THE THINGS TO COME
Mk. 13 is one of the most difficult chapters in the New Testament for a modern reader to understand. That is because it is one of the most Jewish chapters in the Bible. From beginning to end it is thinking in terms of Jewish history and Jewish ideas. All through it Jesus is using categories and pictures which were very familiar to the Jews of his day, but which are very strange, and indeed, unknown, to many modern readers. Even so, it is not possible to disregard this chapter because it is the source of many ideas about the second coming of Jesus. The difficulty about the doctrine of the second coming is that nowadays people are apt either completely to disregard it or to be so completely unbalanced about it that it becomes for them practically the only doctrine of the Christian faith. It may be that if we study this chapter with some care we shall come to a sane and correct view about this doctrine.
We will first of all glance at the Jewish background against which this chapter must be read. We will then try to make an analysis of the various elements which go to make it up. We win then study it section by section in the usual way. Finally, we will try to extract from it the great truths which are permanently valid.
THE DAY OF THE LORD
This whole chapter must read with one thing in mind. Again and again we have to return to this matter because there is so much of the New Testament which is not intelligible without it. 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.
In one sense this idea is the product of unconquerable optimism. The Jew was quite certain that God would break in. In another sense it was the product of bleak pessimism, because it was based on the idea that this world was so utterly bad that only its complete destruction and the emergence of a new world would suffice. They did not look for reformation. They looked for a re-creating of the entire scheme of things.
Let us look at some of the Old Testament passages about the day of the Lord. Amos writes (Am.5:16-20):
“In all the squares there shall be wailing; and in all the streets they shall say, `Alas! Alas!’. They shall call the farmers to mourning and to wailing those who are skilled in lamentations, and in all vineyards there shall be wailing, for I will pass through the midst of you, says the Lord. Woe to you who desire the day of the Lord! Why would you have the day of the Lord? It is darkness, and not light … gloom with no brightness in it.”
Isaiah (Isa.13:6-16) has a terrible passage about the day of the Lord:
“Wail! for the day of the Lord is near. As destruction from the Almighty it will come…. Behold the day of the Lord comes, cruel with wrath and fierce anger, to make the earth a desolation, and to destroy its sinners from it. For the stars of the heavens and their constellations will not give their light. The sun will be dark at its rising and the moon will not shed its light…. Therefore I will make the heavens tremble, and the earth will be shaken out of its place, at the wrath of the Lord of Hosts, in the day of his fierce anger. . . .”
Jl.2-3 is full of terrible descriptions of the day of the Lord:
“The day of the Lord is coming … a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and thick darkness…. I will give portents in the heavens and on the earth, blood and fire, and columns of smoke. The sun shall be turned to darkness and the moon to blood, before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes.”
Again and again such passages of terror meet us in the Old Testament. The day of the Lord will be sudden, shattering, terrifying. The world will reel with destruction. The very course of nature will be uprooted, and God, the judge, win come.
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. AH the Jews would be familiar with its picture. The writings of which this literature consisted were called Apocalypses. Apokalupsis (GSN0602) means an unveiling. These books were dreams and visions of what would happen when the day of the Lord came and in the terrible time immediately before it. They continued to use the Old Testament imagery, and to supplement it with new details. But, it must be noted, all these books were dreams and visions. 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.
We will see that every single detail in this chapter can be parallelled in the visions of the Old Testament and of the literature between the Testaments. Jesus was taking the language, the imagery, the apparatus of apocalyptic literature, and using it to try to make people understand. He was working with the only ideas that people knew. But he knew, as they knew, that these things were only pictures, for no man could really tell what would happen when God broke in.
THE DIFFERENT STRANDS
Further, in this chapter there are various strands of thought. The gospel writers had a way of collecting Jesus’ sayings on any subject. It was a wise way to write and excellent for teaching purposes. Here Mark, as it were, collects Jesus’ sayings about the future. Now even a cursory reading, with no special knowledge, shows that, though all these sayings were about the future, they were not all about the same things. There are in fact in this chapter five different strands.
(i) There are prophecies of the destruction of Jerusalem. We get them in Mk. 13:1-2, Mk. 13:14-20. Jesus foresaw the end of the holy city. As we shall see, Jesus was right. Jerusalem fell in A.D. 70. The Temple was destroyed and the most terrible things happened.
(ii) There is warning of persecution to come. We get that in Mk. 13:9-13. Jesus foresaw that his followers would have to go through the most heart-breaking and soul-searing experiences, and he warned them in advance.
(iii) There are warnings of the dangers of the last days. We get them in Mk. 13:3-6 and Mk. 13:21-22. Jesus saw quite clearly that men would come who would twist and adulterate the Christian faith. It was bound to be so, for men are always inclined to listen to their own proud minds rather than to the voice of God. He wished to defend his people in advance from the heresies and lies which would invade the Church.
(iv) There are warnings of the Second Coming. Now, these warnings of the Second Coming are dressed in the language which has to do with the day of the Lord. We get them in Mk. 13:7-8 and Mk. 13:24-27. The imagery of the day of the Lord and of the Second Coming are inextricably mixed up. It had to be so, because no man could possibly know what would happen in either case. It is with visions and dreams that we have to deal. The only pictures Jesus could use about his Second Coming were those which prophets and apocalyptists had already used about the day of the Lord. They are not meant to be taken literally. They are meant as impressionistic pictures, as seer’s visions, designed to impress upon men the greatness of that event when it should come.
(v) There are warnings of the necessity to be on the watch. We get them in Mk. 13:28-37. If men live in the shadow of eternity, if they live with the constant possibility of the intervention of God, if they live with the prospect of the consummation of the coming of Christ ever before them, if the times and the seasons are known only to God, there is the necessity ever to be ready.
This chapter will make far more sense if we remember these various strands in it and remember that every strand is unfolded in language and imagery which go back to the Old Testament and apocalyptic pictures of the day of the Lord.
Because that is so, we will study the chapter not in consecutive verses, but in the various passages of which the various strands consist.
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