This is the Sixth post in a series titled: Earthquakes… Signs of the Times? I invite you to read the rest of the series here to catch up (the first post would be extremely helpful) …
Today’s post is going to look at the language of the “coming of the son of man.” In many popular theological systems, this is seen as a text connected to the rapture of the church. I do not want to analyze ‘rapture’ theology in this post, but simply to point out that this is a popular connection that is made. As has been alluded to throughout this study, there is a way to understand this whole chapter of Mark 13 to be attributed to past fulfillment. In other words, when Jesus speaks of a coming disaster (earthquakes, destruction, etc.), this is all about things that will happen within the generation of the disciples (see v. 30). This interpretive option comes into full shape in the work of N. T. Wright. What follows is a summary of his arguments concerning the “Son of Man” language in Mark 13.
In order to understand the language and Jesus’ usage of “Son of Man,” we must understand its usage in the Old Testament. The phrase originally occurs in Daniel chapter 7. The context of this passage contains the images of beasts who are representative of pagan nations in a literary sense. These beasts attack the “son of man” figure who is a literary representation of Israel. Many interpreters are quick to make this figure a literal human, but if we do that then we have to also make the beasts literal as well—which would be ridiculous both to us and to first century Jews. So, to put this all together, Daniel 7 tells of the foreign monsters who oppress and attack Israel (“son of man”), but after this long period of suffering, Israel is vindicated above its enemies. Wright states: “The ‘son of man’ figure ‘comes’ to the Ancient of Days…from earth to heaven, vindicated after suffering.”
With this reading of Daniel 7, the Jews in the first century were awaiting a return from exile and for God to visit Zion and establish his kingdom. But Jesus turns this on its head because he brings the kingdom in a way that looks very different that Jewish expectation. They would have expected the vindication of Israel to take a much different form. The Temple would not be glorified, but demolished. Jerusalem would not become the epicenter of the glorious nation of reinstated Israel, but would be trampled on by pagans. The enemies of God’s true Israel were not the pagans as much as the Temple system and the religiosity it represented. The language Jesus borrows from Daniel in the context of the current textual unit has to do with his ascending to God and taking his place as the true king of the true Jerusalem. This is not a “second coming” passage, but one that speaks of Jesus taking on the identity of Israel whose vindication after suffering would take place only after judgment had come upon the Temple. This is why in chapter 11 (cleansing of the Temple) Jesus enacts this judgment; only to cryptically declare that it would take place within “this generation” (v. 30). Wright comments on the importance of Jesus’ vindication to his message:
Jesus had set his face, prophetically, against Jerusalem. He had staked his prophetic reputation upon the claim that the Temple would be destroyed… In the light of this, those who claimed to be his followers were bound to see the continuing existence of Herod’s Temple, and the city which housed it, as a paradox. Jesus would not be vindicated as a true prophet until it was destroyed by enemy action… But it was not only Jesus who would be vindicated when the Temple fell. The Temple represented the heart of the system from which flowed one source at least of the persecution suffered by the early Church. Its destruction would be their salvation. Mark 13 said as much.
What we have attempted to do in the above section is to summarize an alternative approach to the mainstream interpretation of the coming of the “Son of Man.” To do this, we have examined the perspective of N. T. Wright. This viewpoint demonstrates that this whole chapter (Mark 13) speaks directly of the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD, and that none of its words are left to be fulfilled. If this is true, then the question of some will be about other prophetic passages that point to a “second coming” in the canon. Do we truly await a second coming of Jesus? My answer is YES, but it happens to not be the point of this particular text. If this series has thus far been correct, it is because this reading of the “son of man” passages in the Olivet Discourse serves as the thread of the needle that ties everything together! I know that deconstructing the popular reading will make me unpopular, but perhaps it will allow me to be faithful to the very words and intentions of Jesus! Lets not forget what he says a couple verses later in verse thirty: “Truly I tell you, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened.” Hhhhmmmm….
. N. T. Wright, The New Testament and The People of God, vol. 1 of Christian Origins and the Question of God(Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1992), 291-92.
. Wright, Jesus and The Victory of God, 361.
. Wright, The New Testament and The People of God, 459.
. Ibid., 395.
. Wright, Jesus and The Victory of God, 342.
. Wright, The New Testament and The People of God, 459-60.