21. God’s Mercy and Time (Mark 13:20)

God’s management of time gains our attention at various points in the story of salvation. His orders to Noah for the construction of the great ark reflect his decision to bring judgment upon humanity, but God also limits both the time and extent of the judgment. Noah ‘finds favour’ before God because he is a just person and so God acts to preserve him in the midst of judgment. The days of the flood are carefully contained, lest the destruction overwhelm even Noah and his family.

When God’s patience with Israel’s rebellion finally ends and He permits the Babylonians to destroy Jerusalem, the temple, and the Israelite institutions, He promises that the exile will be limited to seventy years. This word of hope in the midst of desolation encourages Jeremiah. The judgment is no less terrible, but God limits the time and indicates He has more in His plans for Israel.

The extension of time by God before judgment comes is also a source of comment. Peter in his second letter warns people not to consider the lapse of time since Jesus resurrection an indicator of God’s impotence, disinterest or absence. Rather, he argues it is due to God’s patience, giving people more time to respond favourably to God’s offer of rescue.

Towards the end of his ministry, as he is giving final instructions to his followers about their future role, the fate of Jerusalem, and the Son of Man’s return, Jesus also talks about ‘a distress’ (thlipsis, Mark 13:19)1. "For those days shall be a distress" unparalleled in human history. But having emphasized the horror of this distress, Jesus immediately assures his followers that "if the Lord had not cut short those days for the sake of the elect, whom he chose, no one would be saved" (vs.20). Here again we discern God managing time based upon mercy.

The word that Mark uses here ‘cut short’ (kolobow), is only found in the New Testament here and in the Matthew parallel (Matthew 24:22). It signifies to mutilate, curtail, or dock (pay). Its application to time, as we find it in Mark 13, is unusual.2 Matthew uses the verb in the passive voice, not directly affirming God as subject, but probably inferring this through the use of the passive, with God as the hidden agent ("And if those days had not been cut short, no one would be saved" (24:22)). Only in Mark does Jesus overtly assign responsibility for curtailing this time of distress to the Lord.

According to Jesus God’s motive in limiting this time of distress emerges from His concern for humanity. If He does not intervene, "no flesh [i.e. no person] will be saved [i.e. will survive this time of distress]." In the latter part of the verse more clarification is given as Jesus explains that God is concerned ultimately for the elect, i.e. those he has selected (Mark 13:20). At this point no definition is given of this group, but Mark 13:27, where again the term occurs, would suggest it encompasses those who recognize Jesus as Lord and Messiah. So the limitation of this time of distress is linked directly to God’s merciful care for those He identifies as His.

God’s ability to manage time to accomplish His purposes affirms His sovereignty, His interest in our affairs, and His mercy. With compassionate care, but unyielding purpose God carries forward His salvation agenda for the benefit of His people. He will use time – extending it or limiting it – to achieve His ends. Our interpretation of God’s time management must be judicious, lest we draw the wrong conclusions about His motives and His abilities.

Application: as you reflect upon God’s word today,

  1. Consider how God has used time in your life, your family’s life or your congregation’s life, in merciful ways;
  2. In our world context, given God’s ways of working in the past and recorded in Scripture, how has God’s timing contributed to the survival of humanity?
  3. Where is God’s time management clashing with yours?

  • 1.  Other renderings would be ‘affliction, oppression’. The term tribulation is also used in some translations.
  • 2.  Luke does not use the term in the parallel text (Luke 21:24). Still it seems that he does report that Jesus limits the extent of the ‘great distress’ to the fulfillment of "the times of Gentiles."

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