PETER, Andrew, James, and John were the first disciples to follow Jesus. Here they are with Jesus in the final phase of his teaching ministry. When he warns all his followers about the end-time, the four ask him for a further explanation, looking to go deeper than the rest. Jesus takes seriously their appetite for understanding. In private, he talks about what following him is going to mean, and what will happen as this world draws to its close. We hear his words as eavesdroppers; for his disclosure was not originally meant for the many. It is easy to see why.
Jesus’s hard teachings became endurable only in the light of the resurrection. It is no accident that the reading from Daniel is the first passage of scripture to articulate, unambiguously, the resurrection of the dead. It offers hope, but does not neutralise suffering of the kind that Jesus knew his coming to Jerusalem would entail (Matthew 23.37). So it is surprising that he tells the four not to be alarmed. After all, he is predicting the coming of war.
We cannot now reconstruct exactly what that prediction might have meant to the four, but, at the very least, they must have expected terror, bereavement, hunger, homelessness, violence, pain, and slaughter. How, then, are they to obey his command and remain unafraid? He does reassure them that war is not the ultimate end. But the short-term future threatens a time full of disasters, both natural (earthquakes) and man-made (famines).
It gets worse. Jesus does not say that the suffering will be momentary (2 Corinthians 4.17). Instead, he tells them, this is “the beginning of the birthpangs”. Why choose childbirth as a metaphor for this suffering, when not one of those present at this conversation could possibly know what giving birth was like? Not because Mark is a proto-feminist, or because they were meant to explore their feminine selves — quite the reverse. His words about birthpangs are terrifying because they speak of a pain that the four will often have encountered in others, but never had to experience for themselves.
How often the fear of pain is worse than pain itself — whether for schoolchildren queuing to be vaccinated, or patients in the dentist’s waiting-room, or women about to give birth for the first time. If the four had heard the women of their families crying out amid the birthpangs, but been excluded, as men, from everything to do with childbirth, no doubt it would seem more frightening than it does to the many who had faced it and (even in those dangerous times) survived.
This sombre tone is all very different from the light, bright reassurance provided by the prophet Daniel. He declares that a warrior prince, Michael, will appear to fight for God’s people. That name is a rhetorical question: “Who is like God?” The answer is, “no one”. For some, battle will mean anguish, but not for those on the right side; instead, they will be saved. The wise, and those who lead others to righteousness, will be bathed in the light of heaven, and become like the stars of heaven.
Just such a vision animates the author of Hebrews, as he tries to express the inexpressible, and put gospel glory into words. He urges his hearers to goad one another to beautiful deeds (the word “provoke” in the NRSV translates the Greek paroxysm, which means a prod with something sharp). True, sometimes we need a sharp poke to make us strive to do beautiful deeds for God. And more: sometimes, actions that begin in unrighteousness (Luke 18.1-8) can themselves teach us about the value — indeed the beauty — of doing good deeds.
There are places in the Bible which it seems to be suggested that when people suffer it is because they deserve to — because, somehow, they have sinned and fallen short. In other places, though, scripture offers us a more profound insight into the mystery of suffering, as when Job rebukes his wife: “Shall we receive the good at the hand of God, and not receive the bad?” (2.10), or when he refutes his so-called comforter: “I would even exult in unrelenting pain; for I have not denied the words of the Holy One” (6.10). In the light of this vision, we can find enduring comfort in the words of Hebrews (10.23), that “he who has promised us is faithful.”