Jesus has come to announce his reign, so don’t trust in human institutions (Mark 13:24–31)

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.

Jesus has come to condemn external religion, so you must rely on God (Mark 11:12–25)

Here is a short list of people whom Jesus is going to offend today:

  • Religious people
  • Businessmen
  • Salesmen
  • Merchants
  • Treehuggers

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.

Jesus possesses fearsome authority (Mark 4:35–41)

A couple of winters ago, I was taking my car around a corner when it slid on a patch of ice. In a stunned, this-can’t-be-happening moment, I felt my car careen toward another parked vehicle and strike it with a solid thud. Amazingly, no damage was done—our cars were both coated in ice, so not even the paint was scratched! Yet I was so rattled by the accident that I refused to drive my car for the rest of the day. Ever since, I have been far more cautious when turning a corner on an icy winter day.

Have you ever experienced an event that rattled you so much that it altered the way you react to the situations you face in life? For the first time, Jesus’ disciples are about to experience that feeling when they realize that they have underestimated this Galilean rabbi.

After a day of preaching in parables to his vast audience, Jesus decides it’s time to move on to the other side of the Sea of Galilee. So he and his disciples set out across the lake in a flotilla of fishing boats. Unfortunately, they are caught in the middle of the lake by a terrific windstorm which whips up massive waves that threaten to sink the vessels. Many of the disciples on Jesus’ boat were probably fishermen, and they knew all too well how deadly these storms could be. They could see that the boat was filling with water, that they couldn’t bail it out fast enough, that their death was inevitable. And just a few hours ago they had been basking in the attention of their rabbi and the adulation of the crowds!

At some point in their growing panic, some of Jesus’ disciples notice that he is in the stern—and that he is fast asleep. Unbelievable! They wake him up and shout, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” That’s the only possible explanation for why he is asleep. Jesus seems so callous toward their very survival.

Ignoring their question, Jesus gets on his feet and shouts to the wind and the waves roaring around him, “Peace! Be still!” He rebukes them, just as he has rebuked the unclean spirits. And then—“the wind ceased, and there was a great calm.” And just as the demons did, the forces of nature obey him. I like to picture the storm clouds dissipating, leaving the reflections of stars in the smooth mirror of the lake. Little ripples spread out from the boat as it bobs up and down in the water. There is no sign of a storm, not a sound. The disciples are dumbstruck. After a moment’s silence, Jesus turns to them.

“Why are you so cowardly? Have you still no faith?”

Most translations have Jesus accusing the disciples of being “afraid,” but actually he is more frank than that. He calls them cowards. Their panic was unreasonable and unacceptable.

I don’t know about you, but I tend to sympathize with the disciples here. I can see why they would be afraid. The storm is too powerful; the waves are too great; their boat is too small. That’s not how Jesus sees it, though. He knows he has authority over the forces of nature. They can’t do a thing that he doesn’t permit. No need to interrupt his nap.

The disciples don’t perceive Jesus’ power, so they question his love. They doubt him. And because they doubt both his love for them and his power to save them, they become cowards. If you want to become a coward, this is the quickest way.

When Jesus intervenes with a miracle, their cowardice is replaced not with confidence but with “great fear.” When a great storm is replaced with a great calm, they are filled with great fear. The windstorm was tremendously dangerous; how much more so the man who has authority over the storm! “Who then is this?” they ask.

God often uses fear to unsettle us. The disciples didn’t seem to fathom that Jesus was anything more than a great teacher and miracle worker. Perhaps they may have entertained the notion that he was something more. But now, burning in their souls, is the reality that they don’t have a clue who Jesus really is. New questions are forming in their minds, questions whose answers will lead them to faith.

Jesus’ challenge to his disciples is essentially this: “Do you trust me?” By their actions, they show that they don’t—not yet. They need to see his fearsome authority over the wind and the sea. They need to know that he is more than a man. This is the cure for doubt and cowardice—to see Jesus Christ as trustworthy. You are weak; you are at the mercy of powerful forces that will crush you. But Jesus is strong. Don’t underestimate him.