Signs of the Times?: A Study of Mark 13

About a week ago, a 7.0 earthquake ravaged the small country of Haiti.  There is no confirmed death toll at this point, but some have guessed upwards of 500,000 but in the last few days the number has lowered to about 100,000 in most news reports.  This is not the first natural disaster to cause devastation in recent years.  There have been other large earthquakes, a devastating tsunami, and a hurricane with some unexpected repercussions.  With all of these natural catastrophes, statements have been made by leaders in the Christian community connecting such events with the judgment of God.  In the case of the Haitian earthquake, within days of the disaster, evangelical leader Pat Robertson made claims that this was a divine action to carry out God’s wrath on the nation.  Apparently, Robertson believes that several generations ago, Haitian leaders made a pact with the devil to find victory in military so God cursed the nation.  As should be expected, the media and other groups of Christians have proclaimed their frustrations with the remarks, but one could only suspect that there are some who may see another kind of connection with this earthquake and God’s activity.

In evangelical culture, the tendency of many has been to look to modern day events as precursors of the so-called “end times.”  It is believed by several groups of Christians that many of the devastations of our day are ‘signs of the times.’  This is to say that natural disasters (and war) are often connected to biblical prophecy as the very things that will lead up to the so-called rapture of the church and great tribulation.  This ideology, which is popular in fundamentalism, has been greatly fueled by the “Left Behind” book series (and films), contemporary Christian music, and other apocalyptic movies.  The unique combination of connecting earthquakes with the divine and a near obsession with futurist views of eschatology, it becomes easy for a person to begin to wonder if the tragedy in Haiti was itself a ‘sign of the times.’  If such a person knows about the Olivet Discourse in general, and Mark 13.8 in specific, such a question becomes easily warranted.  Jesus states that random “earthquakes” will be the beginning of “birth pains.”  This leaves us with a relevant question: Can we make such a connection based on a proper reading of Mark 13 and its parallels?

The way one chooses to read Mark 13 can have ramifications for the whole of one’s worldview.  If Mark 13 is believed to be leading to our immanent future, then it could be assumed that there is not much hope for this present world.  Such a perspective can lead to escapism theologies that take the focus off of this world, but create a longing for a disembodied experience in an eternal heaven.  Often this ideology has left the church out of commission in areas of social action, when the biblical narrative seems to have such as a central theme.  So, in the case of Haiti, the idea of meeting the immediate needs of the victims can very easily become a secondary issue in Christian discourse rather than a primary summons from the gospel.  Therefore, it will be helpful to discern whether or not events like the Haitian earthquake can be attributed to God’s judgment or causality as a ‘sign of the times,’ or perhaps the text at hand does not lend itself to this kind of conclusion.  Perhaps Mark 13 has something else in mind.

Descriptive Task: Reading the Text Carefully

Rather than examining one single pericope, we have before us a chapter of Scripture that must be held together.  This is because it is one conversation that all pertains to the questions regarding the ‘signs of the times.’  As we look at the whole of Mark 13, it will be most productive to define the parameters of the units of text that are contained within the chapter, in order to get a broad understanding of the context this section has within this gospel.

Textual Parameters

Mark 13 begins with these words: “As Jesus was leaving the Temple…”  Prior to this, in chapter 12, Jesus taught in the Temple courts.  So now a new moment in the story has begun; Jesus is moving on to another place.  He ends up situating himself on the “Mount of Olives opposite the Temple” (verse 3).   This is the context in which the disciples find themselves in awe of the beautiful structure that they now are looking at from the outside.  Clearly this was a “massive” and “magnificent” sight during the ministry of Jesus (v. 1).  But it seems that Jesus used this as a teaching moment by subverting their comments saying: “Not one stone here will be left on another, every one will be thrown down” (v. 2).  This statement by Jesus caused the disciples to pull Jesus aside privately to ask: “Tell us, when will these things happen?  And what will be the sign that they are all about to be fulfilled?” (v.4).  This is the unit of text that begins Jesus’ long teaching on what has become known as the Olivet Discourse.

Based on the structure of the opening of the chapter, it could easily be said that verses 1-4 comprise the first pericope in Mark 13.  The next unit begins with Jesus’ reply to their questions.  As is customary of Jesus, he always takes advantage of natural teaching opportunities, and so his answer is long.  From verse 5 until verse 27 the next pericope takes shape.  It would be quite easy to attempt to split this section of teaching up into smaller units, but to do so would break up Jesus’ answer to the questions at hand.  This section ends with words about the coming of the “Son of Man” who will send out his “angels”[1] to “gather his elect” (v.26-27).

The final unit in Mark chapter 13 begins after the idea of the coming “Son of Man” has been introduced.  The prior pericope focused on answering the questions of the disciples as to when the Temple will be destroyed.  This third textual unit further answers their questions but shifts focus in order to illustrate the signs of when the “Son of Man” will come.  This begins in verse 28 with the “lesson from the fig tree.”  When the tree is ripe you realize that “summer is near” (v. 28).  The same will be true about the coming of the “Son of Man,” because he will come when all of the things described in the previous texts have happened (see v. 29).  This is why it is necessary that the disciples of Jesus “be alert!” (v. 33).  Faithful awareness of the signs, so that they properly know how to respond, is what this pericope seems to be about.  The final unit ends with one word: “Watch!” (v. 37).  After that last verse of the chapter, 14 begins with an entirely different thought as it transitions to discuss the upcoming Passover.

Textual Structure of Mark 13

Now that we have established the parameters of the text, it will serve us well to look at this chapter’s textual structure.  The following chart is my rendition of the three units of text that are contained in Mark 13.

The structure of the text has been established, so now it is time to look beyond this chapter to identify how it relates to the whole of the gospel narrative of Mark.

Mark 13 and its Relation to Rest of the Book

Mark 13 is a chapter that is often called a “little apocalypse,” although the whole of the book is gospel narrative.  That is because, this chapter is clearly written with apocalyptic tradition in mind.  The interpretive question, which will be explored later, is about whether this text has to do with the disciples’ immediate future or with our imminent future.  Some others may even believe that the proper interpretive schema is a combination of those two options.  Nevertheless, Jesus is speaking prophetically in this text and is using apocalyptic language to explain the things that will mark the fulfillment of his words.

Our current task is to discern how this text relates to the rest of Mark.  In Mark 11, Jesus returns to Jerusalem and is ushered in as the true King.  Based on parallel accounts we know that this was “the first day of the week,” meaning that it was Sunday.  According to this chapter, singing broke out as Jesus rode in on a colt.  Some laid down their cloaks, while others began to wave palm branches.  Those who chose to lay down their cloaks on this dusty road and waved palm branches were acknowledging that Jesus was indeed a king.  This event has a clear connection with Zechariah 9.9 where this messianic moment is foretold.[2] The following day, “Jesus entered the temple courts and began driving out those who were buying and selling” (v. 15).  Jesus cleared the Temple which should rightfully be understood as an enacted parabolic moment in which Jesus was casting judgment on the whole of the Temple system.  This moment was what would lead to his death on the cross.[3] It is probably on Tuesday when Jesus continued to teach in parables and controversial sayings from the end of Mark 11.20 though chapter 13.[4] Following our chapter, 13, Mark’s narrative continues on to other significant events such as the last Passover on Thursday (Mk. 14.12-26), Good Friday’s crucifixion (Mk. 15), and then Sunday comes once again and Messiah is resurrected (Mk. 16).

What follows is a diagram that illustrates our discussion of the placement of our text within the larger framework of the gospel of Mark with greater detail.

There are some important literary issues that rise to the surface after placing this text in the larger context of the flow of the book of Mark.  For instance, Jesus rides into Jerusalem as king in chapter 11.  It is easy to imagine that those who were shouting “hosanna” on the road had no idea that another king would have him hung on a Roman cross by the end of the week.  Nevertheless, this theme of Jesus as king connects throughout his various trials and accusations.  Not only so, but a dominant image in our text sets up Jesus as being the “Son of Man.”  As will be demonstrated, this language has deep connections to Daniel 7 where the “one like a son of man” is vindicated and given the status of royalty.[5] Another literary issue that becomes evident in the broader context is the prominence of the “fig tree” in chapter 11 and again in 13.  Jesus curses the fig tree on his way to the temple, and the following day it is withered.  There may be something worth exploring to understand the illustration towards the end of the third textual unit.  A third important connection that is made by placing our text within its broader literary context is the centrality of the Temple.  Jesus enters Jerusalem as king on Sunday and heads directly to the Temple.  The following day he returns and clears it out, enacting judgment on the system it represented.  He then leaves again and on Tuesday returns and gives various kingdom teachings.  It is on this day that he departs from the Temple and delivers the Olivet Discourse.  After enacting judgment on the Temple, one day later and two chapters later, Jesus tells his disciples that it will be destroyed.  This flow of events is significant to determining whose ‘signs of the times’ Jesus is trying to describe.  Are these signs for followers of Jesus in modern day to watch for his coming or were these signs that the first century disciples were to watch for?  After enacting judgment and then declaring destruction, could it be that all of the signs are linked to the Temple?  But now we have jumped ahead of ourselves.

Establishing the Text

After examining the text in multiple translations, it seems that for the most part they all convey the message of Mark 13 appropriately.  The TNIV seems to give a clear rendering, so we will use (and have been using) that as our base translation, and will identify some instances of possible error along the way.  There are some nuances in a couple places that may serve to be helpful in this study, and it is to these we will now turn our attention.

The first phrase that deserves some investigation is what the TNIV designates: “the abomination that causes desolation” (v. 14).  Comparatively, the NRSV renders this as “desolating sacrilege” and the NLT as “the sacrilegious object that causes desecration.”  Now, for the purposes of biblical interpretation, a question must be asked: Is this referring to a person or to an object? In many popular futurist theologies, it is assumed that this phrase refers to the so-called ‘anti-Christ’ who will step into the holy place of the (rebuilt?) Temple, but based on Jewish history it seems more likely that this was indeed some kind of pagan altar or object.[6] This is a subject to which we will return, but for now it should be noted that the best rendering of this verse will indicate that it was primarily an object and not a person who desecrated the Temple.  So, with this in mind we need a translation of the passage that indicates this more clearly.  The worst of the aforementioned translations is the NLT who leaves this verse in ambiguous tension.  For although it clearly explains that the abomination is an object, the phrase that follows is: “…standing where he should not be.”  This barely makes logical sense in English and seems to impose a futurist eschatological perspective.  Much more can be said about this subject, but for now we will simply state that this passage should be seen as regarding an object more so than a person (especially a future anti-Christ).[7]

The second textual nuance that may become important in this study is found in verse 27.  The TNIV renders the passage the following way: “And he will send his angels and gather his elect from the four winds…”  The question at hand is the word “angels” which (as footnoted before) is from the Greek word “ἀγγέλους.”  This is a word that commonly refers to angels in the Bible, but can also equally refer to human messengers depending on the context.[8] In classical Greek, this term meant: “the messenger, the ambassador in human affairs, who speaks and acts in the place of the one who has sent him.”[9] The question becomes whether or not we actually think this is referring to people or to angelic beings.  Of the translations that we have examined thus far, there are none that leave open the possibility that this word should be rendered messengers.  There is one translator that has chosen to take this liberty in two different places: N. T. Wright.[10] Unfortunately these are not mainstream translations.  It seems that this will be a discussion that will not be easily resolved.  However, for the purposes of this study we will allow for the word “ἀγγέλους” to mean either of the two options, rather to cage up its definition into a box of religious assumptions.

The Message of the Text

Now that we have defined the parameters of our text, examined its textual structure, observed its relation to the rest of Mark, and established a working text to use as our base translation; we now turn to the actual message of the passage at hand.  This is where we began our interpretive journey as we asked questions relating to the earthquake in Haiti, and now it is time to analyze Mark 13 in order to discern its intended message.

As has been stated multiple times, the book of Mark presents a gospel narrative.  Our particular text is embedded with apocalyptic language.  What we will attempt to do is reconstruct the background of the author and also the history to which this text seems to point.  We will also attempt to examine the rhetorical features of this text within its social and historical context.  After we have done these things, we will attempt to decipher the central message of our passage.

Destruction of the Temple and the Date of Mark

A relevant reality that we must address is that the Romans eventually destroyed the Temple in Jerusalem.  Jesus’ words as they are recorded in Mark’s gospel actually came to fulfillment approximately 40 years after they would have been spoken.  Ancient historian, Flavius Josephus provided a thorough account of the events leading up to the Jewish war and the eventual destruction of the Temple and city of Jerusalem.  The Jewish Zealots mobilized to revolt and killed a Roman garrison.  This led Emperor Nero to commission Vespasian and his son Titus, to end the uprising that had taken place with the rebels.  This would not be an easy task.  From 66 until 70 AD, war would ensue.  For four years, the city of Jerusalem and the surrounding area, was plagued by a war that the Zealots considered to be religious in nature.

The final siege on Jerusalem would last about 5 months.[11] With the Zealots busy fighting amongst themselves, rather than coming up with solid leadership and a plan to properly deal with invading Roman forces, they were powerless when the siege finally came.  The commander of the Romans, Titus, surrounded the city with three legions on the western side, and one other on the Mount of Olives in the east. After several failed attempts to breach the walls of the fortress, the Romans launched a secret attack that surprised the guards at night.  They then penetrated the walls and fought for the city.  Jerusalem was completely under Roman control by September 7, 70 AD.  Not only were the Romans successful, but they laid the city bare; destroying both the city and its Temple.[12] With this event, Temple worship ceased and most of the Jews were displaced.[13]

Something that is relevant to explore in regards to this history is if Mark (presuming the tradition is correct) wrote his gospel after this event took place, or if the recorded words of Jesus are actually prophetic.  There seem to be mixed reviews about this question.  Some have indeed accused Mark 13 as being a reflection on the past experiences of the destruction of Jerusalem and its Temple, rather than an authentic prophecy.  But, when one examines the text, what becomes evident is that Mark’s telling of the Olivet Discourse is rooted in the tradition of the ancient Scriptures and is not bathed in specifics from the historical accounts of the events surrounding 70 AD.  Jesus truly did foretell that these events would take place, 40 years prior to them being fulfilled in history![14]

Key Interpretive Issues

Now that we have established that Mark (or the author) wrote this gospel prior to the destruction of the Temple and have explored that event as a historical reality, we now turn our attention to attempting decipher the meaning of this chapter for the original audience.  In order to do so, we will look at each of the three textual units and examine some of the key interpretive issues that rise to the surface.  We will attempt to discern whether the ‘signs of the times’ in this chapter do, do not, or partially correspond to the events leading up to 70 AD.  Hopefully we will gain some clarity regarding our questions about modern day calamities and whether we can consider them to be precursors of the end of the world.

UNIT ONE: 13.1-4

The first unit of our chapter is one that has Jesus and his disciples exiting the Temple and heading towards the Mount of Olives.  After the remarks of his disciples, Jesus comments that “not one stone will be left on another.”  This leads to the disciples questions that provide the landscape of the rest of the chapter: 1) “Tell us, when will these things happen?” 2) “And what will be the sign that they are all about to be fulfilled?”  Many modern interpreters have looked at these questions and supposed that Jesus extends them in such a way that they become a launching point to discuss the end of the space-time universe.  Rather than just being about the disciples’ near future, they are also about a yet-to-be fulfilled future. John MacArthur, for instance, believes that Jesus’ statements were fulfilled in regards to the destruction under the invading Romans in the first century; however, the “…most important aspects of His prophecy were not fulfilled in the destruction in AD 70.”[15] This type of reading leaves the interpretive door wide open for people to speculate about modern events such as the Haitian earthquake as being a ‘sign’ pointing to the still coming tribulation.  Critical to interpreting the rest of Mark 13 will be determining to whom these questions are addressed.  Andrew Perriman states:

But the questions put by the disciples are not our questions.  Jesus is not—on the fact of it—addressing the concerns of a later Gentile church impatient for, or skeptical about, the second coming.  If we allow the historical dimension to be collapsed in this way, we risk severely damaging the delicate tissue of significance that connects the discourse with the actual historical circumstances that it both presupposes and predicts.  The narrative setting in thee Gospels must be taken seriously.[16]

If Perriman is correct, then we must choose to allow the context of the conversation that Jesus had with his disciples (immediate, historical, social, and canonical contexts) to set the course for our reading of what will follow as Jesus’ answer to their questions.  And we should note: nowhere in Mark 13.1-4[17] is the idea of the “end” even mentioned.  Yet, because of popular theologies it is easy for us to instantly read this idea into the passage.  But according to what we have here, as Tim Geddert rightly recognizes: “We cannot be sure whether the disciples have the End in mind at all.”[18] Nevertheless, he reads this chapter as having been partially fulfilled in the events of 70 AD, but not fully.  To this point we shall return in a moment.

UNIT TWO: Mark 13.5-27

This second unit contains Jesus’ response to the disciples’ questions.  We can imagine that they would have liked a clear response, but Jesus denies them of such.  It is full of ambiguity and tension throughout.  Nevertheless, he does give them an answer that is loaded with significance.  He begins by warning them about the various calamities that will come their way.  There will be: deceivers (5-6), wars, rumors of wars, earthquakes (7-8), and persecution (9-13).  These however, are not to be looked at as signs that the “end” is here, but rather are the very things that the disciples must endure as they await the “end.”  Jesus calls his followers to faithfulness in spite of the difficulties to come, not as a ‘last minute resort’ to escape the coming hardships.  This is a call to godly discernment in the midst of “birth pains,” in order to be able to navigate a faithful life of witness after Jesus is himself no longer with them.[19] The temptation will be for Jesus’ disciples to panic when they observe these various ‘signs’ and when they hear the rumors and speculations from false teachers.  But, the “end,” meaning in this context the “end” of the Temple, will not arrive just because these things are taking place.[20] [21] And in spite of whatever the disciples came to endure, their call to proclaim the gospel to all nations remained.  Such proclamation would be the reason that they would have to stand before courts and governing officials.[22]

There is one main clue (or sign) that is given regarding the “end” that is to come.  Everything mentioned thus far in the discourse was inevitable because of their circumstances, whereas verse 14 speaks of an actual sign or signal that it is time to “flee.”  This is not a war or earthquake, but is “the abomination that causes desolation.”  As we explored earlier, it seems likely that this refers to a pagan object more so than a future person.  The reason that an object makes more sense is that this phrase has both a biblical and historical back-story.  The language is developed from the book of Daniel which states:

His armed forces will rise up to desecrate the Temple fortress and will abolish the daily sacrifice.  Then they will set up the abomination that causes desolation…  Daniel ll.31

This was a prophecy that seems to have found fulfillment in history during the Jewish struggle under Antiochus Epiphanes.  The story is told in 1 Maccabees 1.54ff where it states that “on the fifteenth day of Chislev, in the one hundred forty-fifth year, they erected a desolating sacrilege on the altar of burnt offering” (NRSV).  These are the historical and biblical links from which Jesus speaks.[23] When the “desolating sacrilege” or the “abomination that causes desolation” disgraced the Temple in the past, it was not primarily a person but a pagan altar that was set up on the altar of God.  There is some evidence to suggest that the Jews used this language directly referring to Zeus.  In fact, it probably was an altar that had on it an image of the pagan god.[24] Therefore it follows that Jesus, having this story in his mind, was referring to an object that would be set up to disgrace the Temple once again at the time when it was nearing its destruction.  The belief that this refers to a future “anti-Christ” figure cannot be found in our text; and when it is read to claim such, it is an importation of popular futurists views.  No, when this object is set up where it does not belong, the faithful disciples who have chosen to endure the various tribulations will now have warrant to “flee to the mountains” (v. 14).

The current unit of text continues to warn the disciples of the devastation to come, finding its climax in cosmic apocalyptic language.  The images of the sun being “darkened,” the moon losing its glow, stars falling from the sky, and “the heavenly bodies” being “shaken” have often been regarded as an event that will happen during the still future tribulation.  This is to take place as a sign that Jesus (Son of Man) is about to return.  But this makes the mistake of misinterpreting apocalyptic language!  In context, this passage suggests an impending national crisis that will come as an act of God’s judgment within history.  Many other examples of this can be found throughout the Old Testament, especially Isaiah.  Isaiah uses cosmic language to describe political events such as the coming of Babylon’s conquering and the eventual fall of Edom.  These are realities that have already been fulfilled in history!  Jesus is simply using an Old Testament prophetic rhetorical devise to explain the coming doom of Jerusalem.[25]

As this textual unit comes to a resolution, we are introduced to the “Son of Man coming in clouds” (v. 26).  When this takes place, “he will send his angels (messengers) and gather the elect” (v. 27).  It is my opinion that the way we choose to interpret this part of the unit, has ramifications for the whole chapter.  Most commentators, not least those represented in this study, attribute this text to the future.  Jesus did not return in 70 AD so it follows that the Fall of Jerusalem and the coming of the Son of Man are separated.  Tim Geddert for example associates the “End” with the second coming of Jesus while leaving open the possibility that a future anti-Christ will appear.[26] He believes that the majority of the chapter has to do with the events surrounding the Temple, but only after that event is completed, is the way paved for the “Son of Man” to return in the mainstream sense.  He states:

Looking back, we know that he return of the Son of man did not occur during the events surrounding the war between the Jews and Rome, nor in connection with the Temple’s destruction in A.D. 70…  The events surrounding the Temple’s destruction (the sacrilege, the tribulation) [are] the final events that needed to happen before the Son of Man’s return could be considered truly imminent.  Ever since A.D. 70, faithful disciples have been waiting of the one great event that must still happen, the return of the Son of Man.  No signs will help predict when that will be.[27]

As has been alluded to throughout this study, there is a way to understand this whole chapter, and particularly this pericope, that allows for it all to be attributed to past fulfillment.  This 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.  This is a task that should in many ways be left to the “Synthetic” portion of the paper, but without this discussion at this point in our interpretive journey, it will be near impossible to locate the meaning that Mark and Jesus have in mind.  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.[28] Wright states: “The ‘son of man’ figure ‘comes’ to the Ancient of Days…from earth to heaven, vindicated after suffering.”[29]

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.[30] 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.[31] 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.[32] 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, 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.[33]

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 would be about other prophetic passages that point to a “second coming” in the canon.  Do we truly await a second coming of Jesus?  We will discuss this in a moment, but first we must take a brief look at our third unit of text.

UNIT THREE: Mark 13.28-37

In this final textual unit of Mark 13, there are two parables, one of which we will briefly examine: the parable of the fig tree.  It functions to declare the truthfulness of Jesus’ words.  The fig tree that begins to bloom is an indication that summer will come soon.  When “these things” happen (all that has been said thus far), “you know that it is near” (v. 29).  All that we know from the context is that “it is near” refers to whatever will take place within God’s timetable.[34] As for meaning, there seems to be two.  The first is that assurance that God will be faithful to the words of Jesus comes as the disciples experience the progression of his promises being fulfilled.  The second looks back to the cursed tree in chapter 11.  That tree “had only leaves” and “was cursed because it bore no fruit; that tree stood for the Temple and its custodians.”  This new tree is preparing for a time when it will bear a crop, which is the “new Temple built without hands.”[35]

What is the Central Meaning of Mark 13?

We have now reviewed an entire chapter of Scripture.  Much information has been evaluated, and interpretive decisions based on literary, historical, and social context have been made.  Having reviewed a plethora of information, it may be helpful to state the message of this chapter in one sentence.  Here is my attempt to do so:

All of Mark’s telling of the Olivet Discourse describes how Jesus acted as an apocalyptic prophet to declare judgment and destruction on the Temple within the generation of his disciples; and thus Jesus speaks of the “end” of the Temple system and what it represented, not the typical interpretation of tribulation and second coming.

Synthetic Task: Placing the Text in Canonical Context

In the descriptive task, we explored the structure, context, and meaning of Mark 13.  Our next step is to attempt to place the text within context of the canon of Scripture.  In regards to issues of meaning, we made an interpretive decision to give the whole of the chapter to pertaining to the events leading up to the destruction of the Temple.  Often, this Mark 13 is viewed as ‘signs of the times’—the “end times”—so disasters in our day (i.e. Haitian earthquake) are easily mistaken for indications that the so-called rapture and Tribulation are near.  Having deconstructed the ability to attribute the text to futurist views, the question alluded to above remains: If this passage does not speak of the end and the second coming of Christ, are we still able to speak of his second advent with confidence? In order to answer this question, we need to look at the biblical narrative for clues to how this all fits together.

The bible is a story that is moving from creation to new creation.  And just because Mark 13 does not speak of the “second coming,” that does not mean that the narrative of Scripture does not move in that direction.  This remains true even if one chooses to embrace the view that Jesus never spoke directly of his “second coming” during his earthly ministry.[36] In Luke’s second volume, after Jesus ascends into heaven, the angel informs the disciples that he “who has been taken from you into heaven, will come back in the same way you have seen him go into heaven” (Acts 1.10).  So, the belief in the second coming was clearly there, but notice that the angel declares it only after Jesus has ascended.

There is a key text that deserves some attention that will help us understand this concept a bit more.  It is the famous passage in 1 Thessalonians 4.16-17 which reads:

For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first.  After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air.  And so we will be with the Lord forever.

Briefly, let’s look at this text that has some resemblances to the words of Jesus in Mark 13.  In this passage, Paul borrows specific images from the Old Testament that would have been familiar to Jewish converts and Gentiles who were familiarizing themselves with the Hebrew tradition.  He also mixes his metaphors and includes first century imagery.  Some images that Paul employs are that of Moses coming down from Mount Sinai with the Law, and that of a visiting emperor.  The image that is relevant to our discussion, is taken from Daniel 7 where the “one like a son of man coming with the clouds of heaven” and the community he represents is vindicated over the enemies of the people of God.  The idea that was used to describe Jesus’ own vindication after the destruction of the Temple, in Paul is applied to Christians who are facing various forms of persecution.  After a time of suffering, when Christ returns, Christians will be raised up above all the enemies of God on the “clouds” to be with him in the glory of a restored creation. This is not about being secretly raptured out of this world on literal clouds, but simply invokes the image of Daniel 7 and applies the literary devise to the Church.[37]

What this means is that as Christians, we still await the second coming of Jesus Christ who will restore all things in creation.  This is an eschatological event described in Acts, 1 Thessalonians, and several other places that will be fulfilled in God’s own timetable.  But, there is no reason to believe that this will be accompanied by a great Tribulation where an anti-Christ figure will wreak havoc on the planet.  There is not room for this in the biblical narrative.  The biblical story of God’s faithfulness to complete the creation project will be good news when it arrives, not the manifestation of cosmic chaos often attributed to Mark 13.

Hermeneutical Task: Relating the Text to the Present

It is now time to bridge the textual gap of Mark 13 from the first century to the twenty first century.  This is not an easy task, and due to the length of our text, we will by no means cover each unit in their entirety.  However, there are some significant ways that we can bring forward the theology of our text in order to understand its relation to the present.

As we have already stated, Mark 13 has often been hermeneutically negotiated to be addressing questions about the ‘signs’ of our future.  In many faith communities, this has led to an obsession with timetables and preaching that lacks hope for the good creation.  As a result, escapism from the earth rather than activism for the earth has often been embraced.  It has been demonstrated that any theological bridge that is built from the first century discourse on the Mount of Olives to the present, must attempt to articulate the message the disciples would have understood.  One area that is often difficult to grasp has to do with the apocalyptic imagery in the second unit of the chapter (v. 24-25).  This is a main interpretive issue that may need some theological bridge building work, so to speak.

Consider the following analogy to understand the way apocalyptic language functions.  Jesus saying that “the sun will be darkened” or that “stars will fall from the sky” could be compared how we might say that something that happened in modern day was an “earth-shattering” event.   Think about the example of the fall of the Berlin Wall.  Most would agree that in modern rhetoric this could be referred to as an “earth-shattering” event.  Now, suppose that someone read a news article with that type of language in it, they would not assume that an earthquake had caused the wall to fall down.  They would understand the exaggerated metaphor.  The same understanding may not be true of someone who two thousand years in the future, read the exact copy of that particular article.  Such a person may be inclined to think that a literal earthquake destroyed the Berlin Wall, causing a new political situation to emerge.  But we know that would not be true, because the historical reality is that the Berlin Wall was intentionally torn down stone by stone.  The exact same idea must equally be applied to our readings of this apocalyptic text in regards to the destruction of the Temple.  We have a two thousand year language gap, but when these are bridged appropriately, we may be able to avoid unnecessary doomsday theologies.[38]

There is an ongoing message represented in our text, even if it is not the typically popular one.  This message is that God will not stand for injustice, especially from those who claim to be his representatives.  The Temple had created a caste system of sorts, and this led to both physical and spiritual oppression by the religious elite.  The judgment of God comes against all such things.  This begs questions about whether the church of today acts in similar ways as the Temple.  Throughout church history and in our day, there have been scandals, corruption, immorality, and hypocrisy in its institutions.  Who will be the prophets of today to declare that God is not pleased?

Also, this text reminds us that God is ultimately in control of the future.  Jesus prophesied that the Temple would be destroyed within the generation of the disciples, and it was so.  There was not clarity about exactly how or exactly when this would come to pass, but in hindsight God appointed the appropriate time to fulfill the words of his Son.  But, as we have already recognized, God has also spoken about a still future event that has yet to be fulfilled: the consummation of humanity and creation.  This text extends to us the assurance that God’s timetable will truly bring about what he has promised.  Just as what Jesus said in the Olivet Discourse came to pass, so also all the remaining promises of God will arrive in due time!

Pragmatic Task: Living the Text

This text summons us to a faithful practice and proclamation about God’s intention for this world.  We began this study with the observation that the combination of attributing natural disasters to God’s judgment and popular futurist eschatology can lead to some very practical questions regarding supposed ‘signs of the times.’  This link makes it quite easy to entertain the thought that perhaps the “earthquakes” mentioned in Mark 13 (and other signs), may be an indication that the end of the space-time universe is coming soon.  This becomes even more of a concern if we read into the cosmic apocalyptic language of verses 24-25, the literal destruction of the cosmos.  Such a view can easily breed into a desire to escape the troubles of the present world (because it is all going to be destroyed at any moment).  This, then, can create a paradigm in Christian ethics that the only thing that matters is getting people to accept the ‘bullet points’ of the gospel, so that they too will be able to escape the coming turmoil.  As important as evangelism is, if this is our only task, we miss a main component of the Christian call of discipleship—a call to “act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6.8).

For a Christian to attribute the Haitian earthquake to the divine hand of God’s wrath is not only bad theology, but has practical ramifications.  Because if ‘God caused it,’ then those people deserve what was coming to them.  This could very easily become an excuse to ignore the call to justice in this and other natural disaster scenarios.  That is why it is imperative that we continue the process of refining and discerning theological issues, such as those presented in Mark 13.  But if we choose to read the scriptures for all they are worth, then perhaps we will find the need to partner with God and help navigate the creation project towards its completion (Revelation 21, Romans 8).  This definitely includes partnering with God to pull back the rubble of the Haitian earthquake as a sign of the new creation!

The church in the West is transforming in many ways, and situations like the one Pat Robertson created with his detestable words, are becoming less and less acceptable by the standards of the majority of Christians.  But these theologically flawed judgments will continue to be an issue in the coming years as hyper-fundamentalists continue to distort the Scriptures.  Jesus set his face against the Temple and prophetically cast his judgment in opposition to it.  As we demonstrated from our text, much of this had to do with the religiosity and corrupt nature of the system it represented.  Jesus’ prophecy called out the religious elite of his day for falsely representing Israel’s God and for perpetuating a system that caused much oppression and marginalization.  Perhaps the question here for us ought to be: Who in our day will take up the mantle of Jesus and prophetically call out the Christian leaders who continue to make false public judgments? Who will speak a counter-message to those who falsely represent the God of the Scriptures?  Who will choose to be a prophet against the false prophets? Not to start a war of words, but rather to declare to the outside world that the Church of Jesus Christ and the God they serve have no affiliation with those who speak condemnation to a culture who is searching for hope.  Perhaps one of the greatest tasks of the Church in the present is to do justice both in our acts of compassion (for Haiti and other disastrous situations) and in our interpretations and appropriations of the Scriptures.

CONCLUSION

We now come to the close of this study.  We have demonstrated that all of Mark 13 should be attributed to the events surrounding the fall of Jerusalem and the Destruction of the Temple in 70 AD.  Jesus will return to earth sometime in our future, but we simply do not find that truth in this specific text.  There was a great tribulation following the Olivet Discourse, but that was prophetically fulfilled in the first century.  Much more could be said about the issues surrounding Mark 13.  May we continue to wrestle with difficult textual issues so that the shape of our theology will find its expression in ways that honor the ongoing mission of God in and for the world!

BIBLIOGRAPHY

“Abomination of Desolation.” In The New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology. Edited by Colin Brown. 5th ed. 1. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1980.

Bird, Michael. “Mission As an Apocalyptic Event: Reflections On Luke 10:18 and Mark 13:10.” Evangelical Quarterly 76, no. 2 (April 2004), 117-34.

Cawthorne, Nigel. History’s Greatest Battles: Masterstrokes of War. N.p.: Acrhturus, 2005.

Garland, David E. Mark. Edited by Terry Muck. The NIV Application Commentary. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996.

Geddert, Timothy J. Mark. Believers Church Bible Commentary. Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 2001.

Gundry, Robert H. A Survey of The New Testament. 4th ed. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2003.

MacArthur, John. The Second Coming: Sings of Christ’s Return and The End of The Age. Weaton: Crossway Books, 1999.

Manscreck, Clyde L. A History of Christianity in The World. 2d ed. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1974.

Perkins, Pheme. Mark. Vol. 8 of The New Interpreter’s Bible. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1995.

Perriman, Andrew. The Coming of The Son of Man: New Testament Eschatology for an Emerging Church. Waynesboro, Georgia: Paternoster Press, 2005.

Wright, N. T. Jesus and The Victory of God. Vol. 2 of Christian Origins and the Question of God. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1996.

________. Mark for Everyone. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2004.

________. New Heavens, New Earth: The Biblical Picture of Christian Hope. Grove Biblical Series. Cambridge: Grove Books Limited, 1999.

________. The New Testament and The People of God. Vol. 1 of Christian Origins and the Question of God. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1992.

________. Surpised By Hope: Rethinking Heaven, The Resurrection, and The Mission of The Church. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2008.

Zondervan TNIV Study Bible. Edited by Kenneth L. Barker, John H. Stek, and Ronald Youngblood. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2006.


[1] The word “angels,” which comes from the word “ἀγγέλους,” can also mean “messengers” in Greek.

[2]. N. T. Wright, Mark for Everyone (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2004), 147.

[3]. See: Ibid., 149-54.

[4]. Zondervan TNIV Study Bible, ed. Kenneth L. Barker, John H. Stek, and Ronald Youngblood (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2006), 1702.  See this resource for helpful chart on this page.

[5]. Wright, Mark for Everyone, 241.

[6]. “Abomination of Desolation,” in The New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology, ed. Colin Brown, 5th ed. 1 (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1980), 74-75.

[7] Although I must admit that the use of “he” rather than “it” is not completely out of the question based on the Greek.

[8]. N. T. Wright, Jesus and The Victory of God, Christian Origins and the Question of God, vol. 2 (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1996), under “361 n. 152.”

[9]. The New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology, 101.

[10]. Wright, Jesus and The Victory of God, 361 and Wright, Mark for Everyone, 181.

[11]. Clyde L. Manscreck, A History of Christianity in The World, 2d ed. (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1974), 17.

[12]. Nigel Cawthorne, History’s Greatest Battles: Masterstrokes of War (n.p.: Acrhturus, 2005), 31-37.

[13]. Robert H. Gundry, A Survey of The New Testament, 4th ed. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2003), 15.

[14]. Wright, Jesus and The Victory of God, 340, 349.

[15]. John MacArthur, The Second Coming: Sings of Christ’s Return and The End of The Age (Weaton: Crossway Books, 1999), 78.

[16]. Andrew Perriman, The Coming of The Son of Man: New Testament Eschatology for an Emerging Church (Waynesboro, Georgia: Paternoster Press, 2005), 18-19.

[17] This study is not on a synoptic harmony of this discourse, so let’s not read Matthew too quickly into Mark regarding the addition of “end of the age.”  Having said that, I would argue that “end of the age” does not have to do with the end of the space-time universe, but with the end of the age of Jewish sacrifice.  Again, this is not a study of Matthew so that is all I will say on this matter.

[18]. Timothy J. Geddert, Mark, Believers Church Bible Commentary (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 2001), 305.

[19]. Ibid., 305-06.

[20]. Wright, Mark for Everyone, 178-179, 181.

[21] A majority of the commentators I am interacting with see a link between the “end” of space-time history and the return of the “Son of Man.”  The exception to this is N. T. Wright, whose position I will explore and embrace in the remainder of this project.

[22]. Michael Bird, “Mission As an Apocalyptic Event: Reflections On Luke 10:18 and Mark 13:10,” Evangelical Quarterly 76, no. 2 (April 2004), 126.

[23].  David E. Garland, Mark, ed. Terry Muck, The NIV Application Commentary (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996), 495.

[24]. The New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology, 74-75.

[25]. Perriman, The Coming of The Son of Man: New Testament Eschatology for an Emerging Church, 44.

[26]. Geddert, Mark, 312.

[27]. Ibid., 325-26.

[28]. 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.

[29]. Wright, Jesus and The Victory of God, 361.

[30]. Wright, The New Testament and The People of God, 459.

[31]. Ibid., 395.

[32]. Wright, Jesus and The Victory of God, 342.

[33]. Wright, The New Testament and The People of God, 459-60.

[34]. Pheme Perkins, Mark, vol. 8 of The New Interpreter’s Bible (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1995), 693.

[35]. Ibid., 316.

[36]. N. T. Wright, Surprised By Hope: Rethinking Heaven, The Resurrection, and The Mission of The Church (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2008), 125.

[37]. Ibid., 131-32.

[38]. N. T. Wright, New Heavens, New Earth: The Biblical Picture of Christian Hope, Grove Biblical Series (Cambridge: Grove Books Limited, 1999), 9.

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