Before proceeding with commentary on Mark 13, I would like to reprint some of the remarks made prior to similar material in Matthew. Then I would like to add just a bit.
The Destruction of the Temple: In 66 CE, a massive Jewish revolt against Rome was launched, and for awhile it was successful – but only for awhile. Jerusalem was the center of the resistance movement, and it took Rome four years to recapture it, but they did. When they did, Roman troops offered sacrifice to the emperor in the Temple and then destroyed the Temple and the city. All of the gospels were composed with this war as a part of their context.
All that follows in Mark 13 needs to be read within the context of that war and its aftermath. How many of the sayings and stories reported in these chapters go back to Jesus is a matter of scholarly debate. Whether they do or not, Mark, like the other gospel writers, puts the sayings and stories together in such a way as to speak to his context. I want the focus of my notes on the New Testament to be formation rather than information, though I know I have included quite a bit of the latter. In order to help the words in the coming chapter be more formative, I think it is important to get some information on the table.
The materials in chapter 13 have to do with eschatology (a semitechnical term that means “the last things, the final things, the end of things”), judgment, and apocalypse (a word meaning “revelation” or unveiling). “Though sometimes equated with ‘the end of the world,’ it is important to realize that biblical eschatology is not about the end of the space-time world, not about the disappearance or vanishing of the earth, but about the transformation of this world” (Marcus Borg, Jesus, 252). The verses in chapter 13 have a lot to do with the end of things, but they speak about them in a particular way. “An apocalypse is a kind of Jewish and Christian literature that reveals or unveils the future in language loaded with images and symbols. Apocalyptic literature speaks of a time of great suffering followed by divine deliverance” (John Dominic Crossan and Marcus Borg, The Last Week, 78). “Mark’s gospel thus has an apocalyptic eschatology, a technical phrase the refers to the expectation of dramatic and decisive divine intervention in the near future, one so public that even non-believers will have to agree that it has happened” (The Last Week, 82-83). In the coming chapter of Mark we will find passages of apocalyptic eschatology, but without the parables about judgment that we found in Matthew and will find in Luke. There are also references in Mark 13 to a coming of the son of man, a “second coming of Jesus.”
So how much of this goes back to Jesus? That is a matter of scholarly debate, but beyond such debate asking the question may help us ask questions that help form us in our faith. What are these stories trying to say to us, fundamentally? Do we need to adopt the exact same “apocalyptic eschatology” to benefit from that fundamental meaning, that is to be formed by the Spirit into the image of Christ.
Second Coming: Did Jesus speak about his own second coming? Most mainline scholars do not think that Jesus spoke about his second coming. To suppose that he did would require imagining that he tried to teach his followers about a second coming when they had not really understood his “first coming” very well, including not really understanding that he was going away, that is, the he would be killed…. We think the conviction that Jesus would come again emerged in the post-Easter community. The Jesus whom the rulers of this world had executed and who had been vindicated by God would soon come again to complete what he had begun. (Borg, Jesus, 179, 255). Language describing God’s future is a set of signposts pointing into a mist. The signposts may tell the truth but shouldn’t be mistaken for the reality…. The New Testament often uses the Greek word parousia, frequently translated “coming,” to express this “presence” of Jesus within God’s future recreation of the cosmos. Of course, someone who is present after a time of absence must have “come,” “arrived,” or “appeared.” But the root meaning remains “presence;” the word often used of the “royal presence” of kings and rulers. If we spoke of Jesus’ royal presence within God’s new creation, rather than thinking of his “coming” as an invasion from outside, our talk about the future might make more sense. It would also be a lot more biblical. (N.T. Wright in Wright and Borg, The Meaning of Jesus, 201-202). Language about a second coming of Jesus might best be thought of in terms of a conviction that what God was doing in Jesus, making God’s dream for the world more of a reality, would continue until it wins the day and the world is transformed.
Eschatology: Marcus Borg does a good job in his book Jesus discussing this topic. A theory many scholars maintained throughout the twentieth century was that Jesus believed and taught an “imminent eschatology.” “Imminent eschatology means that Jesus expected a dramatic supernatural intervention by God in the very near future that would establish the kingdom of God” (254). There is some significant and solid biblical evidence for this. One difficulty in holding this position is that it would mean that Jesus was wrong. Borg argues that even if Jesus believed and preached an imminent eschatology, it was a secondary theme. Borg argues that Jesus’ primary theme would have been a “participatory eschatology.” Jesus called people to participate in the coming of the kingdom. There is solid evidence for this position as well. Borg’s own words are helpful. Does participatory eschatology mean that Jesus thought the kingdom of God, God’s dream, would come about through human political achievement? By no means. I do not imagine that he thought that. It is always God’s kingdom, God’s dream, God’s will. And it involves a deep centering in the God whom Jesus knew. So did he think God would bring in the kingdom without our involvement? I do not imagine this either. Indeed, the choice between “God does it” or “we do it” is a misleading and inappropriate dichotomy. In St. Augustine’s magnificent aphorism, “God without us will not; and we without God cannot.” (260) Whatever “the end” looks like finally, and whenever it may come, the important point is that we are invited to work toward God’s dream for the world, not speculate on “end times signs.”
Apocalyptic: Recall that apocalyptic literature had as its central conviction that God’s deliverance will arrive after a time of intense suffering. That is the most important theme. Beyond the symbolic language and metaphoric timetables, there is a deep conviction of faith “namely, what has begun in Jesus will triumph, despite the tumult and resistance of this world” (Crossan and Borg, The Last Week, 83). Again, it seems a misplacement of energy to spend too much time speculating on the meaning of all the symbols (remember this when we get to “Revelation”). We do better to align our lives with what God was up to in Jesus.
Judgment: I have already quoted this passage once, but it is worth repeating. Granted Jesus used language about a final judgment, did he believe in a last judgment with eternal consequences – that some people would go to hell?... It is possible that Jesus did believe in a final judgment in which some people would go to hell. It is also possible, at least equally so, that the afterlife was not a central concern of Jesus and that he used the language of a final judgment to reinforce the importance of acting compassionately. We can imagine that language working this way: you who believe in a final judgment – what do you think the basis, the criterion will be? His own answers to that question, as reported in the gospels, subvert and undermine widely accepted notions of his time (and perhaps every time). The judgment will not be based on membership in a group, or on beliefs, or on rule keeping, but on deeds of compassion. But whatever Jesus believed about rewards and punishments in a final judgment, his mission and message were much more concerned about life in this world than about our fate beyond death. (Borg, Jesus, 180-181).
Some Additional Thoughts: I have used the work of Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan quite a bit in this blog, and anticipate that I will continue to do so. Another New Testament scholar whose work I find helpful is Walter Wink. Wink’s brilliant, but also densely written book, The Human Being offers some provocative thoughts on eschatology and apocalyptic. Both eschatology and apocalyptic deal with the end of things. “Eschatology” (which means the study of the last things) regards the future as open, undetermined, and capable of being changed if people alter their behavior. The urgency of the great prophets of the Old Testament came from their conviction that catastrophe need not happen, that even a small deviation from the course toward doom might avert it. By contrast, “apocalyptic” (which means “unveiling,” specifically visions of things to come) judges the future to be closed, inevitable, and inescapable…. Eschatology is concerned about the goal of humanity and the world; apocalyptic is consumed with the end of the planet Earth as presently constituted. Prophetic eschatology is ruthlessly realistic, yet incurably hopeful. Apocalyptic has abandoned hope and looks for divine, miraculous intervention. (158-159) From this characterization, Wink obviously holds a bit fonder view of eschatology than apocalyptic. But Wink is a complex thinker. There is a positive role for apocalyptic as well as its better-known negative. The positive power of apocalyptic lies in its capacity to force humanity to face threats of unimaginable proportions in order to galvanize efforts at self- and social transcendences…. The apocalyptic situation dwarfs our human capacity and reduces us to powerlessness. The negative response is passivity and despair; the other response is superhuman effort and assault on the impossible. (159) Was Jesus an apocalyptic thinker and preacher? How does that give light to Mark 13? The evidence seems unambiguous that Jesus had a prophetic sense of eschatology…. Most if not all of Mark 13 consists of layers of speculation about the signs that portend the end of the world. This represents a calcification of Jesus’ vivid expectation of God’s active presence and power in the world…. My hunch is that Jesus is not the author of much in Mark 13 and parallels. (162-163) The truth in the doctrine of the second coming is that Jesus’ work on earth was not finished during his lifetime…. I believe that Jesus perceived the Reign of God to be breaking in already, yet that it was still to come in fullness in God’s own time, and that Jesus rejected the desire for revenge, yet awaited god’s final judgment on sin and oppression. I see this future judgment and consummation, however, not as a historical promise, but as a mythic necessity. Whether it actually happens, it remains a beacon sustaining hope into the darkest future. (164-165)
As we begin to look at Mark 13, let me return to Crossan and Borg. Mark’s gospel thus has an apocalyptic eschatology, a technical phrase that refers to the expectation of a dramatic and decisive divine intervention in the near future, one so public that even nonbelievers will have to agree that it has happened. Whether this kind of eschatology goes back to Jesus himself is a separate question. We do not think that it does…. In our judgment, Mark’s gospel expresses an intensification of apocalyptic expectation triggered by the great war [the Jewish rebellion against Rome, 66-70 CE, which Rome eventually won, destroying Jerusalem, the Temple, and killing great number of Jews]…. From the vantage point of history, Mark’s expectation of the imminent coming of the Son of Man – the return of Jesus – was wrong. To say the obvious, it didn’t happen. But beneath Mark’s timetable, one may perceive a deeper meaning in his apocalyptic conviction. Namely, what has begun in Jesus will triumph, despite the tumult and resistance of this world. (The Last Week, 82-83)
Forgive again another lengthy introduction, but these are important themes to discuss as we read through the New Testament. There are a number of Christians who argue for very different understandings of the end times, the second coming and judgment. They remain part of the family of faith. Sometimes I find their discussions less helpful as I seek to be formed by God’s Spirit. Focusing on “making it in the end” and on the shortcoming of others has less to do with becoming Christ-like than reading the words of the gospels and asking how they speak to me about how I should live. It is o.k. to disagree about eschatology – you don’t have to think like I do on these matters. Nor do you have to think like those who seem to major in “end times prophetic thought” – and that’s the important point. It is more important that we help each other live lives consistent with the love and justice Jesus proclaimed. It is more important to foster hope in our own day and time.
Mark 13:1-4: A disciple is impressed by the grandiosity of the Temple. The largest Temple stone so far discovered is 40 feet long, 10 feet high, and 14 feet wide with an estimated weight of 500 tons. This was an impressive structure. Jesus tells the disciple that all these stones will be thrown down. By the time Mark is writing, the Temple had been destroyed, or soon would be. Some of the stones remain, however (e.g. the Wailing Wall in contemporary Jerusalem. More than a “prediction,” these words are a part of Jesus criticism of what he sees as the inadequacies of the Temple system in his time.
Peter, James, John and Andrew ask Jesus privately when this will happen.
Mark 13:5-8: Jesus begins his response. Verses 5-37 have sometimes been called “the little apocalypse” in contrast to the large apocalyptic work of Revelation. More than enough has already been said about apocalyptic literature. Signs of the coming of the end include: false messiahs and false prophets (a reference to teachers promoting violent revolution? A reference to others who speak in the name of Jesus but do so in ways inconsistent with Jesus’ own work and word?); wars and rumors of wars (unfortunately this seems to be the perpetual condition of humankind); earthquakes and famines. These Jesus calls birth pangs of the end. Notice what a hopeful image this is. Birth pangs are painful, but they are a part of the coming of new life. Mark’s Jesus community (Mark’s church) was caught in the middle of a terrible war. To see it as a birth pang gives one courage to continue forward.
Mark 13:9-13: Again, all that is put into the mouth of Jesus here reflects the situation of the Christians for whom Mark writes. Some have been handed over to councils. Some have been beaten in synagogues. Notice the opposition comes from both the religious and political authorities. These verses are also a foreshadow of what is to happen to Jesus. In the midst of these difficulties the church labors on in its mission to share the good news (verse 10). When one is arrested and put on trial one should not worry beforehand what to say. One is invited to trust God’s Spirit. The betrayal experienced may be betrayal within the family, just as Jesus will be betrayed by one of his “family members,” Judas. Those who “endure to the end will be saved.” When the end arrives, the goal of history, those who have stayed on the Jesus way will be seen to have contributed to the positive goal of God’s dream for the world. The fundamental message is that of hope and courage.
Mark 13:14-23: The “desolating sacrilege” spoken of in verse 14 is a reference to Daniel 9:27 and thus also a probable reference to the actions of the king Antiochus IV Epiphanies in 167 BCE. Antiochus sacrificed a pig on the altar of the Temple. Just how the early Christians understood the use of that image is a bit uncertain, though apparently a sacrifice to the emperor was offered in the Temple during the Roman war, before the Temple was destroyed. These images need not have been speaking to some distant future. They seemed all too real to Mark’s Jesus community. Whatever the specific meaning of the phrase, Mark seems to think his readers will understand (“let the reader understand”). Words of instruction are then given. Here is Crossan and Borg’s view of these. In this setting, these are counsels to get away from the invasion [ my note: this may be an argument to locate Mark’s church in Syria rather than Rome, but Rome had its issues, too] and to make haste – flee quickly! The point is not to become part of the violence, not to join the battle for Jerusalem. The imperatives are consistent with the nonviolence of Jesus and early Christianity. Importantly, it was not nonviolence as a passive withdrawal from the world, not nonviolence as nonresistance to evil, but nonviolence as a way of resisting evil. These early Christians were both anti-imperial and nonviolent. (The Last Week, 81). Be alert and pay attention to what Jesus has already taught. In all these verses we are encouraged to keep on the way of Jesus even when it is difficult.
Mark 13:24-27: After the suffering come cosmic signs that the world is going to be changing. The imagery used here has many antecedents in the Hebrew Scriptures. The Son of Man language comes from Daniel. “The point of such imagery is that at the end of history the One we meet is not different from the God we have already met in Jesus of Nazareth” (The People’s New Testament Commentary). Once again the overall message is one of hope and encouragement in very difficult times.
Mark 13:28-31: Just as one can judge the seasons by looking at the trees, so when one sees some of these “signs” one knows that the fulfillment of God’s dream for the world is at hand. Mark seems to have expected it within the lifetime of his readers, an expectation that was not fulfilled. The more important lesson, though, is that the message of Jesus about God’s kingdom, God’s dream for the world, stay true. Living in accord with that message is the way of life. It is to live with the grain of the universe.
Mark 13:32-37: Mark does give himself a little wiggle room. Finally, no one knows when all this may take place. We are encouraged to keep alert, keep awake. I don’t think this means we keep watching for signs. Too many Christians spend too much time on such efforts. I think it means we tend to our faith and life, that we seek to love as Jesus loved, that we seek justice and peace, that we foster forgiveness and reconciliation. Let’s do these things and let the end of the world take care of itself (better, let’s do these things and trust God with where it all ends).