The Sunday lectionary reading for the Second Sunday before Advent in Year B is Mark 13.1–8. This feels a little odd, in that we last visited Mark 13 all the way back last Advent, when this lectionary year was just beginning, and the reading is quite truncated and only really makes sense when the chapter is read as a whole.
This chapter, and its parallel in Matt 24.1–42, and often known as the ‘Olivet Discourse’, being given as Jesus sat (in the teaching position) on the Mount of Olives, or the ‘Little Apocalypse’, because of the similarities of language with the Book of Revelation, in particular the mention of ‘tribulation’ or suffering (thlipsis) and the parallels with, for example, the four horsemen of Rev 6.
The big question concerning this section is whether it is about the fall of the temple, and the suffering and disruption associated with it—bringing the Jewish world to an end and ushering in a new era—or whether it is about The End of the World, and the return of Jesus. There is a strong interpretive tradition that it is the latter; this is communicated by the headings in many English translations, which often liberally scatter the term ‘parousia’ around or refer to ‘Jesus’ return’, guiding the reader into this interpretive approach. And there are good reasons for this.
Firstly, there is a close association between the events in the first section and language of ‘the end.’ Mark 13.7 mentions that ‘the end is yet to come’ and Mark 13.13 talks of standing firm ‘to the end.’ Secondly, in Mark 13.10 Jesus talks of the gospel being preached ‘to all nations’ before the end comes. Thirdly, Mark 13.19 talks of great distress ‘that will never be equalled.’ Then in Mark 13.24–25, we are told of cosmic signs of the end of the age, after which in Mark 13.26 we read of the ‘coming of the Son of Man’. Finally, in Mark 13.27, there is a trumpet call, and the angels gather the elect from the ends of the earth. (One issue that is raised here is whether Jesus can be speaking hyperbolically, for example in talking of distress ‘unequalled since the beginning’; some talk about the need to read this ‘literally’ because Jesus speaks the truth, as if the truth can never be poetic, metaphorical or hyperbolic.)
But this approach founders on the emphatic saying of Jesus at the end of this section:
Amen I say to you, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened. (Mark 13.30)
Jesus’ saying here is quite emphatic in form, including the emphatic form of the negative, mentioning ‘all’ these things clearly, and opening with the ‘Amen’ formula; this is characteristic of Matthew’s record of Jesus’ teaching, occurring 32 times and suggesting recollection of Jesus’ actual words in Aramaic, but it is much less common in Mark, coming only 14 times.
This is very difficult to evade. Some people suggest that the word ‘generation’ genea could be translated as ‘nation’ or ‘race’ rather than ‘generation’. But there is only one other occurrence in the gospels where this could be the reading—in Luke 16.8. Even here, the contrast is between people of this age and those ‘of the light’, so there is a temporal sense here. But in all other cases, the word clearly has the sense of ‘the people alive at this time.’ The clearest examples are in the genealogy in Matt 1.17 ‘fourteen generations’, and in the Magnificat in Luke 1.48 and Luke 1.50 ‘his mercy extends to those who fear him, from one generation to another.’ Along with this, the verse itself has a clear temporal sense in talking of it ‘not passing away.’
(A minority reading argues that ‘this generation’ refers not to the generation Jesus is addressing, but the ‘end times’ generation of some time in the future to whom all these things will happen. Apart from making this saying completely tautologous, such a reading has the minor disadvantage of making the term mean whatever the reader wants it to mean, rather than what Jesus actually said. If he is looking around at his disciples and uses the word ‘this’, then he is referring to them!)
This all makes the first approach problematic, and led C S Lewis to comment:
It is certainly the most embarrassing verse in the Bible. (in “The World’s Last Night” (1960), The Essential C.S. Lewis, p. 385)
Such a view also proposes that, in these verses, we have a confused mixture of predictions about the near and the distant future, which suggests Jesus didn’t really know what he was talking about, or the disciples didn’t, or the gospel writers didn’t—or all three. More seriously, it has made not a few scholars conclude that Jesus thought his return would be within a generation, and that he was clearly wrong—he was a failed apocalyptic prophet, and the writers of the NT tried (unsuccessfully) to cover up the fact.
The difficulty with this last conclusion is that Matthew, Mark and Luke all record Jesus saying this. Unless you think that all three gospels were written before the destruction of the temple in 70 AD, then you have to conclude that they also believed Jesus expected his return within the generation and that subsequent generations of copyists believed this, but somehow ignored it. This seems altogether implausible. All the evidence points to the gospel writers taking Jesus seriously, and thinking that their contemporaries needed to know what Jesus said.
How can we make sense of this? A first massive clue comes in comparing the parallel passage in Mark 13 with Matthew. The first section of Matt 24 equates to Mark 13.1–31; if you look in a Synopsis (which puts the passages from the different gospels in parallel with one another) you can see that Matthew and Mark are almost identical (with the exception of Matt 24.10–12). But in the second section, Mark has just 6 verses, whereas Matthew continues with 16 more, and then in chapter 25 records a series of Jesus’ eschatological parables about final judgement (the bridesmaids, the parable of the ‘talents’, and the sheep and the goats).
A second massive clue comes in noticing Matthew’s distinction between ‘this’ and ‘that’. In Mark 13.4 the disciples ask Jesus a single, compound question about the temple, prompted by his comment that ‘not a single stone will be left on another’:
“Tell us, when will these things happen? And what will be the sign that they are all about to be fulfilled?”
But in Matthew, the compound question has become two questions:
“Tell us,” they said, “when will this happen, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?”
For some reason, Matthew appears to want to distinguish more clearly between the question of the destruction of the temple, and the question about Jesus’ coming and the end of the age. Matthew continues the distinction, by being clear that in the first section, Jesus is talking about ‘this’, but at Matt 24.36 he introduces a marked change of focus: ‘But about that day or hour, no-one knows…’ The most obvious explanation of this is that Matthew is writing after the temple’s destruction in 70AD, but Mark was writing before it. So for Mark, the impending fate of the temple looms large; for Matthew, this has now passed, and the question of Jesus’ coming deserves more attention.
What, then, do we make of all the material in the first section which looks as though it is referring to ‘the end’? It doesn’t need to be read in this way at all.
Note first that emphasis of Mark 13.7 is not to associate these events with ‘the end’, but to distinguish them. ‘The end is not yet.’ And in Mark 13.7 and 13, the word ‘end’ is not the (semi-technical) term eschatos (as in ‘the last days’) but the more general term telos. Secondly, the reference to ‘preaching to all nations’ functions not to refer to the coming of the ‘end’, but to encourage the disciples to persist in their task, despite serious opposition. Thirdly, the distress of the siege of Jerusalem was indeed terrible; Josephus recounts a story of a woman killing her baby and eating half of it, offering the other half to rebel fighters (Jewish War chapter 6), and more Jews were killed by other Jews than by the Romans.
But a key observation is to note the language of the ‘coming of the Son of Man.’ The word for Jesus’ second coming to earth, parousia, meaning ‘royal presence’, does not occur in Mark 13.26—in fact, it occurs nowhere in Mark’s gospel! It is used in the slightly expanded account in Matthew, at Matt 24.3 (where it forms the second of the disciples’ questions), in Matt 24.27 (where Jesus says that all the rumours having nothing to do with his parousia), and then in the parallel with the days of Noah in Matt 24.37 and 39, signalling the change of focus to answer the disciples’ second question.
The phrase in Mark 13.26 is instead the ‘erchomenos of the Son of Man’, not a noun but a present participle. This is an almost direct quotation of the Greek of Dan 7.13:
“In my vision at night I looked, and there before me was one like a son of man, coming with the clouds of heaven. He approached the Ancient of Days and was led into his presence. He was given authority, glory and sovereign power; all nations and peoples of every language worshiped him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that will not pass away, and his kingdom is one that will never be destroyed.”
In other words, this is not about the ‘Son of Man’ coming to earth, but his coming before God, receiving authority and being vindicated. Note that he exercises authority over ‘all nations and peoples’. Jesus also quotes this—in exactly the same words—to the High Priest in Mark 14.62. Here Jesus cannot be talking about his return—he refers to himself sitting at the right hand of God and exercising the power of the kingdom, which the priest believes to be blasphemy. And he says that the High Priest will witness Jesus’ vindication and authority; he will see Jesus raised from the dead and the Spirit coming to equip the disciples as witnesses not just to Israel but to all nations. (He does not see it literally with his own eyes, since the resurrection and ascension were witnessed only by a small group. But he would hear the testimony, and see for himself the evidence in the transformed band of disciples filled with the Holy Spirit proclaiming the resurrection and Lordship of Jesus with all boldness.)
This also makes sense of the final parts of our puzzle. The ‘trumpet’ is not the ‘last trump’ of 1 Cor 15.52 and 1 Thess 4.16, but a metaphor for the proclamation of the gospel which we read about in Acts, and the ‘gathering of the elect’ is the entry into God’s people of the Gentile believers. But what of the cosmic language: ‘the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light; the stars will fall from the sky, and the heavenly bodies will be shaken.’? Note that this is to happen ‘immediately’ after the distress of those days. Well, these words from Isaiah 13.10, Isaiah 34.4 and Joel 2.31 are also quoted soon after—by Peter at Pentecost:
In the last days, God says, I will pour out my Spirit on all people…The sun will be turned to darkness and the moon to blood…And everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved. (Acts 2.17–21)
Peter appears to understand what is going on in front of him in exactly the same words that Jesus uses in Mark 13.24 and following—all happening within the life of that generation.
What, then, of our passage that we have set in the lectionary? What can we say about it?
At one level, we need to recognise that this is Jesus’ words to the disciples in the particular situation they will find themselves. Jesus will have gone to the Father; they are now entrusted with the task of preaching the message. As we learnt in chapter 6 and the execution of John the Baptist, those proclaiming the kingdom will face serious opposition; the fate of John will soon be the fate of Jesus, and the disciples will likewise need to ‘take up their cross’ and follow Jesus along the same path. Trouble and opposition has been a theme of this gospel from the beginning—but this means it is time to find courage, speak up, and stand firm.
Yet, though the situation they faced, with the destruction of the temple, the scattering by persecution, and the great upheavals of the Year of Three Emperors in 69, was unique, it was not untypical. As long as ‘the end is not yet’, we live in a world where, in every age, we hear of ‘wars and rumours of wars’. And Jesus’ message to them is the same as his message to us: ‘do not be afraid’. Many English translations lose the force of Mark 13.7, δεῖ γενέσθαι—not so much a general ‘these things will happen’, but a divine imperative, ‘this must take place.’ God has not deserted his world, despite all its tribulations, but he is working his purposes out, and we can trust him.
Thus it is that we live in the ‘overlap of the ages’. In one sense, the ‘end times’ have already come, marked by the longed-for resurrection of the dead (not all the dead, but the forerunner Jesus) so that when we turn to him we shared in the ‘new creation’ (2 Cor 5.17) which all the world will one day see (Rom 8.19). So Paul can confidently state to the Christians in Corinth that they are the ones ‘on whom the end of ages has come’ (1 Cor 10.11). And yet, this old age of sin, violence and injustice has not yet passed away; we still look for the full revelation of the kingdom of God of which we have had a foretaste—indeed, ‘your name be hallowed, your kingdom come, your will be done’ is our daily prayer.
Jesus’ charge to us is to live out the peace of the kingdom in a world of war; to live out the hope of the kingdom in a world of false hopes; and to live out the confidence of the kingdom in a world that is being shaken—until he comes again.
To learn more about the importance of eschatology/end times in our reading of the New Testament, join me for a morning Zoom seminar on Saturday 4th December—details and tickets here.
You can also read about it, and find more detail on this passage and its parallels, in my Grove booklet Kingdom, Hope, and the End of the World.)