Mark 13:24-37

The Deeper Meaning of Events

Mark 13:24-37 - Pulling the Veil Aside

Mark next introduced the second element of apocalyptic literature. He had described the current situation in cryptic language. He next endeavoured to “pull aside the veil” and indicate its deeper meaning. The language was classic apocalypse.

24At that time, after that period of distress,
‘the sun will grow dark, the moon will not give its light,
25 the stars will fall out of the sky
and the powerful forces in the heavens will be shaken’.
26 Then they will see
‘the Son of man coming in the clouds’ with great power and glory.
27 He will send the angels
and ‘they will gather together’ his chosen ones
‘from the four winds,
from one end of the sky to the other’.

Mark was effectively saying that, whatever happened at the level of historical experience, the deeper meaning was that the work of redemption was proceeding apace. The coming of the Son of Man was happening: it was being worked out both in the concrete destiny of Jesus himself, soon to climax in his death, and in the ongoing life of the community of disciples. In both cases it would be achieved through the choice for integrity, empowered by the gifting, life-giving God. Whoever holds out to the end will be saved.

The powerful forces in the heavens and the angels gathering together his chosen ones from the four winds were references to the ancient cosmology that saw natural phenomena beyond the understanding and control of humans as the work of unspecified “powerful forces” and angels. References to darkening and chaos in the heavens were typical apocalyptic ways of defining moments of critical importance.

The climactic coming of the Son of Man, with great power and glory, would occur for Mark at the moment of Jesus’ crucifixion, his moment of total integrity and surrender to his God.

As Mark would recount the crucifixion scene he would speak thus: When the sixth hour came, darkness came upon the whole earth until the ninth hour (15:33). It would be what he was referring to in saying that the sun will grow dark

For Mark and his community of disciples, the coming of the Son of Man had already happened, yet was also still being worked out across history. God was saving the world, whatever be the historical experience of the community: persecution or missionary success. The chosen ones were being gathered, across the centuries. Mark was insistent that the coming of the Son of Man was not effectively a future event. It would happen within the lifetime of Mark’s generation. In the forthcoming trial of Jesus according to his narrative, Jesus would affirm that the high priest would himself see the Son of Man coming with the clouds of heaven [15.63].

28Learn from a comparison with the fig tree:
when the branch becomes supple
and it breaks forth in leaves,
you know that summer is near.
29 Likewise, when you see these things taking place,
know that it is almost at your door.
30 I tell you clearly, this generation will certainly not have passed away
before all these things have happened. 
31 The sky and the earth will pass away,
but my words will certainly not pass away.

The discourse reverted to the issue of the destruction of the temple (and of the city Jerusalem). The clues to its eventuality were obvious.

32However, no one knows anything of that day or hour,
neither the angels in heaven nor the Son,
but only the Father.

Mark desired, however, to assert that, whatever about the deeper meaning of history, the actual details of history were not predetermined; they would not be issues of fate. Human persons would remain always free, and the detailed unfolding of history would remain consequent upon the actual decisions reached by people. No one could ever foresee the details of the future. Only the infinite and eternal wisdom of God can know the outcomes of future human choices.

33 Keep your eyes open, be vigilant
since you do not know when the decisive moment is coming. 
34 Like a man leaving his home and going away.  
He gives his authority to his slaves,
to each one his special tasks.  
To the door-keeper he gives the order to keep on the watch.
35 So be vigilant - 
because you do not know when the master of the house is coming,
whether it be nightfall, or midnight, or cockcrow or dawn –
36 in case he comes unexpectedly and finds you asleep.
37 What I say to you, I say to everyone,
Be on the watch.“

Mark obviously did not consider the destruction of the temple to be in any way the prelude to the end of the world. His narrative to date had made frequent reference to the bankruptcy of the whole temple system. He had shown Jesus clearly resisting the attempted monopolistic hold by the priesthood and the scribal class on the experiences of forgiveness and prayer.

He had no sense of the future history of his own community after the problems in Palestine. The point of his crafting the apocalyptic discourse was to urge the disciples to remain always alert, whatever might go on around them or in the privacy of their own lives. Problems would certainly arise – but they need never be cause to lose faith. God’s redemptive plan would continue to unfold beneath the surface. All that would be needed would be eyes that see.

Mark’s Gospel: Written Where, When, Why and For Whom?

Given that this was probably the section of his narrative where Mark had most scope to be creative, some of the particulars that he mentioned can serve to help the attentive scholar to guess the particular nature of the issues affecting Mark’s readers. 

The details have led some scholars to suspect that Mark was indeed writing for a community resident in Palestine at the time immediately before the siege of Jerusalem. They would therefore presumably have been a group of Jewish Christians.

Mark’s concern would have been to keep them true to the vision of Jesus. This would have involved a critical stance towards those factions recommending accommodation to the Roman occupation and, with it, the whole imperial ethos. It would also have involved an unwillingness to engage in violence and to actively take up arms with the rebels. That would equally have involved a lack of faith in the possibilities of the Kingdom. (Cf. 3:22-30)

The alternative for the disciples in such a situation would have been to make use of what opportunities presented themselves to escape the bitter wrangling of the conflicting ideologies and to absent themselves from the potential conflict, that is, to “flee to the hills”.

There are difficulties with this suggestion that Mark’s community was composed of residents of Judea or Galilee. The difficulties arise mainly from 

  • Mark’s translating the couple of Aramaic words found in the narrative, 
  • his explaining the ascetical practices of the Pharisees, 
  • and indeed his at times cavalier approach to Palestinian geography. 

None of these would seem to be necessary if the readers were Palestine disciples.

The issue remains unsolved.

Next >> Mark 14:1-9