We have an unusually long text to read this morning – in fact the longest block of teaching in the Gospel of Mark – and so I will not take time to comment on it as we read it.
When this passage is read, very often the interest is to determine what support it offers or what difficulties it poses to the various schools of thought regarding eschatology or the end times. There is no getting around this because obviously we do want to know what Jesus meant by what he said and different interpreters understand him differently. What is more, there are undoubtedly difficulties here, which is why good men who agree about so much come to quite different conclusions about this passage. It would be neither illuminating nor edifying for me to attempt this morning to sort out all these differences of opinion. But some introduction is necessary to aid us in grasping the main point.
As you may know this teaching about the future that we have in Mark 13 is usually referred to as “The Olivette Discourse” because, as we read in v. 3, the Lord spoke these words while sitting with his disciples on the Mount of Olives, opposite Jerusalem, overlooking the city and the temple. You have this same discourse in its longest form in Matthew 24 and again in Luke 21.
Most commentators – not all, but most – accept that in the Olivette Discourse the Lord had two horizons before him as he spoke, one near and one far: the destruction of the temple and of the city of Jerusalem in A.D. 70 in the first place – an event that was to occur some 40 years later – and, in the second place, his second coming and the consummation of history at the end of the age. Here in Mark 13 we have the disciples first make a remark about the temple and its grandeur which prompts Jesus in v. 2 to predict its destruction. The disciples a short while later ask him when that will happen and “what will be the sign that all these things are about to be accomplished,” [ESV] the more literal reading of their question. Whether they understood that they were asking two separate questions about two very different moments in world history, they did in fact ask both about the temple and the end of the age. This is clearer still in Matthew 24:3 where the disciples are said expressly to have asked the Lord both concerning the destruction of the temple and the Lord’s coming again or “the end of the age.” No doubt at first they thought that would happen all at the same time. Now that phrase, “the end of the age,” elsewhere in the Gospels explicitly refers to the Lord’s second coming at the end of time, but even the phrase “all these things” in Mark 13:4 or when Jesus speaks of “the end” in v. 7, may easily enough be understood to be a reference to the consummation. It is very likely that the disciples thought of the two things together – the destruction of the temple and the consummation of history – but the Lord’s reply indicates that they are separate events and will not occur at the same time. And so the Lord answers their question by telling them about both things they have asked him about: the destruction of the temple and the city, Jerusalem, on the one hand and the end of history on the other. Most commentators, accordingly, find the Lord’s teaching here to be concerned about two things and two times: one long since behind us, one for which we still wait. That is not surprising at all. The church, even the small believing church of the Lord’s day, had all manner of misconceptions about the Messiah and his ministry. They did not understood what he would do when he came into the world. They certainly did not understand or expect that he would come not once, but twice and that in between his two comings would again stretch long years of waiting. They did not expect that the church after their time would wait for the Messiah’s second coming just as they had waited long years for his first.
Many of you will be aware that this interpretation – that Jesus is talking both about A.D. 70 and about the end of the world – has been strongly challenged in recent years by the new breed of postmillennialists, some of whom argue that there is little or no reference to the second coming in the Olivette Discourse; that the Lord, in fact, was predicting and describing only the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple in AD. 70. This is known as the “preterist” interpretation (from the Latin word meaning “past”) because it is held that everything the Lord spoke of here has already happened; it lies for us in the past, even in the distant past.
According to this understanding, when, for example, the Lord spoke in vv. 24-25 of the sun being darkened and the moon not giving light, of stars failing from the sky and heavenly bodies being shaken, when he spoke of his own coming on the clouds, he was using biblical figures of speech to describe his coming in judgment and salvation; he was speaking of the destruction of Jerusalem and of the advance of the Gospel through the world that would begin at Pentecost. He was speaking of this age, not the end of the age. So the angels who gather his elect from the four winds, in v. 27, are a way of speaking of the spread of the gospel through the world, the worldwide evangelistic mission of the church. He was speaking in other words, of events which at least had begun to happen long ago. In other words, a reader of Mark 13 is to look backward, not forward to discover what Jesus was talking about.
The chief argument for this interpretation is found in verse 30 where the Lord says, “I tell you the truth, this generation will not pass away until all these things have happened.” If the Lord promised his disciples that their generation would not pass away before all he was speaking of had come to pass, then, obviously, he could not have been talking about the Second Coming which still has not occurred these 2000 years later. He must have meant and only meant the destruction of Jerusalem which happened just 40 years later when at least some of the disciples and certainly many of their contemporaries were still alive.
But that argument is not as persuasive as it may first appear. It is possible, even more clearly in Matthew and Luke, to take the Lord’s statement about that generation not passing away until everything is fulfilled to refer only to the destruction of Jerusalem; not to the second coming. Remember the Lord is answering two separate questions – whether or not the disciples at the moment understood that they had in fact asked two separate questions – one concerning the temple and the other concerning the end of the age.
As I said it would not be helpful to attempt to unravel all the issues here, but there are clearly references to more than simply the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple in AD. 70. In v. 10 we have a reference to the preaching of the gospel to all nations and in Matthew a point is made of saying that only when that preaching was complete would the end come. In Luke the account of the Great Tribulation, which we have here in v. 19, is followed by the statement that Jerusalem will be trampled on by the Gentiles until the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled. But no contemporaries of Jesus lived to see that! Indeed you and I have not yet seen that! In Luke’s account of the Olivette discourse, after repeating the Lord’s words about all these things being fulfilled before this generation passes away, Luke adds the Lord’s statement that the day he is talking about, the Last Day, will come upon all those who live on the face of the earth, which does not seem to be likely a reference to the destruction of the single city of Jerusalem. And all of those considerations are beside the question whether the citations from Isaiah 13 here in vv. 24 and 25 and the reference to his angels gathering the elect from the ends of the earth in v. 27 can, in the context of the Gospels, be taken in any other way than as a reference to the Second Coming of Jesus Christ and the end of the age. Elsewhere in the Gospels and the rest of the New Testament those images and those statements are always unmistakably a reference to the Second Coming and the end of history.
I read though a sampling of the literature on all sides of this question this past week and I remain confident that the Lord has in view two horizons in his Olivette Discourse – one near, one distant – both that of A.D. 70 and that of the consummation at his Second Coming. The vast majority of biblical commentators have always thought so and, I believe, with good reason. All of that by way of introduction.
However, there is an important implication of the mixing of these two separate horizons in the Lord’s prediction of the future. Many have come to think that the ambiguity here – Is he talking about A.D. 70 or is he talking about the end of history immediately before and at his Second Coming? — that all of that ambiguity is intentional. And the Lord’s reason for being ambiguous about this is that the destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70 is a portent, an anticipation of the judgment to come upon the entire world and the entire human race at the Last Day. It is, after all, warning that is the Lord’s primary theme here. The Lord is putting his people on guard from the beginning of this chapter to the end. A day is coming for which they must be prepared. It is a Day they will be tempted to forget all about, but they must not. The Second Coming is, of course, wonderful news for the people of God. It will be the dawning of eternal day for them. But here, in the prospect, the Lord’s concern is that they not forget that he is coming again and that they not begin to live their lives as if he were not. The tenor and tone of this chapter is not joyful expectation but thoughtful and serious anticipation of the catastrophe that will end all hope for large numbers of people in the world. Do not be numbered among them! Watch! Take care!
That is the real theme here. Take care to be sure that you will stand, even in the face of great opposition and fierce trial, and that you will be ready to receive the Lord when he comes. That is why we have the two horizons mixed together here. The connection between these two events – the destruction of Jerusalem and the end of history – has long been noticed and understood. The one judgment – the judgment of the Jewish people for their rejection of the Messiah, which culminated in the destruction of their capital city and the complete demolition of the temple, was a perfect sign of God’s rejection and judgment of his people. That was all a foretaste, a foreshadowing of the great judgment of all unbelievers at the end of the world.
You remember how the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah in ancient times was often used by biblical writers as a picture or anticipation of a still greater judgment to come. So too were the destruction of the northern kingdom and its capital, Samaria, by the Assyrians and then the southern kingdom and its capital, Jerusalem, by the Babylonians. We saw in our recent studies in Ezekiel that the prophet moves easily and naturally back and forth between the one horizon, Jerusalem in 586 B.C. to be destroyed as a judgment of God against the sin of his people and the other, the end of history and the Last Judgment. And so it is not surprising that the judgment brought against Jerusalem in A.D. 70 should also serve as an anticipation, a foreshadowing of a greater judgment yet to come. In each case the instrument of God’s judgment is immaterial, that that brings the destruction and accomplishes it is unimportant: it is God who is judging sinners – whether he uses Babylonians or Romans or Al Qaeda for that matter – and we learn from these prototypical judgments the reality, the finality, and the ferocity of the divine wrath which someday will come upon all impenitent sinners. Just as God teaches us the nature of salvation by showing its pattern in such great events as the exodus from Egypt and the conquest of the promised land, so God reveals the pattern and the nature of his coming judgment by likening it to catastrophes he has brought upon people and his own people on account of their sins.
It is only natural then and to be expected that the Lord Jesus’ own great prophecy, given there on the Mount of Olives just a few days before his crucifixion – just a few days before was committed the greatest sin every to be committed by human beings in the history of the world, a sin committed by God’s own people – I say, it is only to be expected in the context of the whole Bible that he should draw together the judgment of his people that was about to befall them for their unbelief and disobedience and the final judgment of all mankind. The one is the anticipation, the picture, the pattern of the other.
And for that reason, brothers and sisters, we have every reason, as our Savior urges us here, to cultivate a godly fear, to remain alert and watchful, and never to live our lives as if that great day of doom were not hurtling toward us and everyone else at breakneck speed. For, the fact is, the destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70, that was only an anticipation, a foreshadowing of a far greater Day of Judgment and divine wrath, was a terrible thing. We say it so easily today. It rolls off our tongue. “Jerusalem and the temple were destroyed in A.D. 70.” But as an event in human life it was nothing short of the horrifying kind of catastrophe that the Jews suffered in the mid-20th century. Sodom and Gomorrah had nothing on this! For the Sodomites it was mercifully quick. They were alive one moment and dead the next. But not so the Jews in Jerusalem in the first century.
I read once again this past week some of the first century Jewish historian Josephus’s account of the rebellion of the Jews against the Romans that began in A.D. 66 and the brutal suppression of that rebellion that was completed by the Roman general Titus with the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple in A.D. 70. There was fighting, of course, on and off through the early years of the rebellion and death in battle; but that was the lightest part of their suffering. The long months of siege took a terrible toll. Famine began to claim its victims by the scores and then by the hundreds. Dead bodies began to pile up in the streets because soon there were not enough healthy men able to bury the dead or who cared enough to do it. The stench of rotting flesh was everywhere. And then came the terrible corruption of human nature that invariably occurs in such desperate times, as folk turned on one another and committed unspeakable acts against one another in a mad frenzy to find food or to acquire the money with which to bribe their way into the Roman lines. The cruelty that overwhelmed the population of that city during its siege was by all accounts the ugliest feature of that time. Brother did turn against brother, even betray him to death and parents did turn against their children just as Jesus said they would some 40 years before the event!
And then, finally, the cannibalism, mothers cooking and eating even their own children to survive. Those long, ghastly months of daily inhuman savagery and overwhelming hopelessness are what are meant by “the destruction of Jerusalem” and why the Lord said, with his perfect foreknowledge in v. 17, “How dreadful it will be in those days…. There will be great distress in the land and wrath against this people.” Truer words were never spoken!
The great theme of divine judgment was much on the Lord’s mind those days. Some of his most solemn teaching concerning the last day – his parables of the ten virgins and of the separation of the sheep and the goats – were given then; in all likelihood on the very same day as he delivered to his disciples the Olivette Discourse. And no wonder. The greatest single crime against God and man was about to be committed; an entire people were storing up for themselves the wrath of God. Salvation for those who believe – yes; absolutely, wonderfully so; but for the rest, what?
Now, the all-important fact of the matter as we consider this text today in our own historical moment is that in our time, the Lord’s warnings have fallen on entirely deaf ears. In our time people have completely lost touch with this expectation of a day of judgment. It is literally “unthinkable” to them, by which I mean it is an idea which carries no weight in our current intellectual and spiritual environment. People worry about many things, we may worry more than any people who have lived before us; we worry about many things, but we do not worry about divine judgment and we certainly do not worry, as a people, about the divine judgment, the great day which has been foreshadowed in so many of the human catastrophes of the past and continues to be foreshadowed by event after event after event in our own time. In 1995 the U.S. Postal Service scrapped plans to distribute a stamp commemorating the end of the Second World War. The stamp was to have a picture of a mushroom cloud on it but it was felt that such a stamp might offend the sensibilities of the Japanese people. It is right, absolutely right, to think about the feelings of others. But neither Americans nor Japanese were of a mind to think that Hiroshima and Nagasaki were most important for being pale shadows and images of the wrath of God yet to be visited upon a sinful world at the coming again of the Lord Jesus Christ. What makes Hiroshima and Nagasaki so significant is not the number of people who died there or even the fact that they were a means by which to end the Second World War. What makes them so significant is that they are foreshadowings of the end of time and the fate of countless multitudes of human beings.
In late February there came the report of another of these surveys of American religious life and opinion sponsored by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. Its results were unremarkable, pretty much those you might expect and that you have heard reported before. There was little surprise in the statistics reported in other words. But a liberal Roman Catholic wrote the Washington Post’s story on the survey. One result reported in the survey is that there is a very large number of lapsed Roman Catholics in the United States, that is, people who have a Catholic background but do not attend worship, don’t practice the Christian faith in any recognizable form, and don’t identify themselves any longer as Roman Catholics. That is hardly news. But, according to the Post story, the reason for this is that years ago the reason people stayed faithful to the church was because of family pressure, ethnic neighborhoods, and the like, not because of personal commitment and real belief. People also stuck with the church “out of fear of damnation.” But, says the article, people don’t believe that kind of thing anymore. Catholics became better educated, moved to the suburbs, and forgot all about damnation. [In First Things (May 2008) 68] The writer obviously thought that a good thing; a positive development.
Now, as an intellectual phenomenon, it should not surprise us that an unwelcome idea can eventually achieve the status of an unthinkable idea, something incredible, an idea no one or very few give any credence to; an idea that most stop thinking about or considering altogether. This has happened countless times in human history and happens today, even when the idea is not only perfectly plausible, but much more deserving of attention and belief than its denial. Such is the tenacity of the human mind in grasping ideas it prefers – whatever the evidence – in order to avoid accepting ideas it hates or fears.
We think ourselves so sophisticated in the twentieth century, so scientific in our approach to truth. The fact is we choose what we believe, in the most important cases, as human beings always have: according to what we want to be true! As Malcolm Muggeridge wrote in his autobiography Chronicles of Wasted Time: “I…learnt at an early age the great truth that the twentieth century is an age of almost inconceivable credulity…” He meant, of all the centuries of human history, no historical period surpasses our own time for its capacity to believe anything, absolutely anything, no matter how preposterous, if only it suits our fancy.
In the age of embryology we can still confidently proclaim that the baby in the womb is not a human being. In the age of biochemistry and genetics, in a time marked by the discovery of the stupefyingly complex workings within a single cell, we can still confidently believe that life is actually a freak accident. All around us we rub shoulders with people who cannot believe, will not accept, what is obviously and undeniably true: that he is an alcoholic, that she is preparing to marry a man who will make her life pure misery, that adding one more expense to the credit card will not matter, that he had reason to speak or act as he did, and on and on. Saddam Hussein actually thought he could defeat the Western powers. The Jews in A.D. 66 actually thought they had the Roman Empire on the run! Later it was easy to see how preposterous that notion was, but that was later, when it was far too late. They actually thought they had the Roman Empire on the run!
And, today, very few people in our culture are prepared to admit, even to entertain the possibility that they have anything to fear from the wrath and the judgment of Almighty God. Even though the world rings with portents of that judgment!
We have imbibed, as a culture, a view of ourselves and of God that renders us largely immune to the prospect of punishment. Modern psychology, in many of its forms, has encouraged us to see ourselves largely as the victim of forces beyond our control, rather than as responsible persons fully accountable for our thoughts, words, and actions. No doubt you have heard the Psychiatric Folksong:
At three I had a feeling of ambivalence toward my brothers,
And so it follows naturally I poisoned all my lovers.
But now I’m happy; I have learned the lesson this has taught;
That everything I do that’s wrong is someone else’s fault.
And to this self-regarding culture we have added a view of God – Oh yes, our culture still believes in God, 80% to 90% of us always say we do – a view of God that omits almost altogether his holiness. And, most unfortunately, the believing Christian church has contributed to and encouraged that diminishment of God as “The Holy One” in the mind of our age.
And so we think of God as largely harmless even though the world rings with judgment, with the moral seriousness of life, and with portents everywhere of a coming wrath. Human beings give assent to this fact in so many ways however unwittingly. I could enumerate them at length. Let me mention just one. Have you noticed how people so easily assume that good people – or those they consider to have been good people; especially their loved ones – find a life of peace and happiness awaiting them in the hereafter? I worked in a mortuary for three years. Everyone talks this way. But no one speaks of such peace, happiness, and tranquility for villains. They don’t imagine Hitler or Saddam Hussein or Jeffrey Dahmer or Gary Ridgeway walking with our loved ones, patting them on the back, exchanging cheerful greetings in some grassy glade, all light and fragrant. We cannot believe that! We know it is not like that.
Our own consciences tell us that there is a judgment, but concerning it our culture and almost everyone in the culture remains profoundly indifferent. We will be alright; God will forgive us — C’est son metier, it is his job; we are not villains!
Well, brothers and sisters, the Jews were not villains as we count villains either. They were upright, moral, religious, sincere, family-loving folk, who crucified the Lord of Glory, and for which they suffered the wrath of God in A.D. 70, the same wrath all will suffer who do not repent and find peace with God through Jesus Christ his Son.
People often say that they would believe in God or believe more in him if only he would reveal himself. Woody Allen’s famous line is only a crude version of this idea: “If only God would give me some clear sign,” he said. “Like making a large deposit in my name at some Swiss Bank!” Or take this from Norwood Russell Hanson, the philosopher of science at Yale until his premature death [Moreland (ed.), The Creation Hypothesis, p. 117:
I’m not a stubborn guy. I would be a theist under some conditions. I’m open-minded… Okay. Okay. The conditions are these: Suppose, next Tuesday morning, just after breakfast, all of us in this one world are knocked to our knees by a percussive and ear-shattering thunderclap. Snow swirls, leaves drop from trees, the earth heaves and buckles, buildings topple and towers tumble. The sky is ablaze with an eerie silvery light, and just then, as all of the people of this world look up, the heavens open, and the clouds pull apart, revealing an unbelievably radiant and immense Zeus-like figure towering over us like a hundred Everests. He frowns darkly as lightning plays over the features of his Michelangeloid face, and then he points down, at me, and explains for every man, woman and child to hear “I’ve had quite enough of your too-clever logic chopping and word-watching in matters of theology. Be assured, Norwood Russell Hanson, that I do most certainly exist!”
It is eerie, uncanny how like that day in Hanson’s imagination the Second Coming must be; but given what I have already said, I expect Hanson was fooling himself. He would have found some other explanation for this figure of such majesty before him. Perhaps it would have been Fred Hoyle’s alien visiting the world again as he must have once before to get life started in the first place.
But the fact is God said that to Prof. Hanson many times, he is saying that in every human being’s conscience, and he is saying it powerfully in all of the foreshadowing, all of the anticipation of divine judgment that we see everywhere we look. We hear the threatening voice of the Holy God, we hear it every day. Jesus Christ himself warned us not to mistake his moral seriousness. He predicted the terrible destruction of the Jews in AD. 70, which came to pass just as he said – a foretaste, a portent of a far greater and more final day of wrath at the end of time that will come upon all those who live on the face of the whole earth.
Imagine someone in the twin towers – perhaps you already have – seeing out his window the approaching airliner. Would he have held up his hands and ordered the airplane to stop. “No! You cannot come in here! I won’t have it!” No one said that in those terrified few moments. No, the end had come. Whatever one thought the future would be, this was not it, but this is what was upon them and they could do nothing to stop it.
The only life which is safe and secure in this world, is that life which has taken all of this so seriously, has believed it all so completely, that refuge from that day of wrath been sought and found in Jesus Christ.
“Prepare to meet your God…” The prophet Amos.
“Flee from the wrath to come…” John the Baptist.
“May you find mercy from the Lord on that day!” The Apostle Paul.
“Be always on the watch, and pray that you may be able to escape all that is about to happen, and that you may be able to stand before the Son of Man.” Jesus Christ