Frances writes on nex Sunday’s readings :- All the way through written history literate people, artists, writers and so on have used different media in which to make comment upon the conditions of their time; to record it, to warn, to alert and prepare their nations for change. Later inheritors of this complex of ideas have to be very careful that they do not completely misread such things, always thinking they describe actual events or things which will happen in the future. Apocalyptic literature is particularly susceptible to such mess ups, and the way in which American films have abused apocalyptic makes it particularly important that Christians understand it in its original context. Far from being about pictures of terrible violence and chaos and the end of the world, as modern apocalyptic movies suggest, true apocalyptic is always good news for Christians, since it is an affirmation of the goodness of God and the ultimate triumph of his way for his creation. Violence may precede his triumph, but it is never of his making, indeed, will always be brought about by misguided members of his creation. God loves his creation and always intends good for it.
By the time the Letter to the Hebrews (Heb 10:11-14.18) was written, in the late first century AD, the Jewish temple in Jerusalem was merely a pile of blackened ruins. After the disastrous Jewish Revolt, Palestine was in lockdown, very harshly controlled by the Romans. Indeed, Jews were forbidden entry into Jerusalem, and the temple mount would become dedicated to the chief Roman god, Capitoline Jupiter. Certainly there would have been those who entertained the hope that the temple would be rebuilt and its high priesthood restored; but as they had died to a man in the final battle for the temple mount in 70 AD, that was somewhat wishful thinking. Our writer deliberately focussed on the complete inadequacy of the temple cult and its high priests in an effort to persuade Christians who were still committed to following a Jewish way of life that it was finished, irrelevant. With this in mind he continually bangs home that the new and eternal temple is the person of Christ, whose single sacrifice on the cross has dealt with our sin. “When all sins have been forgiven, there can be no more sin offerings.” The whole purpose of the Jewish sacrificial temple cult was redundant. It is Christ alone who matters.
By the time all four gospels were written this was also the situation. It does seem likely that Jesus may well have predicted the demise of the temple (Mark 13:24-32), but we need to beware of thinking that this was due to clairvoyance or visionary behaviour on his part. Any wise person, living as he did in the Palestine of his time, which positively crackled with potential revolt as it awaited its Messiah (invariably a warrior leader who would lead the nation to independence and throw out the Romans), would have been aware that the likely outcome of such a revolt would be the sack of Jerusalem and the downing of its temple, which was always such a focus for unrest. But then the entire ministry of Jesus in Mark’s account seems to have been hostile to Jerusalem and its religious authorities who would conspire at his death. Mark will show us a Jesus who consistently flouted the Sabbath laws to heal the sick; who performed miracles away from Jerusalem and mixed with foreigners, pagans and those who did not keep the Mosaic law, tax gatherers and harlots being his prime example. Whilst Jesus died in Jerusalem during Passover, this was to show that he was infinitely superior to the Jewish law and practices and that as God the Son his outreach to the world was what was supremely important. Mark’s tiny parable of the fig tree was surely a call to continual vigilance, alertness on the part of converts, rather that any warning of imminent catastrophe, and certainly not one brought by God, who is always in control of events. “As for that day or hour, nobody knows it; no one but the Father.” Mark’s gospel remember, was written in Rome for convert pagans, and he would have wanted his hearers to empathise with its message rather than events in Palestine.
Some 200 years before the time of Jesus, Palestine was under the rule of the tyrant Antiochus Epiphanes iv – he who in the historical books of the Maccabees forced Israelites to convert to paganism along with the rest of his vast kingdom. The Book of Daniel, (Dan 12:1-3) also a piece of apocalyptic literature, stems from this time. Ostensibly set during the Babylonian captivity of the 6th century BC, it uses that situation of oppression to speak of current events during the persecution of Epiphanes and encourages the people of Israel in their faith and absolute conviction that, contrary to events, God will triumph in the end. It speaks of the resurrection to eternal life with God of the faithful, as does Maccabees, so that even those who lose their lives for the faith can know that their struggle would not be in vain. For some of the ‘sleepers in the dust’ will live with God and those ‘learned will shine as brightly as the vault of heaven’. It was an intoxicating and subversive picture for the downtrodden and oppressed; for those who resisted and died for their beliefs just as we still hero-worship members of the French Resistance who died for their loyalty to France during the Second World War.
So apocalyptic is about a covert language, one of resistance, and we have to remember that we can find it in many shapes and forms. For Christians, as it was for an earlier generation of Jews, it would be stirring, subversive and powerful. It was a form of speech Jesus himself would adopt as he approached his passion, death and resurrection. It is a language every Christian should become familiar with as we enter into the life of Christ, and are prepared to follow him faithfully, whatever the nature of the crosses we are called to bear.