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Two levels in Mark 13

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Last Sunday we talked about a very confusing passage - Mark 13.  I think it's confusing because Jesus is talking to the disciples about two events - the destruction of the temple (which came to pass in 70 AD), and the final end of the world.  My interpretation can be called a "two level" reading of the passage.  Some verses refer to the destruction of the temple (a mini-end of the world), and some refer to Judgment Day (a final end to the world).  And some verses seem to be referring to both events at once (v.28-30 for example).

I think there's good reason to read the text this way.  In Mark 13:1-4 Jesus predicts the destruction of the temple.  This is upsetting to the disciples, and later four of them get Jesus alone and ask him when this will happen.  Matthew's gospel makes the nature of their question even more clear - "Tell us, when will these things be, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the close of the age?" (Matthew 24:3)  The disciples must be associating the destruction of the temple with the end of the world.  And so when Jesus answers, he speaks to both things.  Now we know that the temple's destruction was not the end of the world, and so we recognize that, though the disciples imagined this to be one event, Jesus was speaking to them of two events.

Generally speaking, I think Mark 13:1-23 refer to events surrounding the destruction of the temple, and Mark 13:24-37 refer to the last days (with the possible exception of verses 28-31).

Not everyone would take this view.  Some argue that everything in Mark 13 refers to the end of the world.  But there are all sorts of problems with seeing it this way, most notably that it ignores the context for the whole discussion - Jesus' prediction of the temple's destruction.  Others believe everything in Mark 13 refers to events of the first century.  But it's hard to reconcile that view with the cosmic and apocalyptic language of verses 24-27.

I think the two levels view is the best reading.  But this is a hard passage, and there are lots of great thinkers and faithful believers who think differently.  Below are some bullet point explanations in favor the two level reading.

Verses that seem to refer to the destruction of the temple in 70 AD:

  • Verses 1-4 - The context is clearly Jesus' prediction of the temple's destruction.
  • Verses 7 and 13 - The end is not yet.  He's talking about a mini-end, with another final end yet to come.
  • Verse 8 - These are the beginnings of birth pains.  Some think this points to the destruction of Jerusalem being a type of the final judgment when Christ returns.
  • Verses 9-13 - The "you" language almost certainly refers to the apostles and their ministry companions.  The language of synagogues and councils points to a first century situation.
  • Verses 14-18 - This refers to the attack on Jerusalem by the Romans.  If not, why would it matter if you fled Jerusalem?  If the whole world was under final judgment, why would fleeing to the hills make any difference?  Also, why would it be worse in winter if we were talking about the end of the world?
  • Verse 31 - this generation will not pass away.  Easy to interpret with regard to the temple.  Takes some more interpretive gymnastics if it refers to the end of the world.

Verses that seem to point to the last days:

  • Verses 24-25 - There is a distinct shift from historical language to cosmic language.  What's being described here are apocalyptic events.
  • Verses 26-27 - Clear reference to the visible, triumphant return of Christ from heaven.

1 Comment

I personally love this passage.

A similar combination of earthly/apocalyptic language is found in 2 Thess 2, where Paul corrects those who had become concerned that the day of the Lord had already come that, more or less saying that as long as evil still existed in the world, God wasn't done yet. Many people interpret that passage as mere eschatological details, but I tend to think it's more about encouraging a church which found itself amid an evil world, reassuring them that the Lord Jesus would return and destroy evil (personified in the 'lawless one') once and for all. As with this part of Mark, present reality and future judgment/vindication are both wrapped up in the same passage.

The first half of Mark's gospel is all about the question of Jesus' identity--who is he? The book hinges on Peter's accurate confession that Jesus is the Christ, but then goes on to unpack that idea and, turning everyone's expectations completely upside down. This Christ would not be a military conqueror who would liberate Israel from its pagan occupiers; this Christ would actually suffer and die at the hands of the Romans, and in doing so, achieve victory for all the elect.

In Mark 13, Jesus' disciples expected immediate victory, so it must have been perplexing to hear Jesus explain that evil wasn't going anywhere just yet.

The imminent destruction of the temple is just one relevant example of the continuation of evil in the world; famines, earthquakes and the like are other examples. The point is to communicate that while evil will persist for some time, Christ is ultimately victorious and the elect should not lose heart or apostatize (hence "stay awake"). In this way, present hardship and future glory are tied together, using both down-to-earth and cosmic, apocalyptic language.

What an encouragement to a church that finds itself bombarded by evil today!

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