Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.
Mark 13:31 (NRSV)
Roughly seven hundred years before Jesus said this, another prophet was prophesying resistance.
Assyria had made successful military campaigns against Israel, but the kingdom of Judah had gone somewhat unmolested. That was about to change, however, as a new king of Judah allied with Egypt and became a threat.
Isaiah prophesied during this time. Assyria had already demonstrated their ability to defeat Judah, but as Judah became defiant and Assyria prepared for yet another invasion, Isaiah called Judah to resist. For his part, Hezekiah, the king of Judah, thought this might be a good time to make friends with Babylon. This did not go over well with Isaiah, who insisted that the dalliance with Babylon would lead to invasion and exile at her hands (which is what happened).
But in Isaiah 40-41, Isaiah delivers a powerful message about how the Lord Himself will deliver Judah from the armies that oppress her. Powerful images are enlisted of mountains being brought low and armies being blown away like chaff before a storm. The Lord emphasizes that He, Himself, is Judah’s great help in her troubles and no other. Deliverance from oppressors will come not from another nation, but from God moving into battle to save His people.
A voice cries out:
“In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord,
make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
Every valley shall be lifted up,
and every mountain and hill shall be made low;
The uneven ground will become level,
and the rough places a plain.
Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed,
and all people shall see it together,
for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.”
A voice says, “Cry out!”
And I said, “What shall I cry?”
All people are grass,
their constancy is like the flower of the field.
The grass withers, the flower fades,
when the breath of the Lord blows upon it;
surely the people are grass.
The grass withers, the flower fades;
but the word of our God will stand forever.
Isaiah 40:3-8 (NRSV), emphasis mine
The “word of our God” that will stand forever is not the Bible in this particular passage. There is no Bible when Isaiah’s prophecy is written. It is about God’s word in the same way you might talk about your word – His oath, His commitment. His promise to save. Inconstant people will come and go, armies will vanish, but God’s oath to His people will stand forever. And through this apocalypse, He will reveal His glory and all people shall see it. They may not all literally see it as if everyone will be standing around watching Assyria or Babylon fall, but the world will know that Judah’s God is faithful to His covenant and will deliver him from the mightiest of powers.
We are, perhaps, now in a position to appreciate Jesus’ prophecy in Mark 13.
In Mark 13, the great Temple mountain is brought low. We have powerful images of stars falling from the sky, nations rising against nation, earthquakes, famine – and these things are near, not far off. But in the midst of all this chaos, the glory of the Son of Man will be revealed and all people shall see it.
It is perhaps disconcerting to think about the glory of Jesus being revealed in something so terrible, just as it is difficult to imagine God’s glory being revealed in epic battle in the Old Testament. There are no pat answers or easy ways to think about this – none worth respecting, anyway. But it is important to note that this is not destruction for the sake of destruction, or giving the bad guys what they deserve, or making a point. It is destruction for the sake of the gathering and saving the oppressed. The oppressor in Isaiah’s day was Assyria. The oppressor in Jesus’ day was Rome and her unholy ally, the Temple and the power structure installed there. Did God directly cause the horrors we read about in the destruction of Jerusalem? We might debate that or how that works, exactly. But from the standpoint of the narrative, God is clearly acting in this.
God is the help of His people, and He will not be idle in her times of travail. The world will know God’s glory when He acts to save them. And in Mark 13, He acts through the Son of Man.
But what a travail! When the Temple is brought low, what horrible times will surround the followers of Jesus listening to his warning! Will God leave them to die? Is all this death and famine and Rome’s victory over the Holy City a sign that God has abandoned His people?
Into this fear, Jesus speaks:
“Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.”
Hear you the echoes of a centuries old commitment? The Son takes up the promise of the Father. Everything around you will fall, but my oath, my commitment, my bond, my promise to save, will never fall.
And so our Lord’s friends and followers took this promise with them. They took it into prisons, into courts, into furnaces, into lions’ dens, and up onto crosses, as did Jesus Himself. As he looked and saw that his disciples had fled and his consciousness was slipping, I wonder if he, too, remembered that the word of the Lord would stand forever. Resurrection forever. I wonder if he thought of these things as his followers fled Jerusalem before the siege, trusting in the word of their Lord.
I do not have a prophetic warning to share. There are certainly seedbeds that could easily erupt into an eschatological crisis that threatens the church, whether it is overt like the rise of militant religious extremism, covert like the rise of secularism, or cosmically universal like a rapidly failing environment. It’s hard to know what the next big thing is for the people of God in the world.
But I will tell you this much. No matter how much our world is disrupted and how much chaos falls about our heads, our God’s commitment to save is everlasting, and when He acts, His glory will be revealed and all people shall see it.
- What are the upcoming crises that face the church, today? Knowing that God may not deliver in the same ways he did in Isaiah or Jesus’ day, what are the things you know about God and what He has done that can help you trust him during our own troubles?
- If most of the places in Scripture that talk about God’s word are not talking about the Bible, at least as we know it, what implications does that have for us as we think about God’s word and/or the Bible? Why is Jesus called the Word of God?