The Last Judgement (detail) c. 1504 by Hieronymous Bosch
The temple in Jerusalem was part of Jesus’ life from the beginning. Forty days after his birth Mary and Joseph came to purchase his redemption according to the law of Moses, redeeming the redeemer of the world. Every year they made the trek back to Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover. On one occasion the twelve-year-old Jesus stayed behind without his parents’ knowledge or permission. When the frantic couple came looking for him, they found him in the temple courts, listening to the teachers and asking them questions. During his ministry Jesus made frequent visits to the temple. It was here Satan brought him and tempted him to throw himself down, trusting his life to the guardian angels. Jesus later drove out the moneychangers who did business there, literally turning the tables on them.
Despite all of his contact with Israel’s most holy place, Jesus taught and lived out a faith that had less to do with temple ritual and more to do with right relationships. Love God and love your neighbor was the heart of his message. Jesus was to the Jewish temple what Mother Teresa was to the Vatican; only he was even more of a troublemaker than the nun of Calcutta.
One day Jesus and his disciples left the temple and made their way up the Mount of Olives. Looking back they could see the majestic structure, its white limestone gleaming in the midday the sun. It must have been an impressive sight. One of the disciples said, “Master, see what manner of stones and what buildings are here!” (Mark 13:1). I’m sure it was a shock when Jesus replied: “Seest thou these great buildings? There shall not be left one stone left upon another, that shall not be thrown down” (2).
Jesus was good at doing that—shocking people. He appears so serene in the kitsch images that hang on Sunday School walls, but looks can be deceiving. There’s no pinning the biblical Jesus down. He doesn’t fit into the neat, little boxes we build for him. Make Jesus your healer and he refuses to heal on demand. Make Jesus your ethical teacher and he tells you not to defend yourself. Make Jesus your rabbi and he says it’s okay to break the Sabbath. Make Jesus your Savior and he tells you in order to save your life you must lose it. Make Jesus your God and he dies.
Peter, Andrew, James, and John—the inner circle of disciples—took Jesus aside and asked him two questions: “When shall these things be? And what shall be the sign when all these things shall be fulfilled?” (4). Answering, Jesus gave what’s called his “Olivet Discourse,” a frightening apocalyptic glimpse of the future that makes end times preachers salivate and leaves the rest of us scratching our heads. It seems more like something out the book of Daniel or Revelation or my last nightmare than a gospel text.
As to when these things will happen, Jesus says, “This generation shall not pass, till all these things be done” (30). It’s true that many of the things Jesus prophesied took place in 70 CE when the Romans destroyed Jerusalem, but not everything happened then. The stars didn’t fall from heaven and the Son of man didn’t “come in the clouds with great power and glory” (26). Did Jesus believe his return would take place within the lifetime of those standing around, as Albert Schweitzer claimed? Jesus said he didn’t know the timing of his return (32). Or did he simply mean he would return within a generation of something still to come, something he predicted for the future? It isn’t at all clear.
Jesus said many things about the coming of the end. He painted a troubling picture of a future full of woes and tribulation. The Greek word apocalypsis means “revelation.” We get the English words “apocalypse” and “apocalyptic” from it. It is ironic that most apocalyptic literature, Mark 13 included, obscures more than it reveals. I don’t know what of this highly symbolic passage to take literally. I’m also unsure whether Jesus’ words are predictions of what must come to pass or warnings, like Jonah’s to Nineveh, of what may come to pass if mankind doesn’t shape up.
What are we to do with a passage like this? There’s one lesson I think we can safely draw. History is moving toward a divinely directed culmination. Despite all of the uncertainty and tragedy of life, God is still in control. He is not responsible for everything that happens, but like a chess master he’s got an endgame strategy and he’s moving the world toward it. We’re not told to figure out all of the symbolism in minute detail and with elaborate diagrams. Our response is to watch and pray (33-37). That we can do. That we must do.
Even so, come, Lord Jesus!