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Gospel: Mark 13:1-8

As he came out of the temple, one of his disciples said to him, ‘Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!' 2Then Jesus asked him, ‘Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.'

3When he was sitting on the Mount of Olives opposite the temple, Peter, James, John, and Andrew asked him privately, 4‘Tell us, when will this be, and what will be the sign that all these things are about to be accomplished?' 5Then Jesus began to say to them, ‘Beware that no one leads you astray. 6Many will come in my name and say, "I am he!"  and they will lead many astray. 7When you hear of wars and rumours of wars, do not be alarmed; this must take place, but the end is still to come. 8For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be earthquakes in various places; there will be famines. This is but the beginning of the birth pangs....

28‘From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near. 29So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that he* is near, at the very gates. 30Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place. 31Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.

32‘But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. 33Beware, keep alert;* for you do not know when the time will come.... 37And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.'

Why does the lectionary only have the first eight verses of chapter 13? The chapter is so clearly one piece that it is artificial to cut a small section of it out. Are we embarrassed that what seems to be foretold about the Son of Man coming in the clouds has not yet come to pass, although that generation clearly has passed away? (30)

There is debate as to whether Mark was authored in the lead up to the destruction of Jerusalem, or shortly after the final Roman defeat of the Jewish rebels. John Petty gives a great potted version of the history of the Jerusalem revolt.

It is clear that the destruction of Jerusalem is contemporary with the gospel. It is not being foretold by Jesus nearly 40 years before it happened. That understanding of prophecy is a modern misunderstanding, based in literalism and ignorance of the nature of prophecy. Prophecy takes contemporary events and expounds their significance. So our question is, "What was Mark saying to the people who lived through the period around the rebellion against the Romans, and how does it relate to us?"

What did occur nearly forty years before the fall of Jerusalem was the crucifixion of Jesus. Roman tyranny was well in place, in a society which bitterly remembered the Greek oppression before the relatively short respite offered by the Macabees. Before that is the history of defeat and Exile at the heart of much Jewish consciousness.

So for forty years the little bands of believers had lived under Roman rule, in the hope that Jesus, who had upended their lives with his life, death and resurrection, would return to rescue them. The fact Mark could write chapter 13 indicates this was part of the Jesus tradition (in common with the popular messianic apocalyptic hopes.)

There is no doubt that chapter 13 is written with an eye to consummation of human hopes. The ever spare Gospel of Mark, where no word is wasted, deliberately plants a beacon to make this clear:

When he was sitting on the Mount of Olives opposite the temple...

Why do we need that statement? It's like narrative padding in a modern novel, not the lean text of a gospel- unless "on the Mount of Olives" echoes an apocalypse tradition that about the final rescue of Jerusalem and the institution of all that is right (in Jewish eyes.)

See, a day is coming for the Lord, when the plunder taken from you will be divided in your midst..... 2For I will gather all the nations against Jerusalem to battle, and the city shall be taken and the houses looted and the women raped; half the city shall go into exile, but the rest of the people shall not be cut off from the city. 3Then the Lord will go forth and fight against those nations as when he fights on a day of battle. 4On that day his feet shall stand on the Mount of Olives, which lies before Jerusalem on the east... And the Lord will become king over all the earth; on that day the Lord will be one and his name one (from Zechariah 14:1-4,9)

Petty points out how Mark maintains Jesus' stand against the status quo. The Greek implies this translation of verse 3:

As he was sitting on the Mount of Olives over against the Temple...

After a generation or two of festering resentment of the Romans, and suffering injustice, it would have been enormously tempting for the early Christians to see the Jerusalem rebels as a fulfilment of Jesus' message. If you read Petty's summary you can see how encouraging the early rebel victories must have been; not to mention the death of Nero and the subsequent (temporary) withdrawal of the Roman armies. The removal of corrupt temple priests must have seemed like the very hand of God!

But Jesus says

Beware that no one leads you astray. 6Many will come in my name and say, "I am he!" and they will lead many astray. 7When you hear of wars and rumours of wars, do not be alarmed; this must take place, but the end is still to come. 8For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be earthquakes in various places; there will be famines. This is but the beginning of the birth pangs.

Think back to our reflections on power. The reflections following Power is Poison deal with this. Is Jesus' teaching on power, and being transformed by selflessness, compatible with armed uprising, which itself becomes a tyranny of zealotry and fanaticism? Or is the gospel more profound than this?

In line with the expectations and world view of his time, Mark understood that the final fulfilment would soon occur.

30Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place. 31Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.

A Google search on that verse will find many gymnastics which try and overcome what appears to be the error in those words. There is no need to force some explanation.  Mark's limited understanding at that point does not lessen the truth of what Jesus says.

If Mark is being written during the years of revolt, Jesus words stand as a warning to Christians; do not be led astray, the End is yet to come. Do not throw your lot in with these rebels, they are not the Messiah. If Mark was written after the fall of Jerusalem, in the ruins of the city, chapter 13 stands as a stark warning that the fulfilment of all things is far beyond politicking and wars. Looking back to the disaster of Jerusalem, we are being taught to look for the fulfilment of the gospel of Jesus elsewhere.

Andrew Prior
Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

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