Signs of the End of the Age, 1-31

Mk 13:1 As he was leaving the temple, one of his disciples said to him, “Look, Teacher! What massive stones! What magnificent buildings!”

‘One of the main reasons, I suppose, why the obvious way of reading the chapter has been ignored for so long must be the fact that in a good deal of Christian theology the fall of Jerusalem has had no theological significance. This has meant not only that Mark 13 is found puzzling, but also that all the references to the same event elsewhere in the gospels — even where it stares one in the face, as in Luke 13:1-5 — have been read as general warnings of hellfire in an afterlife, rather than the literal and physical divine-judgment-through-Roman-judgment that we have seen to be characteristic of Jesus’ story.’ (Wright, Jesus and the Victory of God)

Mk 13:1–37 = Mt 24:1–51; Lk 21:5–36

‘When Jesus’ disciples exclaimed, “Look, Teacher! What massive stones! What magnificent buildings!” it is easy for us to underestimate just how massive and how impressive the Temple complex was.

The platform on which the Temple stood was enormous: the largest of its kind in the ancient world. The southern wall, the shortest, was 930 feet long, the western wall, the longest, 1,620 feet long. The Temple Mount thus enclosed an area the size of some thirteen football pitches, two and half times as long as St Peter’s Basilica in Rome, and nearly four times as wide. By way of comparison, it was five times the area of the Acropolis in Athens.

The smallest of the stones used to build the massive walls weighed between two and five tons, and many weighed ten tons or more. The majority were 3-4 feet high, and between 4 and ten 10 feet long, though some stones were much, much larger. Those which are sill in place on the south-west corner are about 40 feet long, 3 feet high, and 8 feet thick, and weigh about 50 tons each. A number of massive stone in the western wall are unequalled in size anywhere in the ancient world. The largest is almost 40 feet long, 10 feet high, and 13 feet thick, and must weigh about 400 tons.

Two thousand years later, these walls are still as solid and sturdy as if they had just been built. At the joins where the blocks meet, we can see that they have not moved at all in that time, not even a millimetre. Sometimes it is only the dressing around the edge of the stones that shows where one block ends and the next begins.’ (Coupland, Spicing up your Speaking, 140f)

Lane writes, ‘The buildings of the area which prompted the disciples’ comment would include not only the sanctuary itself with its magnificent facade but its series of enclosures and the related structures of smaller buildings joined to it by colonnaded courts, covering approximately 1/6 of the old city of Jerusalem. This complex of stone was one of the most impressive sights in the ancient world, and was regarded as an architectural wonder. The rabbis had little respect for Herod and his successors, but they said, “he who has not seen Jerusalem in her splendour has never seen a desirable city in his life. He who has not seen the Temple in its full construction has never seen a glorious building in his life.” As a mountain of white marble decorated with gold it dominated the Kidron gorge as an object of dazzling beauty.’

Mk 13:2 “Do you see all these great buildings?” replied Jesus. “Not one stone here will be left on another; every one will be thrown down.”

‘One future event which is clearly and repeatedly predicted by Jesus is the destruction of Jerusalem and its Temple (Mk 13:2 and the following discourse; Lk. 21:20ff.; cf. also Mt 23:37-39 Lk 23:28-31). This is presented as the inevitable result of the Jewish rejection of God’s final appeal (Lk 13:34-35:19:41-44; cf. Mt 22:7), and it will come upon that generation. (Mt 23:36 Mk 13:30) It is likely that some of Jesus’ sayings about the ‘coming of the Son of man’ (again echoing Dan 7:13f) relate at least in part to this event rather than to his second coming, particularly as they too envisage a fulfilment within the living generation. (Mk 8:38-9:1 Mt 10:23 Mk 13:26,30) This act of judgment would then be a further manifestation of his vindication. It is not agreed how much of the Olivet discourse refers to the question about the destruction of the Temple with which it opens and how much to a more ultimate future, but certainly the fate of Jerusalem holds a prominent place in Jesus’ expectations for the future, and is viewed in relation to his own ministry.’

Mark 13:3 As Jesus was sitting on the Mount of Olives opposite the temple, Peter, James, John and Andrew asked him privately,

Mk 13:4 “Tell us, when will these things happen? And what will be the sign that they are all about to be fulfilled?”

‘The signs of Mark 13 are not like the signs which say, “End of Motorway 1 mile.” They are in fact more like the hazard warning lights which warn us of dangers along the way. Jesus spoke of signs, not to satisfy curiosity or to make calculation possible, but to strengthen faith and to warn of dangers that his followers could expect…The keynote of Mark 13 is not in predictions so much as in exhortations – “Keep awake, be on your guard!” (verses 32-37) – and promises – “the person who holds out to the end will be saved” (v13).’ (Travis, I Believe in the Second Coming of Jesus, 123)

Mark 13:5 Jesus said to them: “Watch out that no one deceives you.

Mark 13:6 Many will come in my name, claiming, ‘I am he,’ and will deceive many.

‘I am he’ – or, ‘I am’.  Cf. Mk 6:50.

Mark 13:7 When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed. Such things must happen, but the end is still to come.

Mark 13:8 Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be earthquakes in various places, and famines. These are the beginning of birth pains.

Mark 13:9 “You must be on your guard. You will be handed over to the local councils and flogged in the synagogues. On account of me you will stand before governors and kings as witnesses to them.

Mark 13:10 And the gospel must first be preached to all nations.

Mark 13:11 Whenever you are arrested and brought to trial, do not worry beforehand about what to say. Just say whatever is given you at the time, for it is not you speaking, but the Holy Spirit.

Mark 13:12 “Brother will betray brother to death, and a father his child. Children will rebel against their parents and have them put to death.

Mk 13:13 All men will hate you because of me, but he who stands firm to the end will be saved.

“He who stands firm to the end will be saved” – ‘not because salvation is the reward of endurance, but because endurance is the hall mark of the saved.’ (Stott, Authentic Christianity, 213)

Mark 13:14 “When you see ‘the abomination that causes desolation’ standing where it does not belong—let the reader understand—then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains.

Mark 13:15 Let no one on the roof of his house go down or enter the house to take anything out.

Mark 13:16 Let no one in the field go back to get his cloak.

Mark 13:17 How dreadful it will be in those days for pregnant women and nursing mothers!

Mark 13:18 Pray that this will not take place in winter,

Mark 13:19 because those will be days of distress unequaled from the beginning, when God created the world, until now—and never to be equaled again.

Mark 13:20 If the Lord had not cut short those days, no one would survive. But for the sake of the elect, whom he has chosen, he has shortened them.

Mark 13:21 At that time if anyone says to you, ‘Look, here is the Christ !’ or, ‘Look, there he is!’ do not believe it.

Mark 13:22 For false Christs and false prophets will appear and perform signs and miracles to deceive the elect—if that were possible.

Mark 13:23 So be on your guard; I have told you everything ahead of time.

Mark 13:24 “But in those days, following that distress, “’the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light;

Mark 13:25 the stars will fall from the sky, and the heavenly bodies will be shaken.’

Mark 13:26 “At that time men will see the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory.

This imagery is drawn from Dan 7:13.  N.T. Wright has argued that the imagery in Daniel (and therefore in the present passage) indicates, not a coming from heaven but a going to heaven.  It is, on this reading, suggestive of the vindication of the Son of Man at the fall of Jerusalem, rather than of his second coming at the end of time.  A significant weakness of this interpretation is that the early church clearly thought of the resurrection as the vindication of Jesus, and not the fall of Jerusalem, which is rarely mentioned in the rest of the NT.

Wright: ‘Jesus is not speaking in this discourse about a supernatural figure floating downwards on a cloud to bring the spacetime world to an end; rather he is speaking, as his use of Danielic imagery should have made clear, about the ‘beasts’ that make war on the ‘people of the saints of the most high’, and about the ‘son of man’ who will be exalted and vindicated over them. The ‘coming’ of the Son of Man, is emphatically not, therefore, his ‘coming’ from heaven to earth, but his coming from earth to heaven, in vindication and exaltation over his enemies.’

Referring more generally to the ‘Son of Man’ sayings, and to Wright’s interpretation of these, Robert Stein writes: ‘The sayings are clearly understood by the Gospel writers as referring to a second coming of the Son of Man at the end of history. The return of the Son of Man with the holy angels in Mark 8:38; his separation of the goats from the sheep into eternal punishment in Matt 25:31–46; the return of the Son of Man in the new world in Matt 19:28; the removal from his kingdom of all evil and the casting of the weeds into the furnace of fire where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth in Matt 13:41–42; the question of whether the Son of Man will find faith when he comes in Luke 18:8; etc. cannot be demythologized into being a metaphorical reference to the fall of Jerusalem in ad 70.’

Mark 13:27 And he will send his angels and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of the heavens.

Mark 13:28 “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.

‘Jesus used a fig tree in his illustration because, whereas in Palestine most trees are evergreens, the fig tree loses its leaves in winter.’ (Brooks)

Mark 13:29 Even so, when you see these things happening, you know that it is near, right at the door.

Mark 13:30 I tell you the truth, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened.

Among the interpretative possibilities that have been proposed are the following:-

(a) Jesus did not utter these words at all.  The entire passage is a Jewish apocalypse with Christian editing (Bultmann).

(b) Jesus uttered these words, and meant by them that the parousia would take place within the lifetimes of those present.  If so, he was, of course, mistaken.

(c) Jesus was thinking of the parousia, but meant by ‘this generation’, ‘this race’ (i.e. the Jewish race’).

(d) Jesus meant by ‘this generation’ the entire Christian era, culminating in the parousia.

(d) Some think that Jesus the generation which would be alive at the time of which he was speaking.  In other words, he was indicating that the events associated with the parousia would take place within the span of one generation.  But we can be pretty certain the the phrase, ‘this generation’ refers to the generation alive at the time that Jesus was speaking (so Brooks, Strauss, and many others).  Moreover, on his lips, the phrase usually has negative connotations (Mk 8:38; Lk 11:29,32; cf. Deut 1:35; 32:5).

To what, then, is Jesus referring when he speaks of ‘all these things’?  He has been answering the disciples question about the destruction of the temple and associated events, Mk 13:1-4.  He is saying that the temple would be destroyed within the present generation.  And this was fulfilled in August AD70, when the temple was destroyed by the Romans.

A ‘generation’, in Jewish thought, was reckoned to be a period of 40 years.  And that was pretty much the interval between the time Jesus spoke these words and the time of the destruction of Jerusalem.

‘Jesus meant that some of the people of his generation, and more particularly some of his disciples, would not die until the things of vv. 5–23 had happened, including the very significant destruction of Jerusalem and its temple. To a limited extent v. 30 answers the first question in v. 4.’ (Brooks)

It is thought that Mark wrote his Gospel in about AD 65.  Because he could not have known that there would be a substantial lapse of time between God’s judgment on Jerusalem and the final judgment.  Accordingly, he makes not attempt to separate them in his account.  Matthew, however, writing soon after the fall of Jerusalem, could see the separation between the two judgments and reflects this in his account.

(In addition to the various commentaries, see the entry in Hard Sayings of the Bible)

Mark 13:31 Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away.

‘That Jesus here identifies his words, like God’s, as eternal bears witness to a high implicit Christology.’

It is also notable that, in a passage which has occasioned so much discussion and debate, Jesus expresses here solemn certainty!

The Day and Hour Unknown, 32-37

Mk 13:32 “No one knows about that day or hour, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.”

See also Mt 24:36, where some manuscripts include, but many omit, the words, ‘nor the Son’.  See also Acts 1:7.

According the Strauss, Jesus’ attention moves from the destruction of Jerusalem within a generation, about which he is certain, to the time of the Son of Man’s coming, about which he is uncertain.

“Nor the Son” – ‘There is something almost blasphemous in speculating about that which was hidden from even Christ himself.’ (DSB, on Acts 1:9-11)

Notwithstanding Jesus’ confession of ignorance, he does claim for himself a very lofty position – higher than ‘the angels in heaven’.

Indeed, as Strauss remarks, ‘Even with this reference to the Son’s lack of knowledge, the passage points to a high implicit Christology. The threefold reference to the Father, Son, and angels indicates a heavenly hierarchy (and preexistence?), in which the Son is higher than the angels. This goes beyond a merely adoptionistic or messianic sonship to God. The passage also fits well the doctrine of the incarnation, which holds that the Son “empties” himself of the independent exercise of certain attributes (Phil 2:6–8), including omniscience.’

This admission of ignorance on the part of our Lord has occasioned much discussion down the centuries.  Hurtado notes that some copyists omitted, no doubt because of the theological embarrassment is caused.  For Vincent Taylor, its very offence is sound evidence of its authenticity.  Then ‘the Arians cited it in support of their contention that the Son was subordinate to the Father’ (Edwards).

The explanation of the admission of ignorance is generally given in terms of our Lord’s humanity.  As God, he was omniscient, but as man he had voluntarily laid aside his divine prerogatives (Phil 2:7).

Howe and Geisler (When Critics Ask) put it simply: ‘We must distinguish between what Jesus knew as God (everything) and what He knew as man. As God, Jesus was omniscient (all-knowing), but as man He was limited in His knowledge.’

Edwards explains with greater depth and nuance: ‘This verse contains an amazing paradox. Here the bold assertion of divine Sonship is yoked to the unlikely limitation of ignorance. In this the only passage in the Gospel of Mark where Jesus explicitly calls himself “the Son,” he admits to what he does not know and cannot do. This irony is, to be sure, very much in accord with Mark’s portrayal of Jesus as the Son, for Jesus does not claim the prerogatives of divine Sonship apart from complete obedience to the Father’s will but rather forsakes claims and calculations in favor of humble confidence in the Father’s will. Equally ironic is the fact that the Son, unlike the disciples, relinquishes all claims concerning the future into the Father’s plan.’

‘We should not think Jesus’ statement here indicates that he is not divine. His statement pertains to limits in knowledge he willingly experienced during his earthly life. Just as he was limited in space and time (he could not be in more than one place at a time), he was also limited in knowledge.’ (Holman Apologetics Commentary)

‘Just as it is not in Jesus’ power to grant to anyone to sit at his right hand or left, so Jesus must be obedient to the sovereign will of God, who determines the time.’ (Garland)

‘Our Lord had a human mind and that human mind was limited and finite. It had to reason in a human way from premises to conclusions. It had to gather, store and organise information. Its knowledge was not (as God’s knowledge is) intuitive. It was inductive and deductive. Furthermore, it was not absolute or infinite. He was not, at the human level, omniscient. There is nothing at all novel in this idea. For example, we find the Lord confessing his ignorance of the time of the Second Coming: ‘But of that day or that hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father’. (Mk 13:32)

Calvin discusses this thoroughly in Volume 3 of his Commentary on a Harmony of the Evangelists. He writes: ‘There would be no impropriety in saying that Christ, who knew all things, was ignorant of something in respect of his perception as a man.’ He also points out that if we refuse to accept that Christ was not omniscient we shall find ourselves in very serious difficulties when it comes to his mortality. If we are offended by limited knowledge, how will we cope when the Son of God dies?

There is a similar indication in Lk 2:52 where we are told that the child Jesus ‘increased in wisdom’. He became wiser. He became better informed. He accumulated an ever-increasing fund of prudence and common sense. This does not mean that the Lord was fallible. Infallibility does not depend on omniscience. It depends on the ministry of the Spirit, and Jesus enjoyed that in the fullest measure, both because of who he was and because of what he came to accomplish. But it is clear that the Lord’s human mind was finite and his human perception limited. He underwent normal intellectual development and learned by observing the world around him, listening to his mother and searching the Scriptures. He was not ignorant of anything he ought to have known. God kept from him nothing which it was good for his church to know. But there were things like the date of the Second Coming which were not the church’s business and so the Lord said nothing about them. Indeed, he could not. What he knew of the mysteries of God in his capacity as Mediator he knew only as God the Father revealed them to him through the Holy Spirit. Information as to the date of the end was not revealed. Hence his confession of ignorance. Even now, at the right hand of the majesty on high, Christ’s glorified human mind does not fully understand the glory of his own divine nature. There are complexities in his own being which are still inaccessible to his finite human intellect. He is a depth to himself.’ (McLeod, A Faith to Live By)

‘We know that in Christ the two natures were united into one person in such a manner that each retained its own properties; and more especially the Divine nature was in a state of repose, and did not at all exert itself, whenever it was necessary that the human nature should act separately, according to what was peculiar to itself, in discharging the office of Mediator. There would be no impropriety, therefor in saying that Christ, who knew all things, (Jn 21:17) was ignorant of something in respect of his perception as a man; for otherwise he could not have been liable to grief and anxiety, and could not have been like us,’ (Heb 2:17) (Calvin)

Discussing the ‘kenosis’ theory (on which see Php 2:7n), Packer says, ‘it is true that Jesus’ knowledge of things both human and divine was sometimes limited. He asks occasionally for information-“Who touched my clothes?” “How many loaves do you have?” (Mk 5:30 6:38) He declares that he shares the ignorance of the angels as to the day appointed for his return. (Mk 13:32) But at other times he displays supernatural knowledge. He knows the Samaritan woman’s shady past. (Jn 4:17-18) He knows that when Peter goes fishing, the first fish he catches will have a coin in its mouth. (Mt 17:27) He knows, without being told, that Lazarus is dead. (Jn 11:11-13) Similarly, from time to time he displays supernatural power in miracles of healing, feeding, and resuscitating the dead. The impression of Jesus which the Gospels give is not that he was wholly bereft of divine knowledge and power, but that he drew on both intermittently, while being content for much of the time not to do so. The impression, in other words, is not so much one of deity reduced as of divine capacities restrained.

How are we to account for this restraint? Surely, in terms of the truth of which John’s Gospel in particular makes so much, the entire submission of the Son to the Father’s will. Part of the revealed mystery of the Godhead is that the three Persons stand in a fixed relation to each other. The Son appears in the Gospels not as an independent divine person, but as a dependent one, who thinks and acts only and wholly as the Father directs. “The Son can do nothing by himself;” “By myself I can do nothing.” (Jn 5:19,30) “I have come down from heaven not to do my will but to do the will of him who sent me.” (Jn 6:38) “I do nothing on my own…I always do what pleases him.” (Jn 8:28-29)

It is the nature of the second person of the Trinity to acknowledge the authority and submit to the good pleasure of the first. That is why he declares himself to be the Son and the first person to be his Father. Though coequal with the Father in eternity, power and glory, it is natural to him to play the Son’s part and to find all his joy in doing his Father’s will, just as it is natural to the first person of the Trinity to plan and initiate the works of the Godhead and natural to the third person to proceed from the Father and the Son to do their joint bidding.

Thus the obedience of the God-man to the Father while he was on earth was not a new relationship occasioned by the Incarnation, but the continuation in time of the eternal relationship between the Son and the Father in heaven. As in heaven, so on earth, the Son was utterly dependent upon the Father’s will.

But if this is so, all is explained. The God-man did not know independently, any more than he acted independently. Just as he did not do all that he could have done, because certain things were not his Father’s will, (see Mt 26:53-54) so he did not consciously know all that he might have known, but only what the Father willed him to know. His knowing, like the rest of his activity, was bounded by his Father’s will. And therefore the reason why he was ignorant of (for instance) the date of his return was not that he had given up the power to know all things at the Incarnation, but that the Father had not willed that he should have this particular piece of knowledge while on earth, prior to his passion. Calvin was surely right to comment on Mk 13:32 as follows: “Until he had fully discharged his (mediatorial) office, that information was not given to him which he received after his resurrection.” So Jesus’ limitation of knowledge is to be explained, not in terms of the mode of the Incarnation, but with reference to the will of the Father for the Son while on earth. And therefore we conclude that, just as there are some facts in the Gospels which contradict the kenosis theory, so there are no facts in the Gospels which are not best explained without it.’ (Knowing God)

The idea that Jesus was ignorant of some (many?) things is developed by R.E. Brown in his little book Jesus: God and Man.  Brown asks: ‘Is it totally inconceivable that, since Jesus did not know when the Parousia would occur, he tended to think and say it would occur soon? Would not the inability to correct contemporary views on this question be the logical effect of ignorance?’

“Only the Father” – ‘In the midst of calamity and destruction, tribulation and persecution, when even the sun, moon, and stars are shaken (vv. 24–25), the believer may rest assured that God is still Father, and as Father he remains steadfast in his just will, compassion, and purpose.’ (Edwards)

Mark 13:33 Be on guard! Be alert ! You do not know when that time will come.

The main point, of course, is not that the Son does not know, that that they do not know.  Therefore, they must be ready at all times.

Mk 13:34 It’s like a man going away: he leaves his house and puts his servants in charge, each with his assigned task, and tells the one at the door to keep watch.

‘If I straighten the pictures on the walls of your home, I am committing no sin, am I? But suppose that your house were afire, and I still went calmly about straightening pictures, what would you say? Would you think me merely stupid or very wicked? The world today is on fire. What are you doing to extinguish the fire?’ (Corrie ten Boom)

Mk 13:35 “Therefore keep watch because you do not know when the owner of the house will come back—whether in the evening, or at midnight, or when the rooster crows, or at dawn.”

cf Lk 17:34-35. This has been taken to intimate the sphericity of the earth, which would be required if our Lord were to return at all these times (evening, midnight, cock-crow or dawn) at once. However, the passage teaches that he may return at any of these times, not at all of them. (See Ramm, The Christian View of Science and Scripture, 93)

Mark 13:36 If he comes suddenly, do not let him find you sleeping.

Mark 13:37 What I say to you, I say to everyone: ‘Watch!’”