Mark 13:1-37 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 will 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 ( Mark 13:1-37 )
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 ( Amos 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 ( Isaiah 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. . . ."
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, will 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 ( Greek #602 ) 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 ( Mark 13:1-37 )
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 Mark 13:1-2 , Mark 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 Mark 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 Mark 13:3-6 and Mark 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 Mark 13:7-8 and Mark 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 Mark 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.
A City's Doom ( Mark 13:1-2 )
13:1-2 As they were going out of the sacred precincts, one of his disciples said to Jesus, "Teacher, see! What stones and what buildings!" Jesus said to him, "You see this great budding? Not one stone will be left on another which will not be thrown down!"
We begin with the prophecies of Jesus which foretold the doom of Jerusalem. The Temple which Herod butt was one of the wonders of the world. It was begun in 20-19 B.C. and in the time of Jesus was not yet completely finished. It was built on the top of Mount Moriah. instead of levelling off the summit of the mountain a kind of vast platform was formed by raising up walls of massive masonry and enclosing the whole area. On these walls a platform was laid, strengthened by piers which distributed the weight of the superstructure. Josephus tells us that some of these stones were forty feet long by twelve feet high by eighteen feet wide. It would be some of these vast stones that moved the Galilaean disciples to such wondering amazement.
The most magnificent entrance to the Temple was at the south-west angle. Here between the city and the Temple hill there stretched the Tyropoeon Valley. A marvellous bridge spanned the valley. Each arch was forty-one and a half feet and there were stones used in the building of it which measured twenty-four feet long. The Tyropoeon valley was no less than two hundred and twenty-five feet below. The breadth of the cleft that the bridge spanned was three hundred and fifty-four feet, and the bridge itself was fifty feet in breadth. The bridge led straight into the Royal Porch. The porch consisted of a double row of Corinthian pillars all thirty-seven and a half feet high and each one cut out of one solid block of marble.
Of the actual Temple building itself, the holy place, Josephus writes, "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 splendour, and made those who forced themselves to look upon it to turn their eyes away, just as they would have done at the sun's own rays. But this 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 exceeding white.... Of its stones, some of them were forty-five cubits in length, five in height and six in breadth." (A cubit was eighteen inches.)
It was all this splendour that so impressed the disciples. The Temple seemed the summit of human art and achievement, and seemed so vast and solid that it would stand for ever. But Jesus made the astonishing statement that the day was coming when not one of these stones would stand upon another. In less then fifty years his prophecy came tragically true.
"Pride of man and earthly glory,
Sword and crown betray his trust;
What with care and toil he buildeth,
Tower and temple, fall to dust.
But God's power,
Hour by hour,
Is my temple and my tower."
A City's Agony ( Mark 13:14-20 )
13:14-20 When you see the abomination of desolation standing where he ought not (let him who reads understand), then let those who are in Judaea flee to the mountains. Let him who is on the house-top not come down, nor let him go in to take anything out of his house. And let him who is working in the field not turn back to pick up his cloak. Woe to women who are with child and to those whose babes are at their breasts in these days! Pray that it may not happen in the stormy weather. These days will be a tribulation such as has never happened from the beginning of the creation which God has created until now, and such as will never happen again. Unless the Lord had shortened the days no living creature could have survived. But, for the sake of the chosen ones whom he chose, he shortened the days.
Jesus forecasts some of the awful terror of the siege and the final fall of Jerusalem. It is his warning that when the first signs of it came people ought to flee, not even waiting to pick up their clothes or to try to save their goods. In fact the people did precisely the opposite. They crowded into Jerusalem, and death came in ways that are almost too terrible to think about.
The phrase the abomination of desolation has its origin in the book of Daniel ( Daniel 9:27 ; Daniel 11:31 ; Daniel 12:11 ). The Hebrew expression literally means the profanation that appals. The origin of the phrase was in connection with Antiocheius. We have already seen that he tried to stamp out the Jewish religion and introduce Greek thought and Greek ways. He desecrated the Temple by offering swine's flesh on the great altar and by setting up public brothels in the sacred courts. Before the very Holy Place itself he set up a great statue of Olympian Zeus and ordered the Jews to worship it. In connection with that the writer of First Maccabees says ( 1 Maccabees 1:54 ) "Now the fifteenth day of the month Casleu, in the hundred and forty-fifth year, they set up the abomination of desolation upon the altar and builded idol altars throughout the cities of Juda on every side." The phrase the abomination of desolation, the profanation that appals, originally described the heathen image and all that accompanied it with which Antiocheius desecrated the Temple. Jesus prophesies that the same kind of thing is going to happen again. It very nearly happened in the year A.D. 40. Caligula was then Roman Emperor. He was an epileptic and mad. But he insisted that he was a god. He heard of the imageless worship of the Temple of Jerusalem and planned to set up his own statue in the Holy Place. His advisers besought him not to do so, for they knew that, if he did, a bloody civil war would result. He was obstinate, but fortunately he died in A.D. 41 before he could carry out his plan of desecration.
What does Jesus mean when he speaks about the abomination of desolation? Men expected not only a Messiah, but also the emergence of a power who would be the vary incarnation of evil and who would gather up into himself everything that was against God. Paul called that power the Man of Lawlessness ( 2 Thessalonians 2:3 ). John of the Revelation identified that power with Rome ( Revelation 17:1-18 ). Jesus is saying "Some day, quite soon, you will see the very incarnate power of evil rise up in a deliberate attempt to destroy the people and the Holy Place of God." He takes the old phrase and uses it to describe the terrible things that are about to happen.
It was in A.D. 70 that Jerusalem finally fell to the besieging army of Titus, who was to be Emperor of Rome. The horrors of that siege form one of the grimmest pages in history. The people crowded into Jerusalem from the countryside. Titus had no alternative but to starve the city into subjection. The matter was complicated by the fact that even at that terrible time there were sects and factions inside the city itself. Jerusalem was torn without and within.
Josephus tells the story of that terrible siege in the fifth book of The Wars of the Jews. He tells us that 97,000 were taken captive and 1,100,000 perished by slow starvation and the sword. He tells us, "Then did the famine widen its progress and devoured the people by whole houses and families. The upper rooms were full of women and children dying of starvation. The lanes of the city were full of the dead bodies of the aged. The children and the young men wandered about the market places like shadows, all swelled with famine, and fell down dead wheresoever their misery seized them. As for burying them, those that were sick themselves were not able to do it. And those that were hearty and well were deterred by the great multitude of the dead, and the uncertainty when they would die themselves, for many died as they were burying others, and many went to their own coffins before the fatal hour. There was no lamentation made under these calamities...the famine confounded all natural passions.... A deep silence and a kind of deadly night had seized upon the city."
To make it still grimmer there were the inevitable ghouls who plundered the dead bodies. Josephus tells grimly how when not even any herbs were available "some persons were driven to such terrible distress as to search the common sewers and old dung-hills of cattle, and to eat the dung which they got there, and what they could not endure so much as to see, they now used for food." He paints a grim picture of men gnawing the leather of straps and shoes, and tells a terrible story of a woman who killed and roasted her child, and offered a share of that terrible meal to those who came seeking food.
The prophecy that Jesus made of terrible days ahead for Jerusalem came most abundantly true. Those who crowded into the city for safety died by the hundred thousand, and only those who took his advice and fled to the hills were saved.
The Hard Way ( Mark 13:9-13 )
13:9-13 Take heed to yourselves, for they will hand you over to councils, and they will scourge you in synagogues, and you will stand before governors and kings for my sake, and it will be your opportunity to bear your witness to them. The gospel must first be preached to all nations. And when they hand you over and bring you before authorities, do not worry beforehand about what you will say, but speak whatever is given you in that hour, for it is not you who speak but the Holy Spirit. Brother shall hand over brother to death, and father child. All children will rise up against parents, and will kill them. And you will be hated of all for the sake of my name. But the man who has endured to the end, he will be saved;
Now we come to the warnings of persecution to come. Jesus never left his followers in any doubt that they had chosen a hard way. No man could say that he had not known the conditions of Christ's service in advance.
The handing over to councils and the scourging in synagogues refer to Jewish persecution. In Jerusalem there was the great Sanhedrin, the supreme court of the Jews, but every town and village had its local Sanhedrin. Before such local Sanhedrins the self-confessed heretics would be tried, and in the synagogues they would be publicly scourged. The governors and kings refer to trials before the Roman courts, such as Paul faced before Felix and Festus and Agrippa.
It was a fact that the Christians were wonderfully strengthened in their trials. When we read of the trials of the martyrs, even though they were often ignorant and unlettered men, the impression often is that it was the judges and not the Christians who were on trial. Their Christian faith enabled the simplest folk to fear God so much that they never feared the face of any man.
It was true that even those of a man's own family sometimes betrayed him. In the early Roman Empire one of the curses was the informer (delator). There were those who, in their attempts to curry favour with the authorities, would not hesitate to betray their own kith and kin. That must have been the sorest blow of all.
In Hitler's Germany a man was arrested because he stood for freedom. He endured imprisonment and torture with stoic and uncomplaining fortitude. Finally, with spirit still unbroken, he was released. Some short time afterwards he committed suicide. Many wondered why. Those who knew him well knew the reason--he had discovered that his own son was the person who had informed against him. The treachery of his own broke him in a way that the cruelty of his enemies was unable to achieve.
This family and domestic hostility was one of the regular items in the catalogue of terror of the last and terrible days, "Friends shall attack one another suddenly" (4 Ezra 5:9 ). "And they shall hate one another and provoke one another to fight" (Baruch 70:3). "And they shall strive with one another, the young with the old, and the old with the young, the poor with the rich, the lowly with the great, the beggar with the prince" (Jubilees 23:19). "Children shall shame the elders, and the elders shall rise up before the children" (The Mishnah, Sotah 9:15). "For the son treats the father with contempt, the daughter rises up against her mother, the daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law. A man's enemies are the men of his own house" ( Micah 7:6 ).
Life becomes a hell upon earth when personal loyalties are destroyed and when there is no love which a man may trust.
It was true that the Christians were hated. Tacitus talked of Christianity as an accursed superstition; Suetonius called it a new and evil superstition. The main reason for the hatred was the way in which Christianity cut across family ties. The fact was that a man had to love Christ more than father or mother, or son or daughter. And the matter was complicated by the way that the Christians were much slandered. It is beyond doubt that the Jews did much to encourage these slanders. The most serious was the charge that the Christians were cannibals, a charge supported by the words of the sacrament which speak of eating Christ's body and drinking his blood.
In this, as in all other things, it is the man who endures to the end who is saved. Life is not a short, sharp sprint; it is a marathon race. Life is not a single battle; it is a long campaign. Dr. G.J. Jeffrey tells of a famous man who refused to have his biography written when he was still alive. "I have seen too many men fall out on the last lap of the race," he said. Life is never safe until it reaches journey's end. It was Bunyan who, in his dream, saw that from the very gates of heaven there was a way to hell. It is the man who endures to the end who will be saved.
13:3-6,21-23 As he was sitting on the Mount of Olives, opposite the sacred precincts of the Temple, Peter and James and John and Andrew privately asked Jesus, "Tell us, when shall these things be? And what sign will there be when these things are going to be completed?" Jesus began to say to them, "See that no one misleads you. Many will come in my name, and say, 'I am he' and they will lead many astray."
"And if some one then says to you, 'See! Here is the Messiah!' or, 'See! There he is!' do not believe them. For false Messiahs and false prophets will arise, and they will produce signs and wonders to lead the elect astray, if it is possible. But do you look to yourselves! See! I have told you beforehand all that will happen."
Jesus was well aware that, before the end, heretics would arise; and, indeed it was not long before the church had its heretics. Heresy arises from five main causes.
(i) It arises from constructing doctrine to suit oneself. The human mind has an infinite capacity for wishful thinking. In a famous sentence, the Psalmist said, "The fool hath said in his heart, 'There is no God.'" The fool about whom the Psalmist was speaking was not a fool in the sense that he had no intelligence. He was a moral fool. His statement that there was no God was made because he did not wish God to be. If God existed so much the worse for him; therefore he eliminated him from his doctrine and from his universe.
One particular heresy has always been with us, that is antinomianism. The antinomian begins with the principle that law has been abolished--and in a sense he is right. He goes on to say that there is nothing but grace--and again in a sense he is right. He then goes on to argue--as Paul shows us in Romans 6:1-23 -- on lines like these. "You say that God's grace is wide enough to cover every sin?" "Yes." "You say that God's grace can forgive any sin?" "Yes." "You say that God's grace is the greatest and the most wonderful thing in the universe?" "Yes." "Then," the antinomian concludes, "let us go on sinning to our hearts' content, for the more we sin, the more chances we give to God's amazing grace to operate. Sin is a good thing for sin gives grace a chance to work. Therefore, let us do whatever we like." The grace of God has been twisted to suit the man who wants to sin.
The same kind of argument is used by the man who declares that the only important thing in life is the soul and that a man's body does not matter. If that is so, the argument runs, then a man can do what he likes with his body. If he is so inclined he can sate its desires.
One of the commonest ways to arrive in heresy is to mould Christian truth to suit ourselves. Can it be that the doctrine of hell and the doctrine of the Second Coming have dropped out of much religious thought because they are both uncomfortable doctrines? No one would wish to bring either back in its crude form, but can it be that they have dropped too far out of Christian thought because it does not suit us to believe in them?
(ii) Heresy arises from overstressing one part of the truth. It is, for instance, always wrong to overstress one attribute of God. If we think only of God's holiness, we can never attain to any intimacy with him, but rather tend to a deism in which he is entirely remote from the world. If we think only of God's justice, we can never be free of the fear of God. We become haunted and not helped by our religion. If we think only of God's love, religion can become a very easy-going sentimental thing. There is more in the New Testament than Luke 15:1-32 .
Always there is paradox in Christianity. God is love, yet God is justice. Man is free, yet God is in control. Man is a creature of time, yet also a creature of eternity. G. K. Chesterton said that orthodoxy was like a man walking along a knife-edge ridge with a yawning chasm on either side. One step too much to right or left and disaster follows. We must, as the Greeks insisted, see life steady and see it whole.
(iii) Heresy arises from trying to produce a religion which will suit people, one which will be popular and attractive. To do that it has to be watered down. The sting, the condemnation, the humiliation, the moral demand, have to be taken out of it. It is not our job to alter Christianity to suit people, but to alter people to suit Christianity.
(iv) Heresy arises from divorcing oneself from the Christian fellowship. When a man thinks alone he runs a grave danger of thinking astray. There is such a thing as the tradition of the church. There is such a conception as the church being the guardian of truth. If a man finds that his thinking separates himself from the fellowship of men, the chances are that there is something wrong with his thinking. It is the Roman Catholic principle that a man cannot have God for his Father unless he has the church for his mother--and there is truth there.
(v) Heresy arises from the attempt to be completely intelligible. Here is one of the great paradoxes. We are under the bounden duty of trying to understand our faith. But because we are finite and God is infinite we can never fully understand. For that very reason a faith that can be neatly stated in a series of propositions and neatly proved in a series of logical steps like a geometrical theorem is a contradiction in terms. As G. K. Chesterton said, "It is only the fool who tries to get the heavens inside his head, and not unnaturally his head bursts. The wise man is content to get his head inside the heavens." Even at our most intellectual we must remember that there is a place for the ultimate mystery before which we can only worship, wonder and adore.
"How could I praise,
If such as I could understand?"
"I believe," as Tertullian said, "because it is impossible."
13:7-8,24-27 Jesus said, "When you hear of wars and reports of wars, do not be disturbed. These things must happen. But the end is not yet. Nation shall rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. In certain places there will be earthquakes. There will be famines. These things are the beginning of the birth-pangs of the new age."
"And in those days, after that tribulation, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken. And then they will see the Son of Man coming in the clouds with much power and glory. And then he will send his angels and they will gather the chosen ones from the four winds, from the edge of the earth to the edge of the heaven."
Here Jesus unmistakably speaks of his coming again. But--and this is important--he clothes the idea in three pictures which are part and parcel of the apparatus connected with the day of the Lord.
(i) The day of the Lord was to be preceded by a time of wars. 4Ezra declares that before the day of the Lord there will be,
"Quakings of places
Tumult of peoples,
Scheming of nations,
Confusion of leaders,
Disquietude of princes." (4 Ezra 9:3 ).
The same book says,
"And there shall come astonishment of mind upon the dwellers on
earth. And they shall plan to war one against another, city
against city, place against place, people against people, and
kingdom against kingdom." (4Ezra 13:31).
The Sibylline Oracles foresee that,
"King captures king and takes his land, and nations ravage nations
and potentates people, and rulers all flee to another land, and
the land is changed in men and a barbarian empire ravages Hellas
and drains the rich land of its wealth, and men come face to face
in strife." (4Ezra 3:633-647).
Second Baruch has the same ideas. In Baruch 27:5-13 this book singles out twelve things which will precede the new age.
"In the first part there will be the beginning of commotions. In
the second part there shall be the slayings of great ones. In the
third part the fall of many by death. In the fourth part the
sending of the sword. In the fifth part famine and withholding of
rain. In the sixth part earthquakes and terrors...(there is a
blank in the manuscript here).... In the eighth part a multitude
of spectres and attacks of the evil spirits. In the ninth part the
fall of fire. In the tenth part rapine and much oppression. In the
eleventh part wickedness and unchastity. In the twelfth part
confusion from the mingling together of all those things
"All the inhabitants of the earth shall be moved against one
another." (Baruch 48:32.)
"And they shall hate one another,
And provoke one another to fight.
And it shall come to pass that whosoever comes safe out of the
war shall die in the earthquake,
And whosoever gets safe out of the earthquake shall be burned by
And whosoever gets safe out of the fire shag be destroyed by
It is abundantly clear that when Jesus spoke of wars and rumours of wars he was using pictures which were part and parcel of Jewish dreams of the future.
(ii) The day of the Lord was to be preceded by the darkening of sun and moon. The Old Testament itself is full of that ( Amos 8:9 , Joel 2:10 , Joel 3:15 , Ezekiel 32:7-8 , Isaiah 13:10 , Isaiah 34:4 ); again the popular literature of Jesus' day is full of it, too.
"Then shall the sun suddenly shine forth by night,
And the moon by day.
The outgoings of the stars shall change."
(4 Ezra 5:4-7 .)
2 Baruch 4:1-37 Ezra 32:1 speaks of "the time in which the mighty one is to shake the whole creation." The Sibylline Oracles (3:796-806) talk of a time when "swords in the star-lit heaven appear by night towards dusk and towards dawn...and all the brightness of the sun fails at midday from the heaven, and the moon's rays shine forth and come back to earth, and a sign comes from the rocks with dripping streams of blood." The Assumption of Moses foresees a time when:
"The horns of the sun shall be broken and he shall be turned into
And the moon shall not give her light, and be turned wholly into
And the circle of the stars shall be disturbed." (10:5.)
Once again it is clear that Jesus is using the popular language which everyone knew.
(iii) It was a regular part of the imagery that the Jews were to be gathered back to Palestine from the four corners of the earth. The Old Testament itself is full of that idea ( Isaiah 27:13 ; Isaiah 35:8-10 ; Micah 7:12 ; Zechariah 10:6-11 ); once more the popular literature loves the idea:
"Blow ye in Zion on the trumpet to summon the saints,
Cause ye to be heard in Jerusalem the voice of him that
bringeth good tidings,
For God hath had pity on Israel in visiting them.
Stand on the height, O Jerusalem, and behold thy children,
From the East and the West gathered together by the Lord."
"The Lord will gather you together in faith through His tender
mercy, and for the sake of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob."
(The Testament of Asher 7:5-7.)
When we read the pictorial words of Jesus about the Second Coming we must remember that he is giving us neither a map of eternity nor a timetable to the future, but that he is simply using the language and the pictures that many a Jew knew and used for centuries before him.
But it is extremely interesting to note that the things Jesus prophesied were in fact happening. He prophesied wars and the dreaded Parthians were in fact pressing in on the Roman frontiers. He prophesied earthquakes and within forty years the Roman world was aghast at the earthquake which devastated Laodicaea and by the eruption of Vesuvius which buried Pompeii in lava. He prophesied famines, and there was famine in Rome in the days of Claudius. It was in fact such a time of terror in the near future that when Tacitus began his histories he said that everything happening seemed to prove that the gods were seeking, not salvation, but vengeance on the Roman Empire.
In this passage the one thing that we must retain is the fact that Jesus did foretell that he would come again. The imagery we can disregard.
Be On The Watch ( Mark 13:28-37 )
13:28-37 Jesus said, "Learn the lesson the fig-tree offers you. As soon as its branches become tender, and it puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near. So must you too know, when you see these things happening, that the end is near at the doors. This is the truth I tell you--this generation will not pass away until these things happen. Heaven and earth will pass away but my words will never pass away. But no man knows about that day and that hour, not even the angels in heaven, not even the Son, no one except the Father. Be watchful, be wakeful, be praying, for you do not know when the time is. It is like when a man goes abroad, and leaves his home, and puts his servants in charge, and orders the door-keeper to be on the watch. So then be watchful! For you do not know when the master of the house comes, late in the evening, at midnight, at cockcrow, or in the early day. Watch! in case he comes suddenly and finds you sleeping. What I say to you, I say to all--be on the watch!"
There are three special things to note in this passage.
(i) It is sometimes held that when Jesus said that these things were to happen within this generation he was in error. But Jesus was right, for this sentence does not refer to the Second Coming. It could not when the next sentence says he does not know when that day will be. It refers to Jesus' prophecies about the fall of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Temple and they were abundantly fulfilled.
(ii) Jesus says that he does not know the day or the hour when he will come again. There were things which even he left without questioning in the hand of God. There can be no greater warning and rebuke to those who work out dates and timetables as to when he will come again. Surely it is nothing less than blasphemy for us to enquire into that of which our Lord consented to be ignorant.
(iii) Jesus draws a practical conclusion. We are like men who know that their master will come, but who do not know when. We live in the shadow of eternity. That is no reason for fearful and hysterical expectation. But it means that day by day our work must be completed. It means that we must so live that it does not matter when he comes. It gives us the great task of making every day fit for him to see and being at any moment ready to meet him face to face. AH life becomes a preparation to meet the King.
We began by saying that this was a very difficult chapter, but that in the end it had permanent truth to tell us.
(i) It tells us that only the man of God can see into the secrets of history. Jesus saw the fate of Jerusalem although others were blind to it. A real statesman must be a man of God. To guide his country a man must be himself God-guided. Only the man who knows God can enter into something of the plan of God.
(ii) It tells us two things about the doctrine of the Second Coming.
(a) It tells us that it contains a fact we forget or disregard at our peril.
(b) It tells us that the imagery in which it is clothed is the imagery of Jesus' own time, and that to speculate on it is useless, when Jesus himself was content not to know. The one thing of which we can be sure is that history is going somewhere; there is a consummation to come.
(iii) It tells us that of all things to forget God and to become immersed in earth is most foolish. The wise man is he who never forgets that he must be ready when the summons comes. If he lives in that memory, for him the end will not be terror, but eternal joy.
-Barclay's Daily Study Bible (NT)