Salvation from Future Trials
“From of old no one has heard or perceived by the ear, no eye has seen a God besides you, who acts for those who wait for him.” – Isaiah 64:4
Jesus’ words in Mark 13 do not line up with what we usually think of as “the Christmas spirit” or “hope,” for that matter. From the very beginning of this section (v. 5 and following), Jesus lays out a series of warnings. He tells his disciples that there will be many false teachers who pretend to teach the true religion and deceive people. He warns about persecution at the hands of religious and governmental authorities. He talks about the way families will be broken apart with betrayal and animosity, and how Jerusalem itself will be destroyed. When describing his second coming (v. 24 and following), he talks about the universe being shaken to its core with the sun and moon going dark, and the stars falling from the sky.
Is Jesus really talking about hope, or is he talking about fear? There is certainly something to be said for a healthy “fear of God,” which can sometimes mean terror as well as reverence. These images are certainly unnerving. But this passage is not talking about fear, it is talking about anticipation. It actually teaches us something very important about the essence of biblical hope.
Along with the images of dread, Jesus uses two other metaphors. The first is a fig tree and the second is that of servants in charge of a household while their master is away. The lesson in both cases is to remain watchful; as the fig tree ripens and the servants await the return of their master, the faithful Christ-follower is one who genuinely expects Jesus’ predictions to come to pass and looks for the signs. This is as true of believers today as it was for Jesus’ original audience. As the Lord himself says: “What I say to you, I say to everyone: Watch!” (Mk. 13:37).
Biblical hope, then, is not the belief that bad things will never happen in our lives, or that with enough hope we can overcome these bad things in our own strength. Such an attitude only leads to more disappointment. Just as the story of Christ’s “first advent” tells of Joseph and Mary taking refuge in Egypt, and Herod’s slaughter of infant boys (Mt. 2:13-23), Christ’s “second advent” is accompanied by similarly terrible events.
This understanding does not lead to despair, but to endurance. Jesus reassures everyone when he says “heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away” (Mk. 13:31). Hope understands that no matter what happens, God “acts for those who wait” and will set things right in his own time. This is what it means to take God at his word. This is what it means to remain watchful.