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A new church year begins and it is time to become reacquainted with the Gospel of Mark. Whenever I've taught a class on a book of the Bible, I encourage the students read through the entire book in one sitting. I think that it's important to see the "whole" picture before "cutting out" (a fairly literal meaning of "pericope") small sections from the whole.
Mark 13 may be a good place to introduce our people to this gospel. It is assumed that it gives the best clues for discerning the situation that produced this gospel. Prior to any written gospel, it was good enough to just tell stories related to Jesus. Something in the historical setting created a need to create a written account of the "good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God" (Mk 1:1).
The circumstances in 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 Jesus.
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 eyewitness "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 (66-70 AD), but, in addition, that Mark is encouraging his community not to participate in the rebel's 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 Gospel lessons for the First Sunday in Advent in years A, B and C, all center on the return of Christ. This Return 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 are unuttered by the women (16:1-8). In Mark the disciples are without Jesus from his death until he returns. In both Matthew and Luke, written 20 or so years after Mark, there is a divine presence that remains after the death and resurrection. Matthew ends with Jesus promising to be with his disciples always (28:20). Luke ends with Jesus promising to send the power/Spirit upon his disciples (24:49 and Acts 1:4-5, 8).
In addition, the message at the end of Mark is to go (and wait?) in Galilee where the risen Jesus will come to them. In Matthew, while the promise is also given that the disciples would see Jesus in Galilee, the story continues, and they see him, and they are commissioned to "go and make disciples of all nations" (28:19). They have a job to do while waiting for the return. Similarly, in Luke, after receiving the power of the Spirit, the disciples are to be witness (24:48). Mark seems to emphasize one return – the risen Christ who will meet them in Galilee.
Most of these cosmic events come from different OT passages. I take the approach that such phenomena have always been with us: Solar and lunar eclipses, falling stars, booming thunder, etc. The time to prepare for the end has always been in the present time. I note that near the end of our lesson (vv. 33 & 35), the imperatives: "beware" (blepete), "keep alert" (agrypneite), and "keep awake" (grygoreite) are present tense.
The image in v. 26 comes from Daniel. NRSV translates Dan 7:13b: "As I watched in the night visions, I saw one like a human being [footnote: Aram. "one like a son of man"] coming with the clouds of heaven.
The contrast is made in Daniel between the "beastly" kingdoms and rulers who had dominated Israel, and the vision of a "humane" kingdom and ruler that God would send. Given the tribulations of Mark's readers, their apocalyptic hope was like that of Daniel's readers:
(1) Their suffering is a result of their faithfulness (in contrast to the prophetic writings where suffering comes as the result of the people's sinfulness).
(2) The time will come when their faithfulness will be rewarded and their persecutors will be punished and destroyed.
However, the time for that to happen is not through the present war with Rome, but only when the Son of Man returns.
A "fig tree" and "leaves" also occurs in Mark 11:13. However, the leaves on this fig tree did not indicate what Jesus was expecting -- namely, figs. He curses the tree. It withers and dies. This might be a strong encouragement to produce the proper fruit.
As I said earlier, I think that every generation has been able to see "these things happening," so we are to "continue to know" (ginosko in the present tense) that he [or it] is near -- at the door."
eggys is an adverb not an adjective. It can mean "near" in terms of space or time. Comments about this phrase from R.T. France (The Gospel of Mark, NIGTC):
The phrase means 'he/she/it is near', leaving the identification of the 'he/she/it' to be determined by the context. And here the context leaves little room for doubt. The disciples had asked when the temple would be destroyed and how they would know the time. Jesus' reply, with the focus shifting emphatically back to the disciples again (kai hymeis ... ginoskete [= "and you ... are knowing"], now homes in directly on the latter part of their question: this is how you will know that it (the destruction of the temple, the subject of your question and of the whole discourse so far) is near; this is the semeion [= sign] you asked for. [p. 538]
Even if we understand the subject to be "The Son of Man," eggys is ambiguous as to whether he is close by (“near” in terms of space), or the time of his coming will be soon (“near” in terms of time).
The Greek word for "door" ("gates" in NRSV) is thyra forms an alliteration with the word for "summer," theros. The phrase "at the doors" (NRSV = "at the very gates") is an idiom meaning, "soon" or "very soon".
Myers (Binding the Strong Man) offers this interpretation of the fig tree:
The "when you see" of the "desecrating sacrilege" is here correlated to the "when you see" of 11:29. The circle of inferences is complete: the reader must once and for all learn the lesson of the fig tree. Which was: the world of the temple-based social order must come to an end (11:20-26) in order for the new order to dawn. Which is precisely the opposite of what the rebel recruiters are saying. [p. 345]
In Myers interpretation, the rebels' proclamation and attempts to preserve the temple -- or we might say -- preserve the status quo -- is exactly what has to be destroyed in order for the new to have its entrance.
I had always been troubled by these verses. Hundreds of generations have passed away and Jesus has not yet returned. Some maintain that Jesus made a mistake, but Jesus also indicates that he has no idea when the end will come.
I'm certain that the first generation Christians expected Jesus' return in their lifetimes. Paul did (1Th 4:15). This expectation, as I suggested above, would have been even more important to Mark's readers, for this narrative ends with Jesus being absent – there is only a promise that they will see him back in Galilee.
France (The Gospel of Mark, NIGTC) argues that Jesus' words need to be taken "at their face value as a prediction of the destruction of the temple within that generation" (p. 539). Note that he argues that what was near in the preceding verse is the destruction of the temple. Both vv. 29 & 30 talk about "these things" (tauta) without really specifying what they are.
In contrast to France, another approach to these verses is to note that every other time that Jesus uses the word "generation" (genea) in Mark, it refers to "unbelieving, adulterous and sinful people" (8:12, 38; 9:19). So, it could be that Jesus is saying that we will never be rid of unbelieving, adulterous and sinful people until that day when Jesus brings in the new heaven and new earth. No matter how hard we try to convert all the peoples of the world -- and that is part of our calling while waiting -- there will always be those people who will not believe -- people whose lives bring pain and destruction to others.
Perhaps similarly, there may be no hope of living in a world this side of the Parousia where there will not be wars and rumors of wars; nations rising up against nations; earthquakes and famines (13:7-8).
V. 31 leads me to think that those who are so concerned about this earth, e.g., the pollution problem; or fantasizing about the glorious in heaven without having their life centered in the Word, are dreaming about temporary things.
There is a person I know who is great at arguing against using paper and plastic products or the wrong kinds of soap, etc. in order to protect our environment (and I think such concerns are good), but she doesn't come to any Bible Studies. She doesn't attend adult Sunday school classes. It would seem that she is making some important secondary concerns primary, rather than centering on the one thing that will last.
Although I've mentioned a couple times earlier about the absence of Jesus after his death in Mark, here we have the promise that his Word will not pass away. I also stated earlier, that what we have at the end of Mark is Jesus’ promise. The disciples, and Peter, will see him again in Galilee.
Perhaps in the first century, as in ours, there were people claiming to know when Jesus was going to return. It wouldn't be the first (nor the last) time that humans sought to know more than God wants them to know.
A true story: There was a small group in a town where I served who had a date when they were convinced that Jesus would return (and save them). A man, who, among other things, sold used cars, approached one of the men from this group and said something like, "If you are certain that Christ is coming on such and such date, why don't you just deed your property over to me effective the day after that date since you know that I won't be here?" He wouldn't do it.
A story that isn't quite true:
A young girl asked her Sunday school teacher, "What's a lert?"
"A what?" the teacher asked.
"A lert?" she said again.
"Why do you want to know?" asked the bewildered teacher.
"Because the pastor said that we should 'be alert,' so I want to know what a lert is, so I can be one?"
Jesus uses three different words of command in these verses: "Beware" (blepo); "Keep alert" (agrypneo); "keep awake" (gregoreo). All these are present imperatives, which imply continual action.
V. 33 is the only use of agrypneo in Mark. Literally it means, "to keep oneself awake."
blepo occurs 15 times in Mark with 5 of those in ch. 13. It can simply mean "to see" or "to look at," as it does in 13:2 "Do you see these great buildings?" It can mean, "to watch out for," "to beware of," which implies "seeing" the potential dangers and being prepared to respond appropriately.
Then Jesus began to say to them, "Beware that no one leads you astray. Many will come in my name and say, 'I am he!' and they will lead many astray. (13:5-6)
As for yourselves, beware; for they will hand you over to councils; and you will be beaten in synagogues; and you will stand before governors and kings because of me, as a testimony to them. (13:9)
But be alert; I have already told you everything. (13:23)
When Jesus says "Beware" or "Watch out for" in our text, I don't think that he is telling us to watch for his return. I think that he is telling us to "watch out" for the unbelieving, adulterous and sinful generation that seeks to deceive us into not following God's right way.
From a past sermon:
"Everybody else is doing it," children often tell their parents. Even parents can feel the pressure to keep up with the Joneses -- whoever the Joneses are. "Everybody else may be wrong," is Jesus' message in Mark 13. "Watch out for them!"
Watch out for those students who think cheating is the normal way to get good grades. Watch out for those teenagers who think that drinking and drugs and sex are the only ways to have a good time and to enjoy life. Watch out for those adults whose jokes and language betray disrespect for other people and God. Watch out for the worldly attitude being concerned only about me and what is mine. Watch out! Be on guard! Be alert! It is an unbelieving, sinful society that we live in. You know how easy it is to get sucked into and become part of that worldly way of thinking and acting. Watch out for them. Don't be deceived by the world's empty promises. Remember: it is only Jesus' words that will last past the last days.
gregoreo occurs six times in Mark, three times in ch. 13 (vv. 34, 35, 37) and three times in ch. 14 (vv. 34, 37, 38). In our text, Jesus is telling us to "stay awake" or "be watchful." He gives the same command to his disciples in the Garden of Gethsemane. However, the disciples fall asleep. Jesus wakes them and asks, "Couldn't you stay awake for one hour?" The answer, "No, they couldn't." Even after Jesus tells them, "Keep awake and pray that you may not come into the time of trial," they fall asleep two more times. It is while they are asleep that people of the sinful generation come and arrest Jesus. If the disciples can't stay awake for a short time in the garden, how will we "stay awake" for the rest of our lives? We will not always be aware of the dangers around us. We will get sucked into the ideas and manners of the sinful and destructive generation.
Myers (Binding the Strong Man) makes Gethsemane the world of Mark's disciples:
The discipleship community is exhorted to embrace the world as Gethsemane: to stay awake in the darkness of history, to refuse to compromise the politics of the cross. The revolution of means as well as ends, the nonviolent struggle against the historical lockstep of domination, will prevail because the strong man is not the true "Lord of the house." So can we join the struggle to bind him and liberate his domain? [p. 348]
In looking at the sleeping disciples, we also need to remember that even after falling asleep at their posts three times, Jesus didn't tell them all to leave. He didn't send them home because they were unworthy to be disciples. Rather, Jesus went to the cross to die for all people, even sleepy disciples, but his actions begin the new age. Jesus would not use power to overthrow his enemies; neither should the disciples during this Jewish-Roman war.
It is like Luke Skywalker battling Darth Vader. If he were to let his anger control his actions, he would be no better than the evil Vader. If the Christians take up arms to dominate the Romans, they would be no better than the dominating Romans.
Six years ago when I revised these notes, we had entered a war with Iraq. My question then remains the same today: How do we try and stop the aggression of evil without becoming evil ourselves?
Last week's text indicated that the coming of King Jesus would bring judgment for all people -- separating the sheep and goats. In Mark, Jesus doesn't return to judge; but to bring freedom for the believers from the sinful generation. He comes as a completely different kind of king to bring in a new and different kingdom.
James Edwards (The Gospel According to Mark) argues: "All the signs that have been given add up to one conclusion: the End cannot be prepared for. That is because the End is ultimately not a 'then' but a mysteriously present now. The sole preparation for the End is watchfulness and faithfulness in the present" (p. 406).
I agree that we need to look at this text and apply it to our lives now rather than to see it simply as a picture of what is coming.
In line with what I've said about the absence of Jesus after his death, the man who goes on a journey doesn't return in the parable. While he is gone, he gives "authority" (exousia) to his slaves (NRSV: "puts his slaves in charge"). "Authority" is an important word in Mark. Jesus has such authority that amazes the people (1:22, 27). Jesus has authority to forgive sins (2:10). Jesus gives the authority to cast out demons to his disciples (3:15; 6:7). In this parable, the image is given that Jesus is again handing over his authority.
In Matthew after the resurrection and before the Parousia the disciples have the continuing presence of Jesus. In Luke they have the presence of the Holy Spirit. In Mark, they are given Jesus' authority -- the right to teach, to forgive, to exorcise demons. We are given the authority so that we might each do our own work while waiting for the master's return.
Although it comes at the beginning of his comments on these verses, Ched Myers (Binding the Strong Man) offers this summary:
In sum, the second half of the sermon employs apocalyptic myth in order to compel the disciples/reader to enter into the "historical moment," to choose between the old and new order, both of which stand at the edge of history. It is, to be sure, the moment of the war; but that very historical crisis drives mark to look deeper still. Why not aid and abet the rebel cause? Because it was mere rebellion, the recycling of oppressive power into new hands. To journey deeply into history, to experiment with a political practice that will break, not perpetuate, the reign of domination in the world -- that is the meaning of Mark's final call to "Watch!" (13:37). It is a call to nonviolent resistance to the powers. [p. 343]
As I have been reading and quoting Myers, the thought strikes me that we are in a war of sorts between the commercial Christmas and the incarnation of the Lord. How should we and our congregation offer "nonviolent resistance to the powers" of commercialism, materialism, etc. that undermine the coming of the Son of Man with the new age of the Kingdom of God into our world?
I'm afraid that part of our preaching job might be to tell our people that going along with celebrating a commercialized Christmas (like going along with the rebels in Mark's day) might seem to be the popular and right and even godly thing to do; but is it part of Jesus' new age? Or is just adding God's name to the commercial Christmas a good advertising scheme to make the old age of materialism seem like something new and Christian?
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