Mark 13:5-23, The World until His Coming

B Osma 85v

[October 24, 2010]. This passage is introduced by the questions that precede it: “When will these things be?” in response to Jesus’ pronouncement of the destruction of the Temple, and “What will be the signs when all these things are about to be accomplished?” “All these things” includes not only the destruction of the Temple but also the things that Jesus spoke about or alluded to in connection with the end of the Temple. This includes the coming of the Son of Man to gather His chosen. Jesus speaks of that in the second half of His speech, which we will discuss next week. In the words of today’s text Jesus does not yet come to that.

Since Jesus came to Jerusalem on the first day of the week (Mark 11:1), He had pronounced God’s judgment on the City and the Temple. The judgment would come on account of the treachery of those responsible for the spiritual welfare of the people of Israel, in particular, the chief priests, the scribes and the elders. This judgment would be brought about by those who espoused the ideology of zeal, who opposed them, for the tension between them would instigate the war with the Romans that would end in the sack of the City and the destruction of the Temple in 66-70 CE (the Great Jewish Revolt). The chief priests and elders and the party of the Sadducees came to an end, but the espousers of zeal would continue to lead the people astray for another sixty-five years, leading to the Kitos War (the “Rebellion of the Exile”) in 155-117 CE and the Bar Kokhba Revolt, the third and final war in 132-135 CE.

Jesus did not announce the end of Judaism. The result of the destruction of the Temple in 70 AD and these three wars was the creation of Rabbinic Judaism in the second century, which is the same Judaism that we know today, Judaism without the Temple. Another result was the separation of Judaism and the church, a result that “did not have to be” and is unfortunate for both parties.

Just as the disciples of Jesus expected the kingdom of God to come immediately with the Passover of Jesus’ final arrival in the City, so they also expected it to come with the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE. Since then Christians have been led astray many times. They thought that Constantine’s reign as Emperor was the beginning of the kingdom of God on earth. They thought that Christ would return and bring the kingdom at the turn of the first millennium and again after the French Revolution in Europe. In America they thought that the American Revolution brought the beginning of the kingdom of God. Again, with the devastating wars in the Twentieth Century there were repeated predictions of the return of Christ, and again with the turn of the second millennium. At the same time, the international Marxist revolts and the progressive optimism of the Social Gospel has led some to again hope for the establishment of the kingdom of God on earth. These are two different tendencies, one predicting the return of Christ when society is at its worse, the other expecting society to become the kingdom of God before His return. The later tendency has shaped the church from the days of Constantine but has no Biblical basis.

Let us try to understand what Jesus teaches in the Gospel according to Mark. Up until 13:24 everything in chapter 13 can refer to the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE and the events leading up to it. In fact, contextually, the “abomination of desolation” in verse 14 must refer to the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE. The ecological, political and religious disturbances of the decade of the 60s are well documented.

Our problem comes in verses 24 and 26 when Jesus says, “In those days, after that tribulation … they will see the Son of Man coming …” This can permit an indeterminable delay between the destruction of the Temple and the Second Coming. But in Matthew 24:29 Jesus says, “Immediately after the tribulation of those days …” Mark does not say “immediately” even though he has a proclivity for that term. In Luke 21:24, on the other hand, Jesus says, “Jerusalem will be trampled by the Gentiles until the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled,” definitely seeming to imply a delay. Mark lies between them. Like the early Christians we are confused. These may not be reconcilable. Some have suggested that Jesus is predicting two different destructions of the Temple, Luke predicting the one that happened in 70 CE and Matthew predicting one that is still to come. Besides being historically awkward (on the same occasion Jesus spoke of two separate destructions but each gospel only chose to report one of them?), I believe that in Matthew’s account that would break the connection between Jesus’ speech with His pronouncement in 24:2 and the disciples’ first question in 24:3. We will have to deal with Matthew’s account another time.  

I might suggest, however, that the crisis of the destruction of the Temple is both over with and ongoing. It is ongoing because the Jews today still mourn the destruction of the Temple on Tisha B’Av and in their worship are very conscious of its absence. But also for the church, the signs that led up to it are continuous with the existence of the church. They are, in fact, the first five seals of the Apocalypse (written after the destruction of the Temple), the four horsemen and the cry of the souls slain of the martyrs. The ongoing crisis that the destruction of the Temple signifies is our continuing under the ban of God’s judgment that was pronounced by Moses and the prophets with the Babylonian Captivity in view. Whether or not Israel is in the land and have a Temple, they are under the conditions of exile until the coming of the Messiah (the Second Coming as we know it), and the church too exists in history under the same conditions (James 1:1; 1 Peter 1:1; 2:11 and so forth). This really has been the condition of humanity—existing under the judgment of God—since its fall described in the early chapters of Genesis. Israel, however, did not become fully cognizant of this and of the provisional (sign) nature of its great institutions until the later prophets. The wrath of God—from the beginning—was definitely revealed from heaven, however, on the cross of Christ (Romans 1:18). The destruction of the Temple in 70 CE, then, becomes the historic sign of it to both Israel and the church. The end of the era of the great provisional signs means that we cannot identify the historic existence of either Israel or the church with the kingdom of God, nor can identify any human project with the kingdom of God. We need to live under God’s judgment (as forgiven) with patience (without the “zeal” that would impose God’s will) in faithfulness to God (in the way of the cross). This is the significance of Jesus’ repeated warnings: “Beware, see, be alert, watch!”

Do Not Be Led Astray (13:5-8, 21-23)

The first words of Jesus are a warning not to be led astray. On the one hand there will be people claiming to be “the one.” Like Luke, Mark does not have the words, “I am the Christ,” as in Matthew. The warning is against following any charismatic leader who would claim to be “the answer.” In 13:21-22 Jesus returns to this warning, speaking of false Messiahs and false prophets, and the influence of others who would persuade you to follow along with them. These charismatic leaders might even perform miracles. That does not matter; it is not to mean anything to you. We should neither be distracted by these leaders nor by their followers or the press they receive.

We are to stick to Jesus Himself as the only one worthy of our following. Otherwise we will be led astray. The only proper leaders are those who lead us to Him, not to themselves.

The repetition in verse 22-23 of the warning in verse 6 indicates that the verses in between, verses 7-20, belong together. The repetition of the warning frames them. The words “and then” in verse 22 connects the warning given in verse 6 at the beginning with the desecration in verses 14-20 (“then” has the meaning of “at that time” as well as “after that.”) Verse 23 then applies to everything from verse 5. “Beware, I have told you all things beforehand.” If we are aware of the dangers that Jesus is telling us about here, we can protect ourselves.

We can also be led astray by news and rumors of wars. Wars will come (they have); we must not let ourselves be alarmed by them and jump to the conclusion that the end is about to come. Just as miracles do not indicate that a charismatic leader is someone special (their miracles only make us more susceptible to being misled), so wars can also distract us from our single-minded fidelity to the Way.

Wars in fact will come. And so with ecological disasters including earthquakes and famines, the failure of the food supply. These all are terrible things, but they are only the beginning of “birth pangs.” The four horsemen of the Apocalypse (the first four seals), which are unleashed at the ascension of Jesus, include war, famine and plague. They do not happen at one time but are continuous throughout the course of history until the coming of the Son of Man in judgment and glory. That they are “birth pangs,” the excruciating pains of labor when a woman is about to give birth, indicate that they do relate to and lead up to the Second Advent (or in Mark, the events of verses 14-20, which are the immediate context). However, we cannot tell how soon the “delivery” will be.

These signs show us that until the coming again of the Messiah, we all are living under the historic judgment of God. Let us not be deceived by any leaders who would claim to be—or to be able to deliver—the answer to these pressing problems (war, earthquake and famine). The fact is that these problems are inherent in humanity’s rebellion against reality, the reality of God; they are inseperable from “Babel” and its historic project. So, even answers in the form of ideologies, economics or technology can lead us astray. Be warned!

The Coming Persecutions (13:9-13)

The next verses speak of the persecution of believers and the proclamation of the Gospel. They correspond to the first and the fifth seal of the Apocalypse, the first horseman and the souls underneath the altar. Here Mark brings together Matthew 10:17-22; 24:9-14; Luke 12:11-12; and 21:12-19.

The disciples will confront both Jewish and Gentile legal systems. Legal persecution from the Jews took place in the early days. Since then it has come from the nations. Verse 12 speaks pointedly of treachery, such as that of Judas, though specifically from within one’s own family.

“You will be hated by all on account of My name.” This indicates the nature of the world as a social system. Even though it may contain many virtuous people, the system itself (the world as a gestalt) is antithetical to Jesus and the revelation of reality, of God and of humanity and creation in Him. Though at any point in history we may not be persecuted by the world, it is nevertheless the nature of the world to resist the Gospel. If it cannot destroy it, it will pervert or distort the Christianity that attempts to proclaim it, or misunderstand or pervert their own understanding of what the Gospel is. Whether people are conscious of this or not, the world as something greater than its individual parts, does this consistently. Let us never forget this. The church and the world are antithetical. Baptism is not just an initiation rite. It declares our separation from the world. It is a declaration of divorce.

Mark 13:10, “the Gospel must first be proclaimed to all the nations,” comes from Matthew 10:18, which connects our appearance before governors and kings with our testimony to the nations. It begins with the word “and,” not “yet,” connecting Mark 13:9-10 together as one sentence. The Gospel will even spread by persecution. The word “first” would relate the widespread proclamation of the Gospel to verses 14-20, but, after that, to the coming of the Son of Man in verse 26.

“He who has endured to the end, this one shall be saved.” This means enduring to death. The verse refers to the salvation of the soul (see Luke 21:19; Mark 8:34-38; 1 Peter 1:9), a salvation that is yet future and depends upon our winning the Lord’s approval.

The Desecration of the Temple (13:14-20)

The “abomination of desolation standing where it should not” (see Daniel 9:27 where it speaks of he who “will cause the sacrifice and the oblation to cease and will replace the sacrifice and the oblation with the abominations of the desolator,” and 11:31 and 12:11 which speak of the removal of the daily sacrifice and the setting up of the abomination that desolates), by the use of the masculine participle with a neuter noun, seems to refer to the person who does the desecrating. If not, it is the imperial power itself that is personified. In any case, the reference seems to be to the erection of Roman standards in the Temple and the claims of Titus as Imperator to replace it.

The directions are clear. The disciples are to run for their lives and get out of the City, even out of Judea, implying warfare and that the City itself will be under siege, as Luke’s Gospel describes.

It is interesting that Mark does not mean either the Temple or the City. He mentions Judea; that is all. Perhaps it is because at the time of composition the war itself was taking place or had just taken place, and therefore the omission is for reasons of safety.

This event can also be compared to 2 Thessalonians 2:3-4 that describes “the man of lawlessness, the son of perdition, who opposes and exalts himself above all that is called God or an object of worship, so that he sits in the Temple of God, setting himself forth, saying that he is God.” Paul clearly has Caligula in his mind’s eye, an event that took place earlier than his writing, but with that in view he writes about how the Lord Jesus will slay him by the breath of His mouth and bring him to nothing by the manifestation of His coming (2:8). Though Jesus is speaking specifically about the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE, what He says reflects the nature of the world and how the world will come to its dissolution at the manifestation of Jesus at His coming.

The nature of the world, which the man of sin embodies as its full expression and climax, is to exalt itself in the place of God. Regardless of the fact that the event that Jesus specifically spoke about is now over, the nature of the world has not changed. Though we cannot physically flee from the world, we nevertheless can “flee” inwardly, morally and spiritually. We are told to flee “to the mountains,” which in the gospels are associated with where Christ is revealed or reveals Himself to His chosen. This is in the church where the Word of Christ is proclaimed. Moreover, the mountain is often the spiritual height to which only a few disciples follow Christ. Even this, however, is in and for the sake of the church.

Let us not be caught up in the world or distracted by its messages. The world seeks to swallow us up. But if Christ has won our hearts through the Gospel, it is He alone whom we should desire and heed. He can protect, lead and deliver us (even if we have to surrender our life for His sake) if we are willing to endure with Him on the way of the cross.

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