Mark 13:24-37 (CEB): “In those days, after the suffering of that time, the sun will become dark, and the moon won’t give its light. The stars will fall from the sky, and the planets and other heavenly bodies will be shaken. Then they will see the Human One coming in the clouds with great power and splendor. Then he will send the angels and gather together his chosen people from the four corners of the earth, from the end of the earth to the end of heaven.
“Learn this parable from the fig tree. After its branch becomes tender and it sprouts new leaves, you know that summer is near. In the same way, when you see these things happening, you know that he’s near, at the door. I assure you that this generation won’t pass away until all these things happen. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will certainly not pass away.
“But nobody knows when that day or hour will come, not the angels in heaven and not the Son. Only the Father knows. Watch out! Stay alert! You don’t know when the time is coming. It is as if someone took a trip, left the household behind, and put the servants in charge, giving each one a job to do, and told the doorkeeper to stay alert. Therefore, stay alert! You don’t know when the head of the household will come, whether in the evening or at midnight, or when the rooster crows in the early morning or at daybreak. Don’t let him show up when you weren’t expecting and find you sleeping. What I say to you, I say to all: Stay alert!”
Here we go again! This passage comes before the previous three passages from Matthew that we have looked at in the last three weeks and is a parallel passage to Matthew 24.29-44. And, the way we have been taught to reading this passage, we assume that it’s talking about the end of the world, especially since there are such cataclysmic cosmic happenings.
‘There’s no way,’ some have said, ‘that this has already happened since something of that magnitude would completely destroy the universe.’
And that’s absolutely true . . . if these were to be read and understood in a wooden literal sense.
But they aren’t.
Jesus was using the language of apocalyptic literature. In that type of literature, cosmic destruction language is used to refer to the complete destruction of a nation or nations. We can see this clearly in various passages from the Jewish Scriptures. For example:
Isaiah 34:1-5 (CEB): Draw near, you nations, to hear; and listen, you peoples. Hear, earth and all who fill it, world and all its offspring. The LORD rages against all the nations, and is angry with all their armies. God is about to wipe them out and has prepared them for slaughter. Their dead will be cast out, the stench of their corpses will rise, and the mountains will melt from their blood. All the stars of heaven will dissolve, the skies will roll up like a scroll, and all the stars will fall, like a leaf withering from a vine, like fruit from a fig tree. When my sword has drunk its fill in the heavens, it will descend upon Edom for judgment, upon a people I have doomed for destruction.
This prophecy was against Edom (verse 5). This was fulfilled in 721 BCE by Assyria. Please note that the ‘mountains melt[ed]’, the ‘stars of heaven dissolv[ed]’, the ‘skies roll[ed] up like a scroll’, etc. In other words, ‘heaven and earth’ were destroyed. But, did those things literally happen when the Assyrians destroyed Edom? If they did, where is the passage that states that God created a ‘new world’ because that ‘old world’ was destroyed? There isn’t one. That’s because these are poetic terms referring to the judgment of Edom.
In another passage, we read:
Zephaniah 1:1-4, 14-18 (CEB): The LORD’s word that came to Zephaniah, Cushi’s son, Gedaliah’s grandson, Amariah’s great-grandson, and Hezekiah’s great-great-grandson in the days of Judah’s King Josiah, Amon’s son.
I will wipe out everything from the earth, says the LORD. I will destroy humanity and the beasts; I will destroy the birds in the sky and the fish in the sea. I will make the wicked into a heap of ruins; I will eliminate humanity from the earth, says the LORD.
I will stretch out my hand against Judah and against all the inhabitants of Jerusalem. I will eliminate what’s left of Baal from this place and the names of the priests of foreign gods . . .
The great day of the LORD is near; it is near and coming very quickly. The sound of the day of the LORD is bitter. A warrior screams there.
That day is a day of fury, a day of distress and anxiety, a day of desolation and devastation, a day of darkness and gloominess, a day of clouds and deep darkness, a day for blowing the trumpet and alarm against their invincible cities and against their high towers.
I will make humanity suffer; they will walk like the blind because they sinned against the LORD. Their blood will be poured out like dust and their intestines like manure.
Moreover, their silver and their gold won’t be able to deliver them on the day of the LORD’s fury. His jealousy will devour the entire land with fire; he will make an end, a truly horrible one, for all the inhabitants of the land.
This is a prophecy against Judah and Jerusalem (verse 4). It was fulfilled in 587 BCE by the Babylonians. Note the destruction of all humanity and animals, including birds and fish; the ‘great day of the Lord’ is ‘coming very quickly’. There’s suffering and spilled blood and the land being devoured by fire and the complete slaughter of all humanity. Again, we must ask, did these things literally happen when Jerusalem fell? No. Just like our previous example, these terms are to be seen as poetic references to the judgment upon the nation.
What we need to see from these references are the parallels of Jesus words in the Synoptic Gospels (as well as John’s visions in Revelation). We can’t interpret them by our modern definitions. They should not be stripped from their contexts and forced into a preconceived idea about what they mean. They must be kept in their contexts, both scripturally and historically. When this is done we can see that those things were not actually destroyed. They represent the destruction of the ‘world’ to whom the prophecy was given.
In the Gospel reading for this week, it’s the same thing. Jesus was telling the disciples (he used the personal pronoun ‘you’ roughly ten times) about the coming destruction of the Temple and city - just like they asked of him (see Mark 13.1-4 CEB). He is telling them the way a Jewish prophet would, using the same type of language that was used for thousands of years throughout their history to describe similar events.
With that in mind, we can properly interpret the mystical statements about not knowing the day or hour. When I tell people that Jesus was talking about the soon coming war with Rome that ended with the destruction of the Temple and city in 70 CE (and the last Jewish stronghold of Masada 3 ½ years later in 73 CE), they immediately quote this verse (and the others from the Matthew and Luke). The argument is something like, ‘That can’t be right because Jesus said we won’t know the day or hour!’ Well, of course! If we were standing with them then, we wouldn’t know when it was coming! We can know now, almost two thousand years later. But, at the time, we would be in the dark, just like they were. However, the context is quite clear. These would be things that the first century Christians would witness and experience - not us.
So, be of good cheer this holiday season. These things are history!
In the Love of the Three in One,
Br Jack+, LC