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The Apocalyptic Discourse
BackgroundIn the past the prophets of Israel taught that the disasters which had befallen the nation were God's punishment for its unfaithfulness. They believed that when the nation was completely faithful to God the Day of the Lord would arrive. They believed that God would intervene in history and vindicate the nation's faith in Him. God would right the wrongs they had suffered, punish those who oppressed them, and restore Israel, His chosen people, to their proper status as supreme among the nations of the world. The Day of the Lord would usher in a golden age of righteousness, justice and peace. All the nations would look towards Jerusalem where true knowledge of God was to be found.
The Israelites came to understand God as the Lord of history, who controlled all events upon earth, and whose purpose would be fulfilled in history. They believed that at the end of time God's final purpose would be revealed. This teaching is known as 'eschatology' (Greek 'eschatos' - last, at the last, finally).
After the Jews had returned from exile in Babylon there was a change in outlook in the nation. The destruction of Jerusalem and the exile had a profound effect on Israel's self-confidence. They reflected upon their experience and tried to understand what lessons where to be learnt from it. On their return in 537 BC there was a resolve to reform the practice of their religion. Idolatry was rooted out and the moral and ceremonial Law of Israel was established in the land. Yet the promised day did not arrive and the situation was in many ways worse. The nation was impoverished and there was no end to oppression and persecution. Far from attaining supremacy, the nation was conquered by the Greeks under the rule of Alexander the Great. After Alexander's death his empire was divided into four. Israel eventually came under the rule of Antiochus IV Epiphanes (c.175-164). He was committed to Greek religion and culture so much so that it resulted in appalling brutality in his attempt to root out the religion of Yahweh from the land.
Admidst this persecution came a new emphasis on an already existing form of eschatology called 'apocalyptic' (from the Greek word to unveil, to reveal a secret). The prophets taught that God would vindicate His people in the course of historical events, the apocalyptists believed that the intervention would be in the form of a universal catastrophe. This wicked world would come to an end in a supernatural cataclysm of violence and devastation.
The prophets talked about the Day of the Lord in general terms, the apocalyptists, however, tended to go into great detail. They believed that they had access to God's secret designs, and revealed them in highly symbolic language. Theirs is an eschatology of supernatural wonders, of angels, demons, monsters and fantastic visions. They generally forecast the end of all things to be very near.
The most notable example of apocalyptic writing in the Old Testament is the Book of Daniel. The historical setting of the book is the exile in Babylon. However, it is believed to have been written at the time of Antiochus IV Epiphanes. The reference to the ram (Daniel 8:20) is sometimes seen by scholars as being a reference to Alexander the Great, the four horns (Daniel 8:22) are likewise seen as Alexander's four generals who inherited his empire.
New Testament also has its own apocalyptic literature which was written to encourage Christians at a time of persecution. The Book of Revelation was written at a time when the Christian Church was experiencing persecution in the Roman Empire. Likewise, the Synoptic Gospels also contain sections of apocalyptic writing. It is important to remember that Mark's Gospel was written for Christians experiencing persecution by Nero in Rome.
Apocalyptic Discourse in Mark - Introduction
(Mark 13:1-4)Mark begins his apocalyptic discourse with Jesus and his disciples leaving the Temple (Mark 13:1-2). The Temple was that of Herod the Great. It was not complete until 64 AD and was destroyed by the Romans in 70 AD. One of the disciples comments on the size of stones and the buildings of the Temple. Jesus correctly predicts that the Temple will be destroyed. Peter, James, John and Andrew privately ask him when it is going to be destroyed. This prompts Jesus in his long uninterrupted apocalyptic speech.
The signs before the end
(Mark 13:5-13)Jesus warns his disciples about not being deceived and for his disciples to be on their guard. He warns them that they will be brought before the Sanhedrin, beaten in the synagogue and brought before governors and kings. All this is to be expected since the Gospel is to be spread throughout the whole world. Mark's original readers experiencing persecution in Rome would have understood Jesus' prediction of their persecution and have been encouraged by the words, '...the man who stands firm to the end will be saved.' (Mark 13:13).
The great tribulation of Jerusalem
(Mark 13:14-23)Jesus talks about the 'abomination of desolation', this is probably a reference to the book of Daniel, 'the abominable thing which causes desolation'(Daniel 11:31). Originally this was a reference to the statue of Zeus, the chief of the Greek gods, which Antiochus IV Epiphanes set up in the Temple in Jerusalem in 168 BC. Mark may have in mind the coming destruction of the Temple by the Romans which actually took place in 70 AD. However, it might also refer to the attempt made by the mad Emperor Caligula to have a statue of himself placed in the Temple in 38 AD.
The coming of the Son of Man
(Mark 13:24-27)This section uses imagary mainly found in the book of Daniel (Daniel 7:13-14). After signs in heaven and earth the Son of Man will come 'in the clouds with great power and glory' and the angels will gather in his 'Chosen' from the 'farthest bounds of earth to the farthest bounds of heaven'.
The time of this coming
(Mark 13:28-32)Jesus warns his disciples to be watchful. They should read the signs of the times. However, Jesus explicitly states that no one knows the hour or the day when these things will take place. Jesus discourages people from attempting to make predictions by stating that nobody knows when the day or the hour shall be. This information has not even been confided in either the angel or the Son. Only the Father knows when these things will take place.