Rethinking The Return of Jesus: Studies in Mark, Pt. 67

A couple of weeks ago, I had one of those “aha” moments while reading through Mk. 13. I have argued in a previous post that there is no validity to referring to that chapter as apocalyptic (much less “the little apocalypse”). I argued in that same post that it is errant to read Mk. 13 as an eschatological treatise as well—that is, if by “eschatological” one is referring to the “end times” or the Second Coming of Christ, etc. A close, sensible contextual reading of Mk. 13 rules out any of the above readings (I realized this when, in a Bible study I was leading, one of a few recovering backwoods Dispensationalists said: “Michael, any person with a lick of sense or a shred of reading ability can see that this [Mk. 13] is not about the end of the world but about the Temple’s destruction in Jerusalem).

I must say, a straightforward reading of Mk. 13 is one that results in understanding that this chapter is about the Temple’s destruction, not the world’s end and it is certainly not about the 2nd Coming. When I say “straightforward” here, what I mean is simply a close reading. That is, from 13.1 through 13.37, Jesus is talking about the demise of the 2nd Temple. Some have suggested that 13.1-24 or 25 is about the Temple but after that, Jesus’ speech takes a new, end-times direction. First of all, see my comments that this chapter is neither apocalyptic or eschatological, above. Second of all, it would make no sense for Jesus to start talking about that halfway through a lesson directed at and focused on the Temple. Thirdly, such a view dislocates the text from antiquity and imports it into modernity—hopefully, I don’t need to explain why that’s a problem!

So, in Mk. 13.1, Jesus is leaving the Temple. In 13.2, He begins to use it as an object lesson and starts to talk about its impending doom. In 13.3, Jesus and the disciples are sitting on the Mount of Olives and looking at the Temple. In 13.4, the disciples want to know when the Temple will meet its end. In 13.5, Jesus begins to tell them about things that will lead up to the Temple’s destruction and He exhorts them to take notice. In 13.6, Jesus says that others will try rising up and being THE Messiah. In 13.7, Jesus says that there will be battles and rumors of wars—of course, when the Romans raided cities, they waged all out wars, as everyone knew. Jesus says that when this happens, the end of the Temple is drawing nigh. In 13.8, Jesus mentions warring nations and kingdoms. Perhaps we could think of the Jewish nation battling with the Roman one, etc. Jesus also says that there will be earthquakes and famines. Without a doubt, famines occur many times during a war. Earthquakes can also be the cause of famines as we have seen recently. The ancient Mediterranean was constantly riddled with earthquakes. Anyway, Jesus suggests that such things will preface the fall of the Temple.

In 13.8, Jesus also mentions “birth pains”. Of course, birth pains start out slow, they’re spaced apart quite a bit but as time passes, they get harder, hurt more and speed up. This is Jesus’ way of saying that things may start out slow but when chaos is about to boil over, that’s your cue. In 13.9, Jesus, talking to the 4 disciples, tells them that they will be handed over to the courts and flogged, etc. He also says that they will witness and preach to kings and royalty. In 13.10, He says that the Gospel must be preached to all peoples/nations/Gentiles, etc. If the disciples are preaching to the leaders of those nations, in a sense, they are preaching to the nations.

In 13.11, Jesus is still talking about the trials of the disciples (literally). In 13.12, Jesus says that the Spirit will give the disciples words, when in court, to speak truth about the identity of the Messiah (a kind of “rebuttal” to those making false claims mentioned in 13.6). In 13.12, Jesus warns them that family and friends will hate them (I can see the elders of the Jewish villages going around promoting their propaganda to join the uprising against the Roman military and some of Jesus’ followers saying, “No, we will not!”) Of course, then, they will be hated and viewed as traitors.

In 13.13, Jesus tells His followers that they will be hated but that if they stand firm through all of the trials, even after the end of the Temple has come, they will be saved. Indeed, it was after the presence of God moved out of the Temple and into people’s hearts that salvation’s power could begin working overtime. In 13.14, Jesus is still referring to the Temple because He uses the familiar “abomination that causes desolation” phrase from Daniel—which is clearly, a statement about the Temple (I wonder if He’s referring to Titus here?). In 13.15, Jesus warns the people on the roofs of the houses, not to go down into them when they are being raided. They must run or hide. If they go down, they will be killed. When Jerusalem is being razed, nobody is safe, not even in their own home.

In 13.16, Jesus says that nobody in the field should go back to get his cloak and in 17 that it is going to be tough for nursing mothers and pregnant women. These two verses, coupled with the next one (18), illustrate the severity of the situation. Notice, still, that in 18, Jesus says, “Pray that it does not occur in winter…” This is important because, while Jesus can give signals as to the events leading up to the destruction of Jerusalem and its Temple, He does not know exactly when it’s going to happen!!! This is crucial for understanding what Jesus says later in the chapter about the Son of Man not knowing the “day or hour”. In 13.19, Jesus says that there will be distress that has never been equaled. The distress, in my view, is not simply all of the harsh physicalities that might take place but rather, events like those that happened “in the beginning” when God was distressed at humanity’s behavior towards Him and one another (e.g. Gen. 2 and 3).

In 13.20, Jesus makes a play on Isa. 66 (in my view) and is saying that, just as God shortened the pains of labor for Israel, so He will for the “new Israel”, the Church. This is important because it suggests that Jesus is saying: “When God’s presence moves out of the Temple, it will relocate ‘in’ the people of God.” Notice, the first 20 verses are all “Temple-focused”. In 13.21, the same “focus” continues. In this verse, Jesus makes another reference to false Messiahs, just as He had previously done in 13.6 and indirectly in 13.12. For Jesus, then, His identity as the Messiah is a very important matter here. As the Messiah, He will usher in the Spirit to rest with God’s people. In 13.22, Jesus reiterates His point again—talk about emphasis!—and in 13.23, Jesus makes it clear to His disciples that He is talking about the Temple’s destruction when He tells them of the things that will happen to THEM (not you and me or anyone else!).

In 13.24, Jesus begins a string of image borrowing/quote borrowing from the Hebrew Scriptures. In this verse and the next (13.25), He draws on Isaiah. In using Isa. 13, Jesus makes a move that many rabbinical interpreters had and attempted to evoke “judgment imagery”. So, these verses out of Isa. 13 were notorious for being used as judgment imagery. The same goes for Mk. 13.26 and the use there of Danielic imagery. The “coming on the clouds” comment was a Jewish idiom or stock phrase that people used in conversation about judgment. In other words, Jesus’ use of the OT here is meant to bring up thoughts of judgment. Therefore, the Temple’s destruction is not only involving of the Romans but in some way(s), it signified God’s anger and frustration with the Temple and its ways (see chs. 11 and 12 to get an even better picture of this!).

In 13.27, more judgment imagery out of Zechariah is used and in 13.28, Jesus employs another fig tree statement. He had already done this in chapter 11. There, the fig tree was barren, though it appeared to bear fruit. Jesus says that the Temple and its officials are juts like that: they appear to be doing God’s work, bearing fruit, but in reality, they are spiritually barren. Picking up on this again, Jesus tells the 4 disciples (still sitting on the Mount of Olives with Him, looking at the Temple) that just as they can tell a tree by its fruit (or even a season, by a tree’s fruit), so they will know when the season of judgment has befallen the Temple. In 13.29, Jesus employs a “gate” analogy that will carry through to 13.37. Comparable to the fig metaphor, Jesus uses a “gate” image to make His point (however, He doesn’t finish the point until a few verses later; we’ll get to that).

In 13.30, continuing with the gate imagery, Jesus says that the generation (in the sense of time), will not “pass by” before the Temple is doomed. Some translations say “pass away” but that makes no sense. If we recall His “gate” imagery, we must use “pass by”. People do not “pass away” through a gate but rather “pass by” through a gate. Anyway, this is another key verse because it shows that Jesus is still talking to the same group of people about the same subject. In 13.31, Jesus says that “heaven and earth will pass by” (again, in the sense of time; the world going on) but that His “words will not pass by”. What He means is that the disciples who have repeatedly misunderstood Him, in retrospect will get what He has said; they will come to understand. No longer will the power and meanings of His words just pass by misunderstood like they had so often before.

In 13.32, Jesus says that nobody knows about the specific timing, the “day or hour” of these events except God the Father. Now, we must consent that Jesus has never stopped talking about the Temple yet. By the same token, He has not stopped talking about it here. The Temple is still His focus. Its destruction is still His focus. He is saying that nobody knows the specific time the Temple will fall, not even Himself, but only The Father. So, what we realize is that Jesus is not referring to His “2nd Coming” here. No, He is referring to the Temple. We must put an end to the teaching that Jesus admitted that He had no idea of the time of His 2nd Coming. Jesus never said that!!! What Jesus didn’t know the date of was the destruction of Jerusalem’s center of worship!!! This is made even more clear when we look at 13.33. In that verse, Jesus issues the same refrain He has been making all throughout (it is like a chorus to a song for Him): “Be on guard…you don’t know the time.” It makes the most sense to take this phrase in the same vein that it has been stated and taken all throughout Mk. 13—as a warning to the disciples to be prepared for the battles that will break out and lead to a devastating Temple end.

In 13.34, Jesus returns to the gate analogy begun in 13.27. Actually, the call to be alert must be taken with the gate analogy too. Why? Because the purpose of a gatekeeper is to watch the people who come to the gate. If they are familiar, you let them through without question; they “pass by” as usual (just like heaven and earth will pass by as usual). But if someone unfamiliar arrives at the gate, the keeper will stop them, question them and make a decision on whether or not to let them pass. The point is, no keeper will let the stranger “pass by” without taking notice. Jesus is saying that the disciples are like gatekeepers now. When they see familiar and unfamiliar things taking place, they will know what actions to carry out.

In 13.35, Jesus mentions the four watches of the night in the Jerusalem Temple (another factor that shows us He is still talking about the Temple’s destruction). He makes the point that the owner (God the Father) of the house (the Temple) will remove Himself from that place but eventually come back (and dwell in a new place, His people). The point is: If the people don’t know when the Temple is about to be destroyed, they won’t be ready for the absence of God from the Temple and thus ready for the Spirit to take residence in them and begin working. Really, that’s the major point of Mk. 13: When God leaves the Temple, He’s going to relocate in His people (the Church)! So, they better be ready for it. Thus, the exhortation to stay awake in 13.36, to be ready for work and in 13.37 to “watch”.

I go through all of this to make a few points: 1) To reiterate that this is not a little apocalypse nor does it even fit the apocalyptic genre, 2) To reiterate that this is not an eschatological treatise on end-time events or even the 2nd Coming, 3) To reiterate that this is about the Temple’s destruction on the one hand, and 4) the relocation of God’s presence out of the Temple and into His people on the other hand. Lastly, I also want to address the point made in the title of this post, the point about Jesus knowing the time of His 2nd Coming. As I showed above, it is clear that Jesus never said anything about a 2nd Coming nor did He say anything about not knowing when a 2nd Coming would happen! So, we should not say those things either.

Since I have been a student of the Bible I have heard people say, and I have said it myself, that Jesus did not and does not know when He’ll return. Whether He knows now or not, I cannot say for sure. What I can say is that Jesus never admitted, while on earth, that He didn’t know. Again, He was saying He didn’t know the specific time Temple would fall. I wonder, if Jesus, when He became human kind of put the omnis on hold (Php. 2, for instance), assumed them when He ascended back to the Father’s hand? If this is the case, wouldn’t He know the time of His return? It would seem so. That is, unless He had never set a time, chose to forego the idea of a specific time or chose not to know a time which the Father might have set.

Either way, in rethinking the return of Jesus, we desperately need to rethink how we use Mk. 13 in such teachings. Honestly, Mk. 13 does not fit in such a teaching; it is not about that. We might also rethink the notion of Jesus’ ignorance (again, He could be choosing not to know or perhaps not have ever “set” a specific time). After all, He is not admitting ignorance of His own 2nd Coming. He is admitting, as a human, that He doesn’t know about the Temple’s end. It’s amazing how simple, contextual reading often results in reshaping our theology. But then again, that’s the beauty of “aha” moments.

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