Monday, November 13, 2006

Is It (the End of) Time Yet?

Are we living in the last days? Is the coming of Jesus just around the corner? Are we going to be driving to Dallas one day and suddenly see empty cars veering off the road in some Left Behind end times scenario? It seems every other year someone has come out with a new book or documentary or theory about the end of the world. And, true to form, no one ever gets it right.

In the 20th Century alone there must have been hundreds of predictions. The Kaiser was the antichrist, Hitler was the antichrist, every Secretary or President of the former Soviet Republic was a candidate, even Richard Nixon, Henry Kissinger and Ronald Reagan made the list! Some famous dates for the end of the world in that century was 1912 (some groups said Jesus actually did come, we just didn’t notice it), 1972 (ala Hal Lindsey), 1988 and of course the year 2000. And can we overlook the immensely popular Left Behind Series of books and B-grade movies and Hollywood’s version of the end in The Omen?

One of the texts frequently cited among all of these end time prognosticators is Mark 13. In this text we see incredible descriptions: sun darkened, the moon refusing to shine, stars falling from heaven, heavenly bodies shaken—a time of distress unlike any before, the Son of Man coming in the clouds. Wow. Sure sounds like the end of the world, doesn’t it?

But before we just jump in with wild speculations and add more opinions into the glutted market—perhaps we should ask: Is this even what Jesus meant? The key to understanding this text is the first four verses. The basic question is: When is the temple going to be destroyed—how will we know it’s about to happen? While Matthew adds a question about the end of the age—it’s important to realize the first century Jewish mind would consider the destruction of the Temple to be the end of the age! In fact, to Jesus the destruction of the Temple represents the final ending of an epoch in God’s timing.

I suppose you could divide this chapter up in any number of ways. For me, there are three distinct sections. Let’s label them Think! Run! and Watch!

Jesus begins his discourse about the destruction of the Temple by telling his followers not to go crazy with every little bit of news they hear. He is saying: Ok guys, think! There will be many false Messiahs, there will be wars and rumors of wars—there will even be earthquakes. Don’t be alarmed at these things. They happen. To be sure, they are the beginning of birth pains—but they aren’t the birth. You are going to be persecuted and put on trial—don’t worry about preparing your defense when you go before governors and kings. The Holy Spirit will give you a defense—he’ll put the words in your mouth. [Note: Jesus is not talking about public preaching and teaching!]

In the middle of this he says something interesting: the gospel must first be preached to all nations. Does that mean the entirety of the world will have heard the gospel when this takes place? If that’s what it means, it is a marked difference from the way “nations” is used throughout the gospels. “Nations” refers specifically to “Gentiles.” Jesus is not saying that the gospel message will have circumnavigated the globe. He is saying the Gentile mission will have already started before the Temple is destroyed. Think guys! Don’t get upset and worried! It’s not time yet.

I characterize the next section with the word “Run!” Here Jesus explains the imminent indications of the Temple’s destruction.

Before we talk about what actually happens, let’s explore these phrases which throw so many people: the darkened sun, eclipsed moon, falling stars—these cosmic descriptions are metaphors describing incredible upheaval in these guys’ world! During the first Jewish-Roman war, the Roman Emperor (Nero) kills himself, within 18 months three different men assume the title of Emperor of Rome and one at a time each is killed until Flavius Vespasian, the Roman general in Judea is proclaimed Emperor. Galilee has been ravaged by both Jewish insurgents and Roman legions over the period of four years. Various Christian and Jewish religious leaders have been murdered by insurgents. This is a time of incredible turmoil and destruction that historian Josephus describes as unlike any other time. The world of Palestine is falling apart.

How else would you describe it? If you were a Jew you would describe it the same way you described the time of invading Babylonian armies and the destruction of Solomon’s Temple: moon covered with blood, sun refusing to shine, the heavens and earth trembling. Read Isaiah 13:6-10, describing the destruction of Babylon—which admittedly happened a few centuries before Jesus uttered the words of Mark 13—pay special attention to the phrase “day of the LORD”:
Wail, for the day of the LORD is near;
it will come like destruction from the Almighty.
Because of this, all hands will go limp,
every man's heart will melt.
Terror will seize them,
pain and anguish will grip them;
they will writhe like a woman in labor.
They will look aghast at each other,
their faces aflame.
See, the day of the LORD is coming
—a cruel day, with wrath and fierce anger—
to make the land desolate
and destroy the sinners within it.
The stars of heaven and their constellations
will not show their light.
The rising sun will be darkened
and the moon will not give its light.
Now, Jesus gives some instructions to the apostles. These are interesting instructions if he were talking about the end of the world: RUN! Don’t go into the city, don’t go and get anything—hope it isn’t on a Sabbath, pregnant women and women with small children are going to have a very difficult time—when you see the abomination that causes desolation HEAD FOR THE HILLS! What kind of advice is that if it’s the end of the world? Doesn’t make much sense does it? However, it makes perfect sense if he’s talking about the destruction of Jerusalem.

At this point I have to bring in another passage relating to this in Luke 17:26-37. Popular end time theology refers to this text and its parallel in Matthew 24 as a description of the rapture. Jesus speaks of the time of the flood--and then says it will be the same way--two will be in the field, one will be taken, the other left. Two will be grinding corn, one will be taken and the other left. This is the terminology used for the Left Behind books. Those teaching the "Rapture" say those taken are taken into heaven--thousands of people will disappear while the poor people left behind will suffer tribulation.

However, look closely at the description. The flood "takes them all away" in Noah's day (Luke says "destroys them"). The imagery is actually the reverse! Those taken are not taken to heaven. They are paralleled with those taken by the flood. In other words, those taken are killed while those left behind are the survivors! Aghast, the apostles exclaim: Where, Lord? and he replies with an enigmatic statement: Where the corpse is, the eagles gather. This is a clear reference to the aquila or the main standard of the Roman legions. Each legion would have an aquila which was an eagle on a pole. It was their battle flag. They even worshipped it as an idol. This would all happen when the eagles (Roman legions) would gather around the corpse (Jerusalem).

The Christians evidently paid attention. Because when they saw the abomination that causes desolation they fled the city. According to Josephus in 66 A.D. Cestius Gallus, the Syrian Legate took two legions and actually gained entrance into Jerusalem itself. The insurgents fled into the Temple and fought off the legion from the walls. Cestius had his men dig to undermine the walls of the Temple itself. He almost captured the Temple and would have stopped the entire war two years early without destroying Jerusalem or the Temple. But, thinking it useless, he pulled back his troops and left—according to Josephus, “for no good reason at all.” The Legions with their standards had actually gotten to the Temple. The blood-thirsty insurgents were actually using God’s Temple as a fortress from which to fight. The abomination [Roman armies, and insurgents killing near the Temple compound] that would desolate the Temple was seen. The insurgents chased Cestius and caught his two legions in a narrow pass and decimated their troops.

Josephus writes:
After this calamity had befallen Cestius, many of the most eminent of the Jews swam away from the city, as from a ship when it was going to sink…
In the early 300s, Eusebius informs us Christians also left Jerusalem—evidently at the same time:
But the people of the church in Jerusalem had been commanded by a revelation, given to approved men there before the war, to leave the city and to dwell in a certain town of Perea called Pella.
Another ancient writer, Epiphanius who wrote in the late fourth century, gave this account:
For when the city was about to be taken and destroyed by the Romans, it was revealed in advance to all the disciples … that they should remove from the city, as it was going to be completely destroyed. They sojourned as emigrants in Pella…

They paid attention to Jesus’ words—when they saw the signs, they ran!

This was perhaps their only chance. Because when Rome besieged Jerusalem in 70 A.D. there would be no escape. After tearing through the walls of Jerusalem, the Romans built their own wall surrounding Jerusalem so no one could escape.

There is not enough space here to discuss the details of the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple in 70 A.D. I recommend you read The Wars of the Jews written by Flavius Joseph in the first century. The city was shut up over a year with various insurgent factions fighting and killing each other. The food supplies were cut off. A woman even killed and ate her infant. It has been suggested anywhere from a few hundred thousand to over one million were killed. Most of them were innocent Jews trapped behind the city walls by the insurgents. Josephus described it as a destruction unequaled in history.

One of the reasons why so many people see this text as Jesus’ final coming is because they don’t know their history! Jesus was speaking in a historical context that made sense to Jewish men who were living in the region at that time.

Finally, Jesus says “Watch!” Another way to say it is: be alert! Starting in verse 28 he tells them that they will be able to tell just from being observant. In verse 30 he says, “It’s going to happen in your life time—this generation will not pass away until all these things have happened…” He says no one knows when this will happen—even Jesus is limited at this point—but they are to watch and be on guard. Don’t spend time trying to calculate and project dates—just be alert and prepared to act. Again, the wording of this passage indicates not some far away in the future event—but something that is imminent, within a generation, within their life time. Jesus is not saying: “Guys, you need to pass this on for future generations, because this is several thousands of years down the road.” He says: “You had better be alert—it’s going to happen in your life time!”

Ok, let’s wrap this all up—what does this have to do with us today? Nice history lesson, Darryl. But if this actually happened nearly 2000 years ago, is there any message for us? Well, the obvious message is: don’t go off on strange end time prophecies or go crazy with worry when you hear of earthquakes or wars. God’s people should not be seen as folks running around half-cocked screaming like chicken little: "The sky is falling!" How many times have we evangelicals predicted the end of the world? How often have we been wrong? One-hundred percent of the time! What kind of witness is that to a skeptical culture?

Another message comes to us from the Apostle Peter who writes his letter almost at the beginning of the Roman-Jewish war. He’s been watching what’s going on: he knows the signs! He writes in 1 Peter 4:7-11
The end of all things is near. Therefore be clear minded and self-controlled so that you can pray. Above all, love each other deeply, because love covers over a multitude of sins. Offer hospitality to one another without grumbling. Each one should use whatever gift he has received to serve others, faithfully administering God's grace in its various that in all things God may be praised through Jesus Christ. To him be the glory and the power for ever and ever. Amen.
This applies today, doesn’t it? When the world falls apart—when nations are at war, when Christians begin to be persecuted, more than ever you need to be alert, love on each other, practice hospitality, and serve with all of God’s might. Keep doing his will! That's good advice in any age.

And don’t forget—while the passages we’ve studied refer to the destruction of Jerusalem, the New Testament writers do speak of final judgment. Christ will set the world completely to rights—there will be a resurrection, and the end of time will come. So our job is to continue to be alert. Live each day as if it is the final day. Love as if this is the last day you can love, serve as if there is no tomorrow, touch the world as if you won’t have the opportunity again! Not out of fear--but out of excitement and love!

So, may you live each day as if it is the end of time! May you love like there is no tomorrow. May you share God’s goodness with others as if there will be no more opportunity. And may you enjoy what God has given and praise him—even when the world falls apart around you!


Darryl said...

Some have asked me if I believe at least the last part of Mark 13 speaks of the end of the world. Personally, I don't believe so. I think even the phrases about the "elect being gathered from the four corners" refers to the Gentile mission. The Son of Man coming on the clouds refers to Daniel 7 where Jesus is going up to the Father to take his place of authority. That happened following his resurrection.

Darryl said...

Another point: some have suggested "generation" can be translated "race" implying that the Jewish race will not be destroyed until all of these things take place. I think it interesting that no major version of the Bible will use "race" as the primary translation of the word. "Race" does not make sense in the context and it is certainly an unusual way to translate the word. Those versions that place it as an alternate translation in the footnotes do so either out of bias or pressure.