By Harris Franklin Rall
Jesus' conflicts with his foes were over; the last encounter had taken place, and they were making plans for his end. The last message of warning had been given to the people and the last appeal, until the mute appeal of that hour when he was to appear before them as prisoner condemned. But the work with the disciples was not yet done. He had told them of his coming death, though they do not seem to have grasped it; now he must prepare them further for the future. Above all two things were needful: the warning of duties and dangers before them, the encouragement of the final triumph. The disciples themselves put the question which gave the opportunity for this lesson.
The Message Concerning the Future
The Destruction of the Temple Foretold. —Jesus and his disciples were leaving the temple, probably on the last day of his public ministry. The disciples turned for a last look at the glorious structure which lifted its shining walls of white marble decorated with gold. It was the pride of every Jew throughout the world, and even Roman writers had paid tribute to its splendors. It was built of enormous stones, as much as twenty-four feet in length and almost half as broad. "What manner of stones and what manner of buildings!" exclaimed the disciples in admiration. "There shall not be left here one stone upon another, which shall not be thrown down," was Jesus' answer. Deeply astonished, four of the disciples came to Jesus later to ask him further about this, and thus it was that Jesus began to talk to them about the future (Mark 13. 1-37).
There is no passage in the Gospels more difficult than this, and none that has given rise to more controversy. Let us see first what it contains. It is divided into three parts, each part containing a declaration about the future and closing with an exhortation. (1) First, there are to come terrible occurrences in nature and among men, earthquakes, famines, wars, insurrections. This is called the "beginning of travail," a phrase used by the Jews to describe the birth pangs that were to precede the new age. The disciples are to be hated and persecuted, but those that endure shall be saved (13. 5-13). (2) Then shall come the terrible trial upon Judaea and Jerusalem, and the destruction of the city by the Gentiles. False messiahs will arise, but the disciples, forewarned, will not follow them (13. 14-23). (3) At last there shall appear signs in the heavens, falling stars and eclipse of sun and moon. Then the Son of man is to come in the clouds with his angels and gather his followers from all parts of the earth. Let the disciples, therefore, watch and be faithful at their tasks like good servants (13. 24-27).
Its Two Interpretations
The Adventist Theory. —There are two ways of handling this passage which we may consider. The first way takes it literally and declares in effect that the purpose of Jesus was to give us a detailed program of the future, just as we find these in other Jewish writings of this time. Prominent here is the interpretation of second adventists who in their many forms number far more than the small denomination bearing that name. Those who hold this view spend a great deal of time discussing the ages and stages of the world's progress, and the meaning of all these "signs." In practically every generation some have been found who were sure that certain earthquakes or famines or wars of their day were the "signs" that indicated the beginning of the end. These interpreters put all these events, the coming of our Lord, the destruction and persecution and all the rest, in the future.
Objections to This Theory. —There are a number of serious objections to this theory. (1) We must study Jesus' teaching as a whole in order to understand it rightly, and this theory does not represent his spirit or message as we have seen it. The Jewish mind was full of such dreams of the future, but Jesus did not discuss them. Instead, he talked of "justice, and mercy, and faith." That was why he disappointed them. With perfect confidence in God, Jesus left the future to him. His great task was the present one, to summon men to repentance and faith and righteousness. (2) There is much in this passage that refers very plainly to the coming destruction of Jerusalem, the terrible end of which Jesus had warned the Jews and for which he was now preparing the disciples. This had its fulfillment a generation after Jesus' death. (3) It was the constant habit of Jesus to use picture language for spiritual facts and events. Witness the language about the temptation, about Satan falling as lightning from heaven, and the parables of the Kingdom. To literalize everything here is to pervert the intended meaning. (4) If these words are all to be taken literally, what shall be done with those passages in which Jesus clearly declares that he is to return within a lifetime (Matt 10. 23; 16. 28; 24. 34)? Eight in the midst of Mark's words comes the verse: "This generation shall not pass away, until all these things be accomplished" (Mark 13. 30). To make generation here mean Jewish race is to do unpardonable violence to the plain meaning. And if the reference is to something within a generation, then why apply this to what is still in the future?
The Message as Practical. —The second interpretation of this message may be called the practical and ethical. By this we do not mean that Jesus did not speak of _ the future. On the contrary, he was preparing his disciples for that future. But he was not trying to satisfy their curiosity or ours by a portrayal of details. They will have work, and he wishes to make them ready; they will have trials, and he wishes to warn them. He is the same earnest practical teacher and friend. It is to be noted, moreover, that Jesus did not speak these words to the multitude, nor even to the larger group of disciples that was probably with him in the temple. Matthew says that these words were addressed to the disciples privately, and Mark declares that it was to the four, Peter, James, John, and Andrew.
Has Outside Matter Crept In? —Many scholars hold that outside material has crept into these passages and that we no longer have here the exact words of Jesus. They hold this in particular of the passages Mark 13. 5-8, 14-20, 34-27. It must be remembered that the teachings of Jesus were passed on orally for a long time before they were written down, that the minds of the disciples were full of such hopes and ideas, and that it would be most easy for them without any thought of changing the Lord's message to put it in the phrases familiar to them and so modify it. This is, of course, but a theory, and cannot be proved or disproven. That the words of Jesus were not always exactly recalled and recorded is plain when we compare the accounts of the Gospels with each other in cases where they describe the same event or report the same saying.
What the Message Meant
Its Three Elements. —Taking now only what is clear in these passages, Jesus' essential message stands out plainly.
(1) He foretells the destruction of Jerusalem and its temple. That meant far more than merely the ruin of a wonderful structure. It meant that the altar was to be overthrown, the sacrifice and solemn ritual to cease. It meant that the religious leadership of the world was to belong no more to ancient Israel, but that a new Israel of his followers was to take their place.
(2) Jesus declares that he will return to set up his kingdom. From the time when he began to tell them of his coming suffering and death he had also told them of his resurrection. Now he declares to them that his enemies are not to triumph, though they slay him; his work will not be defeated by his death, but he will return. This is the heart of his message and this glorious confidence in ultimate triumph sustained him to the last. It was his Father's will that he should suffer, but the great end was sure.
(3) Finally he forewarns his disciples of the suffering and persecution that will come to them, but declares that those that are faithful shall be saved.
A Message of Encouragement. —The message was first of all one of encouragement. He would no longer be with them in physical presence; how would they stand the test and bear the burdens of the coming days? To forewarn is to forearm, and he tells them what will come. They are to be persecuted and brought to trial. Let them be brave; God's Spirit will guide them when they speak. Judgment is coming upon Israel through Israel's enemies. When that time comes, then the disciples are to flee from Jerusalem and Judaea, a warning which we know from history was obeyed by the church in Jerusalem. But the Son of man will return, and "he that endureth to the end, the same shall be saved."
A Word of Admonition. —The message, in the second place, was one of admonition. They were not merely to endure in hope; they were to watch and to work. Jesus was thinking not simply of their individual welfare, but of the work which they had to do. He was giving them a great task; they were to preach the good tidings to men, they were to administer in his place while he was gone. He was leaving everything in their hands, trusting all to this little group which he had been training. Could he depend upon them? Would they be faithful? The thought must have rested heavily upon his heart. And so, as a part of this message of preparation, Jesus speaks various parables which all center about the ideas of watchfulness and faithfulness.
Parables of Watchfulness and Faithfulness
Three Parables on Being Watchful. —In three parables, or likenesses, Jesus gives the lesson of being watchful. There is the likeness of the master of the house and the thief: watch, for you do not know the hour any more than the master knew when the thief was coming (Matt. 24. 42-44). There is the parable of the faithful steward: he did not know when the master would return, but he was faithful, and the master found him doing his work (Matt. 24. 45-61). The parable of the ten virgins has been used to teach all manner of truths, but its lesson is simply this: be watchful (Matt. 25. 1-13).
The Parable of the Talents. —The most suggestive of the parables is that of the talents, or the absent lord and his servants (Matt. 25. 14-30). This man of large wealth had to go to another country for a long period. He called together a number of his servants, men who were really stewards or bankers rather than servants in the common sense. To one of these he gave some six thousand dollars, a very large sum for that time. To another he gave twenty-four hundred dollars, with varying amounts to still others. Thus he put his wealth into their hands. Long afterward he returned. These men had finely repaid his confidence. Indeed, they had doubled his wealth, and now, having proved their worth, they were placed by their master in still higher positions of trust. There was one exception; one man had let his money lie in idleness and now handed back just what he had received.
Here again we must not read lessons into all the details. Jesus uses such a parable to teach one great truth, and that is plain in this case. Be faithful, he says to the disciples, in the great trust that I have committed to you. There is nothing here of signs and seasons and feverish curiosity and calculations about the return of the absent lord. The lord is to come: that is enough for the servants, meanwhile let them do their work. We realize to-day, as the disciples could not, how great the trust was that Jesus was putting into their hands. To this little company he was giving not a few thousands of gold, but all the work that he had begun. They were to spread the message, to gather the followers and shepherd them, to lay the foundations of that kingdom which through these centuries has been growing from little to great like the mustard tree, and permeating the world with a new life like the silent spreading leaven.
The Fulfillment of the Message
Jesus' Expectation of His Return. —So far we have been looking simply at the gospel teaching. Now it is time to look at history and ask: Was this fulfilled? Has Jesus returned? Or is this all in the future? At the outset we muist face this question: Did not Jesus expect to return personally and in visible form within a generation? Let us divide this question before answering. (1) As regards the return within a generation: It seems certain that Jesus did expect this, as has already been noted (Matt, 10. 23; 16. 28; 21. 34). "Ye shall not have gone through the cities of Israel, till the Son of man be come," he says, when he sends out the twelve. A little later he declares, "There are some of them that stand here, who shall in no wise taste of death, till they see the Son of man coming in his kingdom." (2) Did he expect to return in visible form? That is probable, though we cannot be so certain here, for the words which speak of his coming upon the clouds of heaven (Matt. 24. 30), which are taken from Daniel, may have been used by him in picture form. We know that Jesus did not return in such visible form within a generation, nor has he since then up to this day.
These facts have proved a quite unnecessary ground of stumbling for some. What we need to recall is that our Lord came to reveal to us the Spirit of the Father and the Father's will, and this he did in his life and word. He did not come to satisfy our curiosity about all things, nor was he endowed with knowledge as to all things. He was endowed with perfect wisdom for the task that the Father had given him. He humbled himself, Paul says, and came to us as man (Phil. 2. 6-8). The Gospels plainly show us this limitation of knowledge which Paul indicates that he took upon himself. He looks to the Father for guidance and direction in his work with a humility and a constancy in prayer that shame his disciples. To the very last, in the garden, he questions whether the cup of the cross may not pass from him. He knows there in the garden that his death is not to be the end. He knows that his cause will triumph and that he will complete the work which he has begun. But the time and manner he does not know. Very plainly he says to his disciples: "But of that day or that hour knoweth no one, not even the angels in heaven, neither the Son, but the Father" (Mark 13. 32). Over the limitations that the Gospels show us so frankly we do not need to stumble.
In this teaching of Jesus, therefore, about his return and the coming of the Kingdom, we distinguish between the substance and the form. So far as the form is concerned, Jesus uses more or less the language of his day, just as he used the Aramaic speech, taking such a picture as that from Daniel which those to whom he spoke would clearly understand. The substance lies not in the manner of his return, but in the fact. It is the same way as to the time of the setting up of his kingdom: it is possible that he expected a speedy triumph. If that be true, though we cannot be sure of it, then we must say, that was only the form. The substance was the conviction that his kingdom was to come despite Jewish bigotry and Roman force.
The Confirmation of History. —Leaving this question as to the exact form of Jesus' teaching, let us turn now to the substance and see what history itself has to say. What has happened in the history of the Kingdom since that time? For history itself is a revelation of God's plan and purpose. First, let us ask as to the return. What a wonderful confirmation there has been of Jesus' confidence and of his word to the disciples! Jesus returned. One might better say, he never left his disciples. He did not come in the visible presence for which they looked. We know that Paul and his churches did expect such a visible return in their day, and some were troubled at the thought of what would be the lot of those who had died before the coming (3 Thess. 4. 13-15). We know that later on the Christians were taunted because Jesus did not appear as they expected (2 Pet. 3. 4). But God had "provided some better thing'' concerning them, though they did not realize it at the time. In spiritual presence Jesus was with them, guiding and aiding them in all things. He was present as spiritual power transforming men's lives through the Spirit of God. Paul realized that truth, and he calls this new life of the believer sometimes the Spirit of God in men and sometimes ""Christ in us." There were no long years of postponement, not even till the fall of Jerusalem. The Christ was present in the Spirit given to the first disciples at Jerusalem; and his Spirit and presence, illumining men's minds and creating new lives, have been the world's light and life ever since. One of the worst forms of unbelief in our day lies in the failure of Christ's followers to see the presence and power of his Spirit in the world to-day, not simply in a few saints or an occasional revival, but in the deep currents of human life.
Directions For Study
The Scripture passages: Mark 13. 1-37; Matthew 25. 1-13; 24. 42-51.
It is most important to understand clearly the conditions under which Jesus spoke these words, and his purpose. They were spoken privately to the disciples, and with the practical purpose of warning and encouraging them. It is these men before him whom Jesus has in mind in thus speaking.
Read Mark 13 and the lesson narrative which discusses it. Notice the division into three parts as suggested. Then consider the threefold message that is pointed out. It is not necessary, nor is it possible, to understand all this. For one thing, we do not know how much is picture and how much is literally intended. What is important is that we shall get the message of encouragement and warning, and realize what it meant to these disciples in the days that followed.
Read with care the parables given in Matthew 24. 42-51; 25. 1-30, and ask what these meant for the twelve and their fellow disciples.
Read the discussion on the fulfillment of the message, and note the important distinction between substance and form. Has the reality been greater or less than the early church anticipated? Will the final fulfillment be greater or less than what the church of to-day expects?
What is there in the world's life to-day which indicates the presence and power of Christ? What will the completion of his reign bring?
Back of the discussion of this chapter lies the larger question of the nature of the Kingdom and the manner of its coming. On this subject read Chapters XVII to XX of "The Teachings of Jesus," a companion volume to this. Note especially Chapter XX.