Last night I led my test subjects, I mean bible study group, through Mark 13. It certainly does seem (at least to me) to be one of the most difficult passages in the New Testament. The biggest issue is sorting out whether what is being referred to is the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem (the one that occurred in 70 A.D.) or the eschaton (the last days when Jesus returns), or perhaps to both. I enjoyed walking through the text for a couple hours with my group and withholding my own opinions as much as possible. Toward the end I did give them my current opinion before trying to sum everything up with what is a little more clear: the point of the text is to wait and watch out in order to persevere. It’s not meant, in the first place, to guide us through our quibbles about end times theology.
Nonetheless, discussing the more difficult question of the time references is an important part of coming to grips with the passage. And it appears to me that many today assume much of it to be referring to the eschaton without giving much thought to the fulfillment in the Jewish War and destruction of the temple in 70 A.D. But this is very clearly involved in the question from the disciples that leads to all of this discourse. So, I tried to get my group to start considering whether some or all of it could have been fulfilled in 70.
One of the most interesting discussions occurred around 13:10 where it says, “And the gospel must first be preached to all nations” (NIV). Since the common assumption is that this can ONLY be future to us, I had some fun trying to get them to see if it could mean anything else.
The reason I wanted to seriously consider that Mark’s text may be saying the gospel will first go out to all nations and be fulfilled by 70 A.D. is its immediate co-text. Verse 9 says, “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” (NIV). Given that this is Jesus addressing his disciples in either 30 or 33 A.D. and Christianity proper has not gotten under way and there is no split with the synagogue here, this text should have made sense to the disciples as occurring pre 70 A.D. It doesn’t make so much sense today though. But if v. 9 is referring to something pre-70 A.D., why does it ping pong to the eschaton in verse 10 when it talks about the gospel going out to all nations first? And then v. 11 still makes sense with what has preceded it as pre-70 A.D.
So, the question becomes, does verse 10 HAVE to be understood as only referring to the end times? Is it possible at all to understand it as to be fulfilled by 70 A.D.? I think it’s at least possible.
What 1st c. document details the rise of the early church? Correct, the “Acts of the Apostles” written by Luke. How does it begin in relation to this issue? Acts 1:8: “You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea, in Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” Now, it is possible to take that literally from today’s standpoint and include every single nation upon the earth, however we define “nation.” And this is what I commonly see done. But, how does the book of Acts proceed and finish? It proceeds by showing the progress of the gospel moving from Jerusalem outward. It finishes with Paul preaching the gospel in Rome, a metropolitan capital of the empire far away from Jerusalem, potentially thought of as the ends of the earth from a 1st c. middle east perspective.
So, when Mark 13:10 says that the gospel will go out to all nations could it be that it indeed is talking about its progress prior to the destruction of the temple?
I think it could. And if it doesn’t, does that make the text schizophrenic to be ping-ponging back and forth between the temple’s destruction and the future eschaton without any warning whatsoever? That would seem really odd linguistically.
If you’ve read this far with me and are upset at the possibility that this can no longer act as a proof text for the missionary idea that all nations of the earth must first hear the gospel and then the end will come, keep in mind that this is not the only text in the NT that talks about nations and others hearing the gospel/worshiping God. So there is more to the story.
But with respect to Mark 13, I’m still processing this. And I’ve only addressed one issue here. I haven’t talked about other parts of the text that may be future referring (from our modern vantage point).
What do you think?