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 27, 2016

Sunday Scripure

Mark 13:9-19


13:9-11 – Here again we see that Jesus’ primary prophecy is towards the actual experience of his disciples. He warns them to be on guard, and then prophesies with startling accuracy about the things that will actually happen to them (arrests, persecutions, etc.), with many such occurrences recorded in the book of Acts. Scripture and tradition together witness to the way that the decades between Christ’s ascension and the destruction of Jerusalem saw the persecution of the church, the disciples proclaiming Christ before governing authorities, and the Gospel being preached to all nations (prefigured at Pentecost, and put into practice when, as tradition tells us, the disciples were all sent out from Jerusalem as missionaries to the nations). However, if we are reading this set of prophecies as secondarily being about the final climax of history, then we must be willing to accept all of it as such, rather than cherrypicking the bits we like. It’s not enough to suggest that we might live in the age that will witness the Day of the Lord; we must also accept the fact that, just like wars and famines and earthquakes characterize the whole period leading up to that day, so too will persecutions. Even in our own day, we Christians who live outside the scope of regular persecution are rather the minority. The only element of all of the “signs” provided by Christ which might perhaps lend itself to a definitive historical fulfillment is the one he gives in v.10: “the Gospel must first be preached to all nations.” This is something that is accomplished in miniature at Pentecost and in the disciples’ missionary journeys, but its final fulfillment is still to come. There are still nations (ethnē) in the world that have yet to hear the message of Jesus Christ. It is possible, however, and perhaps even likely, that this current generation will see the fulfillment of that particular sign. But one thing is clear: the proclamation of Christ to the nations has been a consistent hallmark of the past two thousand years, just as clearly as have wars, earthquakes, famines, and the persecution of the church. Jesus advises his disciples not to worry about what to say when arrested and brought to trial for the sake of the Gospel—the Holy Spirit will give them the words to say. Indeed, it has been the church’s experience through the ages that the most compelling testimonies for Christ spring from the mouths of common believers when standing before their own martyrdoms. Since the context for this promise is so specific, we cannot extend the hope of Spirit-inspired testimony to any and all situations (i.e., you must do your homework, plan well, and prepare before giving a sermon, taking a test, or doing a job interview, and not just expect the Holy Spirit to take over and give you all the answers). But we can, perhaps, extrapolate a general principle from this promise: that when we give our all for Christ, we will find that he is there with us, giving us all we need for every challenge of the present moment. Though following Christ may include persecutions, it will never include abandonment.

13:12-13 – This is one of the most difficult warnings that Christ gives: a prophecy about the way that families will be divided against each other because of the Gospel. This is an unfortunate fact of the Christian experience—it was true in the first century, where converts to Christianity from among Greeks and Romans faced persecution from their family members, who felt betrayed by one of their own turning “atheist” by denying the traditional pagan gods; it was true in the first century in Jewish homes, too, where the early events of Vespasian’s re-conquest of Galilee and Judea forced families to take sides, and sometimes there were those (like Christians) who refused to support the Jewish rebels and then were turned over to those very rebels by family members. And this prophecy of Jesus remains true today: in many families, there is a cost to choosing to follow Christ—if one’s father, mother, sister, brother, or children are not willing to answer the call of Christ, then those relationships might be fractured. But Jesus gives a promise to go along with the warning: “the one who stands firm to the end will be saved.” Remember, he’s not talking about anyone’s eternal salvation in this context, so the reader would not be advised to try to turn this saying into a salvation-by-works teaching. Rather, Jesus is talking about the perseverance and deliverance of his faithful people from the persecutions that are about to descend upon them within a generation’s time. The following verses make it very clear that Jesus is talking about salvation from the devastation that will fall upon Jerusalem when the “abomination that causes desolation” appears. This is a promise about God’s sure support in the midst of persecution and disaster—whatever else may be happening around us and to us, including the prospect of our own deaths, there is never any safer place to be than in the hands of God.

13:14-19 – When we come to this passage, Christians are often tempted once again to jump immediately to an “end times” interpretation. So it’s worth reminding ourselves yet again that Jesus is specifically addressing the disciples’ question of when the destruction of the Temple will occur, and what the signs of that event will be. Jesus’ main prophecy here, then, is directly fulfilled in what happens in Jerusalem in the year 70 AD. He delivers his prophecy by referring to an older prophecy from the book of Daniel, which tells of a character called “the abomination that causes desolation,” who will surround Jerusalem with hostile foreign armies and defile the sanctuary of the Temple (Dan. 9:27; 11:31; 12:11). In Daniel’s context, these prophecies clearly refer to the events of 167 BC, when the pagan Syro-Greek king Antiochus IV (Epiphanes) sacked Jerusalem and rededicated the Temple to the gods of the Greek pantheon, complete with the sacrifice of a pig on the Temple’s altar. (One must remember, though, that it is often the case in biblical prophecy that multiple fulfillments are in view, a near-present fulfillment that is usually the primary referent for the prophecy’s immediate audience, but also the possibility of later fulfillments that ‘telescope’ the events and implications of the primary fulfillment into the distant future; thus Daniel’s prophecies appear to relate directly to Antiochus Epiphanes and the crisis of the Maccabean revolt, and then they may telescope out to give a view of the “end times”). Jesus takes that historical prophecy and declares that it is about to be recapitulated in the events that lead to the fall of the Temple. Recall that he has already told his disciples what events not to regard as immediate signs of the end: wars, rumors of wars, earthquakes, and famines. But now he tells them a definite and specific sign—when the abomination that causes desolation appears—that is, when Jerusalem is about to be ringed by hostile pagan armies, and the Temple sanctuary about to be violated—then it’s time to go. This event is specifically fulfilled in the middle of the siege of Jerusalem in 70 AD, when the Romans surround the city, and Titus himself, the general who will go on to become emperor, enters into the Holy of Holies before the entire Temple is burned down. We know from the historical traditions of the early church that this prophecy of Jesus was indeed interpreted as a direct foretelling of the events of that year, because the church of Jerusalem did exactly as Jesus instructed—they fled. Rather than taking up arms to fight for a patriotic notion of an independent nation-state of Israel (perhaps American evangelicals should here take note), they obeyed the words of Christ, abandoned the sinking ship of the Jewish rebellion, and fled from Jerusalem to the east, to refuge in the region beyond the Jordan River and the Dead Sea. But, as with Daniel’s prophecy, so with Jesus’—there is a definite possibility that Jesus intends this prophecy to be seen as a double-fulfillment: directly pointing to Titus’ violation and destruction of the Temple in 70 AD, but then telescoping out beyond it to give his followers a view of what the final crisis of the end times might also look like. This is a debated point in modern biblical interpretation, but there is certainly a long Christian tradition of reading end-times implications into this text alongside the direct prophecies of the first-century fall of Jerusalem.

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