Heaven And Earth Will Pass Away? Really? Studies in Mark, Pt. 62

While Mk. 13 certainly sounds apocalyptic (many have dubbed it the “Little Apocalypse; e.g. Colani, Wiffenbach) and quite eschatological (many have suggested it is about the End Times), and while I will most certainly be seen as something as a nuisance for saying what I am about to, I wish to share a different view. I do not think Jesus is being overtly apocalyptic or eschatological in Mk. 13. Yes, there are some statements Jesus makes that seem apocalyptic in nature but in the end, I am wholly unconvinced that what Jesus is saying is meant to be taken in the sense of apocalyptic.

If we go by the SBL definition of apocalyptic, building on the work of T. R. Hatina, I can come up with over 15 reasons as to why Mk. 13 doesn’t fit the bill as apocalyptic (e.g. no revelation given from an otherworldly being, no transcendent/supernatural world mentioned, Jesus says the “end is not yet” – something contrary to apocalyptic lit., etc.). So, I do not believe that Jesus is being overtly apocalyptic in Mk. 13. (Neither is Mark himself.) By the same token, neither Jesus nor Mark are being incredibly eschatological. Jesus is not speaking of the end of the world in Mk. 13 but rather the destruction of the Temple.

Many try to pull a switcharoo and argue that in the first few verses Jesus is talking about the Temple’s destruction but somewhere around the 24th verse, He begins talking about the end of the world. This is just patently incorrect and makes no sense. It just ruins and interrupts the story to take it that way. So, if Jesus is not being apocalyptic or eschatological, what are we to make of Mk. 13? Some have suggested that it is a farewell discourse. I am not too convinced by that answer either. Perhaps what we need to do with Mk. 13 is to stop trying to fit it into some specific literary category. We do not single any other chapters out of Mk. and force them to be their own category, why should we do it to this one? In my opinion, the best thing to do is to read Mk. 13 as a continuation of Mark’s narrative.

If we read it this way, then it all makes much more sense. In chapters 11 and 12, Jesus has been railing against the Temple and its authorities. In chapter 13, Jesus leaves the Temple, talks to His disciples about its destruction and then gives some pointers as to when that destruction will occur (though, He doesn’t give a specific date; more on this in another post).

Also, if we read chapter 13 as a continuation of the overall narrative, we can make sense out of Jesus’ statement, “Now learn this lesson from the fig tree: As soon as its twigs get tender and its leaves come out, you know that summer is near (eggus). Even so, when you see these things happening, you know that it is near (eggus), right at the gate. Truly I tell you, this generation will certainly not pass away (parelthei) until all these things have happened. Heaven and earth will pass away (pareleusontai) but my words will never pass away (pareleusontai)” (13.28-31). Let me point out a few exegetical items here.

First, notice that Jesus, in verse 28, brings up the fig trees and how they’re supposed to bear fruit. Back in chapter 11, the fig tree was representative of the Temple and its authorities; the same is true here (thus, He’s still referring to the Temple). Also, in verses 28 and 29, Jesus uses the term “eggus” which means “near”. This is a temporal phrase or a phrase that denotes time. The term “near” must be related to the term “pareleusontai" from "parerchomai” and its correlate which is used three times in verses 30 and 31. Parerchomai can mean “to pass away” but it can also mean “to avert”, “to neglect” or “to pass by”. Traditionally it is always rendered “to pass away”. However, there is good reason to question this translation. In chapter 8, where parerchomai is used, Jesus is not “passing away” when He walks on the water towards the disciples in the boat. No, Jesus is going to “pass by” them. In other words, He’s going to go right past them and they won’t even recognize or understand that it was Him.

That’s how the term should be taken in 13.30-31, as “pass by”. So, we can translate the passage as: “Truly I tell you, this generation will certainly not pass by until all these things have happened. Heaven and earth will pass by but my words will never pass by.” This makes so much more sense, especially when taken with Jesus’ “gate” analogy. In verse 29 Jesus says that the disciples will know the Temple’s destruction is close because these things will be right at the “gate”. Jesus picks back up on this analogy a few verses later in 32-6. Now, we should ask here, Why the gate analogy? What’s the significance of the gate?

Well, a gate is something that people use to bypass something or rather, to pass by something. So, Jesus is saying, “This generation (time period) is not going to pass by (as usual) until all these things have happened to the Temple.” He is also saying, “Heaven and earth are going to pass by (as usual) but my words will not pass by (as usual).” So, there will be famines, wars, rumors of wars, earthquakes—which were all common in that day (just as they are now)—and things heaven and earth will pass by as usual. However, Jesus’ words will not pass by as usual. What does this mean? I take it to be a contrast to the disciples’ continual lack of understanding Jesus throughout Jesus’ ministry. Many times, the disciples misunderstand Jesus and what He does or says. Many times they ask Him to clarify Himself in private. Many times they just don’t get it; just like on the boat, Jesus can pass by and they have no idea what He’s doing. Here, Jesus is saying, “No longer will my words pass by you like they have been passing by you. When you see these things happen, you will take note of what I’m saying and it will all make sense.” (Of course, the disciples, like everyone else, must have been confused about Jesus’ statements about the destruction of the Temple.)

Then, Jesus returns to the gate analogy. The gatekeeper will stand at the gate and when someone familiar and usual arrives, he’ll let them pass by—just like people will let heaven and earth as usual pass by. However, when the Temple is destroyed, something unusual, people will pause, just as a gatekeeper would pause when an unfamiliar face tried to pass by. Jesus is making the point: “Don’t be alarmed by unusual things, just be ready. Don’t get anxious and don’t start making predictions and don’t join the prophecy club, just be ready, just be prepared.”

One last thing, Jesus says that His words will not pass by (perhaps more on this in another post too). I take this to refer not only His statements about the Temple, but also His statements about His own identity as the Messiah. Just as the disciples will be tried in the courts and given words by the Spirit to speak truth about the Messiah’s identity, Jesus is saying that, via the Spirit in God’s people, His words about His identity as Messiah will be understood once all of these things that He’s talking about happen.

So, this chapter is not a little apocalypse. In fact, it is not really that apocalyptic at all (though some apocalyptic language may be hinted at). By the same token, it is not eschatological. So, we should not read Mk. 13 either of those ways. What we should do is read it as a continuation of Mark’s story thus far. To do anything else, I think, is to do the text injustice. Just as well, we should translate verses 30 and 31 with “pass by” instead of “pass away”. This makes much better sense of the gate analogy, Mark’s own use of the term “pareleusontia / parerchomai” and the Temple discourse. Jesus is not saying that heaven and earth will pass away. I mean, think about it, What sense does it make for heaven and earth to pass away but His words still remain? It is quite illogical (even if heaven and earth are replaced with something else). Jesus is saying that His words will no longer pass by His disciples, misunderstood, as usual. A generation will pass by and heaven and earth will pass by as usual, but not Jesus words about His identity as Messiah and not Jesus’ words about the impending fate of the Temple.

We must stop attempting, in our applicatory endeavors, to make this story about people beyond the first century. Moreover, we must stop trying to make it about us today. It fits neither of those categories (what it does come strikingly close to, however, is Amos 9, give that a read). When it comes to application, what we can glean from this text is that, in the face of trials, we can do a few things: 1) Endure, 2) Continue to speak truth about Jesus’ identity as the Messiah, and 3) Be receptive to the Holy Spirit’s desire to work in us as individuals and as the community of God.

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