Commentary: Mark 13:24-37
A superficial look at this passage located near the end of the Gospel according to Mark might cause one to wonder how it can serve as an introduction to the Advent season. What could this combination of apocalyptic imagery and parable have to say to the church today, as we await both the celebration of Christ's birth and his return? An examination of Mark 13:24-37 reveals that the author (whom we will refer to as Mark) does indeed have a pertinent word for us.
Through the thoughtfully arranged forms which comprise our text Mark demonstrates that while the day of Christ's coming is a mystery, it is at the same time a certainty. Consequently, discipleship must be characterized by never ending watchfulness, so that Christ's followers will recognize him when he appears, and be prepared to respond to his glory. An examination of context, structure and key concepts serves to flesh out this conclusion.
Before examining the location of our text within the book, the historical context from which the Gospel was written must be considered. Penned in a time of political and social upheaval approximately forty years after his death, Jesus' followers justifiably would have questioned the impact of his life, death and resurrection upon them. In light of this, Mark 13 serves to assure the saints that whatever course human history might take, the power and presence of Christ is not diminished. The dominant theme in Mark 13 of the prevailing power of God's grace bears witness to this.
This becomes increasingly apparent when we note that each of the sections of Mark 13 leading up to our passage concludes with a word of hope. For example, while in Mark 13:1-8 Jesus begins by foretelling the destruction of the temple and delineates the type of chaos which will ensue, he concludes by telling the disciples that, "This is but the beginning of the birth pangs" (v.8). As painful as birth pangs might be, they lead to new life. Likewise, when in Mark 13:9-13 Jesus tells his disciples of the persecution they are bound to suffer, he also assures them that the Holy Spirit will speak through them. In Mark 13:14-23 Jesus speaks of pagan desecration of the temple, and the time of tribulation it will precede, yet makes it clear that, "for the sake of the elect, whom he chose, he (the Lord) has cut short those days" (v.21). Immediately before our passage Mark reminds us that false messiahs will loom large. As disciples of Christ, however, we already know what is sufficient for life. It is for that Word that all his followers must be on the alert.
Finally, by opening with a description of the glorious coming of the Messiah, Mark 13:24-37 put to rest any lingering doubts regarding if or to whom Christ will come. At the same time it precedes the plot to kill Jesus which results in his trial, execution, and burial. In locating Chapter 13 here, Mark not only assures the disciples of Christ's continuing presence, but prepares them for life in Jesus' physical absence.
Three distinct units comprise the text, and are distinguished by virtue of the consistency of the verb form within each. Verses 24-27 are written in the future tense, suggesting that the event described has not yet come about. Note, though, that in Mark 1:15, John says with respect to Jesus that, "The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near" (Mk 1:15). If the kingdom is present during Jesus' ministry, to what extent is this true? Should the disciples be anticipating an entirely different experience of the kingdom than they have already had? Or, when Mark speaks of the coming of the Son of Man is he perhaps referring to the various and unexpected ways in which Christ makes himself known in the present time?
While the lesson of the fig tree of Verses 28-31 does not eliminate the ambiguity of that which precedes, it does provide some clarity. As surely as spring follows winter, so new growth indicates that summer is near. Unlike the linear progression of salvation history, though, the life of the fig tree is cyclical, so we know that it will bear new growth again and again. Even though the lesson does not provide us with a date, then, it alludes to the certainty of Christ's coming. Written in the present tense, it suggests that Christ's coming is a certainty that makes a difference now.
Moving from the future tense to the present, our passage concludes in the imperative. The hearers of these words, whether they be the original twelve, Mark's first readers, or the church today, are told what they must do. The Son of Man will come, and a response is required. That response is to be unflagging vigilance. It is a tall order indeed. By speaking in the imperative, however, Jesus does not simply set forth a command. Inseparable from this command is the implication that since it is Jesus who has spoken, those who number themselves among his disciples will be equipped to obey. The nature of this response is set forth in the consideration of key concepts.
Rather than employing a variety of difference concepts, Mark drives home Jesus' point by using three nearly synonymous words. Set in the story about the master who has left his household in his servants' hands, Jesus orders his disciples always to beware, to keep awake, and to stay alert. Simply keeping their eyes opened will not suffice. By living as if the master might return at any time, there is nothing to fear when he does return.
Because they are to live as if the Son of Man might come at any moment, Jesus' disciples are freed from the temptation to shape their lives around what might or might not happen in the future. They are able to invest themselves fully in the task of bearing witness to the kingdom of God in the present.
A careful study of Mark 13:24-37 reveals that this passage does indeed have much to say to the church in anticipation of the hope and joy that the Advent season offers. Mark does not suggest that the time and energy expended in preparation is not worthwhile. He does tell us to be wary, however, lest in looking too far ahead, we miss the Christ who already dwells among us.
Holly D. Hayes Forest Hills Presbyterian Church High Point, NC
Kurt Aland and Eberhard Nestle, eds. Novum Testamentum Grace (Stuttgart: Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft, 1979). K. Arland, ed. Synopsis Quarttor Evangelorium(Stuttgart: Wurttembergische Bibelanstant, 1973). Walter Bauer, ed. A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, 2nd ed. (Chicago: University Press, 1979). Geroge Buttrick, ed. The Interpreter's Dictionary of the Bible (Nashville: Abingdon, 1962). David Noel Freedman, ed. The Anchor Bible Dictionary (New York: Doubleday, 1992). Good News New Testament (New York: American Bible Society, 1966). James Hewitt. New Testament Greek: A Beginning and Intermediated Grammar (Peabody: Hendrickson, 1986). Holy Bible: King James Version (New York: Thomas Nelson, 1972). Holy Bible: New Revised Standard Version National Council of Churches (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1990). Holy Bible: The New International Version, International Bible Society (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1984). Raymond E. Brown, Joseph A. Fitzmyer, Roland E. Murphy, eds. The Jerome Biblical Commentary (Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, 1968). James L. Mays, ed. Harper's Bible Commentary (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1988). W.G. Moulton and A.S. Geden. A Concordance to the Greek New Testament, 4th rev. ed. (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1963).
SPECIFIC SOURCES FOR MARK 13:24-37
Paul J. Achtemeier. Mark: Proclamation Commentaries (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1986). Leander Keck, ed., The New Interpreter's Bible (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1994). MARK. Pheme Perkins. Lamar Williamson. Mark, Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching (Louisville: John Knox, 1983).
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