Like many, I had to preach on Mark 13 yesterday, though unlike most it was a dialogue sermon where I was asked (prepared) questions, and we then opened it up to the ‘floor’ for further questions. So I had to make my mind up about this passage!
There are three main ways this has been read:
1. The ‘traditional’ approach, which goes back at least as far as Jerome in the fourth century, that this is primarily about the ‘end of the world’ though with specific predictions about the destruction of the temple mixed in.
This has a number of problems to it:
- The main one is Jesus stern saying in v 30 ‘Amen I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have happened.’ There is some wriggling about the meaning of genea embedded in an NIV footnote as ‘race’—but all other uses of this in Mark (and the other gospels) make it clear that it really does mean ‘this generation.’
- To solve this, commentators for the last couple of hundred years have seen a Jewish ‘apocalypse’ embedded here and (clumsily) incorporated. So in fact in context what Jesus’ saying means is ‘Amen I say to you, this generation will not pass away until around three of the five things I have just mentioned have happened.’ This is very unsatisfactory since, like much source criticism, it suggests that neither Mark nor his first readers really understood what Mark himself had written, and had not understood what Jesus said.
- It fails to pay attention to Mark’s language. So Cranfield at one point comments on ‘Mark’s depiction of the Parousia’ without noticing that the word parousia is conspicuous by its absence in Mark 13.
This was the view I was brought up with, and it was explained by means of the ‘prophetic telescope’: when you are looking to the future, you see things in the near and distant future next to one another, so you might not explain things in order. This does make Jesus look like he does not really know what he is talking about!
2. Tom Wright’s view is that this ‘whole chapter’ is about the destruction of the Temple (see Jesus and the Victory of God pp 339f and Mark for Everyone 176f). (However, he appears to have a different view when going to read the more extended version in Matthew 24–25; the ‘eschatological’ parables do in fact appear to be about ‘final judgement’.) A key to his argument is the language about the ‘coming of the Son of Man’:
- ‘The Son of Man coming on the clouds’ is an exact citation of Dan 7.13 LXX, and of course the ‘coming’ is not a coming to earth but a coming to the Ancient of Days, the Power (meaning the God of Israel) for vindication as the one personifying the faithful people of God. This is the sense it is used in the trial scene in Mark 14.62, and makes most sense of being understood as referring to Jesus’ vindication in his resurrection and the subsequent preaching of the good news about him. Note that ‘coming’ in this saying is erchomenos, the participle of erchomai, to come or approach to, and not parousia meaning ‘presence’ and used of the Emperor’s coming to cities in the Empire.
- The language of sun, moon and stars in Mark 13.24 comes from Isaiah 13 and 34, and refers to the fall and judgement of great empires and political powers (in this case, Assyria and Edom). It is also used in Joel 2, and strikingly is cited by Peter in Acts 2.17f. Peter appears to think that these ‘apocalyptic events’ are happening in his day.
3. Dick France sets out a third position, with agrees with much of Tom Wright’s revision of the traditional understanding of this passage—though (as Dick pointed out to me!) he was proposing this some years earlier, and so might well have influenced Wright’s own thinking. Contra Wright, he believes that the last part (from v 32) is about Jesus’ return, for several reasons:
- Although there is quite a strong alla (‘but’) at v 24, the much stronger break comes in v 32 (though this is obscured in NIV and other English translations). This is the phrase peri de ‘Now concerning…’ which indicates quite strongly a change in subject. (Paul uses this phrase in 1 Corinthians to introduce a new subject in 7.1, 7.25, 8.1, 12.1, 16.1 and elsewhere in his letters).
- The sign of the fig tree in v 28 closes an inclusio in relation to the Temple, matching the example of the withered fig tree as an enacted parable in chapter 11.
- ‘That day or hour’ in v 32 is introduced without an antecedent; such a ‘day’ has not been mentioned before (the distress in the earlier verses is referred to as ‘those days’ in the plural).
- The idea of a long time of waiting is in marked contrast to the previous language of an intensity of specific ‘signs’.
France also notes that the disciples’ initial question to Jesus, whilst focussed on when ‘all these things will be fulfilled’ in Mark, in Matthew is more explicitly made a double question: ‘When will this [the destruction of the Temple] happen, and what will be the sign of your coming and the end of the age?’ This is then given a double answer, in Matt 24.4–35 about ‘these things’ and then in 24.36f about that day.
It is also interesting to note that the focus in Mark is on the Temple events, but in Matthew there is a more extended interest in the signs of ‘the end’ following the Temple. This would make good sense if Mark was written in the 60s, possibly during the Jewish War, and Matthew was written post-70, so that the main interest in Jesus’ depiction of the fall of the Temple is in his words coming true, rather than as immediate advice.
Both these last two views leave the real problem for most readers of how to make sense of Mark 13.27: ‘He will send his angels [messengers?] and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of the heavens’. Some things to note:
- Jesus has already inserted language of the good news being preached to ‘all the nations’ prior to the destruction of the Temple in 13.10. This is, arguably, a key theological point behind the narrative of Acts, with Peter then Paul preaching to the known world prior to AD70. Indeed, it could be argued that knowing this saying of Jesus was part of Paul’s motivation in writing Romans to get support to fulfil this goal.
- It is clear elsewhere in the NT that the OT promise to ‘gather the elect’ from the nations has now been fulfilled in the preaching to the Gentiles, for example in 1 Peter and in the seven-fold phrase ‘every tribe, language, people and nation’ in Revelation.
- In the Matthew parallel, there is a ‘loud trumpet call’ (Matt 24.31) which we usually read in parallel with the ‘last trump’ of 1 Thess 4.16. But in fact the shofar, the ram’s horn, was used to call people to worship at the start of the Sabbath, an invitation to enter the rest of the seventh day, both in imitation of God’s resting at the end of creation, and the invitation to enter the promised ‘rest’ of the coming kingdom (Hebrews 4).
So I now find option 3 the most persuasive, since on the one hand it takes seriously the form of Mark 13 as we have it, and its first-century context, but addresses the criticisms of option 2 as underplaying the role of Jesus’ second coming within both Mark and Matthew.