Last night I led my test subjects, I mean bible study group, through Mark 13. It certainly does seem (at least to me) to be one of the most difficult passages in the New Testament. The biggest issue is sorting out whether what is being referred to is the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem (the one that occurred in 70 A.D.) or the eschaton (the last days when Jesus returns), or perhaps to both. I enjoyed walking through the text for a couple hours with my group and withholding my own opinions as much as possible. Toward the end I did give them my current opinion before trying to sum everything up with what is a little more clear: the point of the text is to wait and watch out in order to persevere. It’s not meant, in the first place, to guide us through our quibbles about end times theology.
Nonetheless, discussing the more difficult question of the time references is an important part of coming to grips with the passage. And it appears to me that many today assume much of it to be referring to the eschaton without giving much thought to the fulfillment in the Jewish War and destruction of the temple in 70 A.D. But this is very clearly involved in the question from the disciples that leads to all of this discourse. So, I tried to get my group to start considering whether some or all of it could have been fulfilled in 70.
One of the most interesting discussions occurred around 13:10 where it says, “And the gospel must first be preached to all nations” (NIV). Since the common assumption is that this can ONLY be future to us, I had some fun trying to get them to see if it could mean anything else.
The reason I wanted to seriously consider that Mark’s text may be saying the gospel will first go out to all nations and be fulfilled by 70 A.D. is its immediate co-text. Verse 9 says, “You must be on your guard. You will be handed over to the local councils and flogged in the synagogues. On account of me you will stand before governors and kings as witnesses to them” (NIV). Given that this is Jesus addressing his disciples in either 30 or 33 A.D. and Christianity proper has not gotten under way and there is no split with the synagogue here, this text should have made sense to the disciples as occurring pre 70 A.D. It doesn’t make so much sense today though. But if v. 9 is referring to something pre-70 A.D., why does it ping pong to the eschaton in verse 10 when it talks about the gospel going out to all nations first? And then v. 11 still makes sense with what has preceded it as pre-70 A.D.
So, the question becomes, does verse 10 HAVE to be understood as only referring to the end times? Is it possible at all to understand it as to be fulfilled by 70 A.D.? I think it’s at least possible.
What 1st c. document details the rise of the early church? Correct, the “Acts of the Apostles” written by Luke. How does it begin in relation to this issue? Acts 1:8: “You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea, in Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” Now, it is possible to take that literally from today’s standpoint and include every single nation upon the earth, however we define “nation.” And this is what I commonly see done. But, how does the book of Acts proceed and finish? It proceeds by showing the progress of the gospel moving from Jerusalem outward. It finishes with Paul preaching the gospel in Rome, a metropolitan capital of the empire far away from Jerusalem, potentially thought of as the ends of the earth from a 1st c. middle east perspective.
So, when Mark 13:10 says that the gospel will go out to all nations could it be that it indeed is talking about its progress prior to the destruction of the temple?
I think it could. And if it doesn’t, does that make the text schizophrenic to be ping-ponging back and forth between the temple’s destruction and the future eschaton without any warning whatsoever? That would seem really odd linguistically.
If you’ve read this far with me and are upset at the possibility that this can no longer act as a proof text for the missionary idea that all nations of the earth must first hear the gospel and then the end will come, keep in mind that this is not the only text in the NT that talks about nations and others hearing the gospel/worshiping God. So there is more to the story.
But with respect to Mark 13, I’m still processing this. And I’ve only addressed one issue here. I haven’t talked about other parts of the text that may be future referring (from our modern vantage point).
What do you think?
Since being diagnosed with cancer in December my wife and I have been on the receiving end of a lot of generosity. Our church family has been wonderful as have our blood family, relatives, and friends.
The result of being on the receiving end of such generosity has been to make me desire to be more generous myself. I’m fairly certain that I’ve shed more tears as a result of people’s generosity than I have from the cancer situation itself. I did nothing to deserve anyone’s generosity and so it hits me emotionally every time.
By God’s grace this isn’t a debtors ethic that I’m carrying around. That is, I don’t feel I have to pay people back because they have paid me with something. Rather, the grace of others toward me has shown me how beautiful it is to give and has made me want to be that way toward others.
And isn’t that how it’s supposed to be with our relationship with God? His grace toward us is not license to sin further or seek to pay him back – as though God needs anything from us! It compels us and transforms us to love him more and obey out of a joyful and glad heart rather than through strict requirement.
What shall we say, then? Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase? By no means! We are those who have died to sin; how can we live in it any longer? Or don’t you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life. – Paul, Romans 6:1-4 (TNIV).
Today I turn 28.
In the last number of years, especially as a Christian, even though I “knew” in the back of my mind that none of us is guaranteed a long life, I didn’t think much about dying young.
But, when I was diagnosed with Acute Leukemia in December, it only took a day for me to accept that very real possibility. At that point I didn’t know if I would make it to my 28th birthday. I subsequently went into remission (doesn’t equal cured) from the chemotherapy but I still don’t know if I have any more birthdays. Regardless, I see this cancer as a gift.
The reason, I believe, that I was able to come around on the news within a day was this: my theology prepared me for it. What do I mean by that? I mean that I had an understanding of a holy and righteous God, of a sinful human race, of a cursed world, and of a Saviour who bridged the gap between God and us and our world. And, by God’s grace I trusted in the Saviour, Jesus, to carry me and my family through this. It wasn’t a real shock then when I was told I had cancer. Sure I cried with my wife when I first got a phone call about the possibility, but I knew that I wasn’t exempt from the pains of this world.
Allow me to flesh out this theology for you a bit. Three aspects bear special mention.
1) The Current State of the World
Though God created this world perfect and good, we humans rebelled against God, seeking to be gods ourselves. A righteous and holy God rightfully placed this world under a curse in response. Dare we get away with treason? So, death entered into the world. Our relationship with the One who made us was broken.
Cancer exists now. Hatred exists now. Selfishness exists now. This world is a mess.
As such, I’m not surprised I have cancer. I’m a part of this world and not exempt from its pains.
“The creation was subjected to futility” (Romans 8:20).
But only knowing this makes me a realist without hope.
But God hasn’t left us alone. Though we could not fix the relationship between God and us (after all, we’re the rebels!), God continued to act in history to redeem a people for himself. In the Garden he made the first promise that he would reverse the effects of the curse (Genesis 3:15). He entered into covenant with Abraham, promising that from his seed he would bless the nations (Genesis 13:15; Galatians 3:16). He gave the law to Moses to direct the ways of his people, a grace in itself (Exodus; John 1:16). He gave the sacrificial system to show that sin required the shedding of blood (Leviticus). He set David upon the throne of Israel, a man after God’s own heart (1 Samuel 13:14). His people continued to fight him and so they were exiled for a time in punishment (see the Prophets). But God continued to speak of and promise redemption. Isaiah, the 8th c. B.C. prophet, spoke of the coming exiles for God’s people but also promised that after that would come one who would suffer and justify many (Isaiah 53:11) and bear “the sin of many, and [make] intercession for the transgressors” (Isaiah 53:12). The stage was set.
Then the ultimate act of mercy and grace that was continually promised happened: he sent his Son to die for us. Though you and I deserved his righteous judgment, Jesus was born in the flesh to take our sin upon himself. Two thousand years ago, this Jesus decisively conquered sin and death by being brutally crucified. He satisfied God’s righteous wrath. The wrath you and I deserved (see Romans 3:21-26). And through this he transforms the hearts of men and women to once again honour their Maker.
In the face of suffering I can rejoice that I have received new life in Christ.
“If anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here!” (2 Corinthians 5:17).
But, a skeptic might argue, “positive thinking people” get through this too. But “positive thinking” doesn’t change reality. There is no future hope in positive thinking since without Christ the best one can hope for is non-existence at death. But with Christ there is future hope.
3) Consummation and Glorification
One day God will totally and completely bring to consummation what he has already begun: the reverse of the curse and our return to Eden (Revelation 21-22). He will completely remake this earth and we who accept what Jesus has done for us will forever be in his presence. He will glorify us with him (Romans 8:30). This is what we were made for. But even now we can know God, the relationship has been restored.
This is hope, grounded in the cross and resurrection of Christ and the promises of that God for what is still ahead.
“I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us” (Romans 8:18).
The question this poses to all of us is this: How will you respond to this? Will you give your Maker his due? Or will you keep fighting him, denying his work in Jesus all the while living in his world?
Suffering is a Gift
That’s the theology and message I believed before my diagnosis, and the theology and message I believe now. By God’s grace it changes everything. This Jesus, my Saviour, is completely trustworthy and deserving of full adoration and worship. He is completely sufficient. I know this first hand. And I know this through these trials: painful procedures, feeling unhealthy, getting sick with no immune system, facing the possibility of death, etc.
So, in light of my cancer and knowledge of this fallen world, I listen to and commend to you the words of James, the brother of Jesus: “Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything” (James 1:3-5, TNIV).
I know that Jesus is sufficient for all things and this trial is for my good.
It is pure joy. This suffering is a gift. It is for my joy and yours.
What is so good about this Friday? Why call it good?
Good Friday is a remembering and celebration of Jesus’ death on a Roman cross. Hardly seems worthy of celebration, 2000 years later or at any time really. Understanding why it is even conceivable to call it a celebration or good requires understanding what its purpose was.
The crucifixion of Jesus comes at the end of an approximately 30 year life and 3 year ministry for Jesus. In his time on earth he had healed the sick, cast out demons, and preached that the kingdom of God was at hand. In light of his coming he called on people to repent, or turn away from their sin, and call on God.
Jesus Predicts His own Death
What may seem strange at first is that Jesus also predicted and told those around him that he would be killed. He made this explicit upon Peter’s declaration that Jesus is the Messiah (Matt. 16:13ff. & parallels). Matthew’s text says that “from then on Jesus began to explain to his disciples that it was necessary for him to go to Jerusalem and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes and be killed, and to rise on the third day” (Matt. 16:21).
That Peter and the disciples didn’t understand what Jesus exactly meant or how it could be so is clear from how Peter responds. He takes him aside and rebukes him, saying that it will never happen to him! (Matt. 16:22) Twice more the Gospel writer tells us that Jesus predicted his death but everyone was slow to understand its import. No one had a category for a crucified Messiah. They thought that the Messiah would establish his kingly reign on earth at that time.
But in God’s plan was a different sort of first coming for the Messiah. Instead of reigning victoriously in a clear earthly sense, he would come as a lamb, slaughtered and offered up to God. In Exodus we read of the last plague placed on the Egyptians, the killing of the firstborns. Whoever did not have the blood of a slaughtered lamb on their door posts would find their firstborn killed by morning on a set day. The blood of the slaughtered lamb acted as a sacrifice in place of those who deserved the death. The Passover then became a yearly celebration to celebrate when God passed over those who had faith in him as evidenced by their slaughtering the lamb and placing its blood on the doorposts.
The shedding of blood would continue to be required to atone for the peoples’ sins, but this could never make perfect those who wish to worship God; “it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins” (Heb. 10:1, 4). But Jesus’ sacrifice was once-for-all, the second person of the Trinity, himself one with God, laid down his life as a ransom for us.
Who Deserved to Die?
The answer to this question is simple. You and I deserved to die (Rom. 3:23). Our sin requires a just punishment and Jesus stood in our place. We can now turn from our sin by acknowledging it before God and accept Jesus through whom we are justified, or made right with God. Our fundamental problem is that we are not right with God. Jesus makes us right with God.
This is the victory. It is victory over sin and death. And Easter Sunday or Resurrection Sunday is where the story finds its culmination.