Commentary on Mark 13:1-12 [14-31] 32-37
Scholars widely agree that apocalyptic literature sought to encourage ancient communities to remain faithful in their difficult circumstances by using stock apocalyptic language and imagery adapted to particular contexts (1) to offer theological interpretation of the present threatening situations of the community and (2) to bolster the confidence that God would act in the near future to rectify the situation.
Contemporary congregations often mistakenly think the aim of apocalyptic literature was to frighten readers when the opposite is actually the case. Such writings intended to give congregations the theological confidence to endure until the apocalypse and the coming of the Realm of God.
Both of these dimensions are present in Mark 13. Mark has Jesus speak in the future tense about some events that have already happened in Mark’s world and to point to some events that are yet to come. The technical name for this phenomenon is “prophecy after the fact.” Mark 13:13b reveals the purpose of this chapter: to give the congregation the perspectives they need to endure until the apocalypse when they will be gathered into the final and full manifestation of the realm of God.
Mark 13:1-2 indicates that the temple has already been destroyed. Mark regards this event as a sign that the apocalypse will soon come.
According to Mark 13:3-6 and 13:21-22, the community is in danger of thinking that someone other than Jesus is the apocalyptic prophet through whom God signals the transformation of the ages. Mark here participates in an ongoing debate in Judaism regarding who — if anyone — would function as God’s agent. So many Jewish groups about the time of Mark put forward multiple figures as God’s agents to that an excellent book is entitled Judaisms and Their Messiahs, ed. Jacob Neusner et. al. (Cambridge University Press, 1988).
In 13:7-8, the writer uses traditional apocalyptic imagery to communicate that the social chaos — including the violence — of Mark’s time is part of the end of the old age. Mark describes this process through the image of a woman in the pain of delivering a child.
Mark’s community was in tension with some traditional Jewish groups. Mark 13:9-13 portrays this tension reaching the level of legal harassment as members of the community are called before synagogues, governors and other rulers. Moreover, families are coming apart as some members identify with Mark’s community (and its movement towards the realm) and others resist.
One major source of tension between Mark’s community and conventional Jewish leaders was the Markan congregation welcoming gentiles without initiating the converts fully into Judaism. Mark 13:10 portrays this movement as something that must happen before the apocalypse can occur. Despite social chaos and persecution, the community is to persist in this mission under the authority of the risen Jesus.
Mark 13:14 draws on Daniel 9:27, 11:31 and 12:11 to interpret the Roman destruction of the temple as a signal that the community is to flee from Judea (where Mark’s community is probably located) to the mountains. Some scholars think that this passage links to Mark 14:28 and 16:7 so that the “mountains” refer to Galilee. The latter area, populated by about equal numbers of Jewish and gentile people, might be more hospitable to the gentile mission. According to 14:28 and 16:7, Galilee is also the place where the community would greet the returning Jesus at the apocalypse.
Mark 13:15-20 urges the community to act quickly. The season of transition between the ages will be one of intense suffering. But, the congregation should be grateful because God has “cut short those days.”
The apocalypse itself is foreshadowed in Mark 13:24-27. God will destroy the structures that support the present creation (represented here by sun moon, stars and powers). Jesus will return and gather the faithful. The realm will be completely and forever manifest.
Just as people can know when summer is coming by paying attention to leaves coming on the fig tree, so the congregation can know the apocalypse is upon them by paying attention to the signs of the times (Mark 13:28-29). However, the congregation needs be firm in their commitment because present world will not end (and the suffering will not be over) until “all these things have taken place” (Mark 13:30-31).
While the apocalypse will come soon, no one can know the precise day or time. Indeed, not even the angels or Jesus know the time. That knowledge belongs only to God (Mark 13:32). Consequently, the congregation should keep alert, that is, the community should be faithful and should do what Jesus tells them to do. Waiting for the apocalypse is not a time of passivity but is a time for mission. Indeed, at the apocalypse, the Markan community will be judged on what it has done in the season of waiting in the same way that the master judges the servant whom the master has left in charge of the house (Mark 13:33-37).
I end with a confessional statement. With regard to hermeneutical movement from the time of Mark to today, I both agree and disagree with Mark. I believe, with Mark, that much in the present world violates God’s purposes. God wants the world to be much more like the realm than it is. Yet, I do not believe that God can end the present world and replace it with a new one by means of a singular apocalypse.
Rather, I believe God is present in every moment, offering each situation the optimum qualities for realm-like life that are possible given the circumstances of the moment. We can participate with God in the renewal of the world, or we can resist. I take Mark’s caution to heart: the transition from the world as it is to the world as it can be is often difficult, even chaotic; in such seasons we must endure. But, with Mark, I believe that God is always present through the Holy Spirit to offer us the power to endure.