When he was sitting on the Mount of Olives opposite the temple, Peter, James, John, and Andrew asked him privately, “Tell us, when will this be, and what will be the sign that all these things are about to be accomplished?” Then Jesus began to say to them, “Beware that no one leads you astray. Many will come in my name and say, ‘I am he!’ and they will lead many astray. When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed; this must take place, but the end is still to come. 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 birth pangs.”
And now things begin to get a little weird. You could almost cut out the whole of chapter 13 and never miss a beat reading from the end of chapter 12 to the beginning of chapter 14. Why? Because this chapter is something of a distinct literary unit, a discreet scene from Jesus’ life that Mark either picks up whole from another source or adapts for his purposes. So if it feels different, looks different, sounds different, that’s for a very good reason: it is different.
In particular, it represents a form or genre of writing called “apocalyptic literature” with which we are very unfamiliar. Actually, many of us may have some acquaintance with this genre in its most warped and sensational form in The Left Behind Series or, before that, Hal Lindsey’s Late Great Planet Earth.
In a nutshell, apocalyptic literature stems from a worldview that believes that everything happening on earth represents and correlates with a larger, heavenly struggle between good and evil. It therefore reads into earthly events cosmic significance and anticipates future events on earth in light of the coming battle between the forces of God and the devil. In this way, it often tries to make sense of current events and experiences by casting them in a larger, cosmic framework and in this way give comfort to people who are currently suffering or being oppressed.
Because of this dualism, and because apocalyptic literature tends to be highly symbolic, it’s ripe for reading all kinds of things into it – like predictions about the end of the world! But this chapter in Mark – and other passages, notably the book of Revelation – were not written so that we could ferret out signs of the end. Rather, they were written to offer comfort to first-century believes struggling to make sense of their world and lives. For this reason, it’s way more helpful to read this and similar passages in light of the challenges its original readers were facing, challenges that might be akin to some of our own.
From this passage and those to come, for instance, we can gather that Mark’s community was not only struggling with the disruptions the fall of the Jerusalem Temple introduced into first-century Judaism and Christianity, but also that they had been harassed by some people claiming to be Jesus or some other messianic figure returned. Mark’s people were literally caught up in “wars and rumors of war” and probably found comfort in the belief that Jesus had already anticipated this and was offering words of encouragement to them through this Gospel.
When it comes to our own day and age, that kind of encouragement is still valuable, for though our wars may be different, yet we are still harassed at times by a fear that the world is falling apart. To twenty-first century believers, just as to first century disciples, Jesus says the same “do not fear.”
Prayer: Dear God, grant us to trust that you will take care of the future so that we are free to be faithful here and now. In Jesus’ name, Amen.