In my last scripture reflection, on Mark 13, I sped by an idea that deserves to be spelled out in more detail, how Jesus’ words in that passage relate to current events and “End Times Prophecy”. A few weeks ago I wrote about Pat Robertson’s reaction to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine (here). Since that time it seems like I am being bombarded with people talking about “the rapture”, “signs of the times”, “end of days” and so many other silly catchwords for the demise of the world. I have even heard of families canceling summer vacations because their pastor has them convinced that they will not be here to enjoy it (I wish I was closer to these people so I could say, “keep the reservations I’ll use them since you can’t.”). With this in mind I thought I would take some time and actually work through a passage often quoted by those looking for prophecy and help others see what it is actually saying.
As Jesus was leaving the temple, one of his disciples said to him, “Look, Teacher! What massive stones! What magnificent buildings!” “Do you see all these great buildings?” replied Jesus. “Not one stone here will be left on another; every one will be thrown down.” As Jesus was sitting on the Mount of Olives opposite the temple, Peter, James, John and Andrew asked him privately, “Tell us, when will these things happen? And what will be the sign that they are all about to be fulfilled?”
The first thing to notice about this passage is the location– Jesus and the disciples begin at the Temple, which sparks their conversation, and move to the Mount of Olives. This is important because the conversation does not change during the chapter, everything Jesus tells them revolves around the first comments about the Temple (verses 1-2). The passage does not talk about the physical end of the world, it is simply about the destruction of the Temple and what that means for the Jews and Jesus’ disciples. It is very tempting to see the passage about the physical end of the world because of the trials and destruction which Jesus highlights, but that misses Jesus’ point. Think about the centrality of the Temple to Jewish worship at the time, the physical location of Jerusalem– and especially the Temple– was at the core of Jewish identity. When we consider how central the idea of the Temple was to Jewish identity, it is easy to see that the dramatic language is very appropriate to the setting. Even if we take out the historical reality of the violence brought by the Roman Legion in 70CE, such violent language would still be appropriate for the destruction of the Temple because of the psychological impact it had on the Jewish identity. It is easy to see why Jesus would quote Daniel 9 in connection to the destruction of the Temple, it was an end of sorts.
“When you see ‘the abomination that causes desolation’ standing where it does not belong—let the reader understand—then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains. Let no one on the housetop go down or enter the house to take anything out. Let no one in the field go back to get their cloak. How dreadful it will be in those days for pregnant women and nursing mothers! Pray that this will not take place in winter, because those will be days of distress unequaled from the beginning, when God created the world, until now—and never to be equaled again." Mark 13:14-19
Jesus was trying to help his disciples wrap their minds around the concept of their world fundamentally changing. But these words are not about the physical end of the world.
But, as many will argue what about verses 26-27:
“At that time people will see the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory. And he will send his angels and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of the heavens."
My knee-jerk reaction is to snarkily remind readers there is more than one definition for “seeing” and that “gathering” does not have to be a physical gathering. Let me explain (and please forgive the snark I hate dealing with overconfident under read fools about this). Jesus has just quoted from Isaiah and is here referencing Daniel 7 which is a passage about the human representative of Israel receiving power from God. This is not a comment about Jesus’ return, it is about him taking his throne in heaven and what he is saying is that with the destruction of the Temple people will understand that he now reigns and is the conduit through whom God connects to humanity. When the Temple is destroyed and Christians have a connection to God it will be understood the old conduit to God– the Temple– is obsolete and its role has been filled by Jesus.
Even the next line, “And he will send his angels and gather his elect from the four winds” only implies a physical gathering if one comes to the passage with “The Rapture” as the starting point. When we start with an idea that Jesus is thinking of Daniel 7 and his exultation it is easy to see this line as a metaphor for the work of the Church bringing people into Jesus’ kingdom. What is Jesus saying to his disciples, let’s summarize:
“One day (within the lifetime of some of you) the temple will be destroyed. This event will be preceded by very difficult times, but try not to worry. Now when these things happen and the Temple is destroyed people will finally understand I am who I have told you I am and will know that I am in control. They will further recognize that your work among the nations of this world is forming my kingdom and you are doing well. Between now and then (and even after this event) be vigilant, try not to get distracted by what is happening, simply focus on me and what I have told you.”
But there is one piece of this passage that so many preachers overlook, but ironically it is the one piece they need to read.
At that time if anyone says to you, ‘Look, here is the Messiah!’ or, ‘Look, there he is!’ do not believe it. For false messiahs and false prophets will appear and perform signs and wonders to deceive, if possible, even the elect. So be on your guard; I have told you everything ahead of time. Mark 13:21-23
Basically, he tells his disciples that some people will claim to see the handwriting on the wall that the Messiah is coming, these people are lying or deceived. I cannot fathom how churches tolerate individuals in leadership who make detailed claims about Jesus’ return because right here in this passage he says those claiming to know God’s plans are false. Those making predictions need to be held to their word and when those predictions fail they must be recognized as someone who has made a false prophecy. I recognize the temptation that pushes us to “know” what is going on and what is about to happen, but if we are going to take Scripture seriously we must recognize such desires as a temptation from the enemy. The pattern that Jesus provides is giving us just enough knowledge of the future to know there is hope and purpose in our mission, but that is all. Jesus’ call is to stay vigilant, that does not mean trying to piece together a roadmap for the future, that means keep his mission in mind so that when the time comes we will be found doing what we were assigned.