Tuesday, September 10, 2019

According to Mark: Watching and Working

Mark 13, which we have reached in our study of the second gospel, is an undeniably difficult passage. As always, it’s a good idea to read it before diving into my comments. And if you do read it, you’ll see what I mean. It isn’t just the content that is a challenge. We also have to wonder why the discussion was placed here at all. Jesus has been focusing on the fulfillment of His ministry, making His way to the cross. Why suddenly does He make this prophetic pronouncement (the longest block of His teaching in the book)? Or at least, why does Mark record it?

Near and Far

The answer is a practical one. Jesus’ crucifixion is the central element of the Jerusalem arc, but it is not the end of history. His followers will still have to face a hostile world after His ascension. He is leaving them with some insights on what will happen when He is gone. That still leaves the greater question, though. What exactly is Jesus talking about?

After researching and reflecting on it, I can confidently say that I don’t know. I am also fairly confident that nobody else knows, either. We can get a general sense, sure, but from line to line, it is not easy to be certain what the Lord is referring to. The problem comes about through something common to biblical prophecy known as “foreshortening,” in which near and far-off events are conflated.

As best as we can tell, Jesus is talking about two different events here. One is the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple, which wound up happening fairly quickly after Jesus predicted it (He said these things around A.D. 30, the Romans razed the city in A.D. 70). The other is His Second Coming, which obviously hasn’t happened yet. Because of the foreshortening, there are points where it is practically impossible to say when He is talking about one or the other. Some people try to simplify things by saying the whole passage only applies to one or the other, but the language He uses does not reasonably allow for that.

I am not going to suggest my own schema here. Instead, I am going to take it for granted that the Lord was prophesying two different but intertwined events. Rather than attempt to unwind them, I consider it more important to look for the principle that applies to the Christian life regardless of the era in which it is lived. We are called to be watchful.

Signs of the Times

That, in fact, is the concept that Jesus explicitly references over and over in His instruction (v. 5, 9, 23, 29, 33, 35, 37). It is interesting to note that He begins to do this through negation. He does not start with the things we should look for as signs of the times, but with things that we can disregard as being in the normal course of things. There are no tea leaves to be read in the appearance of charismatic figures, in political upheavals, in conflicts, or in natural disasters. These things have always been part of the world, and they always will be. We have to avoid the temptation of thinking that the suffering and uncertainty of our moment in time are a sure sign that time itself is ending. Many people have gotten lost in those weeds and pulled others in after them.

The first element of change that Jesus introduces is His instruction on facing persecution. Once again, this is not a certain sign of the end times. More cautiously, we could see it as a precursor to the destruction of the Temple. But even this is not necessary. The point is that, while history rolls on, something new has happened with the founding of the Church. It brings a new message of salvation in Christ, which will be an unwelcome development to a world in enmity with God. As a result, Christians can expect trouble.

Persecution comes in many forms. In this country, it is generally mild (though growing worse). It mostly occurs as derision and the loss of social connections. In other societies and at other times, it has been much more severe. People have been arrested, jailed, tortured, and murdered for daring to share the love of Christ. They have been betrayed by friends and abandoned by family. It is not necessary to compare struggles, but rather to recognize that this struggle with the world is something we cannot avoid. Jesus predicted it, and He taught us how to respond to it.

The Holy Spirit has been mentioned a few times previously in the gospel, mostly in reference to His role in Christ’s ministry. Mark 13:11 is the first time that this account mentions the Spirit being present in the lives of Christ’s followers. The indwelling of the Spirit is what enables us to withstand the world, when we rely on Him. We are not alone here. Specifically, Jesus says that He will give us the words to respond to those who accuse us of evil because we identify with Christ. This, of course, does not mean that we should never prepare to speak. This whole chapter is about preparation. He is telling us that we shouldn’t fret. When we find ourselves in a sudden situation where we must defend ourselves, we can rely on God in us for an answer. It does not mean we will escape suffering, but it does mean that we can stand for the One who stands for us (Acts 7:54–60).

Awaiting the Abominable 

The first actual sign that prophecy is being fulfilled is mentioned in v. 14. Again, however, I cannot say which prophecy. An argument can be made for either the destruction of the Temple or for the end times, or even for both. I can at least explain where the phrase “abomination of desolation” comes from. Jesus takes it directly from Dan. 9:27, where it occurs in another apparently foreshortened prophecy.

Daniel does not say precisely what the abomination is, and neither does Jesus. Perhaps that is because there is more than one. What matters is the meaning. An abomination is an unholy thing, and one that is especially displeasing to God. Its desolation refers to the fact that it is so defiling, it makes something set aside for sacred purpose unworthy of use. In both Daniel and Mark, this seems most likely to refer to something pagan set up in the Temple itself, signaling its ruin.

The form it took (or will take) is a mystery. Some believe it was the statue of Zeus installed in the Temple by the Seleucid King Antiochus IV Epiphanes in 168 B.C., long after Daniel but well before Jesus. Others think it was some event surrounding the Jewish Revolt that began in A.D. 66. And still others feel it will have a fulfillment future to us. Whatever its appearance, Scripture is clear on its purpose. It is set up in defiance of God. Those who follow the Lord were meant to recognize and flee its defilement. Whatever the big one was or will be, there are countless little ones we should be on the lookout for every day.

Seasons and Signs

Jesus closes His instruction in this chapter with two parables, and it seems reasonable to view each one as applying mostly to its own event. I believe the parable of the fig tree has to do with the destruction of Jerusalem, and I see a link between it as the cursing of the fig tree in Mark 11:12–21. There, it had been a sign of the condemnation and the coming destruction of the Temple. Also, as I discussed in my article on the passage, the leaves were mentioned as a sign that some type of fruit should have been available on the branches. Jesus brings up the sprouting leaves here in Mark 13, so it is hard to ignore the connection.

Still, the meaning is different. In Mark 11, the issue was the lack of spiritual fruit represented by the lack of edible buds. In Mark 13, it is the ability to recognize seasons. Jesus was telling the disciples that just as they could see when spring had come, so they should also be able to see when Jerusalem was about to be destroyed. He had told them what to look for, so as they noticed it happening, they should be able to avoid it. Christian history says that is precisely what happened during the Jewish Revolt. As Jewish Christians realized that the Romans would be coming, they left the city because they believed Christ’s prophecy was being fulfilled. Of course, He had been correct in His prediction and they had been correct in their response. They read the signs right.

Limits of Knowledge

The second parable concerns the fact that when Christ returns, there will be no signs to read. Before discussing it, though, I do have to try my hand at this curious comment in v. 32. If Jesus is the Son of God, coequal with the Father, then how is it possible for Him not to know the timing of His own return?

One possible answer is the concept known as kenoticism, or “emptying.” It has a few different forms, but most of them are an attempt to explain the words of Paul in Phil. 2:5–7.

Adopt the same attitude as that of Christ Jesus,
who, existing in the form of God,
did not consider equality with God
as something to be exploited.
Instead He emptied [emphasis added] Himself
by assuming the form of a servant,
taking on the likeness of humanity.

The basic idea is that Jesus set aside aspects of His divinity when He took on humanity at His incarnation. As a result, He took on various human limitations. Some of these are fairly obvious, such as hunger, pain, tiredness, and locality (as opposed to omnipresence). These things did not cost Him His divinity, but were necessary to His mortality.

Kenosis, in the case of Mark 13, would be Christ emptying Himself of omniscience. He gave up His complete knowledge as God, which is why He did not know when He would return. Once He was glorified back to His complete being, He would possess the knowledge again.

This whole idea might be the right answer, but I have never been comfortable with it. I have a high Christology that balks at the idea of Jesus lacking any knowledge. More importantly, though, I do not feel it takes the actual context into account. Jesus stresses the fact that only the Father knows the timing of the Second Coming. It suggests a permanent state of things and leads me to see something else at work here.

Rather than the Son lacking the knowledge, it is knowledge He does not divulge because He respects the hierarchy within the Trinity. The Son is equal to the Father in nature and glory, but He submits to His authority. It is wholly within the Father’s authority to send back the Son. The Son, in perfect harmony with the Father, is aware of when this will be. However, He will not state it. He will only go when He is sent.

We can illustrate this with a convention of language. Suppose you have a friend who is throwing a surprise birthday party for his wife. A few hours before it is scheduled to begin, you happen to bump into her while running some errands. She tells you that she has noticed her husband acting strangely lately and asks if you know what is going on. In order to avoid lying, but also to avoid spoiling the surprise, you might respond by telling her, “Sorry, I can’t say.” Depending on how you said it (or she heard it), that could mean one of two things. You want her to understand you to mean that you do not possess an answer. In fact, you are saying you do not have permission to share the answer.

I believe Jesus does something similar in Mark 13:32, though obviously with much higher stakes. We might hear Him say, “Don’t bother asking me when it will happen, I can’t tell you.” I prefer this over suggesting the ignorance of Christ, but I am fine with admitting my own. I could definitely have it wrong and simply thought it was an idea worth sharing.

Without Warning

Let’s get back to the actual purpose of Mark 13:32–37, though. This is the true heart of the passage because of its ongoing application, and because so many Christians struggle to hear its message. So many preachers make it their business (or business model) to predict when the Lord will return and to suggest signs that point to the specific moment of His coming. It is my belief that we can only know one thing about the timing of the Parousia. If one of these charlatans has made a guess about when it will happen, then we can be certain it won’t happen then. None of them is ever going to be right.

Jesus, our master, will return unheralded. He will return, and of that we can be certain. It is His promise to us. He tells us to watch for Him. But He does not mean it in the same way that He did with the fig leaves. It is not about watching for signs. It is about staying on the alert and not falling asleep at our post.

In other words, we are not to be lulled into complacency. Christ can come back at any moment (my hyperbolic statements earlier aside). We are meant to live in that knowledge so that it will drive our behavior. If we convince ourselves that He isn’t coming, or at least isn’t coming soon, then we will “put off till tomorrow what we should do today.”Our lives will then fail to reflect and proclaim Him. If instead, we keep the possibility of His return before us, then we will do His will and not be caught off guard when He arrives.

That is our duty in this world. It is not figuring out what latest war or election points to the end of history. It is not identifying natural disasters and astronomical anomalies as being part of a discernable divine calendar. It is not even saying for certain which prophecy is being discussed at what points in this chapter. Rather, it is being on the lookout for our Savior and drawing others into the watch. We need to commit to that mission, not to inane speculation about the future.

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