Wednesday, November 14, 2012

THE LITTLE APOCALYPSE: Hope or Tribulation?

Mark 13:1-8
1 As he came out of the temple, one of his disciples said to him, "Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!" 2 Then Jesus asked him, "Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down." 3 When he was sitting on the Mount of Olives opposite the temple, Peter, James, John, and Andrew asked him privately, 4 "Tell us, when will this be, and what will be the sign that all these things are about to be accomplished?" 5 Then Jesus began to say to them, "Beware that no one leads you astray.  6 Many will come in my name and say, 'I am he!' and they will lead many astray. 7 When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed; this must take place, but the end is still to come. 8 For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be earthquakes in various places; there will be famines. This is but the beginning of the birthpangs.

THE LITTLE APOCALYPSE: Hope or Tribulation?
As far as apocalypses go, I’m sure they come in only one size: Big.  This passage, however, is referred to as the little apocalypse, as compared to the “big apocalypse” in the Book of Revelation.   As we will see, however, it is actually not an apocalypse at all.  Instead, it is the refutation of the idea of a conquering messiah.  It is the anti-apocalypse.

Written about the time of the destruction of the Temple, first century Christians would have been familiar with persecution, war and disaster.  Israel warred with Rome.  People hanging on crosses lined the streets.  There were false prophets and pretend messiahs.  Josephus even recorded an earthquake in Palestine in 67 CE [Josephus, War 4.286-87.]   By the time Mark wrote, the destruction of the Temple may have already occurred.  During this time first century Christians suffered war and persecution.
These verses gave early Christians hope during times of persecution and tribulation.  Look forward to the nearness of the Kingdom of God, not cosmic war and the end of the world.  Jesus explicitly tells the disciples not to focus on the "end times."   The story is not a prediction of “end times”.  It is the rejection of it.

Jesus doesn’t tell us when “the end” will come.  Instead, he gives us no signs of the end.  When will the end come?  Is it when you hear of wars and rumors of wars? No, the end is still to come.  Is it when nation rises against nation, and Kingdom against Kingdom?  No. . . .  Is it when there are earthquakes or famines?  No, these are just "the beginning of the “birthpangs.”  Not even close to the end. 
Other than the prophecy of the Temple’s destruction, there are more important questions raised by the text.   Why must wars and disasters take place, and why are they called “birthpangs”? 

Later we hear Jesus say he would rebuild the temple in three days. [Mark 14:58]  This is often interpreted as referring to his resurrection.  Immediately preceding this story we learned that the Scribes devour widow’s houses. The destruction of the Temple then is a condemnation of corruption and collusion with Empire, in the case the Roman Empire.  The destruction of the Temple symbolizes the message that systemic injustice and human corruption will be overcome.  The system will be torn down. 

Jesus warns us to beware not to be lead astray.  Many will be led astray, not just a few.  How are we to know who is led astray or when we are being led astray? 
Many think those who disagree with them, with their interpretation of the Bible, or with their church's theology are being led astray.  I guess that’s human nature, but it hardly answers the question.  Just because your Church or pastor tell you what to think and believe doesn’t make them right.  So much time is spent making sure people adhere to  ”correct” doctrine.  Every denomination is at least slightly different.  The very idea of a single “correct” doctrine is anathema to reason, as if we knew the mind of God. 

The medieval Church tortured and burned people at the stake simply because they disagreed.  Many Christians believe if you don’t think like them or believe the same things they do then you are going to hell.  These Christians are making the same mistake that Peter, James, John, and Andrew made by focusing "the end" rather than on the nearness of the Kingdom of God.
Jesus tells us not to concern ourselves with “end times.”  Jesus is pointing out that the disciples are on the wrong track, again.  In Mark, the disciples are dense.  They don’t get it.  They don’t understand until the very end.  They’ve asked to be seated on Jesus’ right and left hand. [Mark 10:37] They were looking for a conquering messiah like King David.  They error here again.

More important than the end is Jesus’ description of wars and disasters as “the beginning of the birthpangs.”  A birth is a wonderful event, but the pain of child birth is excruciating.   Yet women are willing to go through this pain in order to have a child. A child is a wondrous and hoped for gift. Jesus tells us we have something wonderful to hope for, and that it’s not more war, persecution and disaster.
Wars and disasters are only the beginning, because they are far from the Kingdom of God.  We are to look not toward the “end times” but toward the Kingdom of God, not to tribulation and destruction but to a new world, not to the destruction of our enemies but to justice and redemption.  This message gave early Christians hope for a better and more just world, not more despair, tribulation, suffering, destruction, and war.

The disciples didn’t get it and were at risk of being lead astray by those who advocated war with Rome.  Jesus said many will be lead astray, not just a few.  Many Christians are focused on "end times."  They look forward to the tribulation, to terrible suffering for those who disagree with them, to a God of power rather than a God of love.  These Christians have been lead astray.
War and disaster are beginnings not because God is going to bring more suffering and despair upon the world, but because, while horrible things in themselves, they provide us the opportunity to serve.  When war and disasters happen, people often rally around one another and support each other.  They put aside differences and work to alleviate their brother’s suffering.  Coming together to alleviate suffering is what the Kingdom of God looks like. 

Jesus has repeatedly preached that the Kingdom of God is near.  If early Christians were to understand that the Kingdom of God and an end to suffering, persecution, and war were over 2000 years away, they would not have derived any hope from Jesus’ words. They believe they would see the Kingdom of God in their life times. [Mark 13:30] Instead, when Jesus says the Kingdom of God is near, he means it is within reach.  Repent, change your warring ways, believe that things can change, and become the slave of all. [Mark 1:15 and 10:44]
The world is ruled by power.  God, on the other hand, is love.  Only a fool looks forward to the end of the world.  God is not a murderous monster intent on destroying creation and inflicting suffering on humanity.  Those who preach this are leading many astray.  Beware!


  1. Hey! First of all I would like to say the fact that you actually managed to create a beautiful site. Also I wanted to ask you one thing that I am interested about. Do you have an idea to write in a professional way or running a blog is basically just a hobby of yours?

  2. I would like to write professionally. I've published one academic book, but would like to write another book for the general public. I'm using this blog to work toward that goal. It would be great to write magazine articles, too.