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Mark 13:24-37 Biblical Commentary:
MARK 13. THE CONTEXT
This chapter is often called The Little Apocalypse, based on its similarity to the Great Apocalypse of the Revelation of John.
Apocalyptic literature usually comes out of difficult times. For example, the book of Daniel comes from the era (165 B.C.) when Antiochus Epiphanes profaned the temple and tried to impose pagan religious practices on the Jews. The book of Revelation comes from the era (95 A.D.) when Christians were being persecuted because they refused to worship the emperor. While apocalyptic literature might seem strange to us, the word apocalypse means unveiling or revelation. Apocalyptic literature typically proclaims a message of hope in coded language not understandable except by insiders and therefore unlikely to draw the ire of hostile authorities.
Apocalyptic literature usually reflects a strong dualism––good against evil. It presents dramatic visions full of symbols––numbers, colors, and animals––codes that must be explained or interpreted. It sees time, not as cyclic (as the Greeks thought of time), but as a linear movement toward God’s final judgment. It regards present troubles as mere birth pangs that will lead to the final consummation of God’s reign. It holds out hope for the faithful who are suffering now, but who will receive a Godly reward in the end.
Chapter 13 begins with a comment by one of the disciples about the temple: “Look, teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!” (v. 1). Jesus responds by predicting the destruction of the temple (v. 2). The temple was the center of Jewish worship and life, but its days are numbered. The new center of worship and life will be the Son of Man.
Peter, James, John and Andrew (Jesus’ inner circle plus Andrew) asked, “When this will be and what will be the sign that all these things are about to be accomplished?” (v. 4). Jesus responded with a lengthy discourse.
• He deals with the “when” question by saying, “But of that day or that hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. Watch, keep alert, and pray; for you don’t know when the time is” (vv. 32-33).
• He deals with the “signs” question by telling of false messiahs and false prophets (v. 6, 22) wars and rumors of wars (v. 7), earthquakes and famines (v. 8), persecution (v. 9), betrayal by family members (v. 12), “the abomination of desolation” (v. 14), the darkening of the sun and moon (v. 24), and the falling of the stars (v. 25).
Jesus’ phrase, “the abomination of desolation” (v. 14), comes from Daniel 11:31, which speaks of enemy soldiers profaning the temple, abolishing the burnt offerings, and setting up “the abomination of desolation.” The man who fulfilled this prophecy was Antiochus Epiphanes (175-163 B.C.), a Seleucid (Greek) king who put down a protest in Jerusalem with terrible violence. He prohibited Jewish religious practices, destroyed the city of Jerusalem, killing many of its inhabitants, and desecrated the temple by sacrificing swine on its altar.
The name Epiphanes is related to our word Epiphany, which means “manifestation.” Antiochus had coins minted with the phrase Theos Epiphanes––god made manifest. It was from that phrase that Antiochus added Epiphanes to his name. However, critics nicknamed him Epimanes, which means madman. His actions against the Jews certainly qualified him for that nickname.
Jesus will mention the destruction of the temple twice again––at his trial (13:2) and at the cross (15:29). He has in mind much more than the destruction of a building. For Jews, the temple was the place where God dwelled––the place where people could come to be in the presence of God. Jesus’ prophecy is that the Son of Man will take the place of the temple as the place/person through whom people can find access to God.
At the time of the writing of this Gospel, Christians were experiencing persecution. Jerusalem had been destroyed. This chapter presents Jesus’ promise that time is moving toward the coming of the Son of Man, who will gather all the people together and make all things right.
The church today is divided between Christians who await expectantly the return of the Son of Man and Christians who ignore this aspect of Jesus’ teaching altogether. We are often embarrassed by bumper stickers that warn that a car will be driverless in the event of the Rapture and by cartoon images of wacko men (they always seem to be men) carrying signs that proclaim, “REPENT!” Nevertheless, we need to take Jesus’ words in Mark 13 as seriously as we take Jesus’ words elsewhere. The promise is that God has prepared something wonderful beyond our world and time. Is that more difficult to believe than the resurrection? Shouldn’t we believe that God will redeem the world?
Shouldn’t we be happy at the prospect of Christ coming again to set our world right once again?
MARK 13:24-27. THEN THEY WILL SEE THE SON OF MAN
24“But in those days, after that oppression, the sun will be darkened, the moon will not give its light, 25the stars will be falling from the sky, and the powers that are in the heavens will be shaken. 26Then they will see the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory. 27Then he will send out his angels, and will gather together his chosen ones from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of the sky.”
The Old Testament provides much of the imagery for these verses:
“The earth quakes before them.
The heavens tremble.
The sun and the moon are darkened,
and the stars withdraw their shining” (Joel 2:10).
“Then Yahweh your God will turn your captivity, and have compassion on you,
and will return and gather you from all the peoples,
where Yahweh your God has scattered you” (Deuteronomy 30:3)
“For the stars of the sky and its constellations will not give their light.
The sun will be darkened in its going forth,
and the moon will not cause its light to shine” (Isaiah 13:10).
“All of the army of the sky will be dissolved.
The sky will be rolled up like a scroll,
and all its armies will fade away,
as a leaf fades from off a vine or a fig tree” (Isaiah 34:4).
“I saw in the night visions,
and behold, there came with the clouds of the sky one like a son of man,
and he came even to the ancient of days,
and they brought him near before him ” (Daniel 7:13).
“But in those days” (v. 24a). Jesus has been foretelling the destruction of the temple and the persecution of the disciples. “But” (v. 24a) signals a transition, and Jesus’ transition is dramatic indeed. After the events of verses 5-23 take place, the sun, moon, and stars will signal a momentous happening, followed by the coming in glory of the Son of Man.
“the sun will be darkened, the moon will not give its light, the stars will be falling from the sky, and the powers that are in the heavens will be shaken” (vv. 24b-25). When God first “created the heavens and the earth, …the earth was formless and empty. Darkness was on the surface of the deep” (Genesis 1:1-2). Then God created the lights in the sky, the sun and moon and stars Genesis 1:14-19)––heavenly bodies essential to the sustenance of life, which God created next (Genesis 1:20ff.).
Now Jesus is pointing to a day when God will strip away those heavenly bodies, returning Earth to the chaotic state that existed before creation.
“Then they will see the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory” (v. 26). The cosmic powers will be gone, and Godly power will reign.
The title, Son of Man, comes from Daniel 7:13-14, where the Ancient of Days (God) gave to the one like a Son of Man “dominion, and glory, and a kingdom, that all the peoples, nations, and languages should serve him: his dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away, and his kingdom that which shall not be destroyed.” Scholars agree that Jesus intended it as a messianic title.
The title, Son of Man, has the advantage of having none of the militaristic connotations associated with the title, Messiah. People expect the Messiah to raise an army, to drive out the Romans, and to re-establish the great Davidic kingdom. They have no such expectations regarding the Son of Man.
(NOTE: Because of its inclusive language agenda, the NRSV translates the phrase in Daniel 7:13 as “human being” rather than “Son of Man.” This is a truly unfortunate translation, given the significance of the title, Son of Man in the Gospels).
The title, Son of Man has the advantage of having none of the militaristic connotations associated with the title, Messiah. People expect the Messiah to raise an army, to drive out the Romans, and to re-establish the great Davidic kingdom. They have no such expectations regarding the Son of Man.
While Jesus’ imagery is frightening, it is intended to encourage Christians who are living in frightening times. It acknowledges their suffering, and promises that:
• The Holy Spirit will give them the right words to say (v. 11).
• “he who endures to the end, the same will be saved” (v. 13).
• The Son of Man will “gather together his chosen ones from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of the sky” (v. 27). Jews believe that God will gather the faithful to Jerusalem from the nations to which they have dispersed (see Deuteronomy 30:4; Isaiah 11:11; 43:6). God scattered these people because of their unfaithfulness. But in the last days the Son of Man will gather them together, restoring them as God’s people once again. With Jerusalem and the temple gone, the Son of Man will become the new temple of God.
While this is encouraging, it is also demanding. Jesus places a high premium on faithful discipleship in the midst of terrible trials. He calls us to endure and to be watchful.
MARK 13:28-31. MY WORDS WILL NOT PASS AWAY
28“Now from the fig tree, learn this parable. When the branch has now become tender, and puts forth its leaves, you know that the summer is near; 29even so you also, when you see these things coming to pass, know that it is near, at the doors. 30Most certainly I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all these things happen. 31Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.“
“Now from the fig tree, learn this parable” (v. 28a). This is the first of two mini-parables included in our Gospel lesson. The second is the man going on a journey (vv. 34-36).
“When the branch has now become tender, and puts forth its leaves, you know that the summer is near; even so you also, when you see these things coming to pass, know that it is near, at the doors” (vv. 28b-29). The disciples asked for a sign (v. 4), and Jesus finally answers their request. Most of the trees in that part of the world are evergreen, but the olive and the fig are deciduous. The olive tree blossoms early, so it is not a trustworthy harbinger of summer. The fig tree, however, blossoms late, so its blossoms promise that summer is just around the corner. If this scene takes place near Passover, as seems likely, Jesus could be pointing to a blossoming fig as he says these words.
Earlier, Jesus cursed a fig tree (11:12-14), cleansed the temple (11:15-19), and gave the disciples a lesson about the power of faith from the withered fig tree (11:20-24). The fig tree in chapter 13, however, does not wither, but blossoms––a hopeful sign. We might think of the withered tree as the withered temple religion that will soon be destroyed, but the blossoming fig is the Son of Man, who brings new life to the faithful (Jensen).
While Jesus’ comments about the fig tree sound cryptic, he simply assures us that, as we see these signs taking place, “we are assured that the day of salvation for the elect is near” (Perkins, 693).
“Most certainly I say to you” (v. 30a). These words highlight the seriousness of the words that follow.
“this generation will not pass away until all these things happen” (v. 30b). It seems as if Jesus is saying that the Son of Man will return within the next few years or, at most, the next few decades. That is troubling, because the Son of Man did not come in the expected way and time, and still has not come two thousand years later. There have been several attempts to resolve this problem:
1. Some scholars have suggested that “this generation” means Jewish people or humanity in general, but most reject this proposition. For one thing, it stretches “this generation” beyond its apparent meaning. For another, it leads to a trite conclusion––that humans will be present when the Son of Man comes.
2. Some scholars have suggested that “all these things” refers to the destruction of the temple rather than the coming of the Son of Man. If so, the prophecy was fulfilled when the temple was destroyed in 70 A.D.
3. However, most scholars believe that “all these things” refers to the events that Jesus foretold in verses 5-23. According to this understanding, before the Son of Man returns (vv. 24-27), the temple will be destroyed (v. 2), there will be “wars and rumors of wars” (v. 7), persecution (vv. 9-13), and they will see “the abomination of desolation” (v. 14).
Brooks draws attention to the word “but” (v. 24) which sets up a contrast between that which went before (vv. 5-23) and that which follows (vv. 24-27). Prior to the “but” Jesus foretold the fall of the temple, persecution, and the desolating sacrilege (vv. 5-23). After the “but,” he describes cosmic signs that will precede the coming of the Son of Man (vv. 24-25). He then describes the actual coming of the Son of Man in glory (v. 26). If Jesus intends the “but” to set up a contrast, which appears likely, then the things that preceded the “but” must be different from the things that follow it. Brooks concludes that“these things” (v. 29) and “all these things” (v. 30) refer to that which Jesus foretold in vv. 5-23––i.e., the destruction of the temple, persecution, and the desolating sacrilege (Brooks, 216).
Geddert agrees that the phrase, “all these things,” refers to the fall of the temple and the other signs mentioned in verses 5-23. . He says that, once the temple was destroyed, the Second Coming became imminent. Christ can come at any moment. It behooves us to be ready (Geddert, 318).
While we tend to be troubled by the long period of time that has elapsed since Jesus foretold the coming of the Son of Man, Hare sees it “as a sign of grace”––an extended period given by God so that people might have additional opportunities to repent (Hare, 178).
“Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away” (v. 31a). When Jesus says, “Heaven and earth,” he means all creation. His words are derived from Isaiah 51:6 (“for the heavens shall vanish away like smoke, the earth will wax old like a garment”) and Isaiah 40:8 (“but the word of our God stands forever”).
“but my words will not pass away” (v. 31b). This is a bold claim, but one that has withstood the test of history. Kingdoms have risen and waned and tyrants have done everything in their power to eliminate Christianity––but people from all walks of life and in every land still look to Jesus as Lord.
MARK 13:32-37. WATCH, KEEP ALERT, AND PRAY!
32“But of that day or that hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. 33Watch, keep alert, and pray; for you don’t know when the time (Greek: kairos––crucial time, decisive moment) is. 34“It is like a man, traveling to another country, having left his house, and given authority to his servants, and to each one his work, and also commanded the doorkeeper to keep watch. 35Watch therefore, for you don’t know when the lord of the house is coming, whether at evening, or at midnight, or when the rooster crows, or in the morning; 36lest coming suddenly he might find you sleeping. 37What I tell you, I tell all: Watch” (Greek: gregoreite––keep awake, watch, be vigilant).
“But of that day or that hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father” (v. 32). In verse 30, Jesus seems to claim that the Son of Man will come soon, but in verse 32, he says that the Son does not know the day or hour. Some claim that this is inconsistent, but it is possible for a person to know a general time frame but not the exact day or hour.
“Watch, keep alert, and pray; for you don’t know when the time is” (v. 33). In the Roman army, a guard could be executed for falling asleep on guard duty. While that sounds harsh, it reflects a harsh reality. Readiness is a matter of life and death. If a guard falls asleep, the enemy might breach the defenses and kill those whom the guard was charged to protect.
Spiritual alertness is as important as physical security. We live in a world full of soul-killing temptations and distractions. We are regularly subjected to advertising that trivializes life––to friends who demand that we do scurrilous things––to movies that glamorize violence, drugs and sex––and to a thousand tempters. Even coaches, who at one time emphasized spiritual values, often schedule practice sessions on Sunday mornings, forcing youngsters to choose between sports and faith. The list of tempters is endless. When we succumb to them, we (and our family and friends) suffer the consequences. “Watch, keep alert,” Jesus warns. Good advice!
“for you don’t know when the time (kairos) is” (v. 33). The Greek language has two words for time:
• Chronos has to do with chronological time. When we say that we will do something at a particular time, we are using chronos time.
• Kairos has to do with crucial time or a decisive moment––a pivotal point in history. When we talk about “missing the boat,” (by which we mean missing the opportunity of a lifetime), we are talking about kairostime. When we say, “Now is the time to act!” we are talking about a decisive moment––kairos time.
It is bad to be late for chronos time (to miss an appointment), but it is far worse to be late for kairos time (to miss the opportunity of a lifetime). To be late for chronos time might require re-shuffling our schedule. To be late for kairos time is to miss our boat––and there might never be another boat!
So when Jesus says, “for you don’t know when the kairos is,” he is talking about the pivotal moment that will define our fate for all of eternity.
“It is like a man, traveling to another country” (v. 34a). As noted above, verses 34-36 constitute a mini-parable about a master going away and charging his doorkeeper to be on the watch. God is the master, and we are his doorkeeper, charged with keeping watch.
“Watch (Greek: gregore) therefore” (v. 35a). The word gregore means to watch––to stay alert––to keep one’s eyes open and one’s attention focused. Soldiers who have served in combat know the requirement well––especially those who have served on guard duty. There is nothing more difficult than keeping one’s eyes open and attention focused hour after hour after hour––night after night after night. But soldiers on guard duty know that their faithfulness can be a matter of life and death, both for themselves and for their fellow-soldiers.
Peter warns, “Be watchful (gregore). Your adversary, the devil, walks around like a roaring lion, seeking whom he may devour” (1 Peter 5:8).
But in this verse Jesus is emphasizing the danger of failure to be ready for his Second Coming––an emphasis that he repeats elsewhere (Matthew 24:36ff; 25:31-46).
Paul warned that the day of the Lord would come like a thief in the night. Then people who had been emphasizing peace and safety will experience sudden destruction. He counsels, “so then let’s not sleep, as the rest do, but let’s watch (gregore) and be sober” (1 Thessalonians 5:2-3, 6).
“for you don’t know when the lord of the house is coming” (v. 35b). Jesus has already stated that he doesn’t know the hour (v. 32). If he doesn’t know, we certainly don’t.
“whether at evening, or at midnight, or when the rooster crows, or in the morning” (v. 35c). These are the four Roman nightly watches:
• Evening watch (6:00 – 9:00 p.m.)
• Midnight watch (9:00 – midnight)
• Cockcrow watch (midnight – 3:00 a.m.)
• Dawn watch (3:00 – 6:00 a.m.)
These are all nighttime watches. We expect the master to return during the day, when traveling is easy, but you never know! Night is the time when we are likely to be least alert, so the message is that we need to be fully ready even in our least ready moments. It is a serious call to serious discipleship.
“lest coming suddenly he might find you sleeping” (v. 36). In the very next chapter, Peter, James, and John (Jesus’ inner circle) will fall asleep in as Jesus prays in Gethsemane. In fact, he will find them asleep three times (14:37, 40-41) in spite of his twice-repeated entreaty to stay awake (14:34, 38). Even worse, they will desert him and flee when Jesus is arrested (14:50).
The equivalent of falling asleep for us is lack of spiritual preparation––failure in our Christian walk––failure to do what Christ has called us to do.
“What I tell you, I tell all: Watch” (v. 37). This is the point of the parable––that Jesus’ disciples must“keep awake” to be prepared for the coming of the Son of Man. Keeping awake, of course, cannot mean that we must suffer chronic insomnia. Keeping awake has to do with spiritual wakefulness––spiritual preparation––spiritual readiness for Christ’s coming again.
But what constitutes wakefulness? What constitutes readiness? What do we need to be doing when the Master comes so that he will be pleased with us? This Gospel offers the following answers. It quotes Jesus as saying:
• “For whoever does the will of God, the same is my brother, and my sister, and mother” (Mark 3:35)––so we would do well to try to do God’s will.
• When Jesus’ disciples argued about which one was greatest, Jesus said: “If any man wants to be first, he shall be last of all, and servant of all” (Mark 9:35b)––so we would do well to adopt the posture of a servant.
• Then Jesus took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them,“Whoever receives one such little child in my name, receives me, and whoever receives me, doesn’t receive me, but him who sent me” (Mark 9:37)––so we would do well to welcome children (and others who are in need of care and supervision).
• When Jesus’ disciples complained about an exorcist who was casting out demons in Jesus’ name, Jesus replied: “For whoever will give you a cup of water to drink in my name, because you are Christ’s, most certainly I tell you, he will in no way lose his reward” (Mark 9:41)––so we would do well to help those in need––and to do so in Christ’s name (see also Matthew 25:31-46).
• After Jesus’ disciples tried to stop parents from bringing their children to Jesus, he said: “Allow the little children to come to me! Don’t forbid them, for the Kingdom of God belongs to such as these. Most certainly I tell you, whoever will not receive the Kingdom of God like a little child, he will in no way enter into it” (Mark 10:14b-15)––so we would do well to recover some of the readiness to believe and the sense of wonder that we enjoyed as children.
• After James and John request the places of honor in Jesus’ kingdom, Jesus replied:
“Whoever of you wants to become first among you, shall be bondservant of all” (Mark 10:44)––this repeats the emphasis on servanthood that we found in 9:35b above).
• Jesus said, “Whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone; so that your Father, who is in heaven, may also forgive you your transgressions” (Mark 11:25)––so we would do well to practice forgiveness.
• When the widow put her last two coins in the temple treasury, Jesus said: “Most certainly I tell you, this poor widow gave more than all those who are giving into the treasury, for they all gave out of their abundance, but she, out of her poverty, gave all that she had to live on”(Mark 12:43-44)––so we would do well to give recklessly to God.
• After the resurrection, Jesus said (in the longer ending of this Gospel): “Go into all the world, and preach the Good News to the whole creation. He who believes and is baptized will be saved; but he who disbelieves will be condemned” (Mark 16:15-16)––so we would do well to believe and be baptized.
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.
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Copyright 2014, Richard Niell Donovan