End Times or Something Else?

February 15, 2018

Jtemple

In Mark 13 we find Jesus in Jerusalem having just left the Jewish temple with a group of his disciples. This temple—marvelous in scope and structure—was the pride of the Jewish nation having been fabulously rebuilt by Herod the Great beginning around 19-20 BC (and not finally completed until 65 AD). Some of the disciples noted its size and magnificence (perhaps with an eye toward ruling from it with Jesus?). To this Jesus replied, “Do you all see these great buildings? Not one stone here will be left on another; every one will be thrown down.” This statement sparked their curiosity. So later four of them approached him privately to find out more information. They asked, “Tell us when will these things happen? And what will be the sign that they are all about to be fulfilled?” Jesus provides them a lengthy answer—an answer that even now continues to be widely and variously interpreted.

Many take these words of Christ as a vision for end times and certainly Jesus uses eschatological language, but there also seems to be more going on than just that. He says at one point, “I tell you the truth, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened” (vs. 30). If he was speaking exclusively about end times, then how does this statement fit into that context? Obviously, we are still here and still waiting for his return. So, just what is he saying? Is it about the end times or something else?

Another Perspective

Mark wrote his account of the life of Christ around 65-66 AD. Let’s consider another perspective from someone who shared this same story a few years after Mark. Matthew wrote his gospel in the early 70s AD. It is interesting to compare his recollection of the disciple’s query to Jesus. He records it this way:

Tell us, they said, when will this happen, and what will be the sign of your coming and the end of the age? (Matthew 24:3; Luke also gives his account in Luke 21.)

There is a nuance here in Matthew not obviously present in Mark. Matthew’s account seems to indicate that, yes, actually there is something else going on here. The same eschatological language is present indicating an “end of the age” conversation, but also there is something more immediate to consider, that is, when these huge stones are going to be turned upside down (along with any possible signs connected to either event).

So, as Matthew indicates, Jesus actually answered separate questions. The first is all about the temple stones being overturned and if any signs were to accompany that. The second is about end times. Why Matthew offers this slightly clearer account has to do with timing. He wrote his gospel after the first event—the destruction of the Jewish temple—had occurred. Mark wrote his before.

“The Abomination that Causes Desolation”

Politically, Israel had long been a hotbed of rebellion against Roman rule. Jewish terrorists or zealots continued to be a thorn in the side of Pax Romana. This led to an explosive confrontation during the sixth decade of the first century. In 66 AD the Jewish nation was in full revolt against Rome and managed to vanquish the Roman presence from the temple and make other small gains. Emboldened by these limited victories they continued to openly defy Rome. Eventually Rome had enough. Under General Titus troops were sent to crush the rebellion and crush it they did as brutally as possible. One of their targets was the Jewish temple—not only the pride and symbol of Jewish patriotism but one of the strongholds of the résistance. After they finished demolishing it in 70 AD, not one stone was left standing on the other—just as Jesus had foretold. In all of this destruction, chaos rampaged through Jerusalem. Jews savagely turned on Jews. Horrific events unfolded. It has been estimated that over one million died during this period. It indeed was an “abomination that causes desolation” as Jesus had said.

This is what happened before that generation passed away—about 40 years after Jesus spoke the words. Luke phrased it this way: “Jerusalem will be trampled on by the Gentiles until the time of the Gentiles are fulfilled” (21:24). This then explains and puts into context his statements within the text such as “flee to the mountains;” don’t “enter the house to take anything out;” how “dreadful” it would be for “pregnant women or nursing mothers;” or “pray that this will not take place in winter.” If it were truly end times, why would any of that even matter?

As for signs of this impending doom, he shared several—wars and rumors of wars, persecutions; false prophets and the gospel being preached to the “world” (which according to Paul in Colossians 1:23 had occurred prior to 70 AD). He uses figurative language of judgment (Mark 13:24-27) to illustrate the total devastation that was to come for the Jewish people and nation. In fact, this was God’s judgment upon them. Never again would they have a temple. Never again would they be his exclusively chosen nation.

The End

After this discourse, Jesus responds to their other question about end times. About “that day” no one knows except the Father in heaven. There are no signs to foreshadow it. Matthew has Jesus speaking about it in terms of Noah’s flood. Everything will be as it usually is. He leaves his disciples (and us) with a warning—“Be on guard! Be alert! You do not know when that time will come” (Mark 13:33).

Separate questions and separate answers. It is about the end times, but it is also about something else.

Other Viewpoints

But as might be expected, not everyone interprets this text the same way. Variations abound. One of the most interesting is called “preterism.” Full (or hyper) preterism interprets Mark’s story (along with all of Revelation and NT prophecy) as totally being fulfilled within the 70 AD time frame—including the second coming of Jesus. According to this view, he literally came during this judgment of Israel. What yet remains is the final coming of Christ and eternal judgment.

To further extrapolate, there is also a partial preterist viewpoint—which includes almost everyone else. This approach understands some of Mark 13 to apply to 70 AD, but not all. Partial preterists interpret the book of Revelation differently also—taking a-millennial, pre-millennial and post-millennial stances. With “end times” understanding, it can get complicated! The best advice is Christ’s: Always be alert and be ready!

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The Servant of the Lord

February 12, 2018

wonder-servant.jpg

From our reading in Isaiah and Mark, it is all about the Servant of the Lord. Here are some selected points of discussion.

  • Who wrote Isaiah 40-66? There is little doubt that the prophet wrote the first 39 chapters, but questions abound about the latter half of the book. It details events that happened 150 years after Isaiah’s death, that is, the return of the remnant of God’s people from exile in Babylon. The judgment of God to Judah in the form of Babylonian conquest and captivity that Isaiah had earlier foretold was over. Chapters 40-66 seems to speak in present tense about the exiles return along with the complications connected to that. Since Isaiah was long gone—how could he have written it? Three main theories exist. One, as a prophet, he simply saw the future via divine intervention and wrote about as if he were present in it. Two, using Isaiah’s own notations in 8:16; 29:10-12 & 30:8-9—he sealed up some of his prophecies, which were passed along among his disciples during the subsequent years—which were then later unsealed and used by disciples/scholars/prophets contemporary to the remnant return. Three, someone other than Isaiah living after the period of exile wrote it, making it another work altogether and not really tied to Isaiah at all. To add to this discussion, an almost complete scroll of Isaiah containing all 66 chapters was discovered among the Dead Sea Scrolls in Qumran in 1947. This scroll was one thousand years older than any previous Isaiah manuscript, being dated to 125 BCE. It demonstrated at that point at least, Isaiah was considered one book written by one author. Even more significant, the New Testament seems to have few problems attributing the entire book to Isaiah. (Here is but a small sample–Matthew 8:17; 12:18,21; Luke 2:32; Romans 2:34; 10:20; 2 Corinthians 6:7; 1 Peter 2:22.)
  • Who is the Servant of the Lord? Isaiah introduces us to him in chapter 49 and he becomes central to the narrative. God had not forgotten his promise to his people. Throughout captivity and exile a remnant had remained. They were returning (the time period of Ezra and Nehemiah) to their homeland to renew their calling as God’s people—a light to all nations. But stubbornness among them still remained. They claimed God had ignored and given up on them during captivity. Isaiah countered by insisting that he most definitely had not—that the judgment and exile was all a part of God’s plan for something bigger and better to emerge from the Jewish people to bless all nations. This is embodied in the Servant of the Lord, the Messiah, Christ Jesus our Lord. He would be the suffering servant (chapter 53) that would finally accomplish God’s will for his kingdom to be a place for all nations and people. The second half of Isaiah is about hope—hope for all people, for a New Jerusalem and it is only possible because of the Servant of the Lord.
  • Is everything really possible for them who believe? So says Jesus in Mark 9:23. Contextually this flows out of a conversation with the father of a young boy possessed by an evil spirit. Jesus is petitioned to help. The father says to Jesus, “But if you can do anything, take pity on us and help us.” Jesus responds by stating, “If you can?” and then makes the firm affirmation of the place of faith for believers. So, is this a context specific remark only applicable to that situation or does it have a broader scope? Either evil spirits no longer possess us as they did in Christ’s day or we do not recognize them as such. Is this just a statement by Christ in connection to them? If it goes beyond context, then are we limiting the power of God to work within us due to lack of faith? Other texts (Romans 3:20-21 for example) indicate that God is ready to accomplish within us more than we “ask or imagine.” Could it be that we are not asking or imagining enough?
  • Can anyone “not one of us” serve the Lord faithfully? This was the concern of some of Christ’s disciples as recorded in Mark 9:38-41 (this story occurs only in Mark’s gospel). They witnessed someone not from their group exorcising demons in the name of Jesus and “told him to stop, because he was not one of us.” Jesus countered that, explaining that anyone serving in that way was “not against us” but rather “for us.” No other information is provided except in the following discourse Jesus warns about “not causing one of these little ones who believe in me to sin.” This seems to be a direct reference to the man casting out demons and the disciples attempt to stop him. Often we can drift into an exclusive attitude about who can and who cannot effectively and faithfully serve the Lord. If you are one of us—you are in. If you are not among us—you are out. Perhaps this brief story is included in Scripture to cause us to reconsider this kind of thinking and to realize that ultimately God knows who is in and who is not. Obviously, false teachers have existed from the very genesis of the church, but this story reminds us to be careful about making sweeping judgments as to whom God can use in his kingdom.
  • Divorce for “any cause?” Jesus was swept up into a controversial and somewhat convoluted debate over divorce in Mark 10:1-12 (see also Matthew 19:1-12 & Luke 16:18). It centered on different interpretations of Deuteronomy 24:1-4 among the Pharisees. This OT text deals with a man’s right to divorce his wife because of “finding something indecent about her.” Two schools of rabbinical thought had emerged and been codified by the time of Christ around this phrase. One interpretation saw it as pertaining to any woman who had been sexually unfaithful during the time of engagement. If this was proven, the intended husband could divorce her (Joseph with Mary for instance). This was the minority view. The second had morphed this statement to mean basically anything a man found unfavorable about his wife—from bad cooking to a bad hair day. This approach was the widely accepted norm as divorce for “any cause” (Matthew’s account include this language ). To fortify this view the practice of Moses concerning divorce was also mentioned. Interestingly, Jesus does not really answer the question directly. Instead he attributes the action of Moses as a compromise because of stubborn hearts and harkens all the way back to the original concept of marriage from the beginning—one man for one woman for life. By so doing he effectively does answer their question without engaging in their debate over rabbinical teachings. Can a man divorce his wife for any cause? No, he cannot. Instead he needs to honor the original marriage covenant. Later privately he offers a further explanation to his disciples offering marital unfaithfulness as an exemption to the Genesis account. Notable here is that he includes the possibility of a woman being able to divorce a man—something not allowed under Jewish law at that time—and something that unfortunately would be needed as the gospel extended beyond the Jews. Consider Paul’s teaching in 1 Corinthians 7 (which predates the book of Mark) concerning the different marriage situations in Corinth. What if an unbelieving spouse leaves the believing spouse? Paul indicates that the believer—be it a man or woman—“is not bound in such circumstances.” No, a divorce cannot be sought for “any cause,” but there are exemptions. Both Jesus and Paul spoke into the complex situations of their context and complex situations continue to exist in our context as well.

 


Judgment and Hope

January 25, 2018

prophetisaiah

The prophet Isaiah lived in quite extraordinary times and penned quite the extraordinary book. It is divided into two main sections. The first is chapters 1-39. The second is the remainder of the book—chapters 40-66 (of which there is much discussion about Isaiah’s authorship). Overall Isaiah addresses two main themes—God’s judgment upon his people Israel and Judah and beyond that judgment, hope in the Immanuel.

The world of Isaiah was one of trouble and transition. The tribes of Israel in the south were in a desperate situation. Mighty Assyria (then the world power) was in the process of sweeping them away. Isaiah spoke to that from his position in Jerusalem. He identified it as God’s judgment upon them for their rejection of him. Assyria was also a threat to the tribes of Judah in the north. Like their sister nation they, too, had rebelled against their God. A godly king, however, rose up within them, begged God for mercy (37:14-20), and saved Judah from Assyrian destruction. But King Hezekiah’s actions would only delay the inevitable. “The Day of the Lord” was coming to Judah as well, Isaiah foretold. Another power would rise up—Babylon—and be used by God as his purifying agent of judgment (39). Only this time (unlike that of the tribes of Israel) there was hope beyond the judgment. A remnant of God’s people would remain; exiles would eventually return to their homeland; from among them Immanuel would be born (7:14). This “little child” (11:6) would lead and restore Zion to its rightful place among the nations. Eventually a “new Jerusalem” (65:17) would replace the old to be what God always intended for it to be.

Judgment and hope—this is the word from the Lord Isaiah speaks to his people, and now to us.

Startling Rebellion

Isaiah does not hold back. He presents a stark image of God’s people in full rebellion. Instead of being a light to other nations—corruption, injustice, idolatry, greed, violence and immorality defined Israel. Their worship was empty, meaningless, and burdensome to God. He could no longer tolerate it.

Instead of fulfilling God’s will among them, they turned to idols, practiced oppression, were corrupted by evil desires, chased after godlessness, became “brawlers and revelers,” confused good and evil, and denied justice. Isaiah phrased it like this:

They have no regard for the deeds of the Lord, no respect for the works of his hand. (5:12)

This was true of both Israel and Judah and God had had enough. Isaiah proclaimed:

Therefore the Lord’s anger burns against his people; his hand is raised and he strikes them down. (5:25).

Judgment was coming. The “Day of the Lord” would take place, first for Israel and then for Judah. Isaiah leaves no doubt about it. God simply could no longer tolerate their startling rebellion. A “fire” would scorch the earth (and not just for Israel and Judah), cleansing it, but also preparing it for something better to follow.

Isaiah’s Call

To illustrate this—Isaiah is called before the presence of the Lord (chapter 6). He quickly realizes just how out of his league he is, standing before the holiness of God. He fears his own doom until being touched on the lips by a burning coal. The coal, however, was not one of judgment but one of cleansing. This represents the purpose of God’s judgment—to cleanse his people in preparation of the Immanuel; the shoot of Jesse that will rise up out of the charred stump of Judah after the Day of the Lord comes.

It was Isaiah’s mission to be sent by God in order to “Go and tell” this news to his people. This is the way, then, the entire book of Isaiah plays out—judgment followed by hope; exile and return; old Jerusalem being swept away replaced by New Jerusalem-God would not forget his people, even though they forgot him.

Isaiah’s Word to Us

The sins of Israel were many, but at their core was a failure to seek and live out the righteousness and justice of God. Without this at their center, it opened them up for the corruption, idolatry, immorality, and greed that followed. Isaiah identified it early:

Your hands are full of blood; wash and make yourselves clean. Take your evil deeds out of my sight! Stop doing wrong, learn to do right! Seek justice, encourage the oppressed. Defend the cause of the fatherless, plead the case of the widow. (1:15-17; see also 1:23; 3:14-15)

Even as they worshipped God—their disregard for God’s justice and righteousness made their worship unacceptable to God. What is the word from Isaiah to us on this and from the story of his prophecy?

  • God calls upon his people to see after the oppressed, not to be the oppressors. Nothing about this has changed from Isaiah’s time—James 1:26-27. Unless we do-it will undermine our ability to be God’s people and leave our worship void of meaning and purpose.
  • God guides The Story—using people, nations, events, etc. to accomplish his divine, redemptive will. Sometimes judgment is necessary. If God could use nations/peoples to carry it out then, he can do so now. The key is—to listen! Something those in Isaiah’s day did not do.
  • Judgment is still coming (2 Thessalonians 1:5-10) but hope remains (2 Peter 3:8-9).
  • The “little child” is leading us to that New Jerusalem where the justice, mercy, and righteousness of God will define everything and everyone; where people from every nation, tribe and tongue will flow; where God will be glorified above all (Isaiah 2:1-5; 9:1-7; 11:1-12; 65:17-5; 2 Peter 3:13; Revelation 21)

The purpose of God’s judgment is to cleanse, reset and renew hope among his people. This is the story of Isaiah within The Story.