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, December 04, 2016

Sunday Scripture

Mark 13:20-31


13:20-23 – Here Jesus warns his disciples yet again about the prospect of false Messiahs. While such claims might indeed be made again in the final climax of our world’s history, it’s worth noting that they were certainly a major feature of the Jewish revolts in the Roman period. During the Jewish War that culminated in the sack of Jerusalem in AD 70, Messianic expectations were laid on the shoulders of several rebel leaders, such as John of Gischala and Simon bar Giora. Later, in the Second Jewish War of the second century, prominent Messianic claims would be put forward concerning the leader of that rebellion, Bar Kokhba. These, then, were very real threats to the integrity of the Christian claim for Jesus’ Messiahship, and so he warns his disciples in advance not to be taken in by them. Similarly, he warns against false prophets who will perform “signs and wonders.” Again, this may be a feature of the final climax of history, if Jesus is here intending to give us a view of that future period of time, but we can say with certainty that it was a feature of the Jewish rebellion of AD 70. The historian Josephus, an eyewitness to those events, records that there were indeed false prophets in and around Jerusalem at that time, and some of them were able to perform some sort of “wonders” that captured people’s attention. One figure in particular proved so compelling that he convinced a large number of Jews to ascend with him onto the roofs of the Temple complex, because there God’s deliverance for Israel was going to be revealed. Tragically, this was during the final stage of the siege, and all of those people died when the Temple mount was sacked and the buildings burnt down by Roman soldiers. But while the events themselves were tragic, we must remember that this passage in Mark is a testament to Jesus’ love for his people: he lets them know, in no uncertain terms, what to watch out for and how to escape it. This gift of foresight, and the fact that God would see fit to cut short those days (v.20), all speak to the mercy of our Lord, and his tender compassion for all who will follow his word. In fact, Jesus underscores the point that we are important to God, calling his followers by a double-attribution of chosenness: “for the sake of the elect, whom he has chosen.” Know that whatever may be happening in the world around you, you remain known, chosen, and treasured by God.

13:24-25 – These verses are often taken by Christians as literal prophecies of astronomical events that will happen in the end times. And, as we’ve seen, it is possible that Jesus is “telescoping” out his prophecy about the fall of Jerusalem to include the end times. But it’s always important to try to read Scripture as it was intended to be read, and sometimes that means that we are not intended to read it literally. Sometimes, Scripture is written with symbolism as its primary expressive feature, and, if so, trying to read those symbols as literal realities is actually to misread them. This passage may be one such place. These verses appear to be paraphrases of two passages from Isaiah (13:10 and 34:4), which are prophecies about the downfall of rulers (and their respective kingdoms) in Babylon and Edom. In their original context in Isaiah, they are clearly featuring as elements of prophecies regarding historical events (Babylon and Eden did indeed fall, and, so far as we know, without any cosmological disruptions). Since, then these were not prophecies of the end times, it seems fairly clear that the language about the sun and moon being darkened, etc., are symbolic metaphors speaking about the fall of kings and nations. And this element, too, is very prominent in the years of the Jewish War. The entire Roman Empire was thrown in disarray during those years, as the last heir of Caesar died by suicide in the midst of a violent coup, followed in quick succession by three other emperors (Galba, Otho, and Vitellius), all of whom came to power and then died in 69 AD, followed by Vespasian’s ascent to power (and he had been the Roman general fighting the Jewish War). And, most importantly, perhaps, the Jewish War also saw the effectual end of Jewish authority in Israel—the half-native administration under the Herods was long gone, and the ruling elites of the Sadducees and Temple authorities marked the end of their authority with the fall of the Jerusalem. This, then, was a chillingly accurate prophecy about the fall of rulers in the years of the Jewish War, a sign that our God truly does know the future as surely as he knows the past.

13:26-27 – These verses appear to be the clearest sign that Jesus is “telescoping” out his prophecy about the fall of Jerusalem in order to give us a view of the end times as well. Traditionally, these verses have been taken to indicate the end-times event of the return of Christ and the gathering up of the saints before Judgment Day. However, it should be noted that there are many Bible scholars who do not line these verses up with the end times, but see them as entirely consistent with Jesus’ predictions about the Jewish War of AD 70 alone. Verse 26 is taken to be a reference to Daniel 7:13-14, where the “Son of Man” is seen “coming with the clouds of heaven.” In this interpretation, though, the crucial point is that the “coming” indicated does not refer to a coming down from heaven to earth, but rather of the Son of Man coming to the Ancient of Days and receiving power and dominion. If this is Jesus’ intended reference in Mark 13:26, then this would not be a prophecy of the return of Christ, but rather an emphatic point that the destruction of Jerusalem and its Temple in AD 70 would mark the ultimate triumph of the Son of Man, the proof of God’s vindication of Jesus’ Messianic authority, because the rebellious religious system that rejected him has fallen under judgment. Similarly, v.27 could easily be taken as symbolic language about the way God will protect and deliver the Christians from the peril of those times (just as such language is often used in Old Testament prophecies about God’s protection for the Israelites). However, these verses appear to line up so closely with Christian traditions regarding the return of Christ in the end times, including references elsewhere in the New Testament, that it still seems best to consider that Jesus may be giving a “double fulfillment” prophecy in this chapter—a vision of the events of AD 70, through which we are given a brief glimpse of what the end times might be like.

13:28-31 – Once again, in v.30, we have a direct indication that Jesus is speaking of events within the lifetimes of his disciples. As such, even if the end times are included by telescopic extension in the prophecies of this chapter, they cannot be considered the primary interpretive focus. Jesus’ intent is to give his disciples clear signs, so that they know when to obey his word, and to take action accordingly (in this case, to abandon Jerusalem and flee to safety). Here again, we have a view of the careful guidance and protective love of the Lord for his people. Jesus ends his reflection with a promise of assurance—his words, his prophetic care of his people, are more trustworthy, stronger and truer, than even the earth we stand on and the heavens above our heads.

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