Commentary on Mark 13:1-8, 24-37
In Mark 13:2, Jesus predicts the destruction of the temple. He then interprets that event as one of several cataclysmic indications that God’s long-awaited kingdom is about to be fully consummated on earth (verses 3–8). As the climax of this eschatological unfolding, Jesus promises his glorious and powerful appearance as the Son of Man, who will gather his elect “from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven” (verses 24–27; see also Mark 8:38; 14:62).
It is precisely with this final appearance that Jesus’ mission of healing and wholeness, glimpsed in his earthly ministry and the selfsame ministry of his followers, will come to encompass all of creation. Heaven and earth will “pass away” (verse 31) only insofar as they will be renewed—transformed—by a loving Creator who heals the sick, forgives the sinner, and, ultimately, raises the dead to new life. Because Jesus expresses hope in a final resurrection of the dead (verses 24–27), we know he anticipates that life will be God’s last word, just as it was God’s first word (Genesis 1).
While it is not impossible that Jesus foresaw the temple’s destruction in some general way, mainstream scholars are right to attribute the details of Mark 13 to the evangelist, who was writing either in the immediate aftermath of, or lead-up to, the burning of the temple by Roman forces in 70 CE. Historically speaking, we know that Rome was attempting to suppress a Jewish nationalist revolt comprising various groups that had come to occupy the temple complex beginning in 66 CE. Writing around this time, Mark wants to assure his hearers that this trauma is no reason to waver in their hope for Jesus’ glorious appearance.
Sermons on this text may require some theological soul-searching on the question of how God relates to history generally and suffering specifically. The typical scholarly commentary will point to similarities between Mark 13 and various examples of so-called apocalyptic literature, which often predicted the persecution of the elect, as well as historical disaster and cosmic cataclysm in the lead-up to God’s final acts of judgment and redemption. In truly apocalyptic fashion, Mark suggests a divine necessity to this script (for example, verse 7) due, it seems, to the need to validate God’s overall sovereignty. The last thing Marks wants to do, in other words, is allow hearers to infer from the temple’s destruction that the full consummation of God’s kingdom has been delayed or jeopardized. Quite the opposite, it will be one important sign that the eschaton is approaching.
Adding to this necessity is Mark’s insinuation of divine judgment in preceding scenes. It was only the day before that Jesus staged a prophetic protest in the temple, disrupting the necessary practices of money-changing and dove-selling by which pilgrims offered sacrifices to God. In so doing, Jesus affirmed the divine origins and purpose of the temple: “My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations” (Mark 11:17, echoing Isaiah 56:7). Yet he also condemned the temple’s priestly caretakers for turning God’s house into a “den of robbers” (Mark 11:17, echoing Jeremiah 7:11).
That Jesus intends to condemn the temple leadership—and not the sacrificial cult per se—becomes clearer in the following scene, when Jesus likens that leadership to divinely appointed “tenants” who, instead of tending properly to the health of God’s vineyard Israel, have brazenly usurped their authority for self-serving purposes (Mark 12:1–12).
We do not know how well this condemnation reflects the actual practices of any temple priests in Jesus’ day, and we must bear in mind that the conflict in Mark 11–12, whether historically accurate or not, is intra-Jewish in nature. Mark is not presenting a “Christian” critique of Judaism, in other words, but rather a conflict between thoroughly Jewish characters. Given Mark’s depiction of some temple leaders as involved in the arrest of Jesus (14:1–2, 10–11), one is not surprised to find an anticipatory condemnation in earlier chapters.
To summarize, Mark interprets the destruction of the temple as a kind of divinely condoned, if not divinely orchestrated, event. It is not unlike how certain Old Testament prophets theologized the destruction of Judah (and the first temple) by Babylonian forces in the sixth century BCE.
But Mark’s apocalyptic framing is not a license for preachers to make bold claims about divine intervention and orchestration in contemporary events. It is one thing to celebrate God’s relatively quiet yet powerful care and guidance within our personal lives, but quite another thing to identity grand moments of collective trauma as necessary acts of God (recall how certain fundamentalist preachers feigned prophetic authority in 2005, when they interpreted Hurricane Katrina as divine judgment against the collective sins of New Orleans).
At the end of the day, Mark’s apocalyptic interpretation of history, like any such apocalyptic interpretation of history, is really just a provocative way of affirming that creation can only end in accordance with the will of its benevolent Creator. After all, the entire thrust of Jesus’ ministry is the alleviation of brokenness and suffering. If this ministry, as Christians claim, reveals the very heart of God, then why would God’s work be any different in the interval between Easter and Parousia?
In the meantime, Jesus calls disciples to remain firmly planted in this same mission of healing and wholeness, closing his speech on a strong note of preparedness. Jesus cannot provide his disciples with a precise date of the temple’s destruction (verse 4) or even his own glorious appearance (verse 32). But he can call them to live alertly, always in anticipation of God’s final redemption.
This is much more than a call to idle patience. It is rather “like a man going on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his slaves in charge, each with his work” (verse 34). That “work,” if Mark’s narrative is any indication, is the work of following Jesus in his ministry of human well-being. Gathered around and empowered by (Mark 14:22–25) the now risen Jesus, disciples offer glimpses of his continued work of healing, forgiveness, and inclusive fellowship (Mark 3:13–15; 6:7–13).
For even as history continues to swirl uncontrollably around us, sometimes even decimating our most revered institutions, there is a constancy in Jesus’ call to follow him in certain hope that God’s cosmic redemption will be the final word.
PRAYER OF THE DAY
Son of Man, you encouraged your followers to obey only your voice, and promised that they would see your glorious presence. Show us your glory and teach us to obey. Amen.
Hear my prayer, O Lord, Charles Gounod