The Apocalyptic Symbolism of Mark 8:38 and (not) the Final Reign of God

Read time: 10 minutes

I got to hear several good online presentations at the SBL Annual Meeting last week, including a provocative panel discussion on “Doing History and Doing Theology in the Study of Paul,” which demonstrated that the more serious fault line now is between an old guard that thinks that the debate about theology and history is still worth having (John Barclay, Troels Engberg-Pedersen) and progressives who are bent on deconstructing it (Candida Moss, Cavan Concannon). I have some catching up to do.

But here I want to consider a much less controversial contribution from Murray Smith of Christ College, Sydney: “Mark’s Eschatological Adam: The Apocalyptic Symbolism of Mark 8:38 and the Final Reign of God.” His argument was that ‘Mark 8:38 employs apocalyptic symbolism drawn from Daniel 7:13, and elsewhere, to present the “coming” of “the Son of Man” as the final “coming of God” to reign on earth.’ There are three issues here: “on earth,” “coming of God,” and “final.” I’ll take them in that order, but first, here’s the verse:

For whoever is ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, indeed the Son of Man will be ashamed of that person when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels. (ESV)

The judgment takes place on earth

Smith made the point, first, that Jesus directly evokes Daniel’s vision of a judgment that will take place on earth. Thrones have to be set in place for the judgment of the beasts (Dan. 7:9), so we cannot be in the heavenly court. The destructive fire of judgment is an earthly not a heavenly phenomenon (Dan. 7:9-11). The thrones have wheels, like the throne-chariot of Ezekiel 1, he suggests, though I tend to picture something more like the casters you get on office chairs. The angelic retinue (Dan. 7:10) recalls the “myriads” of angels which accompany the descent of God at Sinai (Deut. 33:22) and Zion (Ps. 68:18). The Ancient of Days is not already present; he has to come to the tribunal (Dan. 7:22).

Likewise, in the Similitudes of Enoch the “Son of Man” will “appear,” “be revealed,” “arise,” “dwell,” “sit” on his throne, manifest his “presence,” be “seen” by sinners; and “all those who dwell upon the earth shall fall and worship before him.” It is said that the Son of Man “shall never pass away or perish before the face of the earth,” and that “all evil shall disappear from before his face” (1 En. 69:27-29). Goff is quoted: “In the Parables of Enoch, eschatological judgment is not implemented by God in heaven but by the Son of Man, understood as the title of a messianic figure… who sits on a throne on earth.”1

So far so good. If the New Testament takes over the judgment scene of Daniel 7:9-14 for its own purposes, it is very likely that a judgment on earth is intended.

The coming of the Son of Man and the coming of God

The argument here, basically, was that the language of the Son of Man coming in glory with the holy angels echoes Old Testament “coming of God” traditions, which have to do with the visible manifestation of God’s presence, likewise on earth. Old Testament theophanies typically involve fire, clouds, glory, angels, judgment, and salvation. Mark wants his readers to think that the coming of Jesus was pretty much equivalent to the coming of God himself.

If you ask me, however, this makes nonsense of Daniel 7:13-14, which differentiates clearly enough between the Ancient of Days and the “one like a son of man” who approaches to receive vindication and rule, and who is identified not with God but with the “people of the saints of the Most High” (Dan. 7:27). Also the Son of Man comes not with his own glory but with the glory of the Father.

I think it likely that the “coming” of Mark 8:38 is neither the coming of God to judge nor the coming of the “one like a son of man” to be vindicated at the judgment of the empires, but a subsequent coming of the one who has been vindicated for the sake of the men and women whom he sent out to tell Israel and the world about the coming action of God—to gather them, judge them, and reward them. It’s a personal thing between the risen Lord and his followers: “Whoever is ashamed of me….”

A personal but not final judgment

Smith then argued, confusingly, that the Son of Man in Mark 8:38 is to be understood as the “eschatological Adam,” who will judge all humanity. So both Adam and God? I may have missed part of the reasoning.

He suggested that the narrative structure of Daniel 7 has been adapted from Genesis 1. The wind of God hovers over the waters, living creatures are brought forth, dominion over the living creatures is given to humanity in the image of God. Similarly, the four winds of heaven stir up the great sea, four great creatures emerge from the sea, but eventually dominion is given to figure in human form who is seen coming with the clouds of heaven.

This seems somewhat—well, not entirely—plausible to me. But either way, it is important to note that Daniel’s story is a political one, not a creational one. It is about kings and emperors, not about birds and sea creatures and the animals of the earth. The original narrative, if it is at play at all, has been made a metaphor for the Jewish view of history and the hopes that second century BC Jews held for a geo-political reordering of the world. The “one like a son of man,” therefore, is an eschatological Adam in this narrower figurative sense: he is the person who—or represents the community which—will attain dominion over the nations following the destruction of the fourth beast, which for Daniel was Greece and for the persecuted Jesus groups Rome.

So if we are going to stress the fact that a judgment associated with the coming of the Son of Man with the clouds will take place on earth, we should also stress the political character of this judgment. Smith drew attention, however, to the personal language of Mark 8:38 (“deny himself,” “save/lose his life,” “shame”) and argued that this points to a personal and individual judgment rather than a national judgment.

Well, yes and no.

The focus is certainly on how individuals have behaved and what their personal fate will be. There is no mention of the impending judgment of Israel as a nation here or of the destruction of the temple.

But I think it is a mistake then to conclude that what is in view is a final, universal and supra-political judgment of all humanity—the sort of thing described in Revelation 20:11-15. The scenarios are quite different. John does not see thrones set up on earth for a judgment of empires—indeed, earth and heaven and the whole political order that existed in them have fled from the presence of God. No Son of Man comes with the clouds of heaven to receive a kingdom. Instead, all the dead are raised to stand before the throne of God to be judged according to what they have done.

In Mark 8:34 Jesus calls the crowd to him along with his disciples. The eschatological judgment—if that’s not too strong a term—will divide this group. The Son of Man will be ashamed of those who are ashamed of him, who repudiate him, who will not take the risk of being associated with him, in this “adulterous and sinful generation” of Jews. He will not be ashamed of those who are prepared to take up their cross, lose their lives for his sake and the gospel’s, and follow him (Mk. 8:34-35).

The only people who follow Jesus in the New Testament are people who encounter him while alive, in the course of his ministry in Galilee and Judea, for obvious reasons—you cannot follow the heavenly resurrected Christ, he’s not going anywhere. Jesus’ statement in Mark 8:38 is addressed to those who will participate in his dangerous prophetic-messianic mission to first century Israel.

That is why we have immediately in Mark 9:1 the assurance that “there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see the kingdom of God after it has come with power” (Mk. 9:1). This establishes—very deliberately, I think—the limited historical time frame for the coming of the Son of Man and anticipates the more elaborate apocalyptic narrative of Mark 13.

The larger story of this teaching is the foreseen crisis of a war against Rome culminating in the destruction of the temple. This is a political story about empires and nations—the sort of thing that Daniel had in mind. But tightly woven into it is the personal story about the disciples, who have made the decision to take up their own crosses, face the same opprobrium and violence, and follow him.

They are not to be alarmed as events unfold, they must be alert, they will be brought before councils and tribunals, they will be beaten in the synagogues; they will proclaim the good news of YHWH’s judgment and restoration of his people to the nations; they will be hated by all; but if they endure to the end of this limited period of time, they will he saved. When they see the “abomination of desolation” standing in the temple, those of their number who are in Judea should flee to the mountains. Israel will face great suffering, but the time will be shortened for the sake of the elect. They should be on their guard against false prophets and false messiahs.

If they survive to the end of the tribulation that will come upon this generation of Jews (Mk. 13:30), they will be gathered from the places to which they have been dispersed in the course of their evangelistic mission (Mk. 13:27). But they do not know when that will be—not even the Son knows. So they must stay awake for the return of the master of the house (Mk. 13:32-37).

And this brings us more or less back to Mark 8:38, because it is at this moment that their personal attitude towards the Son of Man will be exposed. If they have fallen short, if they have been ashamed of him and of his words, if they have been faithless, ineffective, negligent—he will be ashamed of them, and they will suffer the sort of punishment described in the parables of the wicked servant, the talents, and the ten virgins (Matt. 24:45-25:30; Lk. 19:11-27). They will find themselves excluded with the rest of the “crowd” of unbelieving Jews.

So the coming of the Son of Man in Mark 8:38 is not for a final judgment of every human person. We are still bound up with the story about Israel and the nations—wrath against the Jew, wrath against the Greek, in Paul’s language. What Jesus describes here is not a simple re-enactment of Daniel 7:9-14 but an extension of the storyline in order to include his disciples, so bringing out the corporate aspect of Daniel’s “one like a son of man.” The one who has been vindicated, who has received authority to judge and rule over Israel and the nations in history, who has been honoured and glorified by the Father, will not forget those who, in this adulterous and sinful generation of Jews, have suffered because they were not ashamed of him and of his words.

  • 1M. J. Goff, “The Mystery of God’s Wisdom, the Parousia of a Messiah, and Visions of Heavenly Paradise: 1 and 2 Corinthians in the Context of Jewish Apocalypticism,” in The Jewish Apocalyptic Tradition and the Shaping of the New Testament, ed. B. E. Reynolds and L. T. Stuckenbruck (2017), 183). Smith has omitted from Goff’s statement the words “unlike Daniel 7 itself”; they do not agree on this point.
Samuel Conner | Sun, 11/28/2021 - 15:34 | Permalink

Thank you, Andrew; this is helpful. 

One of the aspects of your approach to New Testament eschatology that I find highly appealing is that it provides a tidy resolution to the problem, that has for centuries vexed Protestants, of how to interpret and reconcile biblical texts that respectively seem to privilege ‘faith’ or alternatively ‘works’ as preconditions for personal ‘salvation’. 

Understanding ‘salvation’ in ‘this generation’ and ‘under the sun’ terms of ‘not perishing in the coming war with Rome’, one could reasonably assume that ‘salvation’ will be determined by, or at least highly correlated with, ‘what people do’ when the war starts (‘let those who are in Jerusalem flee …’). But whether or not one heeds Jesus’ warnings againt participation in the coming war would be highly correlated with whether or not one believed those warnings, and whether or not one believed that he was indeed Messiah (and that his Messiahship was proved by resurrection) and his commands were consequently worthy of the obedience one would grant to someone regarded to be ‘Lord’. It’s not an accident that Romans 10:9-10 occurs in the middle of a section focused on the fate of Israel. 

 Again, thank you.