Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Was Jesus Wrong?


Mark 13:24-37

Do you remember the excitement and media sensation surrounding May 21, 2011? That was the date that popular radio preacher, Harold Camping, predicted the apocalypse would begin with the rapture of all faithful Christians into heaven.  For many of you the day probably passed unnoticed despite the many billboards and tracks proclaiming the date all over the world. Harold Camping’s radio ministry, Family Radio, spent nearly 5 million dollars getting the word out. Needless to say the world did not end!

Camping was far from the first person to set a date for the end of the world, only to be shown up when the day passed uneventfully. William Miller started a national movement even larger than Camping’s when he announced that Jesus would return on October 22, 1844. The aftermath of Miller’s failed prediction is often referred to as “The Great Disappointment.”

Despite the repeated failure of such predictions to materialize, zealous believers continue to set dates for the last day. The reaction of mainstream Christians is usually to remind such enthusiasts of Jesus’ words from today’s Gospel, “But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.”

Based on this same Gospel passage, however, atheist and skeptics such as Bertrand Russell and more recently Bart Ehrman have sought to discredit Jesus as a false prophet along the lines of Harold Camping and William Miller. They point to Jesus’ words, “Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place” as an indication that Jesus predicted the end of the world and his own return in glory within the lifetime of those present. Even the great apologist, C.S. Lewis, was troubled by this passage. He wrote, “It is certainly the most embarrassing verse in the Bible.”

What should we make of Jesus’ words here? In order to answer that question, we need to look at the larger context of Jesus’ remark. If we back up to the beginning of the chapter, we find Jesus and his disciples visiting the great temple in Jerusalem. As his disciples are marveling at the magnificent construction of the Temple, Jesus makes a startling claim, “Not one stone here will be left on another; every one will be thrown down.” The Temple is going to be destroyed in an act of judgment upon the nation of Israel and the corrupt religious establishment. Jesus had earlier prophetically enacted this coming Judgment on his arrival in Jerusalem when he drove the money changers out of the Temple.
The Temple was a gigantic and impressive construction. To speak of its destruction would be unimaginable. Think of how you would have reacted if years before the events of 9/11 2001 someone would have told you that the two towers would come crashing to the ground. Even that comparison doesn’t quite get at it though, because the Temple was more than just an imposing physical landmark, it was the political and religious heart of the Jewish people. It was like the White house, the Vatican, and Westminster Abbey all rolled into one.

Later in the evening, when Jesus and his disciples are taking their rest on the Mount of Olives overlooking the Temple, his disciples ask him, “When will these things happen? And what will be the sign that they are all about to be fulfilled?” He begins to warn them of a great time of tribulation in the future. The Gospel will go out to all the nations but they will be greatly persecuted by their own people, put on trial, and even flogged in the synagogue. It will be a time of great trial not only for them, but the world in general. There will be wars, famines, and earthquakes, even great portents in the sky. During this time of distress many false prophets will rise up claiming to be Christ, but they are not to believe them.

Far from being a spurious or false prophecy, Jesus’ prediction actually turned out to be remarkably accurate! Within the lifetime of that very generation, the Gospel would indeed go out to the nations, and Jesus’ followers would indeed be greatly persecuted by the Jewish leaders. Moreover, forty years in the future, a great war would break out in Jerusalem and the Temple would be destroyed by Roman armies.

In his account of the Jewish War, the Jewish historian Josephus tells us many details that line up with Jesus’ words with remarkable accuracy. During that time there were strange portents in the sky and earthquakes. Many prophets and would-be saviors rose up claiming to be the Christ.  When the Romans seized Jerusalem to stamp out the zealots, food was scarce.  In one particularly graphic detail, Josephus tells us of a woman who killed and roasted her own child! The Roman historian Tacitus also speaks of the tumults of the time. The Empire was plagued by wars and rumors of wars. He writes, “Besides the manifold misfortunes that befell mankind, there were prodigies in the sky and on the earth, warnings given by thunderbolts, and prophecies of the future both joyful and gloomy.”
 I believe Jesus’ words here are meant to refer to these events which were shortly to come to pass. “What about the language of the moon being darkened, the stars falling from the sky, and the Son of man coming in the clouds,” you may ask, “Certainly this suggest that Jesus was speaking about the end of the world and his return?”

It is my  opinion that this is metaphorical language being used to describe great social, religious, and political upheaval. The Prophet Isaiah used similar language of the sky being rolled up like a scroll and stars falling from the sky in prophesying the fall of Babylon.  If such language is appropriate in that situation, surely it is appropriate to describe the devastation of Jerusalem.

Likewise, Bible scholar N.T. Wright says, “When Jewish writers spoke of the sun and moon being darkened; when they spoke of angels gathering people from the four winds of heaven; when, in particular, they spoke of a Son of Man who would come on the clouds of heaven - in each of these cases they were using language in this metaphorical way….The 'coming of the son of man' is thus good first-century metaphorical language for two things: the defeat of the enemies of the true people of god, and the vindication of the true people themselves. Thus, the form that this vindication will take, as envisaged within Mark 13 and its parallels, will be precisely the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple."

We shouldn’t underestimate how significant these events would be to Jesus and his hearers. The destruction of the Temple was a milestone in salvation history. It marked the end of an age. It directly caused the passing away of the Jewish priesthood and its sacrifices, and led to the scattering of Israel as a nation. It was a devastating judgment on the nation that their God would allow such a thing to take place. Nothing would be the same again. For Christians this was a powerful confirmation that law and sacrifices of the old covenant were fulfilled and Israel was being judged and reconstituted around Jesus, who would replace the Temple as the heart of the faith. 

When Jesus promised that all these things would come to pass within that generation, this is what he meant. If Jesus’ words of warning are about events that happened in 70 A.D., do they have anything but historical significance for us living generations after that time?

I think Jesus’ prophecy is still very relevant for Christians today, but its relevance does not come through skipping over or ignoring its original context. This text answers the question, “What time is it in salvation history?” As the Church, we are the ones on whom the end of the age has come. The long promised Kingdom of God has been inaugurated with power, and Jesus is being proclaimed to all the world as Lord. Does this mean that the age to come promised by the scriptures has already arrived?

The answer that the Church gives to that question is Yes and No. Yes, the age to come has already broken into the world through the resurrection of Christ, but no, the Kingdom of God and the age to come has not arrived in its fullness. We wait for its consummation when Christ will return again in glory. The Church has traditionally read this Gospel passage as being not only about the destruction of Jerusalem, but also that last day when Christ will return.

It is my opinion that this text can be understood to have a double fulfillment. Bible scholars sometimes use the term “prophetic foreshortening” to describes this phenomenon.  Picture it this way: if you were to look at a mountain range from a distance, two peaks at considerable distance from one another might look like a single mountain. In the same way, prophecy can often appear to merge two events or two fulfillments into a single prophecy. This principle is often used in reference to Old Testament Prophecies that have a fulfillment in their own day, but also point forward to Christ. I believe the same principle can hold here.

  Although the literal meaning of this text deals with the events surrounding destruction of Jerusalem, there is another sense to this passage as well. God’s coming in judgment upon the Temple points us forward to the promised return of Christ when he will judge the world. As A.J. Gordon said, “Prophecy has no sooner become history, than history becomes prophecy.” We eagerly await the fulfillment of what has already begun in Christ, the passing away of the old, and the dawn of a new creation. We know that Christ and the age to come are even now at the gates. What I say to you I say to all: Keep awake!

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