With the turn of the lectionary year, next Sunday we are in the first Sunday of Advent in Year B, and our gospel reading of Mark 13.24–37 plunges us straight into the questions around the anticipation of Jesus’ return at The End. (It is worth noting that there is no compelling (theo)logical reason why this should be connected with Christmas. The incarnation is described in terms of God’s coming to his people in the person of Jesus, for example in the opening of Mark or the Benedictus in Luke 1; but the return of Jesus at the end to complete the work of the kingdom of God, and finally unite heaven and earth, is never described as the ‘Second Coming’ in the New Testament, and instead is consistently paired with the Ascension rather than the incarnation.)
Our passage comprises the two closing sections of Mark 13, which is parallel to the first part of Matt 24 and is known as either the Olivet Discourse (since it is set on the Mount of Olives) or the Little Apocalypse, because there are connections in structure and language with parts of the Book of Revelation. It is striking that, where the parable of the sower in Mark 4 (which seems relatively straightforward to the modern reader) provokes expressions of puzzlement and prompts a request for explanation by the disciples, this teaching seems to be received with perfect comprehension—whilst it leaves us baffled and confused. This should sound a warning note to the contemporary reader!
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’, that is, the people alive at the time Jesus was speaking. Mary Ann Beavis, in her 2011 Paideia commentary, say that this saying ’emphasises the authority of this discourse; the word of Jesus has the stature of the word of God, which is flawless and precedes the creation of the heavens and the earth’ (p 201).
- 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. As Ben Witherington (The Gospel of Mark, p 341) points out, there is simply nothing grammatical which suggests either that this is using sources or that it is the words of a later prophet, since the ideas, themes and OT allusions are typical of Jesus in this gospel.
- 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.
- Some have tried to avoid this by claiming that ‘this generation’ refers to the generation who are reading this text now, in the ‘end times’. This is a bit like saying that, if I send you an email saying ‘I am enjoying living in this house’, you could interpret that as a reference to the house you are sitting in as you read the email. If that is the case, then we are really ignoring the plain meaning of words!
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! And it also suggests that Mark, who in earlier chapters has very carefully structured his material to make narrative theological points, appears to have lost the plot.
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.
The view that the whole of this passage is about events in the first century, with no anticipation of a more distant end to this age, is usually called ‘preterist‘ (from the Latin praeter, a prefix denoting that something is “past” or “beyond”) and is a quite well-developed minority view in scholarship. Andrew Perriman writes a blog from this perspective, in which he interacts with me and view three below—but I have never been convinced by his narrative readings in this direction.
3. Dick France sets out a third position, which agrees with much of Tom Wright’s revision of the traditional understanding of this passage—though (as Dick pointed out to me on several occasions before he died of pancreatic cancer) he was proposing this some years earlier, and so might well have influenced Wright’s own thinking. France was, in turn, influenced by that great scholar of a previous generation, George B Caird. 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. (France himself actually believed that both gospels were written prior to AD 70.)
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’, and this is a cause of stumbling to those encountering these readings for the first time. 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. Without this, we really cannot make sense of Jesus’ serious statement in Mark 13.30, which (under the assumption of view 1), C S Lewis called ‘the most embarrassing verse in the New Testament’.
There are three things to note in conclusion.
First, it seems to me that almost all our confusions in this passage and others like it are caused by English translators using the same word, ‘coming’, to translate two quite different ideas in the Greek text. (I am sorry to go Greek-geek on you, and I would never recommend using this language in preaching, but it is important, so hear me out.)
Firstly, this word is used to translate the term erchomenos, which is the present participle of erchomai, to come or approach to, and in some sense this is fair, since ‘coming’ can also be a present participle of the English verb ‘to come.’ (It can also function as a gerund, an active verbal noun.) But the problem here is that, in English, we most often use this verb to describe motion towards us, and much less often motion toward something else. And the ‘coming of Jesus’ is inextricably linked to the idea of ‘the second coming’, which as I noted above is not New Testament language! And the real issue is that, in most places in the NT, the language of ‘coming on the clouds’ is an allusion to Dan 7.13, and so refers to Jesus ‘coming’ to the throne of God, that is, his Ascension—which we would normally describe as ‘going’!
Alongside that, the term ‘coming’ is also used to translate the (slightly technical term) parousia, which is a noun meaning ‘presence’; it has little sense of motion in it, and BDAG (one of the most commonly consulted Greek lexicons) gives its meanings as:
- the state of being present at a place, presence
- arrival as the first stage in presence
It has much more a sense of sudden presence than the journeying implied by the term ‘coming’, and I wish that ETs would change and translate this term as ‘presence’, not least so we could see what was being referred to.
Secondly, if you have been, as I was, raised in the first of these three views, then you might be feeling very uncomfortable just now! I remember, when I was confronted with this view (in a seminar), I experienced a dizzying sense of disorientation, and expressed my incredulity in no uncertain terms! But I was wrong, and once I had a chance to consider the evidence, needed to change my position—but it took time. It might take you time, and if you are in a position to teach this to others, it will take them time as well.
Thirdly, I think this passage, with its bridging from one part of Jesus’ teaching at the end of Mark 13 to the final element, has important things to teach us. The material in Mark 13.24–31 takes us into the horrors of the First Jewish War and the cataclysmic destruction of the Temple; as Ben Witherington comments, it wasn’t the end of the world, but it was the end of a world, and led to the Jews being once more a people in exile for nearly 2,000 years, which accounts for the use of cosmic language. In that kind of context—and in the practicalities of the personal and nation disasters we face—we too need to ‘read the signs’, and ‘look up’ as we seek to trust God despite the chaos around us.
But once we reach Mark 13.32 and its orientation away from whatever chaos there is in our present world, and towards the promised sudden presence of Jesus with us at the end of time (the parousia), then the guidance is completely different. There will be no warning signs; you will not be able to predict the arrival of Jesus, just as you cannot predict where lightning will strike (Matt 24.27). There is only one way to be ready for his return—to watch and pray, living each day as faithful disciples. That is the lesson of these closing verses, just as it is the lesson of the sequence of parables in Matt 24 and 25 that develop this idea, which we have been reading in the last few weeks.
It is a clarion call, not to endless speculation about the imminent future, but to faithful witness in the immediate present.