April 18, 2013
Dear brothers and sisters,
I am taking the good news today from Mark 13:1-4 and 14-20.
As he was making his way out of the temple area one of his disciples said to him, “Look, teacher, what stones and what buildings!” Jesus said to him, “Do you see these great buildings? There will not be one stone left upon another that will not be thrown down. As he was sitting on the Mount of Olives opposite the temple area, Peter, James, John, and Andrew asked him privately, “Tell us, when will this happen, and what sign will there be when all these things are about to come to an end?”….”When you see the desolating abomination standing where he should not (let the reader understand), then those in Judea must flee to the mountains, [and] a person on a housetop must not go down or enter to get anything out of his house, and a person in a field must not return to get his cloak. Woe to pregnant women and nursing mothers in those days. Pray that this does not happen in winter. For those times will have tribulation such as has not been since the beginning of God’s creation until now, nor ever will be. If the Lord had not shortened those days, no one would be saved; but for the sake of the elect whom he chose, he did shorten the days.”;
Barclay states that this chapter is one of the most difficult for the modern reader to understand as it requires one to take on the mind of the Jews of that time and their knowledge of their own history. Mark used language and images that were very familiar to his readers but are nearly inscrutable for us. He also suggests reading these verses in a different order to facilitate understanding. This chapter should not be disregarded because of what it tells us about the second coming of Christ.
The Temple which Herod built was completed only seven years before its destruction. It was built on top of Mount Moriah. However, instead of leveling the top, massive retaining walls were constructed, raising the Temple high above everything around it. Josephus described some of these stones as forty feet long by twelve feet high by eighteen feet wide! “[T]his Temple appeared to strangers, when they were at a distance, like a mountain covered with snow, for, as to those parts of it which were not gilt, they were exceedingly white.” There was an incredible bridge which crossed the valley to the southwest leading directly into the most magnificent entrance to the Temple, the Royal Porch. The bridge roadway towered 225 feet above the valley and measured 50 feet in breadth. Each supporting arch was 41.5 feet with some of the stones were 24 feet long. The length of the bridge was 354 feet. The Royal Porch was lined with a double row of Corinthian columns reaching 37.5 feet, each one cut from a single block of white marble. “Now the outward face of the Temple in its front wanted nothing that was likely to surprise men’s minds or their eyes, for it was covered all over with plates of gold of great weight, and, at the first rising of the sun, reflected back a very fiery splendor, and made those who force themselves to look upon it to turn their eyes away, just as they would have done at the sun’s own rays.”
The disciple was rightly impressed by one of the wonders of the world. Additionally, as Barclay writes, “The Temple seemed the summit of human art and achievement, and seemed so vast and solid that it would stand for ever.” So, you can imagine how shocking it was to hear Jesus say that it would be completely torn asunder.
Barclay suggests that one overriding idea must be kept in mind while reading this chapter. “The Jews never doubted that they were the chosen people, and they never doubted that one day they would occupy the place in the world which the chosen people, as they saw it, deserved and were bound to have in the end. They had long since abandoned the idea that they could ever win that place by human means and they were confident that in the end God would directly intervene in history and win it for them. The day of God’s intervention was the day of the Lord. Before that day of the Lord there would be a time of terror and trouble when the world would be shaken to its foundations and judgment would come. But it would be followed by the new world and the new age and the new glory….They did not look for reformation. They looked for a re-creating of the entire scheme of things.
“Between the Old and the New Testaments there was a time when the Jews knew no freedom. It was therefore only natural that their hopes and dreams of the day of the Lord would become even more vivid. In that time a kind of popular religious literature grew up. Jesus would know it. All the Jews would be familiar with its picture. The writings of which this literature consisted were called Apocalypses….These book were dreams and visions of what would happen when the day of the Lord came and in the terrible time immediately before it….They were attempts to paint the unpaintable and to speak the unspeakable. They were poetry, not prose. They were visions, not science. They were dreams, not history. They were never meant to be taken prosaically as maps of the future and timetables of events to come….Jesus was taking the language, the imagery, the apparatus of apocalyptic literature, and using it to try to make people understand.”
It was this end time that Peter and the other disciples asked Jesus about. Keep in mind that when Mark wrote his gospel Jerusalem had just been destroyed by the Romans or its fall was imminent. So Mark’s community and later readers were living in the in-between time — the time between the destruction of Jerusalem and the end of the world, the day of the Lord. These early Christian Jews expected that the end was imminent, that Jesus was coming again any day. They naturally wanted to know when and what signs would herald its coming.
The desolating abomination of which Jesus speaks probably referred to the Roman general Titus who laid siege to Jerusalem and later become emperor. He destroyed the Temple and the entire city during which 1.1 million people starved to death or were slain. It has earlier references, though, as well. The Book of Daniel is apocalyptic literature about the Jews’ exile in Babylon. Chapter 9 ends, “On the temple wing shall be the horrible abomination until the ruin that is decreed is poured out upon the horror.” Later in 168 B.C.E. the Seleucid king Antiochus Epiphanes returned from an attempt to conquer Egypt and Cyprus but was humiliated by the Romans. It took his revenge on Jerusalem, desecrating the temple by sacrificing swine on the altar and erecting a statue of Zeus. The first book of Maccabees describes this event, “[T]he king erected the horrible abomination upon the altar of holocaust.” This abomination was again threatened in 40 C.E. when Roman Emperor Caligula planned to erect a status of himself as a god to be revered in the Temple. He died before his intent was carried through, but for Mark’s community it was still a fresh memory.
The next verses refer to some Christian Jews who fled Jerusalem in the early days of the siege by Titus in the winter of 67 C.E., which would have been a cold, perilous time for pregnant women and nursing mothers to travel as quickly as possible perhaps hiding by day and stumbling along by night terrified of being caught and executed. There was no time to lose as the Roman noose tightened around the city.
Nothing so horrific had happened since creation and never will again, said Jesus. But the destruction of Jerusalem was not or will not be the end time. Its days were or will be shortened for the faithful believers, the elect. Had God not shortened these days of tribulation all His people would have perished. He would not allow it; His mission in Jesus was not finished. The members of Mark’s community and his early readers were themselves survivors and so understood that the destruction of Jerusalem was not the end time.
So, what does all of this mean to me? First, no one knows when Jesus will come again, when the end time will arrive, when judgment will occur. Some of us think we would like to know or maybe even have it figured out. Seventh Day Adventists currently are marking 150 years since their founding but cannot bring themselves to celebrate it as they long ago expected the end time. We are living in the in-between time and God has chosen me to be His instrument in bringing about His kingdom. I have this time — and I don’t know the number of my days either — to discerning His will and getting about doing it. (Last Saturday returning from a visit to my sister in Houston I had an epiphany about the kingdom of God, but I’ll save that for another time.) I want to be saved; I want to be one of His elect, one of His chosen ones. It’s up to me to volunteer and strive to bring about His kingdom. The end could be tomorrow or the next day. I have my work cut out for me!