I was talking to a friend the other day about “hills we are willing to die on.” We thought it wouldn’t be very flexible of us to have too many of those. In other words, if every single conviction we have is a deal breaker, we wondered how many people we could relate to. Christians seem to have a tendency to essentialize their faith based on personal experiences and prejudices. The pejorative term for this is fundamentalism. And for many of us our memory of fundamentalists revolves around issues like abortion and gay marriage and since many of us don’t make those the issues that are deal breakers for us, we might think we are immune from fundamentalism or essentializing our faiths. But are we in danger of a neo-fundamentalism if we over-emphasize our convictions? A new thought police? The danger in doing so is not being able to change when we need to. Our faith breaks before it bends.
Some of us have written off the Scriptures altogether because they are drenched with fundamentalist indoctrination. Passages of the Bible that might even have a historic interpretation that differs from the contemporary fundamentalist one might be dismissed easily because we can’t seem to read them with a new lens. For many believers, the result is just a frustrating experience with the Bible that leads us to no longer reading it.
We can’t seem to apply a new meaning to one that was so heavily propagated to us either by our families or by our media even. Even people who didn’t grow up in a conservative Christian home sometimes have such massive indoctrination from the outside world that they can’t seem to think of something new. The old is so well-cemented in our brains that we can’t break out of it.
One of the ideas that was fervently put into my consciousness as a lad was a particular obsession with the “end times.” I remember at a retreat I attended when I was younger I was taught some theology about the Armageddon. I wrestled with the ideas of my own eternal destiny, my mortality, and the end of the world were topics. I was scared of what would happen to me if Jesus came back to take all of the faithful followers and leave my eleven-year-old self behind. Ideas of the “rapture,” as some call it, was a great way to get kids to follow Jesus.
Thankfully I met other Christians that didn’t emphasize the end times the way that evangelical culture did. They helped me keep my faith. But I know not many people are as fortunate. The result of breaking away from this kind of fundamentalist indoctrination is losing our faith, or at the very least not taking a great interest in the Book that’s supposed to have prophesied all of this stuff.
So when we talk about the coming of Jesus, many of us might tune out because for us that means that we are talking about his Second Coming and then all bets are off. I told the committee that gave me my license that I believed Jesus was returning, but I didn’t think speculation on the matter was helpful.
Of course, with that in mind, how do we read what might be the most unusual passage of scripture in the Gospel of Mark? We’d be remiss to ignore it. But if we can’t read it in any different light but an explicit prophecy about our current age, we are in trouble too.
We often anthropomorphize the Bible when we say things like “the Bible says.” I think that might universalize the text and remove it from its context. There’s a danger in that, which might make reading a piece of writing about the end times particularly difficult.
At the same time, if we only view the Scriptures as an historic artifact, we are missing the meta-narrative of our faith, one that we participate in today. We lose the fact that they might actually be directly instructional for us in the current age (among other things of course).
So with that in mind, let’s give Mark 13 some meaning and see if we can apply it to our lives. Our goal is to give a meaning that doesn’t result in a black-and-white, “the hill that I die on,” fundamentalism that’s likely to make the postmodernists in Philadelphia flee.
What’s happening here? This is another passage that many people have read and assumed is about the “end of the world.” It’s so hard for us to read this passage and believe it’s not about us, when so many people in the last century have made our experiences the cornerstone of our faith.
At least on the surface, this passage isn’t about the end of the world. It’s about Jesus preparing his disciples for the “birth pangs” that they will experience as the new order that Jesus is bringing will cause. He’s telling his disciples that following him will lead to persecution death and destruction.
Jesus is speaking in apocalyptic terms. The book of Mark might be filed under the apocalyptic genre. Jesus believes that his Kingdom and his mission is the God-inspired way that this world will experience newness—certainly the Jewish world in which he was saturated.
This story isn’t about the end of the world at large, it’s really about the destruction of the great building within hundreds of miles of Jerusalem: the currently-under-construction Herod’s Temple.
Jesus is also actually predicting the destruction of the Temple that they see, so it is not just metaphorical, it is a real prediction as to what’s happening. And so he warns them, when they hear of wars and rumors of wars—earthquakes and famines and so one—that isn’t necessarily the end He’s talking about. But it is the beginning of it.
Jesus is bringing a radical revolution and the result of it will be death for many of his followers. The part of this passage that we can continue to believe that we will be under persecution too if we are truly following Jesus. If we aren’t being persecuted for our beliefs, we actually might lose our faith—we might stop praying, we might think a passage like this is useless to us. We stagnate or get jaded.
Jesus is on the side of the oppressed, not just because he cares for them, but so often here and around the world, the oppressed people are the ones loyal to Him. The persecution Jesus predicts and the advice that he’s given them is indeed needed as we’ll see the early church under Roman persecution for centuries.
Jesus tells his disciples to flee when they see the “abomination that causes desolation.” The event that many scholars think he is talking about isn’t the end of this world, is the destruction of the Temple in 70AD. Josephus, a historian, writes about this terrible event. People starved, they ate their children to stay alive, they fought each other for tiny bits of political power. During 70AD more Jews killed each other than the Romans did.
In the year 69AD there were four emperors that succeeded each other. And with violence, greed and civil war each time. The final emperor Vespasian and his son Titus destroyed the Temple and crucified thousands of Jews.
Jesus is predicting these events. It is not the end of the world. But for Jewish people, it is the end of their world.
We need to really read this passage as about the destruction of the Temple in 70AD. When we don’t, we really are adding a meaning to it that doesn’t exist in the text. We can’t super-impose what we want in the text for the sake of our current mission. It has to be real.
But there is more than history lesson for us. The application is all about our own world. People around us have up systems and governments, power and principalities, that are arrogantly against the Gospel and the mission of Jesus. We need to have eyes to see when that’s happening and be the prophets that warn of its coming. We are in charge of keeping the very thing that Jesus was protecting in his speech to his disciples.