But in those days, after that tribulation, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light; 25 and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers which are in the heavens will be shaken. 26 And then they will see the Son of man coming in clouds with much power and glory. 27 And then he will send the angels and will gather together [his] elect from the four winds, from the end of the earth to the end of the heavens.
Gustavo Martin’s excellent (though rather technical) Biblica essay on ‘Procedural Register in the Olivet Discourse’ has prompted me to look again at the place of the ‘Son of man’ section in Jesus’ prediction of future events in Mark 13.
Martin’s main argument is that there is a pronounced shift of ‘register’ (that is, a ‘functional variety of language’) between 5b-23 and 24-27 which he takes as evidence that the time frame is dislocated at this juncture. The first part of the discourse can be shown on functional-grammatical grounds to be Jesus’ direct response to the disciples’ question in 13:4 about when the temple will be destroyed: ‘This unusual register, a combination of paraenesis and procedural styles, is used by the Markan Jesus to discuss road signs in the near future of his audience, together with the required reaction to these signs’ (464). In other words, Jesus repeatedly tells his disciples what to do when they see certain things happening in the build up to the desecration and destruction of the temple.
When we come to the paragraph about the Son of man, however, the functional register changes. All the grammatical elements that characterized the preceding section as Jesus’ direct response to the disciples’ question about the temple have disappeared: the imperatives, second person address, references back to the terms of the question, the language of temporal road signs, and all mention of deceivers and opponents – indeed, of any human action whatsoever. So Martin disagrees with Wright, France and Hatina that this section also has reference to the destruction of the temple: rather, it opens up a ‘new temporal horizon in the speech, its only connection with the previous material being that it is God who ultimately drives the events depicted in both’ (473).
The change of register is apparent. The question is whether it signifies a change of temporal horizon. Martin acknowledges that Jesus repeats ‘in those days’ (en ekeinais tais hēmerais) from verse 19, but does not explain how this obvious temporal connection is somehow overruled by the change of register. The adversative (‘But…’) indicates a change of something, but not necessarily of time frame; and the words ‘after that tribulation’ only mean ‘after that tribulation’. For good measure Matthew adds ‘immediately’ (eutheōs) here, and it is very difficult to see how this is supposed to mean anything other than during that time frame and directly following on from the tribulation.
It seems to me that any change of register is sufficiently accounted for by the fact that at this point Jesus switches from the series of pragmatic warnings to provide a different type of statement, in the language (or ‘register’) of Old Testament prophecy, about the outcome or consequence of the events described. The significance of the destruction of Jerusalem for the disciples, indeed for the world, is captured in the imagery of cosmic upheaval, which in prophetic or apocalyptic language denotes large-scale geopolitical transition; and in the symbolic narrative of the Son of man. Of course we no longer have the urgent situational imperatives – not because the speech has lurched abruptly into a remote and indeterminate time frame but because we have a very different way of looking at the coherent sequence of historical events envisaged.
Daniel 7 describes the judgment and destruction of the pagan oppressor (nominally, at least, the Greeks represented by Antiochus Epiphanes), which is followed by the coming of the Son of man figure with the clouds of heaven to the throne of God to receive ‘dominion and glory and kingdom’ (7:11-14). The destruction of Jerusalem does not feature in this scenario, but it is clear from the iterations of this story in the later chapters of Daniel that apostate Israel has colluded with the oppressor and suffers catastrophic judgment as a result.
With regard to Martin’s discussion, a couple of further points may be made. First, it appears that the thrones of divine judgment are set up on earth (Dan. 7:9): there would be no need for thrones to be ‘placed’ in heaven where God already reigns, and the explicit addition of wheels suggests a terrestrial location. There is no journey of the Son of man figure either to or from heaven. The point is that God has come to earth in order to judge the nations that oppose Israel and deliver his holy ones from their afflictions. The Son of man represents the suffering righteous in Israel who are brought before the same throne to receive the kingdom. This is all a very earthly scenario. It depicts the historical vindication of national Israel against the imperial powers on the basis of the faithful suffering of the saints of the Most High.
Secondly, the argument that the Daniel passage has effectively been re-written ‘in order to apply it to the Son of Man’s future coming to earth, to vindicate and gather the elect’ (476) is unpersuasive. Whatever the exact connotation of the reference to the clouds of heaven in the various versions of Daniel 7, Mark 13:26 is only a compressed allusion to this passage, and it would be hazardous to attach too much significance either to the change of preposition or to the position of the phrase.
Jesus has certainly adapted the imagery to fit his own purposes – not least because his interest is in the impending judgment on Jerusalem rather than the subsequent judgment of the pagan aggressor. It seems to me that he is making a broad and suggestive point about the public vindication of those who remain faithful through the tribulation that will accompany the wrath of God against Jerusalem. Dramatically, this is broken down into two stages. The vindication of the Son of man figure that Daniel describes is re-enacted in the vindication of Jesus himself, who will later tell the high priest that he will ‘see’ (Martin is right to stress the element of ‘coming to understand’ in this seeing) ‘the Son of man seated at the right hand of the power and coming with the the clouds of heaven’ (Mk. 14:62). Then this Son of man will gather those whom he has chosen (tous eklektous) specifically to suffer and be vindicated with him in order that they might share in his glory. Paul has a similar argument in 1 Thessalonians 4:16-17, where the clouds have drifted symbolically in order to signify the inclusion of the community (the dead and the living) in the vindication that Jesus has received first.
This reading preserves the coherence of the eschatological narrative: the outcome of the impending destruction of Jerusalem will be the public vindication (‘they will see’) first of Jesus and then of those who have also taken up their cross to follow him down the narrow road leading to life. There is a shift in register, but not for the purpose of inserting a massive temporal disjunction between the destruction of Jerusalem and the vindication that this will mean for the prophetic community. All this will take place within a generation. Jesus cannot tell his disciples when these things will begin, so they must be diligent at all times (13:32-37). But once the road signs begin to appear – as soon as leaves begin to appear on the branch – they will know that the end is near, that they will soon be vindicated along with the Son of man.