On the Thematic Unity of Mark 11 through 13
Today I finished up Mark 13 in the adult Sunday School class. We’ve been on the chapter for several weeks now and we’ve covered a lot of interesting material, but it is time to move on. It has actually seemed longer than it has actually taken because of something that is key to understanding Mark 13, and this is that Mark 13 is just a thematic continuation of both chapters 11 and 12.
An Unfortunate Disassociation
It is too frequent that various things, such as bad verse divisions, bad chapter divisions, and mistranslations lead to missing the thematic unity of two bits of Scripture. In some cases the material itself can lead people astray when they aren’t really paying attention. I believe both a bad chapter division and a seeming change of material has led to a drastic misunderstanding of how Mark 13, his version of the so-called “Olivet Discourse”, functions within its context.
This will be a known fact to most, but to some it may be relevant, and that is to remember that the chapters and verses were added to our Bibles only in the last few hundred years. These breaks are often misleading and occasionally completely wrong. In the case of Mark 13, the chapter break is appropriate but still misleading. There is a significant change in setting, which makes the chapter break okay, but for some it might be misleading because it separates that material from what came before. And all of the material in the chapter is very closely related, so the grouping is appropriate there. But if the chapter break between 12 and 13 has caused too much discontinuity, it is doing more harm than good. So what is this theme that times them all together?
The Rejection of the Israel and the Exaltation of Messiah
So if there is a theme that combines chapters 11 through 13, I would argue that it is the rejection of unrepentant Israel and its leadership and the raising of Jesus to his proper place, King of Israel. This theme is communicated both implicitly and explicitly through four primary vehicles: symbolic events, Old Testament allusions/quotations, debates and direct statements. The following list will cover only 11 and 12; chapter 13 will get its own treatment.
The following pericopes communicate this theme through symbolic events:
- The Cursing of the Fig Tree and the “Cleansing” of the Temple (11:12-20) – Jesus approaches a fig tree that bears no fruit because figs are not yet in season. Yet he curses the tree anyway. He then goes into the temple and chastises the merchants in the temple (and by extension, the chief priests and experts in the law that allowed them to be there – this is why they were angry). He then returns to the fig tree, and it is withered. The placement of the temple incident between them is done to symbolically say that the temple and those who run it will be cursed. And I put “cleansing” in quotes above because I think it has nothing to do with cleansing; like the fig tree, God intends to kill it, not heal it.
Old Testament Allusions and Quotations
The following pericopes communicate this theme through quotations and allusions to the Old Testament:
- The Triumphal Entry (11:1-11) – Those who welcomed Jesus into Jerusalem welcomed him quoted from Ps 118, a psalm of David. Who is he one who comes in the name of the Lord? He is the king. The statement right after, “Blessed is the coming kingdom of our father David” makes the association of Jesus with David hard to miss. The exaltation of Jesus was coming.
- The Parable of the Tenants (12:1-12) – Like their ancestors, the Jewish leadership rejects God’s prophets. In this case they will reject God’s greatest messenger, his son. The result? What they have to tend (the people of God) will be taken away and will be given to another.
- Exposition of Psalm 110:1 (12:35-37) – Jesus attempts to raise the level of understanding of the crowd regarding the exalted status of the Messiah.
- Warnings about Experts in the Law (12:38-40) – Direct condemnation of the “experts in the law”.
- The Widow’s Offering (12:41-44) – Jesus praises the poor widow who gives all she has, saying she is giving a greater gift than the rich. Seemingly harmless, its placement in the narrative makes it clear that this is meant to be a condemnation of the leadership of Israel, who would be rich in comparison to this woman yet lacking in their faithful giving.
The following pericopes communicate this theme by showing Jesus debate (and win against) the religious leaders.
- The Authority of Jesus (11:27-33) – Jesus trips up the Jewish leadership by bringing up John the Baptist. Thematically this ties in well with the place of John as Elijah as forerunner of Jesus, and how that is bound up with Malachi’s expectation of judgment/refining of Israel.
- Paying Taxes to Caesar (12:13-17) – The Pharisees and Herodians try to trip Jesus up with tax questions, but Jesus amazes them with his answer.
- Marriage and the Resurrection (12:18-27) – The Sadducees attempt to beat Jesus in a theological squabble by coming up with a question about resurrection and marriage. Jesus rejoins by telling them they don’t really have a clue.
- The Greatest Commandment (12:28-34) – An expert in the law asks Jesus a question about the greatest commandment. Jesus answered wisely and “no one any longer dared to question him.”
The Olivet Discourse
So how does Mark 13, the Olivet Discourse, fit into this theme? For most it does not, because they rip it out of its context and put it into the future because they don’t understand the imagery and allusion that dominates this chapter. The discourse is of course looking to the future, but not to ours. After all, Jesus himself said “Truly I say to you that this generation will certainly not pass away before all these things have happened.” And if you see that, and can read the signs in the allusions, the general point is fairly clear. I will explore this more in a later post, but a few points to get you started:
- The destruction of the temple. If a crazy arsonist were to come to my house and set fire to it, that would seriously ruin my day. But what would be the larger ramifications of it? Other than him going to jail and me having a huge hassle on my hands, probably minimal. But what if someone, say Iran, firebombed and burned down the White House? The ideological ramifications of that are huge. They just set fire to the centerpiece of the greatest power in the western world! In the same way, a destruction of Jerusalem and its temple is a big deal symbolically. Who cares if Timbuktu is overthrown? God did not make a covenant with them. But how big a deal is it if the temple of God’s own people is destroyed?
- If the temple is destroyed, the symbolic centerpiece of Israel, what does that say about the spiritual state of Israel? The answer is seen in the parable of the tenants: Israel is consistently wicked, and those who tend that vineyard must be destroyed.
- It fits in well from a time-table perspective because of the temporal scoping you 13:30; the temple is to be destroyed within their lifetimes. This, of course, makes great sense in the context of the parable of the tenants. God sends his prophets over and over and they are repeatedly rejected and/or killed. At the end the owner sends his son. This is why the prophecy makes sense where it is, because it is discussing the punishment that generation gets for rejecting the Son. Put this in the distant future and you miss the point entirely. They needed to be destroyed because they killed the son.
- The ideas expressed in the Olivet Discourse, like the ideas in both chapters 11 and 12, are ultimately what gets Jesus killed. He made enemies of the leadership by talking of their spiritual apostasy. His talk culminates in the dramatic warnings of chapter 13. Immediately after this section, 14:1 moves on to their plans to kill Jesus. And what shows up as the first charge against Jesus in Mark 14 when he is brought before the high priest? “We heard him saying ‘I will destroy this temple made with hands and after three days I will build another not made with hands.” The high priest and his cohorts were quite aware that statements and stances against the temple was an attack on them, not on the temple itself.
Absent from the lists above is how the Olivet Discourse contributes to the theme via Old Testament allusion (it is full of them), symbolism (lots of that too) and direct discourse (and that). This will be treated in another post, because these issues deserve their own treatment.
In most treatments of Mark 13 that I have heard, it is disconnected thematically from what is around it. For the most part this likely has to do with confusion around its meaning. Most read it, see the hyperbolic language, miss its Old Testament roots and punt this whole discourse into the future. This, in turn, separates the discourse thematically from 11 and 12, because a chat of the distant future is of no relevance to the spiritual state of Israel at that time. Consequently, they actually end up missing the point of the entire thing.
Reading the discourse this way is quite unusual for those of us who grew up in southern evangelicalism. It took quite a bit of reading and reflection before it really sunk in for me, though now it seems the obvious direction to take it. Soon we’ll start diving into the chapter and see where it takes us.