Living Between the End and the End

*Originally given at Midtown Christian Community, October 9, 2010.

I’ve always been deathly afraid of passages like Mark 13.  I grew up in an evangelical culture that would read passages like Mark 13 as wild and woolly predictions of end-times cataclysms, assigning biblical significance to contemporary events.  Back in the 1980’s, the big fear was the Soviet Union and of course we all knew that America enjoyed Most Favored Nation status with God, so in some way biblical prophecies of gloom and doom were involved in current international relations.  “This passage right here in Revelation has to do with the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty; and this one in Matthew probably refers to Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative.”

Such interpretive moves never sat well with me.  Why would Jesus be talking to a bunch of illiterate fisherman about global politics 2,000 years down the road, and why would the Apostle John be concerned with Cold War stand-offs when writing words of comfort to the churches of Asia Minor?

I didn’t really have answers to all this, but when I come across passages like ours for this evening, I start to get really nervous and agitated and would just rather not deal with them at all.  Perhaps Don feels the same way and so he dumped Mark 13 in my lap so he didn’t have to talk about helicopters with the heads of grasshoppers and armies of locusts coming west from Siberia to begin a world takeover.

What brought me a measure of comfort was the fact that the disciples ask Jesus the same question that many would have asked in the church where I grew up.  “This is all so fascinating, Jesus, how will we know that it’s all about to happen?  Do you have any charts that we could use to map all this out and trace it as it unfolds?”

Jesus doesn’t bother to answer their question, but instead in v. 5 begins to exhort them regarding what they should be concerned about.  And again, in v. 32, Jesus admits that the Son of Man has not been informed about when this will all take place.  Only God the Father knows this, so don’t worry about that, says Jesus.  In the meantime, you have some responsibilities.  And here they are.

Let’s walk through this passage a bit in order to understand the situation that Jesus’ disciples are in and what he tells them to do.  That way we can invite Mark into our life together as a community and discover together what Jesus wants us to do.

For a while now in Mark, Jesus has been predicting the end of his life and the destruction of Jerusalem.  God has rendered his verdict on Jerusalem and the temple as an institution.  It is not functioning at all as God had intended, and Jesus has already condemned it to eventual destruction.  This was pictured earlier in Mark by Jesus cursing the fig tree.  Back then, Peter, after seeing the fig tree withered, had said, “Look, Teacher, the fig tree you cursed has withered.”  Mark, the master storyteller, has one of the disciples open up Mark 13 with an almost exact quotation, “Look, Teacher, what massive stones!  What magnificent buildings!”

Good readers of Mark are supposed to take the hint—the fig tree is the Temple; the temple is the fig tree.

Yes, impressive stones indeed!  They will share the same fate as the withered tree.

Jesus goes on, in fact, to predict the temple’s destruction—not one stone will remain upon another.  He is referring to the coming of the Romans to completely devastate Judea and Jerusalem.  And when you read the history of all of this, it is stomach-turning.  Much of what Jesus predicts happens, and even worse—pervasive cannibalism, people cooking dung in order to survive.

But Jesus’ instruction here is to be on guard.  Watch out that you are not deceived by false Christs.  Further, when you are persecuted, take comfort because the Holy Spirit will empower you to know how to act.  When accused, just say what comes to mind and it will be God himself who will be giving you the words to say.

But this wave of persecution and intense suffering is not yet the end of the world, says Jesus in v. 7.

In fact, says Jesus, when you see something like what Daniel spoke about—the abomination of desolation—you need to get moving.

What’s going on here?  Well, about 200 years previous to Jesus’ day, Antiochus Epiphanes defiled the temple with pagan sacrifices—the abomination of desolation, as Daniel talks about.

This is going to happen again, but this time it will be the Romans who come into the temple and defile it.  The Roman emperor Caligula had a massive statue of himself set up in the temple and before the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70, the defilement of the temple is again imminent.

Jesus says that when this happens, it would be wise to flee to the north.  For Mark’s readers in Jerusalem in the late 60’s, this would have been taken as an endorsement of the prophecy given in that church that they were to flee north to Pella in order to survive the coming destruction.

But Jesus again makes the point that these events are not the end.  Before the end comes, the gospel must be preached to all the nations.

The instruction in Mark 13, therefore, is how Jesus’ disciples—including us—are supposed to live between the end and the end—the end of Jerusalem and the end of the world.

Certainly the end of Jerusalem must have felt like the end of the world for Jesus’ first followers.  For thousands of years, the Jewish people have always had Jerusalem.  How can you even conceive of following the God of Israel without God’s favorite city around?  How can you even maintain the existence of the God of Israel, if his home city is destroyed?  Usually if that happens, you’d have to assume that he’s not strong enough to defend it.

So, the end of Jerusalem actually would have really shaken up the first followers of Jesus, and it would literally have felt like the end of the world.  It would have thrown them into confusion and turmoil.

Without Jerusalem and its temple—without the singular defining piece of real estate that oriented everything about their lives and their community self-understanding—how do we even go on from here?

That’s what Mark 13 is all about.  And Jesus tells them to be on guard and watch out for false ways.  Jesus has showed them the way—self-sacrifice; service to others; cultivating a community of cross-shaped social dynamics; self-giving unto death for the sake of others.

If anyone tells you otherwise, especially if they want to take up arms and overthrow Rome, do not listen.

He also tells them to remain faithful to their gospel task.  The gospel must be preached, so keep at it.  Remain faithful even in the face of persecution for the sake of Christ.

And thirdly, be wise.  There is no virtue in staying in Jerusalem as it is surrounded by the Romans and finally completely destroyed.  In fact, Jesus says they’re going to need to leave the city at some point, and if they wait too long, it’s going to be rough.  What if some women are pregnant and it’s winter!?  This is very unspiritual counsel that Jesus gives—but very practical.  The cash value of this instruction is simply this—be wise.  Don’t be foolish.  Read the signs of the times and be ready to move if you need to.

So, while Mark 13 is loaded with all sorts of bizarre-sounding stuff, it’s actually a chapter loaded with practical counsel about living wisely when the world is coming apart.  Even if it feels like all you know is coming crashing down—beware, because that’s not yet the end.  The end will come, but only God knows when it will come.  Just make sure he finds you being faithful to what you know you should be doing.  Do that, says Jesus, and you’ll be doing all you need to worry about.

That’s Mark 13 for Jesus’ first followers.  What about us?  Let’s now invite Mark 13 into our community and let it do some work here.  What does this crazy passage have to say to us?

Our world is not coming apart—at least for most of us.  Sure, times might be tough, but none of us are yet resorting to cannibalism . . . so far as I know, anyway.  Our lives are pretty comfortable, and our stresses don’t come from needing to survive, but from striving to get ahead or to ensure a comfortable future for ourselves and for our children.

Jesus keeps repeating himself throughout Mark 13—don’t get caught up in curiosities, and don’t worry about figuring out the end-times, but “be on guard,” “watch out for false Christs,” “watch out for anyone claiming to show you another way,” and finally, “watch!”

So let’s talk about this, and here are some questions to guide our discussion: What are our temptations?  What are the ways we are tempted by false Christs?  What are some alternative voices out there that call to us?

And what about possible ways our community needs to think about being wise?  We’re considering a move to a new place—any wisdom for that?  Is there anything else we need to keep in mind as our community is in transition?

4 thoughts on “Living Between the End and the End

  1. gordyb74

    Tim, thank you for this. I am in the unenviable position of having an interest in biblical studies but with no opportunities to continue studying, so I am trying to gain what understanding I can, and your blog is very helpful. Can I ask, will you finish your overview of Romans, and secondly, is George Beasely-Murray’s book on Mark 13 of value.

    Again, thanks.

    1. timgombis

      Gordy, glad to hear this. I haven’t read Beasley-Murray, so I can’t comment. But I’m hoping to get back to Romans very soon . . . perhaps this week?

  2. Andrew T.

    You wrote “Good readers of Mark are supposed to take the hint—the fig tree is the Temple; the temple is the fig tree.

    Perhaps that is true if we take the hint as Pharisees or Saduccess, but not if take is as good Christian’s. Jesus taught us better than that and the language of biblical prophecy is consistent throughout the bible. Does the fig tree represent the temple?

    It makes most sense to see the fig tree as Jerusalem inhabited by residue of the House of Judah (so Jerusalem as the Sanctuary of the Lord). By cursing the fig tree, Jesus is shifting his sanctuary (meaning the Holy Spirit) into the ‘New Jerusalem’ or new covenant Israelites. He is cursing the ‘old Jerusalem’ saying that no more will it produce faith (which is the figs).

    For evidence the fig tree and figs were the House of Judah and Jerusalem see [Jer 8:13] “When I would gather them (the sheep of the House of Judah) there are no grapes on the vine, nor figs on the fig tree (meaning they would have little or no faith); even the leaves are withered.. ” (this is also very reminiscent of [Matt 24:32][Luke 21:30] speaking of the emergence of faith)

    God didn’t care about the temple. It was a symbol, an idol, a house made of stone. God wanted a House made of soft flesh. He did care about where the sanctuary of the Lord resided (hence the need for Pentecost):
    Judah became his sanctuary, Israel his dominion” [Psa 114:2]
    And he will become a sanctuary and a stone of offence and rock of stumbling to both houses of Israel, a trap and a snare to the in habitants of Jerusalem.” [Isa 8:14]
    I shall make a covenant of peace with them. It shall be an everlasting covenant with them. And I shall set them in their land and multiply them, and will set my sanctuary in their midst forevermore.

    Symbolically figs can be understood starting in [Jer 24:3-10] (explained somewhat in [Jer 29:15-18]). This symbol may be discern clearly. The symbols of grapes and figs are repeated again in [Hos 9:10] and [Joel 1:7,12] as well as other spots.

    Before looking too much further though, there is another symbol here which isn’t as obvious, but it’s worth noting. The ancient word for hedge (and also the word booth (actually booth of woven branches)) was the word סֻכָּה (sükkä H5221). (Think of “I am the vine, and you are the branches”). This word ‘hedge’ is also where the word “succoth” comes from. The idea we shouldn’t miss is that the assembly of Israel (or the ἐκκλησία as it would be in Greek) was the habitation of the Lord. So seeing the Biblical references to the Feast of Booths (of woven branches), which was also known as the Feast of the Tabernacle, we can’t miss that it was a celebration that God indwelled Israel, and that his vineyard was hedged in (protected). When you see the hedge being taken away in [Isa 5:5], it represents God removing his protection (removing his tabernacle) to allowed Babylon and Assyria to enter in. This should immediately raise thoughts of Rome’s later conquest of Jerusalem after Jesus had been crucified.

    With that, lets look again at Jesus’ parable in [Luke 13:6-7] where the master of the vineyard could find no fruit on the fig tree that was planted in the midst of the vineyard. (Also in Matt 21:33-41]) We already know the prophetic symbol for the fig tree, figs, and the vineyard, and we know who the man is; so what figs did Jesus find within the city He entered immediately after cursing the fig tree? Why was He crying over the city? Clearly his parable in [Luke 13:6-7] was related to the fig tree he cursed (in both Mark and Matthew) and represented those he was about to face, and their fate (as you say – judgement!).

    Finally by looking at the warning in [Matt 21:43] to the bad figs, we see that God is about to fulfil what He said he would in [Jeremiah 24:3-10] as the remnant who cared more for their Babylonian religion [Jer 29:15-18] than the living God who walked among them [Lev 26:12].

    Lets ask ourselves this; has that figurative ‘fig tree’ in the midst of the vineyard, produced figs since it was cursed or has it been nothing but a curse itself ever since? There is much more here we could see if we cared to look (for example how the meaning of [Matt 24:32] and [Luke 21:30] are related to [Isa 28:4] and [Micah 7:1])

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