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We last visited Mark 13 on the 1st Sunday in Advent B (vv. 24-37). I suggested that this chapter may be a good place to understand the setting and problems that led to the writing of Mark.
Up until the writing of Mark, it was good enough to just tell the stories related to Jesus. Something in the historical setting created a need for a written account of the "good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God" (Mk 1:1).
The possible circumstances from ch. 13 that led to this writing might be:
There were those coming in Jesus' name, claiming to be Jesus and leading believers astray (vv. 6, 21-22) -- with these pretenders, a written, permanent account of Jesus was needed to preserve what was true about him.
Believers were being persecuted (even by family members) and arrested (vv. 9-13). As many of the original disciples of Jesus were being martyred, the loss of these eye-witness "authorities" created the need for another, reliable "authority," such as a written account.
The "desolating sacrilege" (an image of the emperor in the temple?) was present -- but it doesn't seem as though the temple was destroyed (v. 14) -- thus a dating usually shortly before the destruction of the temple in 70.
Perhaps many of the false prophets were claiming that the end had arrived or knowing when it would arrive, but Jesus counsels that the believers are living not in the end times, but in the beginnings of the birth pangs (v. 8) and that no one -- not even Jesus -- knows when the end will come (v. 32).
More specifically, Ched Myers (Binding the Strong Man: A Political Reading of Mark's Story of Jesus) agrees with most commentators that Mark was written during the Jewish revolt against Rome, but he goes and suggests that Mark is encouraging his community not to participate in the rebels' revolt. The "false prophets" are those zealots who claim that their victory over Rome will usher in the new age. For "Mark," the war is not a sign of the end, but only of the beginning. Myers writes concerning the opening of ch. 13:
The fact that the parties of the revolt are never mentioned by name in the Gospel may indicate that Mark felt deeply sympathetic to their protest against the social, political, and economic oppression of the Romans. On the other hand, the fact that Mark feels a need to reject the claims of the rebel recruiters suggests that members of Mark's community may well have already been drafted into the liberation war, or were sorely tempted to join. Who could resist the pull of patriotism, or the lure of the hope that here at last was the long-deferred prophetic promise of that final battle in which Yahweh would vindicate Israel? In such a moment, there was only one voice that could match the persuasive call of the rebel recruiters: Jesus the living teacher. So to this Jesus the disciples turn in a direct plea for clarity on the meaning of the historical moment. [p. 330]
The return of the "Son of Man" has a slightly different nuance in Mark than in Matthew or Luke. Mark ends with the absence of Jesus -- an empty tomb and the angel's words of promise to the women, but the women tell no one (16:1-8). There are no resurrection appearances recorded in Mark. In Mark the disciples are without Jesus from his death until he would come again. (Would that be his meeting them in Galilee as the angel promised?). There is no promise from Jesus that he would be with the disciples until the end of the age as in Matthew (28:20, see also 18:20). There is no promise from Jesus of a power/Spirit that will come upon the disciples as in Luke (24:49 and Acts 1:4-5, 8).
Mark 13 is frequently called "The Little Apocalypse." Juel [Mark, Augsburg Commentaries] disagrees with that description.
While Jesus' discourse makes use of some conventional imagery (the "sacrilege that makes desolate" and the vision of the Son of man coming with the clouds, both from Daniel), neither his brief discourse nor Mark's Gospel can be termed apocalypses. Few of the standard conventions of apocalyptic literature are present, the cosmic imagery makes up only a small portion of warnings about what is to come; the seer is not some hero of the past who is told at the conclusion to seal the prophecy until some future date; and, most importantly, the glimpse into the future does not conclude Mark's Gospel but introduces the account of Jesus' trial and death. Overall, the title "Little Apocalypse" is probably more misleading than helpful. [p. 174]
Perkins [Mark, New Interpreter's Bible] agrees:
Although Mark 13 is often referred to as an apocalypse, it does not follow the usual pattern of apocalypses, in which symbolic visions are interpreted by a heavenly revealer.... The chapter follows a literary pattern that Mark has used frequently in the Gospel. Jesus makes a public statement (v. 2), the disciples question him privately (vv. 3-4). [p. 687]
In contrast, Williamson [Mark, Interpretation Commentaries]:
Mark 13 displays several characteristics of apocalyptic thought: a deterministic and pessimistic view of history, anticipation of the end of the world in some great and imminent crisis, a dualistic understanding of human existence, and visions of cosmic upheaval. The symbolism of the chapter is largely drawn from apocalyptic passages in the Old Testament and related literature, particularly from the Book of Daniel which is quoted verbatim three times (vv. 14, 19, 26). Mark 13 is closely related to and may in part underlie or parallel 2 Thess. 2 and several passages in Revelation. It must be understood in the context of the apocalyptic literature of the Old and New Testament and of the apocalyptic movement in Judaism and Christianity which gave birth to these writings. [p. 236]
I present the following brief and very simplistic purposes of prophetic, wisdom, and apocalyptic genres.
Present time is one of suffering
Why? The people have sinned.
Future may be a time of blessing if the people repent.
Present time may be one of blessing or suffering
Why? Cause and effect system:
Blessed if righteous -- suffer if unrighteous
Future depends on continued righteousness or unrighteousness
Present time is one of suffering
Why? The people are faithful in the midst of an evil world
Future: rewards for the patient and faithful righteous, and suffering for the unrighteous will eventually happen (usually in a different or recreated world)
In this simplified definition, I think that Mark 13 is apocalyptic. The present time was one of suffering -- for Jesus, for the disciples, and for Mark's readers. Mack [A Myth of Innocence] gives this description of the times:
The story Josephus tells of the sixties is one of famine, social unrest, institutional deterioration, bitter internal conflicts, class warfare, banditry, insurrections, intrigues, betrayals, bloodshed, and the scattering of Judeans throughout Palestine.... During the years of siege (66-70 C.E.), stories spread of popular messiahs, prophets crying out woes on the city and temple, mock trials, and crowds creating tumults at the times of pilgrimage. There were wars and rumors of wars for the better part of ten years and Josephus reports portents, including a brilliant daylight in the middle of the night....
Jesus' apocalyptic instruction follows this history closely, with one exception. Tucked into the middle of it there is mention of expulsions from the synagogue. These also, according to Mark's Jesus, belong to the signs of the woes that will take place before the coming of the Son of Man with power. If one reads Jesus' apocalyptic predictions in light of the histories actually experienced by Mark's community, one can imagine its effectiveness as a powerful rationalization of catastrophe.... [pp. 315-6]
In addition, the purpose of apocalyptic literature is not to foretell the future, but to encourage faithfulness and patience in the present time. This is precisely what Edwards (The Gospel according to Mark) states Mark 13 is about: "The premium of discipleship is placed not on predicting the future but on faithfulness in the present, especially in trials, adversity, and suffering" (p. 386, emphasis in original). Thus, while this chapter lacks many elements of apocalyptic literature, its message is same.
How does one preach apocalyptic literature to people who are not suffering? This type of literature was written during periods of great persecution and suffering to encourage the believers to remain faithful through the ordeal. Can it speak to our comfortable people today?
Although the assigned lesson includes vv. 1-8, many commentaries, the older Lutheran lectionary, and these notes, will extend the study through v. 13.
The disciple's comment about the greatness (or size) of the temple is quite ironic, since it comes right after Jesus praises a widow who gave the smallest of coins to the temple (12:41-44). What is great and what is small in God's kingdom are probably not the same as in our kingdom.
There is also be the suggestion that within Mark's context, the injustice of the scribes and temple which "devour widow's house" and takes everything they have to live on will be destroyed when divine justice is revealed.
There are two common words translated "temple" in the NT. The one used here, hieron can refer to the "temple" itself or the larger temple area. Note the plural "buildings" in vv. 1 & 2. All the uses of this word are found in ch. 11-14.
11:11 -- Jesus enters the temple looks around a leaves
11:15-16 -- Jesus enters and "cleanses" the temple
11:27 -- Jesus is walking in the temple and is asked many questions
12:35 -- Jesus is still in the temple, but he asks a question
13:1 -- Jesus leaves the temple
13:3 -- Jesus and his disciples move "opposite the temple"
14:49 -- Day after day Jesus was teaching in the temple
The other word is naos, which can refer to the "temple" itself or only the "inner sanctuary" -- the place where God dwells in the Jewish Temple. It is interesting to me that this is the word used when Jesus is accused of wanting to destroy the "temple" and rebuild it in three days (14:58; 15:29). It is the word used about the curtain in the "temple" (15:38).
It might be saying more than these words imply, but I think that they suggest that while a building may be destroyed, the place where God dwells is not destroyed. Or, to carry this further, how many congregations are more concerned about their "building" than "the place where God dwells"? "The place where God dwells" that was built in three days is the resurrected Jesus. What if our council meetings spent more time talking about Jesus and his presence in Word and Sacrament as they do about building maintenance?
In these verses, we also have the first of numerous occurrences of words meaning "see" in this chapter:
ide / eidon / horao (all forms of the same root) = "look," "see" (vv. 1, 14, 21, 26, 29)
blepo = "to see," "watch," "be alert," "beware" (vv. 2, 5, 9, 23, 33)
What one "sees" is a theme throughout this chapter. What one "sees" may be temporary, false, or real. It may be based on Jesus' word or something else.
NOTE: when the temple was destroyed in 70, it was burned, not thrown down stone by stone.
Perhaps the separation of Jesus and his disciples from the temple can also symbolize that the "place where God dwells" is now in Jesus and his word rather than in the building.
The disciples ask two questions:
Jesus doesn't know the answer to the first question (v. 32).
The signs are numerous -- and, in my opinion, they have always been with us.
The false messiahs claim to be Jesus, but "lead people astray" (planaomai). The literal meaning of this word is "to wander off the path" = "to go astray," "to be wrong." This verb occurs 4 times in Mark, in both of these verses and in 12:24, 27 where Jesus tells the Sadducees that they are wrong (= are lead astray) because they don't know scriptures nor the power of the (living) God.
What is the "wrong path"? Given the context of these verses, I think it is the claim that the end has come. Paul addresses this problem in 2 Thessalonians 2:1-3:
As to the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our being gathered together to him, we beg you, brothers and sisters, not to be quickly shaken in mind or alarmed, either by spirit or by word or by letter, as though from us, to the effect that the day of the Lord is already here. Let no one deceive you in any way; for that day will not come unless the rebellion comes first and the lawless one is revealed, the one destined for destruction [NRSV].
Apparently there were some in the Thessalonian church who felt that the end had come and that they no longer had to work (for the common good?) It is in this letter where Paul gives this command: "Anyone unwilling to work should not eat" (3:10b). We need to live our lives expecting the end at any time, but to believe that the end has already come is "going astray".
While the Sadducees, like many people since them, may not have claimed to be the Messiah, their beliefs and what they taught others was wrong. They were leading people astray. This sign has always been with us.
I think that a more common "wrong" view in our day is an understanding that there is no end. Rather than living our lives today guided by the future Jesus has promised, we are guided by today or the past, e.g., "This is the way we've always done it." Congregations (and individuals?) should be pulled ahead by a vision of the future rather than be pushed by the past -- or worse, seeking to return to the past that no longer exists.
I began this section with the word planaomai. For someone to "wander off the path," they need to be on a path. They need to be going somewhere -- being pulled ahead by a vision of the future. The proper path is leading to that future.
These verses suggest that threats to discipleship are not only external dangers, as the next verses indicate, but also from those that are inside the household of faith -- but who have distorted it.
I don't know if there has been a time in human history when there weren't wars and rumors of wars; nations rising against nations; kingdoms against kingdoms; earthquakes and famine.
R. T. France (The Gospel of Mark) relates events that the readers of Mark would have experienced or known about:
The years between Tiberius and Nero were relatively peaceful in the roman empire as a whole, but an inhabitant of Palestine might have heard, for instance, of the wars in Parthia in A.D. 36 and sporadically thereafter, or the war between Antipas and the Nabtaean king Aretas, in which Rome also became involved in A.D. 36-37, long before Judaea itself was engulfed in war, not to mention the series of local uprisings which were ruthless put down by the Romans in the years before the war. ...
First-century earthquakes might include one experienced at Jerusalem in A.D. 67 (Josephus, War 4.286-87; cf. 1. 370 for an earlier severe earthquake in Palestine), and further afield Acts 16:26 mentions an earthquake in Philippi, while news of the partial destruction of Pompeii by an earthquake in A.D. 62 or of a major earthquake in Asia Minor in A.D. 61 would probably have reached Palestine. There was a major famine in the reign of Cladius, c. A.D. 46 (Acts 11:28; Josephus, Ant. 3.320; 20.101; Schürer, 1.457 n. 8). (pp. 511-512)
V. 8 recalls Isaiah 19:2 & 2 Chronicles 15:6. This sign has always been with us. They are signs that the end is coming, but they are not the end. They are the beginning of birth pangs.
Besides the parallel passage in Mt 24:8, the image of "birth pangs" and the coming of Jesus is used by Paul in 1 Thess 5:3. He emphasizes the surprise and suddenness of the coming. When our children were conceived, we knew that labor pains would be coming and a birth to follow. We didn't know exactly when it would happen or how long the labor would last, or how we would cope with that suffering -- and the new creation it produced. We knew it was coming. We waited expectedly and excitedly for it. We also had some fear and trembling wondering what kind of parents we would be. (27 years later we are still wondering <g>.)
The promise given with the birth image is that there will be an end to the suffering -- but it has been very, very long labor.
In v. 5, Jesus told the disciples to "Watch out" for those who would mislead them. Now he tells them to "Watch out" for themselves. What is it that they have to watch out for? I think that it is the testimony that they will give when they are arrested and beaten. What kind of testimony/witness (martyrion) will they give when they are arrested and beaten and stand before governing authorities?
While waiting, believers are not to be passive, but it is a time of proclamation and persecution. Will they "proclaim the good news" or some other message?
Edwards writes: "The point is to rid believers of utopian fantasies and remind them that adversity and persecution are not aberrations of the Christian life but rather the norm" (p. 393, emphasis in original). Isn't that an exciting thought? But during those early years of persecution, the church continued to grow. Christianity is neither persecuted nor growing in America. Could that be significant?
It is necessary (dei) to proclaim the good news to all nations first. Just as "it is necessary" for the Son of man to undergo great suffering, etc. (8:31); and that there be wars and rumors of wars (13:7). These other "musts" have happened and are happening. It is just as important that the good news be preached to all nations.
Who does the preaching? It is a passive verb: the good news is preached. Who does it? In the Mark, this verb (kerysso) is used of:
John the baptist's preaching (1:4, 7)
Jesus' preaching (1:14, 38, 39)
The apostles' preaching (3:14; 6:12)
The "preaching" of people who had been healed (1:45; 5:20; 7:36)
In our context, the preachers are those who have been arrested and who are being punished because of Jesus.
Perkins [Mark, The New Interpreter's Bible] says about those who are arrested:
Since the accused were not allowed to hire lawyers to speak for them, their fate depended on whatever eloquence an individual possessed. Only the wealthy and privileged were educated in rhetoric. Thus most of Jesus' followers would not have had such training. They must defend their preaching before a hostile judge, who would be likely to look down on such uneducated speech. They need to be assured that the Holy Spirit will assist in the defense. [p. 688]
Jesus gives a word of hope: "The Holy Spirit will provide the words to use in court." Their trials will help to further the spread of the gospel. The delay in the Son of Man's return gives time to further spread the gospel. It is not the Christian's responsibility to try and figure out when the end will come or even be too concerned about the signs and suffering before the end. Our concern is to give testimony to the gospel.
There have been times in conversations where the thoughts and words came from places I didn't know existed in my brain -- and I'm certain that the Holy Spirit was speaking through me. There have also been times when all the wrong words came out -- and I'm certain that I was left on my own. The Spirit is not a power we control.
It may be that the followers of Jesus in Mark's day were experiencing the hatred by all. Certainly Jesus was betrayed by "a brother" and suffered at the hands of the authorities; but his death, especially in Mark, was a witness -- "Truly this was the Son of God" (15:39).
What keeps the gospel from being proclaimed to all nations today? What keeps us from proclaiming it in our neighborhoods today? What possible sufferings might we have to endure if we take seriously Jesus' command that the gospel MUST be proclaimed to all nations? Are we really all that concerned about whether or not Jesus returns? Perhaps because most of our lives now are pretty good, the vision of a new world is not that pressing on our lives.
The last line of our text is an apocalyptic charge: "The one who endures to the end will be saved."
The word translated "endure" is hypomeno, which means "to hold one's ground," "to stay where one's at," "to stay behind." It seems to imply "keeping one's position in spite of pressures to move away from that position." Keeping the faith when there is no opposition to that faith doesn't require "endurance". The noun form hypomene occurs seven times in Revelation -- more than any other NT book.
What does one have to endure? Given the context it would seem to be the hatred of society and the possibility of persecution and punishment. Such things would seek to move believers away from their trust in God.
What does it mean "to be saved"? Usually in Mark, sozo refers to healing (3:4; 5:23, 28, 34; 6:56; 10:52). Jesus is not willing to save himself from death on the cross (15:30, 31). The disciples ask, "Who can be saved if not the rich?" (10:52).
The word is used in 13:20 where it means "to be saved" (NRSV) or "survive" (NIV) the worst suffering that has come to earth. The only way the elect can be saved / survive is because God cuts short those days.
Perhaps the verses that most closely relate to "being saved" in our text are 8:35-38:
For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? Indeed, what can they give in return for their life? Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels [NRSV].
These sayings relate being saved and speaking out Jesus' words (the gospel) in the adulterous and sinful generation, with a reference to the return of the Son of Man. Being "saved" doesn't mean avoiding the hatred or persecution or pain of this world. It is a future tense event.
I suggested in a sermon that a theme from apocalyptic literature is "Everything will be all right." That was true for the persecuted people during the time of apocalyptic writings. They were told that everything will be all right. God will win in the end. The faithful will be redeemed. God is in control.
How often do parents say that to their children, "Everything will be all right"? A child falls and leaves some skin on the ground. "Everything will be all right," we say to the sobbing child. We tell the bed-ridden grandparent in the hospital, "Everything will be all right," even when we know that it might not be all right.
Just because we proclaim that everything will be all right, that doesn't mean that we do nothing. When children have fallen down and blood is all over the place, parents don't just say, "Everything will be all right." There may be a fast trip to the emergency room. There may be bandages and antibiotics applied from the medicine cabinet. Parents do all that's in their power to make sure everything will be all right for their suffering children.
"Will there be life on this planet in another hundred or thousand years?"
"Everything will be all right," says the One who created the planet.
"How can I make ends meet, when more bills are coming in than income?"
"Everything will be all right," is God's promise.
"I'm having surgery tomorrow and I'm scared."
"Everything will be all right."
"The tests for cancer came back positive."
"Everything will be all right."
"My brother was just sent to a war zone."
"Everything will be all right."
"My mother just died."
"Everything will be all right."
Is this a proper way of using the hope presented in apocalyptic literature? Is this a proper way of understanding salvation -- everything will be all right? And then we do everything in our power to try to make things turn out all right?
I'm certain that some of the people who heard Jesus say, "Endure to the end and you will be saved," were persecuted and put to death. However, even in death, we believe that "everything will be all right."
I often struggle with what to express to a patient in the hospital or to the family. When does "Everything will be all right" need to indicate a healing and restoration to wholeness in this life? When does "Everything will be all right" need to indicate the resurrected, eternal life beyond death? Either way, our lives are in God's hands.
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