After the death of the British prime minister, the world’s leaders gather in London to pay their respects. Without warning, a series of devastating terrorist attacks wipe out five world leaders attending the funeral leaving the city in chaos and ruins. Secret Service agent Mike Banning springs into action to bring the U.S. President to safety. When he falls into the hands of the sinister organization, it’s up to Banning to save his commander in chief from a horrible fate. London has Fallen is the latest disaster movie to hit the cinemas. The film is the sequel to Olympus Has Fallen, released just under three years ago about a previous terrorist attack on the White House. “Olympus” being the US secret service code for the White House. Well, the theme of our Gospel reading could be entitled “Jerusalem has Fallen”. Jesus and his disciples have just arrived in Jerusalem. They were fisherman from villages along the shore the Sea of Galilee. They were impressed by the fine stone buildings.
“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.” (Mark 13:1-2)
Jesus shocked them with his apocalyptic warning of imminent and total destruction. So…
“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?” (Mark 13:3-4)
They were dying to know when Jerusalem would fall. When would it happen? And when would Jesus return? Christians have been speculating ever since. In verse 30, Jesus answers enigmatically,
“Truly I tell you, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened.” (Mark 13:30).
As a young Christian growing up in the 1970s, I was addicted to books on Bible prophecy like Hal Lindsey’s, Late Great Planet Earth. Lindsey insisted Jesus would return in our generation. He figured that the return of the Jewish people back to the land after 2000 years, the founding of the State of Israel in 1948, and the capture of Jerusalem in 1967, were signs that Jesus predicted.
Insisting a biblical generation is 40 years, Lindsey speculated that Jesus would therefore return in 1988.
But December 31st 1988 came and went and no Messiah. So Lindsey tried a different tack. In a series of sequels to The Late Great Planet Earth, he conveniently changed the final chapter to fit with world events. First he suggested that since Israel captured Jerusalem in 1967, Jesus would return 40 years later. But 2007 came and went so he then suggested a generation could be anything from 80-120 years. Very convenient. Lindsey and his fellow prophecy speculators really need not have bothered, because Jesus is crystal clear on when he is coming back.
“… of that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father only.” (Matthew 24:36)
So how then are we to understand the ‘Signs of the Times’ Jesus describes in Mark 13? The difficulty has been in discerning, with any certainty, which verses applied to the people listening to Jesus in the 1st Century; which verses describe events since then; and which verses relate to the future when Jesus will return. The best way to view this kind of apocalyptic literature is to imagine you are wearing vari-focal lenses.
If you wear vari-focals you know you can see things near as well as far away in perfect focus at the same time. Remember, Jesus did not want his disciples, or later generations from becoming discouraged by his apparent delay, or disturbed by the persecution he predicted.
So, lets put on our vari-focals and read Mark 13.
- The Beginning of the Last Days
“Jesus said to them: “Watch out that no one deceives you. Many will come in my name, claiming, ‘I am he,’ and will deceive many. When you hear of wars and rumours of wars, do not be alarmed. Such things must happen, but the end is still to come. Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be earthquakes in various places, and famines. These are the beginning of birth pains. “You must be on your guard. You will be handed over to the local councils and flogged in the synagogues. On account of me you will stand before governors and kings as witnesses to them. And the gospel must first be preached to all nations. Whenever you are arrested and brought to trial, do not worry beforehand about what to say. Just say whatever is given you at the time, for it is not you speaking, but the Holy Spirit. “Brother will betray brother to death, and a father his child. Children will rebel against their parents and have them put to death. Everyone will hate you because of me, but the one who stands firm to the end will be saved.” (Mark 13:5-13)
The “you” here is clearly the disciples. And in the Acts of the Apostles we read of how these verses came true. From the persecution of the church, the martyrdom of Stephen and James, the famine that swept Palestine, the rebellion against Roman rule in Judea, to the gospel reaching as far as Rome. These were the beginning of the Last Days. But verse 14 hints at a later generation – ‘let the reader understand’,
“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)
These verses describe the desecration and destruction of the Temple in 70AD. First, the Zealots murdered the High Priest near the altar, then the Idumeans ransacked Jerusalem, before the Romans broke the siege and raised their pagan standards in the Temple.
When the Jews continued to rebel, Emperor Titus finally and utterly destroyed the Temple together with all of Jerusalem fulfilling Jesus’ terrible prediction that not one stone would be left on another. The contemporary Jewish historian Josephus, sent by Titus to mediate with the Jewish zealots, quotes the prophet Daniel insisting what he predicted had come true. Josephus claims more than a million Jews perished. But apparently the disciples remembered Jesus’ warning and escaped when Titus began to besiege the city. To those who thought this was the end of the world, Jesus said, “These are the beginning of birth pains.”(Mark 13:8). The beginning of the Last Days.
- The Signs of the Last Days
“If the Lord had not cut short those days, no one would survive. But for the sake of the elect, whom he has chosen, he has shortened them. 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. But in those days, following that distress, “‘the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light; the stars will fall from the sky, and the heavenly bodies will be shaken… “Now learn this lesson from the fig tree: As soon as its twigs get tender and its leaves come out, you know that summer is near. Even so, when you see these things happening, you know that it is near, right at the door.” (Mark 13:20-25, 28-29)
Now it is quite possible that Jesus is describing literal cosmological disturbances. We know the disruptive effects of sun spots for life on earth, and the impact of climate change in terms of extreme weather. But we must also be mindful of how Old Testament prophets used apocalyptic language to describe cataclysmic political events on earth. Jesus is simply using vivid imagery taken from the Old Testament to describe his return. NT Wright observes,
“The stars will not give their light”, wrote Isaiah, “the sun will be dark at its rising, and the moon will not shed its light” (Isaiah 13.10). What was going on? Babylon was being destroyed, never to be rebuilt. In the prophet’s world, that was like saying that London or New York would sink into the sea, never to rise. What language will you borrow to do justice to such an event? That of cosmic collapse, of chaos …. The whole point is, of course, that the world has not actually collapsed; if it had, there wouldn’t be anybody around to be shocked and awed at the fate of Babylon.” [i]
The signs Jesus describes have in some sense been evident in every generation since. That’s because these signs were never intended to tell us the time of Jesus’ return.
That is what Jesus meant about not being deceived (Mark 13:23). Instead, think of these like the hazard warning signs you see on a motorway. They keep you alert and ready for what ever lies ahead. They are not intended to tell you how far away you are from your destination. Jesus wants to keep us alert, not confused or wasting our time speculating about the timing of his return. The troubles and sorrows predicted by Jesus are not the end in themselves but only the ‘birth pangs’ because they are leading to one positive sign.
“And this gospel of the kingdom will be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come.” (Matthew 24:14)
This is why the Lord Jesus has not yet returned. The apostle Peter tells us:
“The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. Instead he is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.” (2 Peter 3:9)
When everyone on earth has had an opportunity to hear and respond to the good news of the gospel, then the Lord Jesus Christ will return. The Beginning of the Last Days. The Signs of the Last Days.
- The End of the Last Days
“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. (Mark 13:26-27)
Here in Mark 13, ‘the four winds’ (mentioned in Jeremiah 49:36 and Zechariah 2:6) symbolize the entire world. In this way Jesus will gather his elect “from every nation, tribe, people and language” (Revelation 7:9). What is clear from these verses is that Jesus will return personally, visibly, publicly, unmistakably. Believers will celebrate with Jesus while the rest of the world will mourn because it will be too late. The Beginning of the Last Days. The Signs of the Last Days. And the End of the Last Days.
The application is simple: Jesus does not want us to be distracted by false prophets and so called Messiahs – even by those who claim to perform miracles or offer material prosperity. He does not want us to be disturbed by opposition or persecution. Instead he wants us to be diligent, living as if he might return today – faithful in serving him, faithful in sharing him, taking every opportunity to know Jesus and make Jesus known.
Although nobody knows when Jesus will return, two things are certain. First, we are nearer to that day than ever before in history. And second, the signs are certainly more evident than ever before. Come Lord Jesus! Lets pray.
[i] N.T. Wright, Apocalypse Now http://ntwrightpage.com/Wright_Apocalypse_Now.htm