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?
I’m thankful to God that I had enough energy and was not sick these past two weeks so that I could preach this past Sunday. It was my first time speaking in front of people since before I was diagnosed with Leukemia in December.
I had spent a couple weeks working on the sermon as I was able (hence why this blog space has been kind of quiet) but then I sensed that the sermon needed to go in a bit of a different direction on Friday afternoon so I wrote a new sermon (incorporating one previous section) on Friday/Saturday.
I have received feedback on the sermon (content/form) for which I’m thankful but I haven’t yet dialogued with anyone on the content.
My argument was that the Bible shows us that our greatest need is not money, pleasure, meaning in work, acceptance or love, etc., and in a certain sense not even in forgiveness of sins, but the presence of God.
I don’t mean to denigrate forgiveness of sins by any stretch of the imagination. It was sin that broke the relationship with God and so the sin issue has to be dealt with. And it was. Jesus paid for our sin on the cross. But, not just for sin’s sake. It was for the sake of bringing us back into relationship with God.
So, I started the sermon by raising the question of our greatest need and then went to the story of the golden calf in Exodus 32–34 to show God’s judgment, mercy and grace. The people deserved death for their wicked rebellion. God has mercy on them by forgiving them. But further, he has grace by giving them the gift of his presence. Moses knew that only this would sustain them (cf. Ex. 33 & 34).
I then took the entire Bible as my text to walk through a biblical theology of God’s dwelling with us to show how it occurs in the Bible. It began in the garden as a pure and whole relationship between God and his people. Sin broke that relationship. But God continued to act in history to provide us with what we most need, his presence. He did it through the tabernacle. This takes us from Sinai to Solomon. He then provides his presence on earth in the temple. This takes us from Solomon all the way to the 1st c. A.D. (with of course the proper noting of the 2nd Temple and all that). I noted along the way that there was still a sense that God had not fulfilled his promises to come back to dwell among his people at the temple, however. So there was a great expectation for its fulfillment.
Well, it comes. And it comes in the person of Jesus. He shows up at the Temple in John 2:19 and says, “Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up.” He was talking about his body. And John 1:14 says that the Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. God dwelt with his people in the person of Jesus Christ. What grace!
Following Jesus’ death, resurrection and ascension, the body of Christ, the church, becomes God’s presence on earth. 1 Cor. 3:16-17 talks about us being the temple of God. God’s Spirit dwells within us and we now mediate God to a broken and lost world.
Finally, all of this is heading somewhere. It will end the way it began: in the garden. But this garden is a restored garden and we will never go astray again. We will dwell in the holy of holies. Revelation 21 paints a beautiful picture of our forever being in the presence of our God. He will dwell among us and we will be his people! Revelation 22 depicts the restored garden. There are bookends to our Bible. We start in the garden and we finish in a garden, made possible by the Lamb (Jesus) dying for our sins. And again, not for sin in itself, but to bring us into relationship with God. To give us what we most need: his presence.
I may post the audio at a later time but I’m also working to expand it in written form.