Deluded evangelist Harold Camping has predicted that the end of the world will begin on May 21, 2011, which is two days away from the time I’m writing this. If you’ve been reading the last few installments of Four Minutes in Mark, you’re correct in guessing that I’m not too worried about “prophecies” like this.
Besides, just as Jesus predicted, the end of the world came in 70 A.D. Sort of.
Jesus has announced that the Jerusalem temple is going to be destroyed. His disciples are shocked that such an impressive monument and the religious institutions it shelters could be swept away. So they ask him, “Tell us, when will these things be, and what will be the sign when all these things are about to be accomplished?”
Now, we’ve seen that Jesus does answer their questions, but his answers are deeper than they anticipated. What his disciples don’t realize is that Jesus’ kingdom won’t fully arrive when the temple is destroyed. Rather, the destruction of the temple is a signal indicating the end of the Jewish priestly system; it indicates that Jesus’ reign has been inaugurated, that as the Messiah he has fulfilled the Old Testament “types”—the historical people, regulations, and events which pointed toward his coming. But his kingdom won’t fully arrive yet—and it still hasn’t to this day.
After a period of intense suffering during which the destruction of Jerusalem is imminent, Jesus tells his disciples, “The sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.” If this sounds like the end of the world, it’s supposed to! In fact, these powerful words would have been familiar to the disciples. Many of the Old Testament prophets used similar images to prophesy God’s judgment of Babylon, Egypt, Israel, or the world as a whole (see, for example, Isaiah 13:10; 24:21–23; Ezekiel 32:7–8; Joel 2:10; 3:15). Why? Because they wanted their audience to visualize the “de-creation” of the created order. God had appointed the sun, moon, and stars “to rule over the day and over the night, and to separate the light from the darkness” (Genesis 1:18). No matter how bad your life gets, you can always count on the sun rising tomorrow morning. But if you can’t trust the sun, moon, and stars, what can you trust? The prophets wanted to depict a time of chaos and destruction, a terrible judgment in which even the most reliable institutions around them would collapse. Each of these judgments was “the end of the world” on a smaller scale, a “Day of the Lord” event, and each pointed toward a final “Day of the Lord” in which heaven and earth itself would be dissolved.
So the destruction of the temple in 70 A.D. is yet another Day of the Lord. It is the end of an age. The temple institution which is the foundation for Jewish politics, commerce, and religion is about to be destroyed. Their world will come to an end.
Why will this take place? To establish the kingdom of Jesus, the Son of Man. Using imagery from Daniel 7:13–14, Jesus paints the picture of his reign being established by God as he comes “in clouds with great power and glory.” And then his kingdom grows and spreads, as his chosen people from all nations are gathered in, repenting and believing, extending his reign “from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven.”
As wild as this promise may sound to his disciples, Jesus promises that “it is near, at the very gates.” Just like the budding of the fig tree indicates that summer is almost here, so the signs of Jerusalem’s destruction indicate that his kingdom is being established. In fact, Jesus tells his disciples, “This generation will not pass away until all these things take place.” Some of them will see it with their own eyes!
Then, Jesus tells them, “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.” There will come a final Day of the Lord in which “the heavens will be set on fire and dissolved, and the heavenly bodies will melt as they burn.” They must be replaced by “new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells” (2 Peter 3:12–13).
Don’t trust in your job security. Don’t trust in your bank account. Don’t trust in your retirement savings. Don’t trust in the stock market. Don’t trust in the government. Don’t trust in the American military. Don’t even trust in the sun, moon, and stars. They will all fail someday, without exception. Ground your faith in the promise of the Son of Man, that he is setting up “an everlasting dominion which shall not pass away” (Daniel 7:14).
And while we’re on the subject, definitely don’t trust in Harold Camping.
- Religious people
The guy never bothered to read Dale Carnegie’s book, did he?
It’s been a while since we’ve seen one of these “sandwich stories” that Mark includes in his account of Jesus’ life. He starts with Story A, then interrupts it with Story B, then concludes by finishing Story A. The interrupting story (Story B) helps you and me understand what is going on in Story A.
Here, Story A begins with Jesus walking to Jerusalem. Apparently, he missed his breakfast that morning, so he’s hungry. He sees a leafy fig tree in the distance, walks up to it, finds no figs to eat, and curses it. If that seems a little arbitrary and vindictive, Mark only makes the problem worse; he explains that the reason Jesus found no figs on the tree is that “it was not the season for figs.”
So what’s the deal here? Did Jesus wake up on the wrong side of the bed this morning?
We quickly find the answer when Mark shifts to Story B: the “cleansing” of the temple. Jesus enters the temple in Jerusalem and begins clearing out all the salesmen and moneychangers who have set up shop in the Court of the Gentiles, which is where non-Jewish people can enter to pray to God. He also prevents people from using this Court as a shortcut when carrying things from one side of the city to the other. He thunders, “Is it not written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations’? But you have made it a ‘den of robbers.’” He’s quoting to them a couple of passages from the Old Testament prophets. The first is from Isaiah 56:7, where God invites foreigners to worship him at the temple. The religious leaders of Jesus’ day are permitting salesmen to interfere with this purpose of the temple, just so they can make a quick buck. That’s one reason why Jesus is quoting the second passage of scripture. It’s from Jeremiah 7:11.
Now, in the context of Jeremiah 7, the Lord God was condemning the people of Israel for their unjust and idolatrous behavior. They were convinced that they were safe from punishment because they had the temple with them; they believed that their religious system would protect them from harm. They were viewing the temple the way criminals view their hideout. But the Lord threatened to destroy the temple as the holy city of Shiloh had been destroyed. And now Jesus is implying a similar threat to the religious leaders of his day, who think that their external religion will cover up the wickedness inside their hearts.
Needless to say, Jesus doesn’t make a lot of friends today. Mark tells us that “the chief priests and the scribes heard it and were seeking a way to destroy him.” Why? “They feared him, because all the crowd was astonished at his teaching.” Jesus is speaking with divine authority, and it’s mesmerizing the people who hear it. Of course, the words of God always threaten those who rely on the power structures of this present world. If Jesus had come to modern-day America, we would have killed him, too.
Now, we get back to Story A and find out that the fig tree has withered. Aha! we realize. The fig tree symbolizes the temple establishment. Jesus is cursing those who are abusing the temple as a means to financial gain and as a religious hideout for their crooked hearts. Just as the fig tree has “withered away to its roots,” so the temple will be destroyed, so that “there will not be left here one stone upon another that will not be thrown down” (Mark 13:2).
But the temple was the place where God came down and lived with his people. If the temple and its crooked leaders are to be done away with, will Jesus’ disciples be cut off from God? No! Remember, the fig tree withered at Jesus’ words. God still has power and is still eager to hear the prayers of his people. “Have faith in God!” Jesus encourages them. “Truly, I say to you, whoever says to this mountain, ‘Be taken up and thrown into the sea,’ and does not doubt in his heart, but believes that what he says will come to pass, it will be done for him.”
Is Jesus giving us a blank check to get whatever we want when we pray? No, this is clearly contradicted by other biblical teaching (e.g. James 4:3). What Jesus is doing is using hyperbole to encourage you and me. He knows that it’s easy to think that God is far away and doesn’t care about us. Without a physical building like the massive Jerusalem temple, it’s hard to believe that God is near. So he reminds us that God is eager to do great things for us. Most amazing of all, he can forgive the sins you’ve committed against him—grievous though they are—as long as you are forgiving others (v 25). He is absolutely worth your trust.
You belong to one of two camps. Perhaps you are trusting in a religious system or some other man-made scheme to justify yourself before God. You think that it will protect you from his wrath. But he will curse your external religion and your self-righteousness. Your stubborn resistance against him will give him no choice but to destroy you.
Or perhaps you trust in God to protect you and to forgive you for your rebellion against him. Then you will find that he will do impossible things for you. He will bend heaven and earth to bring you close to him.
This perspective on the single life is the hardest for me. I’ve realized lately that trusting the Lord is something I tend to resist. I like to have all my theology worked out, all my plans in place, every contingency sorted out in my mind. I don’t like to have to do anything that requires an absolute trust in the faithfulness of the Lord. Yet this is the sort of faith that is required of all of us. It’s the faith of Abraham.
Abraham’s faith is scary: “Now the LORD said to Abram, ‘Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you.…So Abram went, as the LORD had told him’” (Genesis 12:1, 4). The author of Hebrews explains:
By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to go out to a place that he was to receive as an inheritance. And he went out, not knowing where he was going. By faith he went to live in the land of promise, as in a foreign land, living in tents with Isaac and Jacob, heirs with him of the same promise. For he was looking forward to the city that has foundations, whose designer and builder is God. (Hebrews 11:8–10)
We learn three things here. First, this was an act of faith on Abraham’s part. He obeyed “by faith.” We who follow Christ are justified by faith, and that same faith is what drives us to obey the Lord even when the way isn’t clear. When we do hard things for God because we trust him to take care of us, we work out our salvation (Philippians 2:12). Our faith is completed by our works because works are the natural response of faith (James 2:22); you can’t tease them apart since they are bound so close together.
Second, this act of faith was a huge risk. Abraham was leaving everything that was familiar to him—his family, his city, his culture. He had no idea where he was going. He had no idea what he would find when he got there. The road was long and dangerous, along wilderness roads rife with bandits, away from the safety of the city of Haran.
Third, he left this city because he was looking forward to “the city that has foundations,” what is later called “the city that is to come” (13:14). Its designer and its builder is God. In this city there would be safety and rest for the weary traveler. When we look toward this city—the heavenly Jerusalem, where God dwells with his people (Revelation 21:2–3), we gain the courage we need to face any challenges that come our way. We know that God will preserve us for it and that he will welcome us home with open arms to spend eternity with him. We are safe in the hands of the sovereign Lord who has always loved us and always will.
That’s why trusting the Lord is so important, whether you’re single or married, young or old, man or woman. Without it, we can’t do anything to please God, “for whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him” (Hebrews 11:6). If we seek him, trusting that he will reward our search for him by revealing his loving presence to us, there is no trial, no suffering so great that we cannot handle it; there is no opportunity that we cannot seize to glorify him.
For someone who is single, faith can express itself in many ways. I think we’ve lost sight of this. Whenever I see the phrase “trust in the Lord” applied to a single person, it’s almost always in the context of waiting for marriage. The prototypical narrative, found in Christian books and articles and personal testimonies, goes something like this: someone really wants to get married badly, but finally learns to trust in the Lord, experiences a wonderful feeling of peace about it, no longer seeks a spouse, and then God dumps a man or woman in that person’s lap uninvited, and they get married and live happily ever after. Sometimes this does happen. But I wonder whether many people reduce it to a formula: God won’t give you what you want until you don’t want it. Really? Is God some sort of killjoy? Is he playing games with us? “Nope, you can’t have that! Oh wait, you don’t want it now? Too bad, I’m giving it to you anyway!” This is not always how God works. Trusting in the Lord always means that we rest in his sovereign will, but it doesn’t always mean that we sit back and do nothing.
If you are single, there are actually many different ways you can trust the Lord. Maybe more than one of these applies to your situation:
- You can be content to remain single, trusting that you don’t have to be married for the Lord to use you in remarkable ways (in fact, trusting that you can serve him in ways a married person never could!).
- You can give up worrying about whether or not you will find a spouse, knowing that the Lord will give you what is best for you (Romans 8:28), that his grace is sufficient to bring you through this season of pain (2 Corinthians 12:9), and that he will never abandon you (Hebrews 13:5).
- You can stop pursuing, in your actions and in your mind, men or women who aren’t believers or who aren’t eagerly following the Lord. You trust that if you pursue a relationship with Jesus Christ, it will bring you far more joy than a relationship with anyone else ever could.
- You can stop setting impossible standards for a spouse, trusting that the Holy Spirit will always be working to sanctify both you and your husband or wife.
- You can have the courage you need to ask out that young woman you’re interested in, because you trust that the Lord will not abandon you even if you are rejected. You will not fear; what can man do to you? (Hebrews 13:5–6)
- You can have the courage to ask that young woman to marry you, trusting the Lord that he will always be there even as your whole life is rearranged and everything you understand and know is thrown out the window.
- You can have the courage to break up with your boyfriend or girlfriend, trusting the Lord to protect you and to bring you through any ensuing trials.
- You can trust the Lord after being dumped, knowing that he is present in the deepest darkness and will bring you through it (Psalm 23:4). His own Son was forsaken so that you would never be abandoned.
What is wonderful is that there are so many ways to trust the Lord! You might even face a decision where there is no “right” or “wrong” answer—just a choice of how you will express your faith in God. Here’s the bottom line, delivered with a heavy dose of hyperbole: whether you marry, and who you marry, are not important questions. What’s truly important is that you act out of faith in a gracious God, showing the world how great his faithfulness really is. His steadfast love for you will never cease. Every morning, you will see his mercy to you in new and precious ways. He has given himself to you. Hope in him. (Lamentations 3:22–23)
Following up on my Ask the Pastors article on sex and the single person, I’d like to tackle the issue of singleness in general. One of the greatest challenges of being single has been knowing how I should view this season of my life. What sort of attitude should I hold toward being unmarried? There are a lot of conflicting ideas out there, and it’s extraordinarily difficult to separate truth from error.
I’d like to begin a series of posts setting out a few “lenses” through which we can view the single life. At this point, I’m going to limit the discussion to people like myself who have never been married, since that’s been my only experience and also the life situation which I’ve considered the most carefully. Perhaps some of the discussion will apply to those who are divorced or widowed as well.
Now, for starters, I really would rather use a word other than single. Whenever I come across that word, my mind immediately turns to Kraft Singles, that famous and undelicious source of pasteurized prepared cheese product. For example, I remember once perusing a booklet on the subject of single life entitled “Being God’s Man as a Satisfied Single.” The front cover featured a mountain biker tearing down a steep slope, his arms and legs thrust out in front of him in a surge of adrenaline.
Unfortunately, when I think of the phrase satisfied single, I imagine some poor slob draped across his living room couch at three in the morning, sating himself on dozens of individually wrapped Kraft Singles slices. Surrounded by discarded wrappers, with fragments of cheese-product squares dangling from his twitching lips, he thrusts his arms into the half-empty package for more in a surge of gluttony. It’s a marvelously distasteful image—and that’s what I associate with the word single. Regrettably, that’s the word everyone else seems to like, so I’m stuck with it.
Moving on from these unnecessary and disturbing thoughts, I would like to lay out my understanding of the single life as it has coalesced in my mind over the last few weeks. I’ll be writing three posts which dwell on these three perspectives or “lenses”:
- The single life as a season of suffering
- The single life as a season of opportunity
- The single life as a season for trust
This is a challenging (and rather personal) subject to discuss, so I’d appreciate your prayers as I write these posts—that I would express my thoughts clearly and candidly, and that they would be honoring to God and his truth, pointing to Jesus Christ as all-sufficient and supreme.
As always, I would love to read your own thoughts in the comments of each post. I’m still in the process of forming my worldview, and always will be, so I like to hear others’ perspectives. (I especially like to hear others’ perspectives when they can demonstrate a biblical basis for their views.)