MARK 11-16. THE CONTEXT
We are tempted to plunge into Mark 13 as if it stands alone, but we can really understand it only in context. Chapters 11-14 take us from the triumphal entry of Jesus into Jerusalem (11:1-11) through a series of conflicts between Jesus and the religious leaders (chapters 11-12) and this apocalyptic chapter (chapter 13) to the betrayal of Jesus (14:43-51) and Peter’s denial (14:66-72), the crucifixion (chapters 14-15) and the resurrection (chapter 16).
Chapters 11 and 12 are filled with Jesus’ negative comments regarding Israel’s religious establishment.
• He curses an unproductive fig tree, a symbol of Israel’s unproductive religious system (11:12-14, 20-25), and cleanses the temple (11:15-19).
• In the Parable of the Wicked Tenants (12:1-12), he recounts Israel’s rejection of the prophets and the Son—and prophesies that the vineyard will be taken away from Israel and given to others—and says that the rejected stone will become the cornerstone (12:10).
• He speaks clearly enough that the religious leaders want to kill him, but are afraid to do so because of the crowd (12:12).
• Jesus’ teaching about the widow’s offering puts into perspective the larger offerings of the well-to-do, most of whom are the religious elite (12:41-44).
Chapters 11 and 12 are also filled with direct conflict between Jesus and the religious leaders:
• They question his authority (11:27-33).
• Then they try to trap him with questions about paying taxes (12:13-17), the resurrection (12:18-27), and David’s son (12:35-27).
• Matthew and Mark report the question about the first commandment in this same entrapment vein (Matthew 22:34-40; Luke 10:25-28), but Mark’s version (12:28-34) does not.
• Jesus concludes these conflicts by denouncing the scribes (12:38-40).
Then we come to our Gospel lesson, where Jesus prophesies the destruction of the temple (13:2). Quite clearly, the events of chapters 11-12 lay the foundation for Jesus’ teachings in chapter 13. The religious system in Israel is corrupt to the core (chapters 11-12) and the disciples can expect that corruption to issue forth in the cataclysmic events of chapter 13. Those events will be capped by the coming of the Son of Man (13:24-27), who will put all things right, so the disciples need to be watchful (13:32-37).
However, unlike most apocalyptic literature, chapter 13 is NOT concerned with signs that provide clues to the timing of future events. When the disciples ask Jesus for “the sign that all these things are about to be accomplished,” (v. 4), Jesus tells them of wars and natural calamities, but then says, “but the end is not yet” and “These things are the beginning of the birth pains” (vv. 7-8). In other words, these are NOT really signs of the end but are simply events that they must endure before the end comes. He cannot help them to know when these events will occur, because “of that day or that hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father” (v. 32).
R. H. Lightfoot takes exception with scholars who label Mark 13 as “The Little Apocalypse,” and proposes that this chapter functions in much the same way as the Parable of the Sower (Mark 4:1-20). That parable tells of much wasted seed—seed that falls on the path or among rocks and thorns. However, it concludes with the vision of good soil and a bountiful harvest—thirty and sixty and one hundred fold. It serves to encourage Christians who might otherwise focus on the waste and miss the blessing of the harvest. In like manner, Mark 13 predicts trials and suffering—but those are only “the beginning of birth pangs” (v. 8). The emphasis is not suffering, but hope—salvation!
Chapter 13, then, serves as an introduction to the Passion narrative (chapters 14-15)—a terrible time, but one that culminates in the resurrection (chapter 16) (Lightfoot, Juel, Jensen). Such a message is of particular value to Mark’s church as it suffers persecution, but it is also of great value to Christians of all times who suffer difficult circumstances—and who does not suffer difficult circumstances.
MARK 13:1-2. TEACHER, SEE WHAT KIND OF STONES
1As he went out of the temple, one of his disciples said to him, “Teacher, see what kind of stones and what kind of buildings!” 2Jesus said to him, “Do you see these great buildings? There will not be left here one stone on another, which will not be thrown down.”
“As he went out of the temple” (v. 1a). These words link what follows with the events of chapters 11-12. This will be Jesus’ last visit to the temple, and some scholars interpret these words to indicate Jesus’ final break with the temple establishment.
“Teacher, see what kind of stones and what kind of buildings!” (v. 1b). In this Gospel, this is the only visit by Jesus and the disciples to Jerusalem. The disciples respond as you would expect country folk to respond to big city sights. We wonder, however, how they can fail to comprehend the significance of Jesus’ conflict with religious authorities or his condemnation of the temple establishment. But then we remember how slow the disciples have been to see—how spiritually unaware they are. The disciples see only the temple’s beautiful exterior. The good physician, Jesus, sees the cancer rooted deep inside.
The temple complex is indeed a marvelous sight. Herod began construction in 20 B.C., and workers are continuing with finishing touches as Jesus visits some 50 years later. The temple is located at the top of a mountain, and is huge. Josephus reports the walls that surround its grounds as being a “stadium” in length on each side (a stadium is 607 feet or 185 meters). The temple is 100 cubits (150 feet or 45 meters) wide and 100 cubits high at its highest point—the height of a modern 15 story building. Archeologists have uncovered individual stones as large as 42 x 11 x 14 feet (13 x 3.5 x 4.5 meters) weighing as much as 500 tons (450,000 kilos)—and Josephus tells of even larger stones at the base of the foundation.
The white marble is adorned with gold outside, and shines blindingly in the sunshine. The inside is adorned with gold, silver, crimson, purple, and finely polished cedar. Great columns support a high ceiling. It is truly one of the wonders of the world. Even more significantly for the Jewish people, it is the place where God makes his earthly home.
“Do you see these great buildings? There will not be left here one stone on another, which will not be thrown down” (v. 2). Earlier, Jesus said, “Isn’t it written, ‘My house will be called a house of prayer for all the nations?’ But you have made it a den of robbers!” (11:17). In that instance, Jesus was quoting the prophet Jeremiah, who foretold the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple six centuries earlier (Jeremiah 7:11). Jeremiah said that God would destroy the city, the temple, and the people because of the people’s wickedness. It happened! Nebuchadnezzar destroyed the city and took the people into exile in Assyria in 587 B.C.
Now Jesus says that it is going to happen again—and for the same reason—the wickedness of the people. The old is passing away and the new is being born. The old worship, centered on the temple, has become corrupt. The new worship will be centered on the messiah—the new temple—the new place where people will encounter God (see Psalm 118:22; Isaiah 28:16; Ezekiel 37:26; Matthew 12:6-8; John 1:14-18; 4:20-24).
The New Testament tells us that we are also the temple of God, because the Holy Spirit dwells in us (1 Corinthians 3:16-17; 6:19; 2 Corinthians 6:16; 1 Peter 2:4-6; Revelation 3:12).
Any prophecy regarding the destruction of Jerusalem or the temple could be expected to engender opposition from powerful people. Earlier, the authorities, angered by Jeremiah’s prophecies, imprisoned him in a cistern (an underground tank for storing rain water). “Now there was no water in the cistern, but only mud, and Jeremiah sank in the mud” (Jeremiah 38:6). They threatened to kill him, but relented when reminded of similar prophecies by Micah (Micah 3:12), whom they revered as a prophet (Jeremiah 26:10-19). King Jehoiakim had another prophet, Uriah, put to death for prophesies similar to those made by Jeremiah (Jeremiah 26:20-23), so making such prophecies can, indeed, be a risky business.
This prophecy of the destruction of the temple will play a significant role in Jesus’ crucifixion. When Jesus is brought up on trial, the formal accusation against him will be, “We heard him say, ‘I will destroy this temple that is made with hands, and in three days I will build another, not made with hands’ ” (14:58)—a twisted version of Jesus’ words (13:2).
France speculates that Jesus’ prediction of the temple’s destruction may have cost him popular support (France, 495). That certainly seems plausible, given the crowd’s enthusiastic welcome when Jesus entered Jerusalem (11:1-11) and their total lack of support a few days later when Jesus was tried before Pilate (15:11). What caused this dramatic change? Mark notes that the chief priests stirred up the crowds to have Pilate release Barabbas instead of Jesus (15:11), but the priests had to have some sort of credible argument to stir up the crowds. It seems likely that they used Jesus’ prediction of the temple’s destruction (or some twisted version of Jesus’ words) to convince that people that Jesus was subversive and should die.
Jesus’ prophecy will be carried out literally. The Romans will build great fires at the base of the walls, and the intense heat will cause the foundation stones to crumble (under intense heat, the calcium carbonate in marble dissociates to yield carbon dioxide and lime—a gas and a powder). Thus undermined, the walls will collapse under their own weight into great piles of stone. The Romans will then spend many months leveling the stones. Thousands of the city’s inhabitants—perhaps hundreds of thousands—will die. Caesar’s purpose was “to leave future visitors to the spot no ground for believing that it had ever been inhabited” (the historian Josephus, quoted in Edwards, 389).
The question is whether Mark writes this Gospel after the destruction of Jerusalem—thus recording the prophecy after the fact. Probably not! He most likely writes this Gospel shortly before rather than shortly after the destruction of the city.
MARK 13:3-4. TELL US, WHEN WILL THESE THINGS BE?
3As he sat on the Mount of Olives opposite the temple, Peter, James, John, and Andrew asked him privately, 4“Tell us, when will these things be? What is the sign that these things are all about to be fulfilled?”
“As he sat on the Mount of Olives opposite the temple” (v. 3a). The Mount of Olives stands across the Kidron Valley from Jerusalem, and commands a grand view of the city and the temple.
Zechariah 14 pictures the utter devastation of Jerusalem by her enemies—but God, standing on the Mount of Olives, reverses this defeat. “Once again Jesus consciously positions himself to assume the role of God” (Edwards, 389).
Note the phrase, “opposite the temple.” This phrase is more than geographical; it has the flavor of “opposed to the temple” The temple has been the center of Jewish worship, but now Jesus is ushering in the kingdom in which God will be present in people’s hearts. The temple will no longer be required as the locus of God’s presence.
“Peter, James, John, and Andrew asked him privately” (v. 3b). Andrew joins the inner circle (Peter, James, and John) on the Mount of Olives. Note that, in this Gospel, when Jesus is on a mountain he is either alone or with his disciples (3:13; 6:46; 9:2-9; 11:1; 14:26). He meets with crowds in the flatlands or at the seaside.
“Tell us, when will these things be? What is the sign that these things are all about to be fulfilled?”(v. 4). The disciples ask two questions: (1) When will this be? and (2) What will be the sign?Jesus will answer neither question. Instead, he will portray a series of cataclysmic events, most of which are non-signs—the one exception being the desolating sacrilege of verse 14.
MARK 13:5-6. BE CAREFUL THAT NO ONE LEADS YOU ASTRAY
5Jesus, answering, began to tell them, “Be careful (Greek: blepete—be aware or discerning) that no one leads you astray (Greek: planese—deceive you). 6For many will come in my name, saying, ‘I am he!’ (Greek: ego eimi—I am—God’s name—Exodus 3:14) and will lead many astray.”
“Be careful” (blepete–from blepo) (v. 5). Jesus calls the disciples to attention! Rather than a warning to be careful, blepo is a call to see and discern–a call to keep one’s eyes open and one’s critical faculties fully engaged.
“Be careful that no one leads you astray” (v. 5). Jesus warns of messianic pretenders. Josephus will report many first century messianic pretenders who will arise after Jesus’ death.
“For many will come in my name” (v. 6a)—claiming to act on the messiah’s authority—or claiming to be the messiah. “saying, ‘I am he'” (Greek: ego eimi—I am)—God’s name (Exodus 3:14; Deuteronomy 32:39; Isaiah 43:10).
In our day, not all messianic pretenders are religious. All sorts of people claim to have the answers to our deepest needs: politicians, fitness experts, talk-show hosts, financial advisors, toothpaste manufacturers, etc. ad nauseam.
But some pretenders are religious. They are often magnetic personalities who twist Christianity into a crossless faith. They tell us that the road is broad and smooth that leads to eternal life. At best, they enrich themselves with our donations. At worst, they lead us to our death—Jim Jones (Jonestown), David Koresh (Waco) and Heaven’s Gate (Southern California) come to mind, as do the Muslim mullahs who sit in the comfort of their mosques while recruiting young people to become suicide bombers.
“and will lead many astray” (v. 6b). The people most likely to lead us astray may be those closest to us—people for whom we have the most respect and affection. Young people are vulnerable to peers, teachers, sports figures, musicians, and other celebrities. Adults are vulnerable to a supervisor, coworker, drinking buddy, or spouse. Casinos lure people with free drinks. The list of those who would lead us astray is nearly endless. We must develop a spirit of discernment, and must follow Christ with great determination.
“If your brother, the son of your mother,
or your son, or your daughter, or the wife of your bosom,
or your friend, who is as your own soul, entice you secretly,
saying, ‘Let us go and serve other gods,’
which you have not known, you, nor your fathers;
of the gods of the peoples who are around you, near to you, or far off from you,
from the one end of the earth even to the other end of the earth;
you shall not consent to him, nor listen to him;
neither shall your eye pity him,
neither shall you spare,
neither shall you conceal him” (Deuteronomy 13:6-8).
MARK 13:7-8. WARS AND RUMORS OF WARS
7“When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, don’t be troubled. For those must (Greek:dei—it is necessary—sometimes called the Divine Imperative) happen, but the end is not yet. 8For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be earthquakes in various places. There will be famines and troubles. These things are the beginning of birth pains.“
“When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, don’t be troubled. For those must(dei—it is necessary) happen, but the end is not yet” (v. 7). At first reading, verses 7-8 seem to answer the disciples’ question, “What will be the sign that all these things are about to be accomplished?” (v. 4)—but Jesus does just the opposite. He cites events that are often taken as signs of the end times (wars, earthquakes, famines), but says, “the end is not yet.” The emphasis is not that the signs signal the end, but that they do not. We must take care not to become overly excited or overly depressed because of cataclysmic events happening around us or to us. Jesus says, “the end is not yet.” We must be patient, and we must remain hopeful.
“For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be earthquakes in various places. There will be famines and troubles” (v. 8a). In the years following Jesus’ death, there will be a number of incidents that will fit this description. Herod Antipas will find himself at war with the Nabataean king Aretas, and Rome will put down a number of minor revolts by Jewish zealots. There will be earthquakes in Asia Minor (61 A.D.), Pompeii (62 A.D.), and Jerusalem (67 A.D.). Famines are always commonplace (France, 511-512).
Jesus says, “These things are the beginning of birth pains” (v. 8b). Women anticipate birth both fearfully and joyfully—fearing the pain, but looking forward to the baby. As the time approaches, the mood is more joy than fear—more hope than despair. Even at labor’s peak, pain does not completely eliminate joy or hope. After the birth, painful memories dissipate, and the new mother is left with joy.
As Mark writes this Gospel, the church is in the midst of birth pangs: persecution—false messiah’s—Christians being led astray. In the midst of this, Mark reports, “These things are the beginning of birth pains.” It is terrible! It is painful! But there is joy ahead!
We need to remember this in the midst of our own troubles. There are, indeed, wars and rumors of wars. A careful reading of the newspaper could lead us to despair. Jesus, however, says, “These things are the beginning of birth pains.” We struggle with personal crises—a grim medical diagnosis or the death of a loved one. Jesus says, “These things are the beginning of birth pains.” However terrible, the events of the day are not the final chapter! There is a time of joy ahead!
The disciples’ question and request for a sign (v. 4) have to do with the destruction of the temple that Jesus has just prophesied (v. 2), but the end toward which this chapter points is not the destruction of the temple but the coming of the Son of Man (vv. 24-27). The destruction of the temple is but one of the travails through which the world will pass on the way to the Parousia (Second Coming).
SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible. The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensa Old Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament. The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated.
Barclay, William, The Daily Study Bible: Gospel of Mark (Edinburgh: The Saint Andrew Press, 1954)
Brooks, James A, The New American Commentary: Mark (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1991)
Brueggemann, Walter; Cousar, Charles B.; Gaventa, Beverly R.; and Newsome, James D., Texts for Preaching: A Lectionary Commentary Based on the NRSV—Year B (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1993)
Craddock, Fred B.; Hayes, John H.; Holladay, Carl R.; Tucker, Gene M., Preaching Through the Christian Year, B (Valley Forge: Trinity Press International, 1993)
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Hooker, Morna D., Black’s New Testament Commentary: The Gospel According to Saint Mark(Hendrickson Publishers, 1991)
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Perkins, Pheme, The New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. VIII (Nashville: Abingdon, 1995)
Westerholm, Stephen, in the article, “Temple,” in Bromiley, Geoffrey (General Editor), The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, Volume Four: Q-Z – Revised (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1988)
Williamson, Lamar Jr., Interpretation: Mark (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1983)
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Copyright 2015,Richard Niell Donovan