Signs of the End (preaching resource for Advent 1, December 3, 2023)
This post exegetes Mark 13:1-37 to provide context for the RCL Gospel reading for 12/3/2023 (the first Sunday of Advent). It draws on commentary from Alan Cole ("New Bible Commentary") and John Grassmick ("Bible Knowledge Commentary").
|"Titus Destroying Jerusalem" by Kaulbach (public domain via Wikimedia Commons)|
In Mark 13:1-37, the evangelist recounts the warning that Jesus gave his inner circle concerning the judgment about to come upon the people of Jerusalem and Judea due to their rejection of Jesus and his Kingdom. This judgment will be a time of testing for Jesus’ inner circle of disciples.
The subject is introduced by the prophecy of judgment on the temple (Mark 13:2). Jesus’ disciples probably believe that destruction of the temple means the end of the age, and thus they are anxious know the signs (Mark 13:3-4). But Jesus’ answer essentially avoids the issue of timing, though in Mark 13:3 he tells them that these terrible things will occur before their generation is gone. Jesus’ primary message is quite simple, yet profound: Be watchful! (Mark 13:5). They are to watch out especially for plausible deceivers. Moreover, they are not to be alarmed by terrible circumstances. Of course, both issues would be of great relevance to Mark’s original readers who resided in Rome, home of several early heresies, and disturbed around the time of the writing of Mark’s gospel by the ‘year of the four emperors’ (AD 68), with several contenders fighting for the crown.
Jesus' main point
Jesus’ point to his disciples at this critical juncture with judgment about to come on Jerusalem and Judea is that persecution on them is unavoidable. But rather than fearing it and fleeing, his disciples are to use it as an opportunity to witness to Christ with words the Holy Spirit will give them. Jesus’ related prediction (that takes the form of command), that the gospel must first be proclaimed to all the nations (Mark 13:10) is essentially Mark’s version of the ‘great commission’ in Matthew 28:19-20. No doubt Mark had seen obedience to this command in the ministry of Paul and the other apostles before he wrote this gospel.
The terrible, earth-shattering effects of this soon-coming judgment includes the breakdown under stress of the closest natural ties (Mark 13:12). This breakdown is the opposite of how Jesus' true ‘family’ (Mark 3:34-35) is to relate to one another, despite times of hardship. Indeed, many of Jesus’ followers will be hated by their own kin for loyalty to the Lord (Mark 13:13a). Yet there is a promise: faithful endurance to the end will mean salvation (Mark 13:13b), even if not safety in this world. Jesus’ point is not that one’s loyalty earns salvation (which is a gift of grace apart from personal merit), but that by persevering loyally through even the most challenging times, Jesus’ followers will experience the reality of Jesus’ love and life (their salvation) both now, and then in its fullness in the life to come.
Jesus’ disciples ask ‘When?’ In carefully veiled language, Jesus answers by hinting that these events will come upon Jerusalem and Judea when the idolatrous Roman army standards would be planted triumphantly in the temple at Jerusalem. Mark dare not report this openly (in Rome of all places) especially as, from the language, it does not yet seem to have taken place at the date of the writing of this Gospel. But the little addition in Mark 13:14 shows that he expects his readers to understand. Jesus here uses language from the book of Daniel, telling in the first place of the desecration of the temple by the persecutor Antiochus Epiphanes in the second century BC. The abomination in that case was an idol, set up in the temple itself, thus defiling it. The following verses seem to describe the terrible suffering in the first Jewish wars, when Roman armies invaded Palestine. This took place only a generation after the death of Christ, and the Jewish Christian church would have shared in the general suffering. Tradition says that the Christians fled to Pella in Transjordan, taking Jesus’ warning to heart (Mark 13:14b).
One of Jesus’ most urgent warnings to his disciples at that time (and it certainly applies today) is the need for Jesus' followers to avoid false Messiahs and prophets (Mark 13:22). One of the tactics of these deceivers is to use signs and miracles, which can be very impressive and hoodwink the gullible. Perhaps this is why, Jesus performed miracles only sparingly.
Everything Jesus predicts up through Mark 13:23 can be fitted into the time around AD 70, with Roman armies ravaging Palestine and emperors fighting for the throne. Mark’s readers would have recognized the references, even if some are not clear to us now. However, there seems to be a shift in perspective in Mark 13:24-27. Some see these verses as referring to what will happen at the very end of the age when Jesus returns from heaven bodily. However, others see this as continuing to address what occurred historically in the Mediterranean region (Roman Empire) during the life of these original disciples. Either way, the Bible uses the imagery of sun, moon and stars to refer to earthly powers. Thus the point here is that governments will fall, not heavenly bodies. And when that is occurring, the Son of Man will come in glory to gather his chosen ones (Mark 13:26–27). The ends of the earth is drawn from the imagery of Daniel 7, but the phrase may contain a hint of the Gentile mission. It cannot simply be a reference to the gathering in of faithful Jews from all over the world.
In deciding on the timing of these things, note that these things seem to be included in Jesus’ statement in Mark 13:30 that, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened. “This generation” is most likely the life-span of Jesus’ first followers. And so, attempts to relate Jesus’ predictions in Mark 13:24-27 to events in our era (such as the founding of the Jewish state in Palestine in 1948) seem unjustifiable. However, it is clear that Jesus is looking forward to predict continuing and escalating trouble in the world, which will mean persecution of his followers, but also it includes the promise of ultimate deliverance, and thus hope.
The Little Apocalypse
Just as the book of Revelation is often called ‘the Apocalypse’ (which means ‘unveiling’), so this chapter in Mark is often called ‘the little Apocalypse,’ as Jesus here unveils truth about himself and about forthcoming events. In considering how to understand what Jesus is saying, three things should be borne in mind.
- First, that open language was impossible in that time of political danger (and thus Mark writes to his audience in Rome in code language).
- Secondly, that this code language is intended to reveal, not mystify.
- Thirdly, the main point is to urge the followers of Jesus to be faithful, not to enable them to predict the future and set dates (Mark 13:35-37). This is shown by the fact that not even the Son (this is another place where Jesus claims a unique relationship to God) knows the date of these things (Mark 13:32). But this we do know (because Jesus promises it): In the shaking of all else, the words of Jesus remain unshaken (Mark 13:31)—a saying used in the Old Testament for the words of God himself. And so, prophecies (like this one) are ultimately about revealing Jesus and his kingdom.
And so ends a subsection in the Gospel of Mark addressing the topic of judgment, which results from how people respond to Jesus once they see him clearly. In the first century, when Jesus was revealed, he was rejected and crucified—bringing calamity to the world. But as Jesus predicted, his death was not the end of the story. No, he rose from the dead, ascended to heaven from where, together with the Father, he sent the Holy Spirit to begin a ministry of further revelation that is impacting (as Jesus predicted) the whole world. And one day (we don’t know when), he will return bodily, in glory, to usher in the fullness of his Kingdom, which now is present on earth and growing.
Our calling is not to be fixated on speculations; not to be overly-worried about world events; and certainly not to pull back into a cave of fearfulness. No, our calling is to do what Jesus told his original followers to do: share with others what we know of this Jesus and his Kingdom—this is the gospel, and it is truth that delivers and transforms. Let’s, with Jesus, by the Spirit, be about our Father’s business!