Lord, give me new eyes to see as I read your word. Give me a new heart—to receive your truth. Give me a new mind—to know you better. Give me a new will—yielded and fully surrendered. May my life be for your glory.
Today I’m looking at a somewhat difficult passage, at least for me. Join me in reading Mark 13:3-13, entitled “Signs of the Close of the Age.” Read it at least three times through, and pay attention to what phrases or words strike you, as well as what emotions you feel, as you read.
And as he sat on the Mount of Olives opposite the temple, Peter and James and John and Andrew asked him privately, “Tell us, when will these things be, and what will be the sign when all these things are about to be accomplished?” And Jesus began to say to them, “See that no one leads you astray. Many will come in my name, saying, ‘I am he!’ and they will lead many astray. And when you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed. This must take place, but the end is not yet. For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be earthquakes in various places; there will be famines. These are but the beginning of the birth pains. But be on your guard. For they will deliver you over to councils, and you will be beaten in synagogues, and you will stand before governors and kings for my sake, to bear witness before them. And the gospel must first be proclaimed to all nations. And when they bring you to trial and deliver you over, do not be anxious beforehand what you are to say, but say whatever is given you in that hour, for it is not you who speak, but the Holy Spirit. And brother will deliver brother over to death, and the father his child, and children will rise against parents and have them put to death. And you will be hated by all for my name’s sake. But the one who endures to the end will be saved.” (Mark 13:3-13 ESV)
On Saturday, I was in Staten Island, one of the five boroughs of New York City, in Midland Beach. If you read this article in the New York Times, you know that Midland Beach was among the areas hardest-hit by Hurricane Sandy.
One of my best friends, Jeannine, and her husband and two children live in Midland Beach, and they are among those who have been temporarily displaced by damage to their homes. When she knew I was coming to visit, Jeannine offered to give me a tour of her neighborhood so I could see for myself what I had previously only heard about on Facebook and news web sites.
After driving around for a bit, we walked through Jeannine’s house. Her entire first floor is gutted to the studs. She showed me on the front door mantle the watermark, which was around my rib cage. When we arrived at her house, the Rapid Response electricians were working to restore their power. Another friend, Abe, was working there as well.
Later, we walked around the neighborhood some more, talking about the experiences she and many of her neighbors had during those devastating days. Jeannine and her family quickly packed up their dog, wedding album, and a few other items and went to stay with friends once the mandatory evacuation was issued, but many others chose to stay in their homes, risking their lives and the lives of their families. (Some people did, indeed, lose their lives.) We talked a bit about that, too–why some people left, while others stayed.
We walked to another friend’s house in the same neighborhood. Katia and her family have just moved back home after staying elsewhere while they began the clean up. We sat in Katia’s kitchen, sipping orange juice, the musty smell of mildew creeping up the stairs from their gutted basement and hovering in the air as we talked about the events of those days.
Katia is a sister in Christ who often has spiritual dreams, and she shared that, right after the tsunami in Japan, she began having dreams about the same thing happening in Staten Island. Those dreams had stopped until about two weeks before Hurricane Sandy, when they started again. We then talked about the spiritual implications of these natural disasters and the wars that are being waged all over the world right now. We finished our time together by praying.
And then, that evening, I returned to Mark and read this passage, which I have been thinking about for the past three days.
Katia referred to the Asian tsunami and Hurricane Sandy as “but the beginning of the birth pains.” She might be right, though people have been saying this for centuries. Even as early as when the Bible was still being written, there were those who believed the end was near. But I don’t dismiss Katia’s sentiment. In the last few years, we have heard of Hurricane Katrina, The Asian Tsunami, and Hurricane Sandy. There are wars and rumors of war in the Congo, the Sudan, Iraq, Afghanistan, Egypt, Israel/Palestine, Chechnya, and way beyond. North Korea is oppressing its people, who are experiencing terrific famine, and there is terrible gang activity in Mexico and El Salvador. The world is a mess.
And in the midst of this, there is this passage.
It’s tempting, in the face of natural disasters up close and personal, to project that this is the fulfillment of Jesus’s prophecy, and that we are, in fact, facing the end times. And even though Jesus said that no one except God the Father knows when the end will come, we see the news and hear the reports and can’t help but wonder.
So where does this leave us? There were five imperatives Jesus gave his inner circle—Peter, James, John, and Andrew—when they asked him about the end of the age. And these imperatives are as relevant to us as they were to our forefathers in the faith, regardless of how much longer this age exists. Jesus said:
1. See that no one leads you astray. There are many different ideas about life—about God, about humanity, about eternity, etc. Jesus was adamant that his followers not be led astray, especially when it came to who we worship. “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.” (Matthew 22:37-40 ESV) Jesus also said, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” (John 14:6 ESV) How can we ensure that we will not be led astray? Here’s my thought: by being deeply in the word of God and deeply in fellowship/communication with other mature Christians. I believe that fellowship in the Body of Christ and the study of the Bible are two guard rails that can really help keep us on track. One without the other can be dangerous, but together, they are a winning combination.
2. Do not be alarmed. I think Jesus knew that his followers would be tempted to become obsessed with the end-times, whether by trying to predict them, or by fearing them, or by ceasing to live a productive life in preparation for the end. Entire sects of Christianity have formed because of an unhealthy emphasis on “end times.” Whether the end is near or not, Jesus wants us not to be alarmed, but to live a godly life in Christ Jesus day-by-day. We know we cannot predict the end—Jesus made that clear (Matt 24:36, Mark 13:32). So our best bet is to live each day to the fullest for the sake of Christ.
3. Be on your guard. We are not to be alarmed… but we are to be on guard. Jesus warns that his followers will face various forms of persecution, and that we should not be surprised by such things. Even those of us who will go through this life and not face the kinds of persecution others face should be ever-preparing through studying the Bible and prayer.
4. Do not be anxious. No matter what comes in this life, we never need to be anxious. Knowing that the Holy Spirit is with us always should give us strength, confidence and joy, no matter what comes our way. Jesus said that we can trust that the Holy Spirit will give us the words to say when we need them… For those of us who love to be prepared for anything, trusting that God will give us the words we need when we need them is a bit of a stretch. However, we can prepare ahead of time—by diligently studying God’s word and being devoted to prayer. As we study the Bible, God’s word is planted deeply in our hearts and minds, and in the right timing, the Holy Spirit can bring specific, timely verses to our minds and mouths. And as we pray, God’s Spirit ministers grace and peace to our hearts, even as we intercede for others.
5. Say whatever is given to you. Have you ever had an experience when you felt totally inadequate for something, but then God showed up and worked through you and God’s power became evident and more than adequate for the situation? Then you know how exciting and empowering it is to trust in God at all times and lean not on your own understanding (Prov 3:5-6). It’s always tempting to try to take control of a situation, but sometimes God places us in situations where we simply have no choice. (A natural disaster is one such time.) In those moments, we can place our trust in God and know that he will not go back on his word.
As I contemplate this passage about the end times, especially on the heels of a conversation about the end of the age with friends who are living through what certainly looks like one of the signs Jesus spoke of, I find myself focusing less on predicting the consummation of the ages and more on the instructions Jesus gave his closest followers: see that no one leads you astray, do not be alarmed, be on your guard, do not be anxious, and say whatever is given to you.