Sermon November 24th: Approaching the End

Last week we looked at Jesus’s arrival in Jerusalem, where He had told the disciples three times that He would be put to death and after three days rise. In the few days between His arrival there and His crucifixion He teaches on several subjects: in 11.15 He teaches about the true purpose of the Temple, in 11.20 about the power of faith, in 12.1 He tells a parable about the rôle of the chosen people in God’s plan, in 12.13 about the relationship of Christians to the powers that be in the state, in 12.18 about resurrection, in 12.28 about loving God and neighbour, in 12.35 about the Messiah, and last thing in chapter 12 He teaches about giving our all for His work. All of it important stuff, but what Mark gives most space to is a teaching by Jesus that has always been considered one of His most challenging. It takes up the whole of chapter 13, which we just read, and that’s the one I want to look at this morning.

As Jesus and His disciples look at Jerusalem, the disciples are impressed by the magnificence of their temple, where God was worshipped by offering him animal sacrifices. Jesus tells them it will be thrown down, and the implication of the phrase is that it will be destroyed the way you destroy something harmful. Four of the disciples ask Him more about this privately, in two questions: our translation is when will these things be, and what will be the sign when all these things are about to be accomplished? The word ‘accomplished’ is a bit misleading, though, because it makes it sound as though the disciples are asking what comes down to a single question: when? When will it happen, what will be the sign that it’s about to happen? The Greek word it’s translating means ‘fulfilled’, in the sense of fulfilling an obligation or a promise or a prophecy. So there are two questions being asked: i) when will what you said, the destruction of the Temple, happen, and ii) how will we know when all these things are about to be fulfilled. All these things must mean more than the one thing Jesus mentioned, and Matthew’s account of the incident makes the disciples’ meaning clear: Jesus’s comment about the Temple is just about the same as in Mark, but the disciples’ questions are recorded as when will this be, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the close of the age? Matthew is explaining what the disciples mean. So the these things they are asking about the fulfilment of are the completion of human history, what are sometimes called the ‘end times’. They have assumed the destruction of the temple will be part of that. The Bible says quite a bit about the end of history aas we know it; several Old Testament books talk about it, one whole book of the New Testament, Revelation, is about it, and we have three accounts of Jesus Himself teaching about it.

Jesus begins his answer by warning the disciples about how easily they can be misled about these things and how careful they should be. And surely that applies to us too, only more so! In vv 5–8, He describes various things that we can expect to happen, and that will make us think the end must be close, but are in fact just the world we live in: people trying to take Jesus’s place, claiming that they are the voice of God, wars, rumours of wars, earthquakes, famine. All dramatic, but not signs of the end; v 7, the end is not yet. These are birth-pains, and just the beginning of them. A significant phrase, birth pains: although the disciples have asked about the end, and Jesus has confirmed that an end is coming, that end is in fact just a change. The things Jesus describes He does not call death throes, but birth pangs: God is bringing something new into being. Jesus’s words are words of hope and promise, even in the midst of fear and judgement.

Then in vv 9–13, He reminds them, and us, of what we should keep our mind on: preaching the gospel, sharing the good news. You hear a lot today about opposition to Christianity, even in America, and even at high levels of authority in the state; sometimes it seems that every religion is welcome in Western Civilisation except what used to be its own. But we were warned by Jesus about that 2,000 years ago; if we still aren’t ready to cope with it, shame on us. The Christian life means sharing in Christ’s sufferings, and we’re taught that not only here in Mark 13 but in almost every book of the New Testament. But that’s no reason to be afraid: v 11, when they bring you to trial and deliver you over, do not be anxious beforehand what you are to say, but say whatever is given you in that hour, for it is not you who speak, but the Holy Spirit. If it really is time for western Christians to face persecution, and I’m not sure of that myself, we don’t have to be afraid. And we certainly don’t have to be anxious beforehand—to worry now about something that hasn’t happened yet!

Then in v 14 He talks about what is a sign of the end, the abomination of desolation standing where he ought not to be. What the abomination of desolation means was clearly not obvious to all even in Mark’s day. Let the reader understand is not likely to be Jesus’s comment, but Mark’s: anyone who reads this to the church should know what it referred to. The phrase comes from a 2nd century BC translation of an Old Testament verse, Daniel 12.11, which most scholars agree is either a prophecy of or an account of the desecration of the altar in the Temple when a Greek warrior conquered Jerusalem in 168 BC and made sacrifices to Zeus on the same altar at which the Jews had offered sacrifices to Jehovah, the God and Father of our Lord. So it refers to something equally blasphemous in the future, but the grammar implies that Jesus is thinking of a person, not an event, the person who is behind whatever outward form sacrilege takes, the person who leads people away from Christ, something much worse than the destruction of a building. This will be the sign for intense tribulation for human beings, although no details of any kind are given, except that it will throw up a greater than usual crop of false teachers. V 24 shows that what the apostasy and the tribulations will be signs of is Christ’s coming in power to gather His people. And even though Jesus doesn’t mention it, let me just remind you that that will be a great and glorious day for His people! Don’t shrink from it!

Then in vv 28–31 the fig-tree image, implying that the disciples should know the spiritual world well enough that they can spot the end coming as easily as they can spot summer coming by the new leaves on the fig tree. But few of us do know the spiritual world that well, and Jesus’s words certainly are difficult to interpret in some ways. But enough is clear that we can safely say that in 2014 we are still in the birth pangs, and the best way to understand the rest is to keep growing spiritually.

As for the first question the disciples asked, about the time, that’s finally addressed in vv 32ff, but only for the end times, not for the birth pangs. The most important thing Jesus says appears to me to be concerning that day or that hour, no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. Jesus Himself does not know, so we certainly can’t expect to, so back to the basic point: it’s like a man going on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his servants in charge, each with his work, and commands the doorkeeper to stay awake. Therefore stay awake—for you do not know when the master of the house will come. We must stick to the work we’ve been given to do, and let God worry about these other things.

One of the most difficult parts of this passage is v 30, Truly, I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all these things take place. If you look at what He’s just been talking about, you read verses like 24 and 25: 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. And those things haven’t happened yet, even though many generations have passed since Jesus said these words; the sun hasn’t gone out, the moon still gives its light, the stars haven’t fallen or been shaken. So we tend to set the whole subject aside as irrelevant, or incomprehensible. But remember that Jesus is answering two separate questions here. In vv 5–13, Jesus is answering the first question, about the destruction of the magnificent buildings of the Temple. Although he never actually mentions the temple, the implication is that it happens in this period, and in fact it did happen in the wars He talks about. The temple was destroyed by the Romans when they put down a very violent Jewish rebellion in the year 70 AD—just about a generation later than Jesus was speaking. And all the other things He talks about in vv 5–13 were also happening by then, and are still going on. The Jewish historian Josephus tells us about some of those claiming to be the Messiah in Christ’s own time. We also know about many other wars of that time, as well as earthquakes and famines—the collection Paul talks about taking up in the church at Corinth was for Christians suffering in a famine—and the disciples had been brought before councils and governors and beaten in synagogues, betrayed by members of their own families, and the gospel was being preached to all nations in that it was being preached in what was then the capital of the world, Rome, where there were communities of people from every nation in the known world. These things, at least, did happen within that time—one of the disciples He was speaking to lived for fifteen or twenty years more. Jesus’s separate treatment of the birth pangs and the signs of the end may be the best explanation of these words. It’s the birth pangs that take place during the disciples’ generation, and which seem to be what we are still experiencing. The end is not yet.

Jesus goes on to say in v 33, Be on guard, keep awake and stay awake, vv 35 and 37. We should think about these things because Jesus’s words were not just for the four disciples present with Jesus during this conversation, but for all Christians, even for us today, v 37: What I say to you I say to all. And the best way to be on guard is to read His word, where His character and person are made known. Jesus made a prophecy about this too, in v 31: Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away. And here we are 2,000 years later, and His word still sells in the millions, and is read and studied by hundreds of millions, year after year. There is simply no better way to be on guard.

This whole chapter is a call for Christians to be clear-headed when all others are panicking, not thinking clearly. Don’t spend your time looking for Him, or trying to calculate the day He will come, but spend your time doing the things He wants you to do, loving God and neighbour, living in faith and sharing the faith, and then you’ll be ready when He comes no matter what the circumstances. That’s the kind of being on guard Jesus urged on the disciples in one of the last teaching opportunities He was to have with them in the physical sense, and which He continues to urge on us through His word. That’s the message of this whole chapter, and taking it to heart can only mean a more abundant life.

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