Sunday, March 9, 2014

The Return of Christ

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Mark 13:24-37

When reading the prophetic passages of the New Testament, it is tempting to obsess over the details (I'm looking at you, "Left Behind" readers), but Jesus' emphasis is less on detailing the events (providing a full eschatology) and more on how His disciples should act leading up to and during these events. He doesn't give us an itinerary.

Mark 13:24-27

The question for us is often, "What is He referring to? The destruction of the Jewish Temple or His Second Coming?". The First Jewish-Roman War took place from 66-73 AD with the Siege of Jerusalem, including the destruction of the Temple, taking place in 70 AD. This was the Second (Herod's) Temple that had been built less than a hundred years early to replace the First (Solomon's) Temple, which has been destroyed 600-700 years earlier. During the Siege of Jerusalem, the city was utterly destroyed. Only a few towers and a portion of the western wall were left standing as an indicator of the type of city Jerusalem had been. Josephus claims that over 1 million people were killed, including women and children. It was a terrible scene.

Jews now commemorate this occasion as Tisha B'Av (9th of Av), which typically falls in July or August. Since the destruction of the Temple, there have been no daily sacrifice, an important element of the Jewish Law.

In these verses, we see intense prophetic language, echoing Daniel 7, Amos 8, Joel 2, Ezekiel 32, Isaiah 13 & 34, and Revelation 6. Biblical prophesy often has two applications or fulfillments: short-term (limited) and long-term (extensive, complete). One example of this would the messianic psalms of David. They had a short-term fulfillment in the life of King David but were or will be completely fulfilled in Christ. Another example would be the birth prophesies of Isaiah. They had a short term fulfillment in the life of Isaiah but were completely fulfilled in the birth of Jesus.

With the words of Jesus in their hearts and minds, it would be understandable that His disciples would have expected Him to return some 40 years later when they saw the Temple destroyed just as He had predicted, but I believe that both events, the turmoil in Jerusalem and the Second Coming of Christ, are in view in this passage.

In v24, we see the sun darkened, as it would in just a few days at the crucifixion of Jesus. As we look forward to the 'end times,' we may see the sun itself fail. Stars fall in v25. In the short-term, this may be a references to the Jewish political and religious leaders (the 'stars') falling from power and dying during the war with Rome. In its future fulfillment, it may be quite literal; meteorites falling and stars appearing to move strangely as the 'powers in the heavens' (gravity?) are disrupted and earth orbit changes.

Daniel 7:13 is quoted in v26. In Daniel, it refers to the Son of Man going to the Father, and it is reasonable to see it in that same light: Jesus' enthronement and vindication in the 1st century, since the word translated "coming" could also mean "going." The most common view, though, is that this refers to His future return. In v27, we see angels, often associated with judgment (2 Thess. 1:7). The idiom "four winds" refers to the fact His followers will come from all over the world.

Mark 13:28-32

It is the natural pattern of plants to begin showing signs of new life before the fruit appears. This would have been the case of the fig trees at the time Jesus spoke, in spring just before Passover.

There could be a minor debate over what "is near" in v29, Jesus ("He," as it is usually translated) or "it" since the Greek word does not indicate gender. Either way, the result is the same: Jesus' return is near. “Ever since the Incarnation, men have been living in the last days.” (Cranfield)

"Generation" in v30 has been a point of much struggle for those seeking to interpret the Bible. In the most common understanding of the word, it would seem that Jesus says that many of the people alive at the time of His words would be alive when He returns, and many were still alive some 40+ years later when the Temple was destroyed. The word translated as "generation" also has another definition, meaning a race of people. In this case, it refers to the race of the Jewish people. Jesus says that the Jewish people, despite thousands of years of dispersions and difficulties, would remain an identifiable people until His return. The fact of Israel's current existence is in itself a fulfillment of prophecy.

The establishment of the State of Israel in 1948 led many to see the fig tree in v28 as representative of the re-emergence of Israel, a prophecy seemingly being fulfilled before their eyes. They believed that Jesus would return within a generation, 40 years to be more precise. The 1980's saw widespread interest in the return of Christ, and when He did not return, many believers were left confused and disillusioned.

It seems that Jesus knew that we would obsess over the time of His return and warned that it is not for us to know. This statement is unique to the Gospel of Mark. He says that even "the Son" does not know. How could Jesus not know? How could He be truly God and not know something? John Wesley said that as a man, "Christ was no more omniscient than omnipresent." This may be an oversimplication, but we recognize that Jesus voluntarily limited Himself at the Incarnation. Luke 2:52 tells us that Jesus grew in wisdom and stature as He grew up, so it should be understandable and acceptable that Jesus, as a man, limited His knowledge. The point of Jesus' statement is that we shouldn't obsess over trying to figure out when He will return. Rather, we are to be alert and ready whenever it may come.

Mark 13:33-37

The idea of being watchful, waiting for His return, is detailed in the three parables of Matthew 25. Jesus offers another parable here in Mark 13, that of the man, his house, and his servants.The servants, including the doorkeeper, have responsibilities for who comes in (strangers) and what goes out (the master's possessions). They also must manage all correspondence and commerce in accordance to the master's wishes. With Jesus as our Master, this applies to our individuals lives and to the church. We must be alert since we do not know when Jesus will return or when we will die and face Him. If the servants were asleep or otherwise not alert, they put the house at risk.

His return will be unexpected, but not sneaky; we'll all know when He returns. Every person is personally responsible to be watchful. So how do we deal with the uncertainty?

"Some people have the idea, 'We don't know when Jesus is coming, so it doesn't really matter.' Others have the idea, 'We don't know when Jesus is coming, so we have to find out and set a date.' The right response is, 'I don't know when Jesus is coming so I have to be alert, eager, and ready for His coming.'" (Guzik)

I recently celebrate my 36th birthday. Based on the average life expectancy of a guy in the U.S., I am almost at mid-life. On average, I'll live another 40 or so years, but that is just the average. I have no promise that I'll make it to work tomorrow. The Lord could return at any time, or I could live well past the average, as many in my family have. Whatever the length of my life is, I must live it alert and ready for His return.

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