Monday, September 29, 2008

Everything in Advance: Mark 13:14-27

Audio available here

In the 1989 time-travel film “Back to the Future Part II,” Marty McFly visits the year 2015 and finds a sports almanac covering the years 1950-2000. He realizes that he can take this book back in time and use it to place bets on all the winning teams and get rich. Marty’s inventor friend Doc Brown refuses to let him do this, and the rest of the movie involves the almanac falling into the hands of Biff Tannen, who does exactly what Marty had planned to do. It’s a popular feature in movies and television – this notion of knowing the future before it happens. Before Marty McFly, there was Lawrence Stevens, the main character in the 1944 film “It Happened Tomorrow.” In that film, Lawrence gets a copy of the newspaper a day in advance and uses his advance information to gain considerable wealth. And then more recently, from 1996 to 2000, we had a similar tale on television’s “Early Edition” about Gary Hobson, who received the newspaper a day in advance and used his knowledge to prevent the tragedies that were to occur on that day.[1] There’s something appealing about the possibility of knowing the future. A television news network capitalizes on this appeal with the motto, “Tomorrow’s Headlines Today.”

Suppose you really could have “tomorrow’s headlines today.” Would knowing today what was going to happen tomorrow affect the way you lived and the choices you made? I’m sure we would all agree that it would. But, alas, you cannot know the future can you? Well, there are apparently some things about the future we can know. In the context of our passage today, the disciples have asked Jesus about the events of the end times, and He tells them in v23, “Take heed. Behold, I have told you everything in advance.” In discussing the events of the future with His disciples, Jesus speaks of the things that will happen in the very near future and those that will happen in the distant future.

This distinction between near and far events seems to be indicated by the use of the phrases “these things” and “those days.” In our everyday conversation, we use the words “this” and “these” to refer to things nearby; we use the words “that” and “those” to refer to things far off. Jesus does the same thing here. In verses 1-13, Jesus speaks of the events that will soon take place within the lifetime of some of the disciples, such as the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple. He says in v7 that it is not yet the end, and in v8, “These things are the beginning of birth pangs.” In other words, they are the onset of labor, but not yet the full delivery. In vv14-27, He speaks of the events that will take place in the distant future, at the end. In v17, 19, and 24, He refers to them as “those days.” In vv28-31, the focus is back on the near future, and the wording of vv29-30 is “these things.” Finally in v32, He speaks of the end, referring to it as “that day.” This distinction is obscured somewhat in our English Bibles by the insertion of words which are not found in the Greek text, indicated by italics. If you ignore the italicized words here, you will see that the distinction is preserved quite well.

So, in the passage that is before us today, Jesus is speaking of the events which were in the distant future, the end of all things. They remain future for us now, but we do not know how distant. And with these words, Jesus has told us of the events that we can expect to happen in the future. He says in v23, “Behold I have told you everything in advance.” Now, it is very obvious that He hasn’t told us everything about the future in advance. We don’t know how much more He may have told His disciples than what Mark has recorded for us, but we would certainly say that there are many questions that remain unanswered about the end times. Well, it seems that Jesus did not intend to give a complete and detailed description of every event that will take place at the end times, but He has given us all we need to know in order to take heed. Our “taking heed” seems to be the purpose of His telling us these things in advance. It is to prepare us, to warn us, and to secure our faith when these events begin to unfold. If we know the future in advance, it should affect the way we live and the choices we make in the present. So what has He told us in advance will occur in the future? There are two primary events discussed here in the text.

I. Jesus has told us in advance of the coming tribulation (vv14-22)

In v19, Jesus says that the latter days will be a time of “tribulation such as has not occurred since the beginning of the creation which God created until now, and never will.” The word translated “tribulation” comes from a root that literally means “to press” or “to squash.” Figuratively, the word came to be used for “affliction” or “oppression.”[2] The word is commonly used in the New Testament to describe the various afflictions and sufferings that affect us all. Jesus promises us in John 16:33, “In the world you have tribulation.” He uses the same word there as here. But here it is used in a different sense. Here Jesus indicates that there is coming a time of affliction unprecedented in magnitude, and which will be unsurpassed by the events that follow it. This is the period of time that is referred to as “The Great Tribulation” in Rev 7:14, and which is discussed elsewhere in passages dealing with the end times.

This tribulation is of such magnitude that those who live in Judea in those days are not told to cowboy up and endure it, they are told in v14 to flee to the mountains to find safety in hiding. It will be so dangerous and will come about so rapidly that they are warned against any delay. Most of the houses of Jesus’ day had flat roofs that were flat which were used as sleeping porches and places of quiet meditation. You would reach the roof by way of a stairway on the outside of the house. In many parts of the world today, you still find houses like this. Jesus said that those who are on their housetops when this tribulation breaks out must not go back into the house to get anything to take with him in his flight to the hills. Those who are working in the fields must not go back to get a coat, but must flee immediately. Those who are pregnant and nursing babies, in what would normally be a time of great joy in their lives, are to be pitied, for their condition will only increase the difficulty of such a hasty escape. And should this time come in winter, it will be even worse for everyone. Winter would bring torrential rains and cause flooding and swelling of streams and rivers that may normally be crossed by foot. So Jesus says, “Pray that it may not happen in winter.” Notice He doesn’t say, “Pray that it won’t happen.” It is going to happen. It is a fixed event on God’s calendar. There’s no need to pray about that. But we are encouraged to pray about the timing of it. Pray that it will not occur in a time when such escape will be even more difficult.

This time of great tribulation will be inaugurated by an observable event. When this event occurs, that is the signal that it is time to flee. What is this event? Jesus says in v14, “When you see the Abomination of Desolation standing where it should not be.” An abomination is something which is loathsome, detestable, exceedingly wicked. And desolation means “deserted” or “laid waste.” It is the effect of the abomination. The abomination which will take place will have the effect of leaving “the place where it should not be” desolate. Now what does all this mean?

Mark inserts the phrase in v14, “Let the reader understand.” In other words, he is warning us to pay close attention to the wording that is used in order to understand what Jesus is referring to. The Abomination of Desolation should be in all capital letters in your English Bible. That means that it is a quotation of an Old Testament passage. This phrase echoes the thought of Daniel 9:27; 11:31; 12:11. So, with Mark’s warning, we are urged to consider what has been said there. Turn in your Bibles back to Daniel 9:24&. This passage involves a prophetic timetable given to Daniel by the angel Gabriel consisting of “seventy weeks,” or more literally “seventy-sevens.” So these are not necessarily weeks of 7 days, but more likely periods of 7 years. These words were written during the Babylonian captivity that took place between the years of 606 BC and 536 BC. Now what does Daniel tell us about these 70 “sevens.”

· 9:25: There will be a period of 7 “sevens” and 62 “sevens” between the time of the issuing of a decree to restore and rebuild Jerusalem until the Messiah comes.

· The 7 “sevens” are the 49 years between the decree of Artaxerxes to Nehemiah in 445 BC to return and rebuild and the time in which they actually complete the rebuilding of Jerusalem.

· Once the city has been rebuilt, the period of 62 “sevens” begins. In 9:26, Gabriel says that after the 62 weeks, the Messiah will be cut off and have nothing. Bearing in mind that the Jewish year consisted of only 360 days, and making the necessary adjustments, the combined time of the 69 “sevens” which began in 445 BC would place us precisely around the time of Jesus’ death. And it is after this time that the city will be destroyed. We know that Jerusalem was leveled in 70 AD. Gabriel says that it was destroyed by “the people of the prince who is to come.” The prince in question will not have come yet, but the people who are like those of that prince, are the ones who will destroy it. The destroyers of Jerusalem and the Temple were the Romans, the followers of the most powerful man in the world at that time – the Roman Emperor. So the “prince who is to come” is going to be like the Roman Emperor. He will be the most powerful man in the world.

· Also of interest is Gabriel’s statement that “even to the end there will be war.” Certainly as history has played out we have seen that war has been endless in that region of the world, and according to this word, there is no end in sight until “the end” of all things.

· Now we come to v27. “He”, that is the prince who is to come, “will make a firm covenant with the many for one week,” or “seven.” That is Daniel’s 70th “seven.” But Gabriel says, “In the middle of the week he will put a stop to sacrifice and grain offering.” Now, if the sanctuary was destroyed after the 69th week, how will there be sacrifices going on? We must understand that the Temple will be rebuilt. I can tell you that there are several aggressive Jewish groups who are already planning for a newly rebuilt temple to occupy the Temple Mount where the present Islamic Dome of the Rock now stands. Preparations are in the works. We don’t know when it will be rebuilt, and neither do they, but they are going to be ready when the time comes, I assure you. I believe that the “covenant” made by this “prince who is to come,” this powerful world ruler, will enable the rebuilding of that Temple. So, therefore, we find ourselves today living in between the 69th and 70th “seven” of Daniel’s prophetic timetable.

· According to v27, when the “prince who is to come” puts an end to sacrifices mid-way through the final seven year period, Gabriel says, “On the wing of abominations will come one who makes desolate.” The abomination of desolation will occur then.

· Now let’s turn over to Daniel 11:31. Here again we are told that he will put an end to the sacrifices and set up the abomination of desolation.

· Finally, notice in Daniel 12:11 that from the time that the abomination of desolation is set up, there will be 1290 days, or 3½ years. So it appears that for half of the time of the final “seven,” there will be sacrifices and offerings in a newly rebuilt temple, and for the last half of that “seven,” the abomination of desolation will be in place.

Now, we have a bit of a timetable for this abomination of desolation, but we still don’t know exactly what it is. We are helped by understanding an even that took place in 167 BC. During this time, the Seleucid Emperor Antiochus Epiphanes conquered Jerusalem and erected an altar to Zeus there, and consecrated the temple to his deity by sacrificing a pig on the altar. This was the most detestable thing that could have ever been done in the Jewish temple. And that event was historically described as “the abomination of desolation.” Now, this was not the abomination spoken of by Daniel – the time of Daniel’s weeks had not yet passed. But if you asked the people of Jesus’ day what the abomination of desolation was, they would have told you it was the desecration of the temple by Antiochus Epiphanes. With that in mind then, it is interesting that Jesus would use that phrase. In so doing, He seems to be indicating that what Antiochus had done was a foreshadowing of what would be done at the onset of the Great Tribulation, when Daniel’s prophesied abomination would occur. So if we put all of these details together, we see that the rebuilt temple of Jerusalem will be desecrated when a powerful world ruler will erect an idol of abomination that will cause desolation. Now, how do I know I am understanding all of this rightly? Because in the pages of inspired Scripture, we find that the Holy Spirit had made this same truth clear to the Apostle Paul and given a clear vision of it to the Apostle John.

In 2 Thessalonians 3:2-10, Paul speaks of a coming “Man of Lawlessness” will seek to “exalt himself above every so-called god or object of worship, so that he takes his seat in the temple of God, displaying himself as being God.” Paul tells us that he will come to power “in accord with the activity of Satan, with all power and signs and false wonders.” And this description matches up precisely with what we see in Revelation 13 concerning the rise of one whom John speaks of as a “Beast,” whom we have identified technically as “The Antichrist,” who will hold the whole world under his satanic dictatorship in the final seven years of the world.

So, turning now back to Mark 13, what is the abomination of desolation that will trigger the beginning of this great tribulation? The Antichrist who is to come will allow a temple to be rebuilt in Jerusalem and will exalt himself as the object of worship there, and demand that everyone worship him under the threat of capital punishment. Jesus says that when people see that take place, they better run for the hills, because literally, all hell is about to break loose on the earth. And He warns in 13:21 that in those days there will be many who say, “Behold, here is the Christ”; or “Behold, He is there.” But do not believe them, Jesus says. “For false Christs and false prophets will arise, and will show signs and wonders, in order to lead astray, if possible, the elect.” He’s already told us in vv5-6 that many will come and claim to be the Christ, and we have seen it to be true. But the ultimate false Christ is coming, and a powerful false prophet will be by his side, and through satanic empowerment, they will deceive multitudes through signs and wonders. So convincing will these signs and wonders be, that they would even deceive the elect, those who are saved by faith in Christ, if that were possible. But it isn’t possible. True believers are sealed and kept in the faith by the love of God, and those who are deceived and led astray only demonstrate themselves to have never been genuinely saved. That’s why the phrase if that were possible is so important. True believers will, as Jesus said in v13 “endure to the end,” and “be saved.” Those who do not are not true believers, they are not among the elect.

These days of great tribulation will be so intense, so severe, that Jesus says in v20, “Unless the Lord had shortened those days, no life would have been saved.” Either persecution or calamity would overtake every human being alive during that time if it were to continue unchecked. But, Jesus says, “For the sake of the elect, whom He chose, He shortened the days.” In spite of the fact that in a real sense all the power of Satan and his forces will be unleashed on the world during this time, God remains in sovereign control of it. Out of His grace, and His special love for His own people, He has put a limit on how long it will last. Thought Satan would desire that his Antichrist would rule the world forever, God has amputated his reign so that all humanity would not be wiped out, and particularly so that His redeemed may not all taste the martyr’s death.

There are no adjectives fit to describe the days of tribulation that will come. It will be the closest thing to hell on earth imaginable. Jesus has not told us everything we may want to know here in this passage. There are events of the future which are foretold in other portions of Scripture that are not discussed here, such as the rapture of the church. There are many, including myself, who believe that Scripture teaches elsewhere that before this tribulation occurs the Lord will take all born-again followers of Christ out of the world, and that the elect who are spoken of here are those who will be saved during the tribulation. That discussion, important as it is, will have to wait for another day. Jesus does not mention it here, and we are woefully short on time. But remember the question I asked as we began: Would knowing the future affect the way you live and the choices you make in the present? It certainly should, and Jesus has told us everything we need to know in advance to see to it that we take heed. If you would heed these words of Christ today, you would certainly commit your trust to Him as Lord and Savior. And heeding these words would compel us to do everything within our Spirit-empowered abilities to declare the saving Gospel of Jesus with others that they may come to know Him as well, so that come what may in this world, we may know for certain that we have eternal life in Him. Then there is nothing to fear about the days of coming tribulation. He has given us a gracious and fair warning in advance.

Now we see also that …

II. Jesus has told us in advance of His Second Coming (vv24-27)

Following the seven year tribulation that will occur in the last days, Jesus says that certain celestial phenomena will occur to signal that the end has come. “The sun will be darkened, the moon will not give its light and the stars will be falling from heaven.” Notice here again that the words should be in all capitals in your English Bible, reminding you that these are Old Testament quotations. The ideas are present in many OT prophecies of the last days, but these seem to come directly from Isaiah 13:10. In using these Scriptures, Jesus is indicating that He is not saying anything new; these things have been foretold for centuries in the Word of God.

There are those who say that these words should be taken figuratively, but that doesn’t seem to be how Jesus intends you to take them. He doesn’t say, “It will be as if the sun will be darkened, etc.” He says it matter-of-factly, and I believe He intends for us to take this very literally. The sun will no longer shine. If the sun is not shining, there will be no light in the moon, for it reflects the light of the sun. And the stars will be falling from heaven. When Jesus says that “the powers that are in the heavens will be shaken,” it is likely a summary of these three phenomena.

In other words, it will be “Lights Out” for Planet Earth.

These cosmic signs point to the final and ultimate event of human history. Unlike the false signs that the false prophets and false Christs use to deceive, these signs will undeniably point people to the one true and living Lord Jesus Christ. Jesus says in v26, “Then they will see the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory.” This is another reference to Daniel, this time Chapter 7. “The Son of Man” was the most frequently used title that Jesus used of Himself throughout His earthly ministry. The title comes from Daniel 7:13 in which Daniel has a vision of One with divine characteristics who has come forth from the Father, the Ancient of Days, with authority and dominion, and glory, to establish a Kingdom that will consist of people from every tribe and nation and tongue who serve Him. And His Kingdom will be established forever. The Lord Jesus is that One. When He came into the world 2000 years ago, He came to die so that His Kingdom could be established through the Gospel of the forgiveness of sin and eternal life that His death and resurrection secured. He came with His glory veiled behind human flesh, and not everyone who beheld Him understood who He was. But it will not be so when He returns. He will come on clouds with power and with glory, and though there are no lights in the world, all will see Him because of the splendid brightness of His glory.

The second coming of Jesus Christ will not be good news for everyone. For those who have persisted in disbelief, who have mocked His name, who have persecuted His followers, it will mean judgment, destruction, and perishing. But for those who are His, it will mean vindication and victory. He will send forth the angels to gather His elect from across the planet, according to v27. What they have held to by faith throughout the years of tribulation, they will behold with their eyes and they will be gathered to Him, never to be separated for all eternity.

Jesus has told us everything in advance. Not everything we want to know, or everything there is to know. He hasn’t told us of the rapture, or the millennial Kingdom, or the battle of Armageddon. We have been told of those things elsewhere in the Scriptures, but not here. Here, He has told us everything we need to know in order to take heed. He has told us that a great tribulation is coming. And He has told us that He is coming. “This preview of the future ought not to lure us to calculate when Christ will return, nor to fear what will happen, but to know that He will come to claim His own. His coming is His promise, and the gathering of believers to Him is our hope.”[3]

Would knowing the future affect the way you live and the choices you make in the present? Take heed, He says. If you have never given your life to Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, we would urge and welcome you to do that today. The events foretold in Scripture may well occur in soon coming days. We do not know. Why delay making peace with God until it is too late? Why not this day, turn to Christ in repentance of your sins and faith in what He has done for you? He died on the cross for your sins and is risen from the dead so that you can be forgiven and have eternal life. Receive Him today, and let the promise of His coming be a joy and comfort to you, rather than something to fear and dread. And if you know Him, what better use of the time we have remaining could be spent than in worshiping Him, serving Him, and making the promise of His salvation known to others?

[1] From Wikipedia articles on “Early Edition,” “It Happened Tomorrow,” and “Back to the Future Part II.”

[2] Gerhard Kittel, Gerhard Friedrich eds., Theological Dictionary of the New Testament [Abridged in One Volume by Geoffrey Bromiley] (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1985), 334. (“Little Kittel”)

[3] James Edwards, The Pillar New Testament Commentary: The Gospel According to Mark (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002), 404.


gboyd said...

It is widespread belief that the abomination of desolation is set up at the midpoint, and "many bible scholars agree". That idea, at least in my mind, has some major flaws in it. I believe there is a chance it won't be set up until the end of the 70th week. We need to be sure of the timing of the abomination of desolation.
This event is too important to just adopt a theory without doing some serious research into the soundness of those ideas. I feel there ought to be some justification for this idea if so many people are going to follow it without asking questions as to its validity.

Russ Reaves said...

I think Daniel makes it abundantly clear. In fact if you wanted to make it more clear, I don't know how you would. This, as with most elements of eschatology, is inevitably influenced by presupposition. This is why we must be exceedingly cautious to employ inductive Bible study ANC let the text speak for itself.