Sunday, 7 September 2008

Mark 13 in perspective

Recently at the Lowestoft Living Word convention, I chose to speak on Mark 13, sometimes called the ‘Little Apocalypse’ because it appears to anticipate the themes of the book of Revelation (The Apocalypse of John).

I think it is fair to say that most Christian interpretation assumes this passage is about the end of the world, but in preparing for the convention I began with a suggestion I associate (rightly or wrongly) with Tom Wright that the disciples’ concern lay elsewhere, and that actually we need to consider the passage as an answer to their question not ours.

We have to bear in mind that the disciples struggled to understand Jesus throughout his earthly ministry. Several times he taught them plainly about his death and resurrection, and yet when these things happened the disciples were like men taken by surprise.

So in Mark 13 they are not asking, “Lord, after your death and resurrection, and ascension into heaven, when will you come again in glory to judge the living and the dead?” That would be our question, but their eyes are firmly fixed on Malachi 3:1,

“See, I will send my messenger, who will prepare the way before me. Then suddenly the Lord you are seeking will come to his temple; the messenger of the covenant, whom you desire, will come,” says the Lord Almighty.

They were, as Tom Wright has said, looking not for Christ’s ‘return’ but for the end of Israel’s exile — for the return of the glory, which is described as departing from the Temple in Ezekiel 10 and 11; and as returning in Ezekiel 43-44.

This perspective must be borne in mind when we look at what Jesus says in Mark 13. But at the same time, the disciples have a wrong perspective, and so we must take into account what Jesus is denying as well as what he is affirming.

And of course, the first thing Jesus says is that it is not even this temple to which the Lord is going to come: “Not one stone here will be left on another; every one will be thrown down” (13:2).

But given that Ezekiel had described an even more grand Temple than that built by Herod, the destruction of Herod’s Temple might have been seen as a preliminary ‘clearing of the ground’ for an even better structure in its place. It is Jesus’ words in v26, however, which both scotch this idea and which are the heart of the passage:

At that time men will see the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory.

Recent interpretation has realised the important connection between this and Daniel 7:13:

In my vision at night I looked, and there before me was one like a son of man, coming with the clouds of heaven. He approached the Ancient of Days and was led into his presence.

The first thing to notice, then, is that the clouds are not those in the skies from which Jesus will come when he returns. Rather they indicate the Temple presence of God. In Exodus 40:34, the cloud covered the Tent of Meeting and the glory of God filled the Tabernacle. In 1 Kings 8:10-11, the cloud and the glory filled Solomon’s Temple. Thus the Son of Man in Daniel 7 is coming into the real Temple — the place where God is present.

The second thing to notice, however, is that at his trial Jesus describes this as an imminent occurrence:

Again the high priest asked him, “Are you the Christ, the Son of the Blessed One?” “I am,” said Jesus. “And you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Mighty One and coming on the clouds of heaven.” (Mark 14:61-62, compare 13:26)

Mark 13 and Mark 14 are linked. But how did Jesus expect the High Priest and those assembled there to see him ‘sitting at the right hand of the Mighty One and coming on the clouds of heaven’? The answer, I suggest, is not by the Second Coming. Rather, it is what happened subsequent to the resurrection, when the High Priest and the Jerusalem authorities were confronted by the empty tomb and the apostles’ preaching.

This is what Peter said to the crowds on the Day of Pentecost, in Acts 2:32-33,

God has raised this Jesus to life, and we are all witnesses of the fact. Exalted to the right hand of God, he has received from the Father the promised Holy Spirit and has poured out what you now see and hear.

It was by his death, resurrection and ascension that Jesus, as the Son of Man, entered the Temple presence of God, and it was that preaching which those who had crucified Jesus tried to deny and suppress by bringing the disciples before them on trial and forbidding them to speak. And so in Acts 4:5-8 we see Mark 13:9 and 11 being fulfilled:

They had Peter and John brought before them and began to question them: “By what power or what name did you do this?” Then Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit, said to them ... (Acts 4:7-8)

Indeed, the whole of Acts can be seen as the beginning of the fulfilment of Mark 13:27:

And [the Son of Man] will send his angels and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of the heavens.

... except that, as D Broughton Knox observed, the word ‘angels’ here needs to be translated with its common meaning of ‘messengers’, meaning gospel messengers. (‘Translating “Angel” in the New Testament’, Selected Works, Volume 1: The Doctrine of God, 369, Kingsford: Matthias Media, 2000)

Verse 30, “this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened”, then presents no problems as the rest of the chapter concerns not events prior to the ‘Second Coming’, but rather those surrounding the destruction of the Temple in ad 70 and the ongoing proclamation of the gospel.

There is, however, one problem (at least!) with this tidying up, which is that here, and in the gospel parallels, and in other parts of the New Testament, it is clear that similar language is applied to the expectation that Jesus will stage a dramatic and unmistakable ‘return’ at some time in the future. In 1 Thessalonians 4:16-17, for example, we read,

For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air.

It is hard to see how this could be read as a reference to Jesus’ death, resurrection and ascension. Does our tidying up then fall apart? My suggestion would be that it does not. Rather, what we have (and what we must read into Mark 13 and the parallels) is two different apprehensions of one reality.

The event is that the Lord has entered the heavenly tabernacle, “set up by the Lord, not by man” (Hebrews 8:2), of which the earthly Temple was a “copy and a shadow” (Heb 8:5).

The first apprehension of this, in the present age, is via the proclamation of the gospel, that Jesus is the Lord who has gone into the heavenly Temple to take his throne ‘at the right hand of God’, bearing the blood of his own sacrifice which atones for our sins and opens the way for us to enter also into God’s presence (Hebrews 10:19).

The second apprehension, at the end of the age, will be the revelation of this presence in the heavenly Temple, so that “every eye will see him” (Revelation 1:8).

This is clearly different from the disciples’ perspective, but somewhat different also from the perspective of many Christians.

The disciples’ perspective seems to have been one of looking forward to the point where God would intervene in history, coming down from heaven to re-enter the Temple, following which his reign would extend over the whole world via the establishment of Jerusalem as the world centre and Israel as the ‘lead’ nation.

The perspective of many Christians is that, having entered the world, Jesus has now left it, but will return. Meanwhile, we preach the gospel of his death for sin, and his future coming to reign.

In the case of the disciples, the action to establish God’s reign lay (hopefully) in the immediate future. For the typical Christian, the action lies in the indefinite future.

This perspective on Mark suggests that the decisive action lies in the past (though it was future in Mark 13). As the result of the saving action of his death, resurrection and ascension, Jesus is now reigning. His return is thus not to begin his reign but to extend it.

In some ways I can see echos here of Tom Wright’s insistence that the gospel is the lordship of Christ, not Caesar. However, it seems to me vital to be clear that Jesus’ entering the heavenly Temple is with the blood of sacrifice that opens the way for us. Thus Jesus’ Temple presence means he is Lord and Saviour.

The challenge to the evangelical perspective is to be aware that the manifestation of Jesus’ reign in the future — what we call the Second Coming — is a manifestation of his reign in the present, and that this needs to inform both our gospel preaching and our understanding of gospel living.

But more of that, perhaps, when I have had time to think on these things further.

John Richardson

7 September 2008

When posting your comments please give a full name and location. Comments without this information may not be posted.


  1. I much prefer your thinking here, to that of your last post.
    God bless Rachel

  2. And yet it is essentially the same!

  3. John,

    Thank you for a great week last week. You'll find I have posted reviews of Living Word on my blog,
    It's relentlessly positive, but also shows that I drifted off and didn't take notes as assiduously as I might have in one or two places. I'm pretty sure I haven't misrepresented you anywhere, but always good to be sure.

    Neil Jeffers, Lowestoft

  4. I found this very helpful. Thank you.