch. 11-13). This building was incredible and magnificent, but its current form had been constructed under Herod the Great, not so much to bring greater glory to God as to win favor for Herod among the people—in that way, the buildings of the Temple complex were rather like the offerings of the rich people in 12:41. So Jesus takes the opportunity to direct the disciple’s attention away from the beauty of the building itself, and to focus instead on questions of ultimate value. He tells his disciples that the building is destined for destruction. This is a reminder to all of us: when we consider and spend time enjoying the many wonders and delights which our civilization has produced, we must at the same time keep in mind the question of ultimate value, and to spend at least as much time (and hopefully far more!) on those things that will last beyond the mere timeline of our world’s history.

13:3-4 – The setting for this passage is not coincidental. Jesus is sitting on the Mount of Olives, opposite the Temple, while he proclaims judgment upon it, exactly where Zechariah prophesied the Lord would stand as he triumphs over the nations who, as agents of his own divine justice, have destroyed Jerusalem (Zech. 14:1-5). Four of the disciples come to ask Jesus privately about when the coming destruction will take place. Why privately? Probably because Jesus has a large following of people from Jerusalem tagging along with him during most of these stories (beginning with the Triumphal Entry in Mk. 11), and these disciples know that Jesus does not care to speak out publicly about things that the larger public might take to be indicators of a warlike Messianic revolution about to be put in motion. Here the disciples appear to understand that such a revolution is not Jesus’ present mission—an understanding that has been slow in coming for them!—and that they may have to be able to interpret the signs of the coming destruction without Jesus being there to point it out for them. The disciples’ slow growth in discernment and understanding throughout the Gospel of Mark should give us hope for our own spiritual journeys, for we too are often just as dense at perceiving and responding to what God is trying to do in our lives—but, praise be to God, if we continue to walk with him, continue to listen to him, even in the midst of our own misunderstandings, we will eventually (but still stumblingly), like these disciples, come to understand more of God’s intention for us and for our labors.

13:5-6 – Jesus responds to the disciples’ request in his own gracious fashion—he gives them the heart of what they are asking for—information about the coming destruction—but in such a way that it redirects their attention, away from the unhealthy desire to know all the details of God’s will in advance, and toward the more important issue of how they can be prepared for what God will do. He begins with a warning to be on one’s guard against anyone who might try to deceive. This is a good place to start when dealing with apocalyptic and eschatological scenarios, because this one topic, out of all the theological positions in biblical theology, has provided ample ground for myopic teachers to steer the whole glorious enterprise of the Gospel down a blind alley. He also adjures us to be on guard against false messiahs, those who claim Christ’s own name and identity. While, thankfully, there have been very few characters in the history of the church who have literally claimed to be Christ himself (and those who have were often easily identified as madmen), there have been many who have claimed Christ’s name and authority as the basis of their own teachings—teachings and practices which purported to be “Christian”—while disavowing the heart of Gospel doctrine and practice. This is all too common in our day, as it has been in every age of the church, so be on guard! But in the immediate context of Jesus’ prophecy, which has one eye on the ultimate end of history and the other on the climactic event of his own century—the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70—it must be noted that there were indeed several false Messianic leaders who raised rebellions against Rome within just a generation or two of these words, and the end result of each such attempt was the repeated desolation of Jerusalem and the Jewish people. 

13:7-8 – The other “signs” Jesus gives the disciples are remarkably commonplace in every period of history: wars, rumors of wars, earthquakes, and famines. It was certainly true of his own age, and particularly of the period immediately preceding the fall of Jerusalem in AD 70—Messianic claimants, wars in Palestine and civil wars between claimants for the Imperial throne, rumors of wars coming from the Parthian borderlands, major earthquakes in the Bay of Naples, in Crete, and in Phrygia (as well as minor but repeated quakes in Rome and in Judea), and major famines throughout the Roman world, particularly during the reign of Claudius. In fact, one would be hard pressed to find any period of history so replete with all of these elements as the single generation between Christ and the fall of Jerusalem. Jesus’ primary warnings, then, seem to be about the crisis that some of the disciples will witness in their own day: the literal fulfillment of his prophecy about the destruction of the Temple (v.2) in AD 70. But, as we will see later in the chapter, this historical crisis will also be telescoped out to give us a view of the final crisis of history (a double-fulfillment pattern that is common to biblical prophecy). Thus we must recognize that these signs which Christ foretells are ongoing “birth pains” throughout the whole period of history between Christ and the end, and will only be complete when this world’s labor is done, and the Kingdom comes in all its fullness. There is no indication in this text that any of these signs should be expected to increase in the period leading up to the final climax of history, but rather that they will simply be present. Thus, although there can be a temptation to surrender to the confirmation bias that results from hearing of such things from our global news networks, and to assume that our age is more afflicted by wars, earthquakes, and famines than any other, a careful study of history will clearly show that this is not the case. Too often we read our own anxieties into the biblical text, and convince ourselves that the worst period of history is just around the corner, rather than doing what Jesus advises—being on guard and resting in the sovereignty of God’s justice and providence. And it may be worth considering whether it is not just anxiety, but also pride, that leads us to assume that these texts must be written about our own day: there is perhaps a bit too much thoughtless self-confidence in much of our Christian teaching today in holding to the idea, as if it were self-evident, that our generation stands at the climax of all human history. Rather, we should see quite clearly from Scripture that Jesus is the climax, and that we are merely a small part of the long denouement before the final resolution.

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