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 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 gather [his] elect from the four winds, from the end of the earth to the end of heaven.
Following the lengthy debate with Gustavo about Mark 13, I want to try to summarize what seem to me to be the main reasons for doubting that there is a fundamental shift in timeframe between Jesus’ prediction of events leading up to the desolation of the temple and the flight of the disciples left in Judea (13:5-23) and the ‘apocalyptic’ events of 13:24-27. I still find it very difficult to see any reason – other than the need to maintain our own direct interest in Jesus’ view of the future – to separate the climactic announcement about the Son of man from the preceding account of the tribulations that Jesus’ disciples would have to face in the course of their mission around the time of the Jewish War.
1. But (alla) indicates a disjunction or contrast of some sort between verse 23 and verse 24. Unless it can be shown that in those days in verse 24 points to a time quite distinct from and, therefore, constrasting with the timeframe presupposed in 13:5-23, the context suggests that it is the contrast between the appearance of ‘false christs and false prophets’ and the appearance of an authentic Son of man coming in clouds with much power and glory, as an actualization of Daniel 7:13-14, that is marked by the adversative.
2. The temporal phrase in those days (en ekeinais tais hēmerais) occurs in three other places in Mark, always with reference to an immediately preceding period of time. In 1:9 it refers to the time when John was baptizing in the Jordan: in those days Jesus came from Nazareth to be baptized. In 8:1 it indicates the time when Jesus healed a dumb-mute in the region of the Decapolis: in those days he fed a crowd with seven loaves and a few small fish. Then earlier in the apocalyptic discourse it situates temporally the suffering of pregnant and nursing women at the time of the flight from Judea, which will be a time of extreme tribulation for Israel, unlike anything seen before (13:17, 19). This strongly suggests that in those days in 13:24 places subsequent events in the same timeframe as the tribulation described in 13:14-23.
3. The events of 13:24-27 are explicitly linked to the tribulation described in 13:14-23 by the preposition after (meta): But in those days, after that tribulation…. It is very difficult to see how these temporal constructions might be thought to introduce a significant hiatus into the time sequence, fundamentally separating the destruction of the temple from coming of the Son of man. Mark signals very clearly that the events he is about to relate took place directly after the tribulation that will attend the destruction of the temple. Interpreters who wish to defend traditional assumptions about this passage must explain why there is no unambiguous literary indicator of a change of timeframe – such as John’s insertion of a symbolic thousand year period between the judgment on Rome and a final judgment of all the dead (Rev. 20).
4. The disciples ask Jesus ‘what will be the sign when (hotan) all these things are about to be accomplished’ (Mark 13:4) Jesus’ answer comes implicitly in the form of a succession of ‘when’ statements: ‘when (hotan) you hear of wars and rumours of wars’ (13:7); ‘when (hotan) they bring you to trial’ (13:11); and ‘when (hotan) you see the abomination of desolation…’ (13:14). These are summed up in 13:29: ‘when (hotan) you see these things taking place, you know that he is near, at the very gates’. The series presupposes a climactic moment, which is described in verses 24-27 in the symbolic language of prophecy, in the metaphor of summer approaching in 13:28, in verse 29 in the image of the king who is at the gates of the city, and in the parable of 13:34-36 in the return of the master to his house. This is ‘end’ referred to in verses 8 and 13: if the disciples remain faithful through to the end of the tribulation, they ‘will be saved’, wherever they are throughout the world, by their participation in the vindication of Jesus as the Son of man. The ‘end’ is the climactic intervention of God, expressed appropriately enough in prophetic language, by which the old order will be overthrown and the followers of Jesus acknowledged as the authentic heirs of the kingdom.
5. The cosmic language of verses 24b-25 has antecedents in the Old Testament prophets, where it is used to highlight the theological significance of catastrophic historical events – the defeat of Babylon by the Medes (Is. 13:10), for example, or the threat of a military attack against Jerusalem (Joel 2:10). Nothing can be demonstrated conclusively – we are at liberty to deny that Jesus thinks and speaks here as a Jewish prophet and to insist that his language should be taken literally. But there are adequate historical and literary grounds, nevertheless, for the supposing that Jesus self-consciously borrowed this symbolic language in order to characterize the foreseen destruction of the temple as a decisive act of divine judgment on a corrupt and rebellious people. There is undoubtedly a change of ‘register’ here, as Gustavo argued, but there is no reason to think that it points to a major temporal disjunction: indeed, Mark is at pains to stress (Matthew all the more so with his inserted ‘immediately’: Matt. 24:29) the temporal contiguity of the realistic narrative and the symbolic narrative: the symbolic interprets the realistic, the poetic interprets the parenetic, theology interprets history.
6. The dramatic events in the heavens also, naturally, anticipate the appearance of the Son of man coming in clouds with great power and glory brought before the throne of God to receive : the disaster of AD 70 will be the ground, or at least the starting point, for the vindication of that community which identifies itself with the Son of man. In Daniel 7:13-27 the figure ‘like a son of man’ represents the righteous in Israel against whom Antiochus Epiphanes made war; he is given ‘dominion and glory and a kingdom, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him’. Jesus has remarkably made this his own story, but not to the exclusion of the community of the ‘saints’, which is the point of the sending out of the angels to gather in the elect.
7. The Son of man coming in clouds and the ‘abomination of desolation’ (Mark 13:14) belong to the same apocalyptic narrative and, therefore, the same timeframe: the ‘abomination that makes desolate’ is introduced into the sanctuary by the troops of Antiochus Epiphanes (Dan. 11:31; 12:11), the king who oppresses the ‘saints of the Most High’, represented by the symbolic ‘Son of man’ figure. Mark 13:24-27 is God’s response to the foreseen desolation of the temple by the armies of Titus: under these specific circumstances, if Jesus’ disciples remain faithful and steadfast, they will share in his public vindication as the Son of man. There is no basis, therefore, for the argument that verses 24-27 have no thematic connection with either the disciples’ question in 13:4 or Jesus’ predictions in 13:5-23.
8. Since Mark’s Son of man already has much power and glory when he appears, it is likely that this is not the coming of the Son of man to the throne of God to be vindicated but the coming of Jesus as the Son of man who has received kingdom and glory and dominion for the purpose of delivering his elect from their suffering and including them in his vindication. This is the climax to the instructions that Jesus gives to his disciples: they are not to be led astray, they are not to be alarmed, they are to be on their guard, they must persevere in carrying the good news of what God is doing for Israel to the nations, they must not listen to the voices of false christs and false prophets, because eventually they will see new leaves appearing on the branch and they will know that the end of the suffering is not far away, that their deliverance and vindication are at hand. As in the case of the judgment of the sheep and the goats in Matthew 25:31-46, what Jesus presents here is not a universal prospect (not a final ‘second coming’ at the end of history) but a hope specifically addressed to the vulnerable communities of his disciples as they proclaim the sovereignty of Israel’s God first to Israel itself, then to the pagan world.
9. The elect who are gathered to participate in the kingdom, glory and dominion that have been given to Jesus are the same ‘elect’ for whose sake the period of suffering has been cut short (13:20). If Mark 13:5-23 has in view the concrete and realistic circumstances of the disciples whom Jesus has chosen as divine judgment overtakes Israel in the form of war, destruction and dislocation, so too does the symbolic language of 24-27: the gathering of the elect from the across the world into which they have been sent as heralds stands for their ultimate security and vindication before God.