As we have just turned the millennium there has been much speculation about the end of the world. In Ch. 13 of Mark and its parallels in Luke and Mt. Jesus talks about the end. Many people read this as a prediction of things that are happening in our own time. Jehovah's Witnesses base their missionary outreach on the need to inform people of this. What does it all mean?
The disciples' question When is this going to happen and what sign will there be that it is about to take place? is really a question about "under what circumstances" In v. 32 Jesus says: But as for that day or hour, nobody knows it, neither the angels in heaven nor the son, no one but the father. Today many people see natural calamities or pandemics like aids as a sign that the end is near. Jesus explicitly tells his disciples not to be alarmed about these things, that the end will not be yet, and they must ignore the various fanatics who see in these things the in-breaking of the end. Paul sheds further light on this in 2 Thessalonians 2:1-3: Please do not be too easily thrown into confusion or alarmed by any manifestation of the Spirit, or any statement or any letter claiming to come from us suggesting that the day of the Lord has already arrived. Never let anyone deceive you in this way. Some of Paul’s readers had been persuaded that the end was here and the letter is to show them that this is not the case. We think that Mark’s Gospel was written partly in response to the great persecution of Christians under Nero in 64 AD. Many of the survivors may have seen this as a sign of the end. Mark wants them to hear loud and clear the Lord’s words that we are not to view historical events in this way. Jesus goes on to promise that his followers will be persecuted but even this is not a sign of the end. We must bear in mind that when he was speaking there were all sorts of expectations of an immanent end. When people today sit up at night watching for UFO’s they very often see them, or imagine they do. The ‘apocalypse watchers’ of Jesus’ time were in a similar position, so some of this sermon on the end is Jesus debunking all such conclusions. The parallel to this passage in Matthew 24:14 seems to indicate that speculation on the end of the world is pointless: This good news of the kingdom will be proclaimed to the whole world, as evidence to the nations. And then the end will come. What is important is that the disciples get on with the God-given task of preaching the Gospel to all nations and then the end will come, in its own good time. But their energy should be directed to that and not to worrying about the end. In fact such speculation is merely a way of dodging the real business of being Christian, which is often quite humdrum. It’s much more exiting to attend a talk about the end of the world than to visit one’s slightly odd and rather boring neighbour, but we all know which is the more Christian thing to do. Such things are often merely our desire for sensationalism dressed up in religious clothing. If we feel that we, or our group have inside information that others don’t, then of course we can feel very special. This is just the old heresy of gnosticism given another twist.
We must remember too that when Jesus speaks of the end of time, he is making a statement about the meaning of time. Indeed in many languages the word 'end' also means purpose. (Remember how we used to talk about the ‘ends of marriage’ meaning its purposes.) By seeing the end it is possible to glimpse the meaning and direction of the present. When a woman knits a pullover, she does so with a pattern which has a picture of the finished product. Without the picture the various stitches and pieces of cloth she assembles make no sense. Jesus’ image of the sun being darkened etc. is saying that what really matters in our world is Christ and what he does for us. And even when the whole world falls apart, when the sun seems to fall from our sky, he remains. The meaning of creation can only be understood in him. That is not to say that our present experience is worthless as some religious extremists would have it, rather it is all put into perspective. Christ is not trying to make people indifferent to the world but wants to help them realise that everything they have and know now is somewhat relative.
Jesus is saying that the world will come to an end, and once again uses the imagery available to him to describe that which was unknowable. His promise that God and good will ultimately triumph is not something which will only happen in the future, but something tasted and glimpsed now, sometimes even beheld clearly in the lives of believers. Jesus paints a picture of the end to make us realise a) that the world is going somewhere and b) to make sure that we have the right priorities now.
The recent tragedy of mass murder by an apocalyptic cult in Uganda reminded us once again how deadly an obsession with the end of the world can be for Christians. As we saw in the last article, Jesus’ concern is that his followers get on with the business of Christianity now, and leave the future in the hands of God. More than this, Jesus takes seriously people’s ideas about the end of the world, but challenges them and turns them into something else.
This first becomes clear in the contrast between Jesus and John the Baptist. John correctly identifies Jesus as the Messiah, but for him the Messiah will: Gather his wheat into the barn, but the chaff he will burn in a fire that will never go out. (Mt. 3:12.) John thinks that now Jesus has gone public this separation of the good and evil will begin any day. It’s probably this which gives him the courage to challenge Herod and lands him in jail. No problem. John is well used to hardship and in prison sits and waits for the apocalyptic fireworks to begin; and waits, and waits. . . Then he starts to hear the alarming news that instead of clearly dividing the good from the bad, Jesus is actually blurring the division, muddying the waters. He eats with those hated collaborators, the tax collectors and welcomes those destroyers of the nation’s innocence, the prostitutes. No wonder John starts to doubt that Jesus is The One and sends him a message: Are you the one who is to come or are we to wait for someone else? (Mt. 11:3) His problem is that he is thinking of the Messiah in terms of the most recent Jewish ideas about him. Because the Jews had suffered oppression for so long and there seemed to be no end to it, some of them developed the idea that God would intervene suddenly, destroy the present order, reward the just and punish the wicked. Jesus gets John to think of the Messiah rather in terms of the Prophet Isaiah whose ideas had a much better and older pedigree. He tells John: The blind see again, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised to life and the good news is proclaimed to the poor. (11:4) Each of these phrases is a quote from Isaiah talking about God’s glorious future for his people. All this is coming true now. John’s vision of the Messiah was too narrow, too much concerned with reward and punishment. Jesus tries to widen his horizons.
It’s true today that when Christians become overly concerned about the end of the world they tend to be far too interested in the question of who’s right and who’s wrong, or if you like, who are the sheep and the goats. It’s precisely for such people that Jesus told the parable of the last judgement in Mt. 25:31-46. He starts by saying that the Son Of man. . . will separate men from one another as the shepherd separates sheep from goats. In a way Jesus plays a trick on his audience. He sets them up to think “At last he’s going to tell us what we’ve always wanted to know, who’s in and who’s out.” This parable sounds just like a classic apocalyptic scene. This sort of thing people at the time loved to hear. But then Jesus completely subverts people ideas and hopes by refusing to identify any particular group or sect as the goodies or the baddies. It’s not belonging to this or that group that puts people at rights with God, but they way they behave to those in need. And he drives the point home that those who visited the sick and helped the needy were quite unconscious that they were actually doing these things to Jesus. He does not tell people in so many words that it’s wrong to keep their eyes on the future, and that the desire to see God punishing the wicked is sometimes just an extension of the natural human desire for vengeance. Rather he climbs in to that desire, gets under the skin of the apocalyptic imagination and subverts it from within.
When people asked Jesus when the end will come he refused a direct answer but told them to stay awake and be alert. In the same way here, to the implied question: “Who’s in the kingdom and who’s out?” Jesus answers: “It’s none of your business, but your business is to see that you respond to my call when I come to you in the shape of the poor and the needy." He makes the point that not only is that kind of speculation pointless, but it actually pulls the Christian off track and distracts him from the real business of discipleship which is charity. Jesus begins this parable by what sounds like a prediction of the end, but concludes it by a recommendation to act in a certain way in the present. Any form of Christianity which is all about interest in the future is nothing more than a distraction, and any voice in the Church which moves people in that direction is certainly not the voice of God.
This article first appeared in the APF magazine Mission Today