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Mark 13

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Traps Set for the Son (12:13-13:2)

According to the allegory the farmers simply killed the son whom the owner had sent. But that is a figurative summary of the whole story. Actually, this murder took place over several months, if not years, and had its source in their deafness to his message. Mark, however, detects a trap in every altercation over Jesus’ teaching, a trap set for the purpose of destroying him, a trap which in fact succeeded, in that they accomplished his death, and yet failed, in that he used each trap as an opportunity to teach God’s will. The scribes used three traps (Mark 12:13-34); in rebuttal their quarry launched several attacks upon them (Mark 12:35-44). At least this was the order in which Mark arranged this last debate between Jesus and the "tenants."

The first trap was dexterously laid. The Herodians as supporters of the Roman puppet were eager to get evidence of treason against Caesar. The Pharisees as spokesmen for God and his Law wanted to alienate Jesus from loyal Jews who rejected the sovereignty of the emperor. If Jesus said, "Pay the taxes," he would be a traitor to Israel; if he said, "Do not pay," he would commit treason against Rome. Either answer would destroy him. Jesus, however, proved even more adept at setting traps. "Bring me a coin," he said. He put them on the defensive, for they were Jews who carried money on which the image of Caesar was inscribed. They were self-confessed idolaters. Moreover, the image proved that this money was coined by the emperor and therefore belonged to him. They had answered their own question, and were caught in their own trap. But this was more than a matter of adroit dodging. With his final command, "Render to Caesar . . . and to God," Jesus forced them to decide for themselves which things belong to one king or to the other. This is in truth the demand of God, compelling man to determine for himself the proper ownership of everything, down to each penny. In the preceding parable Jesus had made clear how this decision had already been made by his antagonists (Mark 12:1-12). What belongs to God? Jesus gave his own verdict by giving his life. It proved quite impossible to trap such a man, and equally impossible to avoid his trap.

The Sadducees set a different kind of trap, one which dealt with speculation concerning life after death. They had often challenged the scribes with this riddle, because the Sadducees denied the existence of such life while the Pharisees defended it. Both appealed to the Pentateuch as final authority. If there is an existence after death — an unlikely possibility, according to the Sadducees — what will be the situation for a woman who had, in accordance with Mosaic prescriptions (Deuteronomy 25:5), become in turn the wife of seven husbands, and the widow of all seven? "Whose wife will she be?" The Pharisees had never been quite able to meet this dilemma, for obvious reasons.

Jesus’ answer is still not intelligible to those who base their arguments and conjectures on the same grounds. These grounds, he insisted, reflect ignorance both of the Scriptures and of God’s power (vs. 24). Faith in life after death emerges out of a direct knowledge of God’s power rather than out of human egoism. Resurrection is not to be confused with reanimation, nor is life in heaven to be confused with life on earth. Resurrection means transformation. The Apostle Paul later gave perhaps the most adequate clues to the radical changes which are wrought in that transformation (1 Corinthians 15:35-57). Death will involve the change from one glory to another, from one body to another, each given according to God’s purpose. When men become "like angels in heaven" (vs. 25), their whole being will be transfigured (Mark 9:2-3; Revelation 7:9-17). The cleverness of the Sadducees ignored God’s power to accomplish such things. Worse than this, they denied that God himself is alive, that is, that he is the very ground of life. Because he lives, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob also live. In his livingness and theirs, men may find the starting point for their thinking. Where God lives, there live also all who belong to him. Faith in the resurrection rests on personal knowledge of this life and this power. The passing of time, therefore, does not increase the distance from the dead patriarchs; rather they are alive in the present. Their resurrection is reality; men should begin to reason about such matters by recognizing that reality.

One of the scribes, a Pharisaic opponent of the Sadducees, approved this answer (vs. 28). He therefore posed a question on which many rabbis had been deliberating. What is the best summary of all the laws? When we list all of the divine commandments, which should be placed at the head of the list, as including all the others? Jesus did not evade this question, because it was entirely legitimate. His answer was explicit and direct. Moreover, this scribe approved Jesus’ ruling, and Jesus approved his approval (vs. 34) . In the midst of debates, even in the shadow of bitter conflict, there emerged this point of agreement between the Son and the tenants of the vineyard. Mark did not want the Roman disciples, embroiled in the same conflict, to forget that Church and synagogue belonged to the same Israel. They were addressed by the same God, and they affirmed loyalty to his commandments. Only in one respect did Jesus qualify his approval : "not far from the kingdom." How far was this? As far as the rich man in Mark 10:22? As far as the scribes of Mark 12:38-40? Or as near as the widow in Mark 12:44? Or as far as the verbal recognition of the first law is from its embodiment in love? With Jesus’ example before him, Mark seems to be saying to his readers in Rome: "You should not be too eager to deny that your enemies may love God. At any moment you may meet a scribe like this, ready to be instructed in the Kingdom" (Matthew 13:52; Acts 23:9). This message is in fact the same as that taught a little later by Joseph of Arimathea (Mark 15:43).

Mark says nothing more about this scribe; he quickly turns to another item of debate with the scribes. They recognized that the Messiah was to be the Son of David, for the Scriptures had taught it very plainly (Psalms 18:49-50; Amos 9:11-12; Isaiah 9:2-7). But Jesus appealed to David himself as the traditional author of the Psalms. David had been guided by the Holy Spirit, who inspired the prophets, to call the Messiah not only "son," but much more significantly "Lord." This became a favorite text among the Christians, for it indicated many things about their Master: his succession to David’s place, his power over his enemies, his priesthood, his throne on Mount Zion (Psalms 110; see also Matthew 22:44; Luke 20:42-43; Acts 2:34; Hebrews 1:13; Hebrews 5:6). Now in the very city of David, when the prophecy was fulfilled, the scribes could not discern his hidden authority as David’s Lord. Reliance on the Scripture had aggravated their blindness.

On a number of occasions in earlier chapters Jesus had cautioned his disciples against the leaven of the scribes (Mark 8:15). Now again he has his students in mind. What made such a warning necessary? If we itemize the faults of these men, only one is obviously wrong: the devouring of the houses of helpless widows- and even this meal was fully enjoyed within the Law and without conscious cruelty. The other faults are far less terrible. One seems a perfectly laudable desire — to deserve the dignified long robes of respected leadership, the ceremonious greetings of the less noble citizenry, the seats set aside in the churches for prominent members, the places of honor at banquets. Is there any society which does not grant these recognitions, or which does not encourage the desire for them? "Long prayers" seem to be the rule in every religious company. Who is there who, if he prays at all, is guiltless? And who is free of the element of pretense? Yes, if these things are terrible, then Jesus was wise in warning his disciples. In mentioning the scribes, he chose not the worst but the best individuals in the life of Israel, and looking squarely at his followers said, "Beware." In this case as in others, Jesus measured uncleanness not by external righteousness but by the wishes and words which spring from the heart (Mark 7:14-23 ) .

He measured money with the same scales. He noticed that the rich men subscribed large sums to the Temple budget. Was this wealth the profit from foreclosed mortgages on widows’ homes? What did it say about their hearts? And he noticed the widow who quietly and almost secretly put in her last coin. Was she the one who had been robbed? Even that is unimportant to Jesus. For he measured the gift by the giver’s heart. By those scales, the penny was a larger sum than the rest of the budget. Is this poetic exaggeration? Or is it God’s disclosure of what money means to him?

Having deflated the value of the currency, Jesus turned to the deflation of the most sacred building itself. In a sense this is the climax of his debates with the scribes and priests. His authority exceeded that of the vineyard owner of 12:9. He knew the power of God and therefore the truth of the resurrection (Mark 12:24-27). He was the Lord; in serving him every scribe must seek the last place rather than the first (Mark 10:35-45; Mark 12:35-39). He was a widow’s son, whose poverty cheapened all the gifts of rich men. But what now about his evaluation of the Temple itself?

We have mentioned the Temple’s sacredness and its holiness. We recall how old it was — more than nine centuries. We should recall how gigantic and impressive it was, with huge stone buildings, set in an immense square courtyard, surrounded by thick walls, on the summit of the hill. Nothing in the landscape of Jesus’ day could match it for splendor, for strength, for permanence. All this must have been in their eyes when the disciples said, "Look, Teacher." But there was something else, too. This Temple with its vast resources was their enemy. It would soon be instrumental in killing the Messiah and his Apostles. It would continue to be the stronghold of resistance to the Church. Within its courts the word of the chief priests was law, at least so long as the Roman governor did not countermand it. Who, then, can fight against such massive power, such agelong prestige, such holiness? (compare Revelation 13:1-10). Yet this very Man, this layman among the professional churchmen, this poor man whose only power was that of meekness, chose to fight against it. He uttered a curse much more explicit than the blasting of the fig tree, much less enigmatic than the story of the vineyard: "There will not be left here one stone upon another." It was this prophetic woe which would soon play an important role in his trial and condemnation (Mark 14:58; Mark 15:29; John 2:19).

Verses 3-37

A Warning from the Fig Tree (13:3-37)

The careless reader may well overlook the strategic location of this next body of teachings. Jesus sat (the usual posture of the Jewish teacher) on the Mount of Olives (recall the symbolism of the mountain). He sat "opposite the temple," looking down at it and across the steep ravine cut by the Kidron. The Temple, as we have just noticed, was the most ominous and powerful obstacle to his ministry. This was instruction intended only for his intimate friends, that is, for those to whom he had promised his cup and his baptism (Mark 10:39), those who would experience the implacable hatred of the world. Moreover, the timing was also strategic. It was immediately before the Passover and therefore the last long opportunity Jesus had for lecturing this class before the hurrying momentum of events prevented such lecturing. Yet those coming events were very much in view. (The second-mile student should try to discover all the cross references between chapter 13 and subsequent chapters; for example, the "watch" of Mark 13:37 and Mark 14:38; the darkened sun of Mark 13:24 and Mark 15:33.) Although the Cross of Jesus loomed ahead, these teachings were more concerned with preparing the Apostles for their own crosses. They were the servants to be put in charge of his house by "a man going on a journey" (Mark 13:34). What will they do during his absence? How will they then meet the sudden squalls on the sea? (Mark 4:35-41).

Against what dangers must he forewarn them? Notice again the two times which Mark had in mind. There is the time of the Church’s suffering from arrests instigated by synagogues, governors, and kings (Mark 13:9). Their faithfulness during that time would depend on their memories of what Jesus had taught during the time of his suffering from the same opponents. This need explains the imperious tone of these teachings and Mark’s sense of their importance.

The teachings appear to be prompted by the disciples’ nervous query, "When will this be . . . ?" The antecedent of the pronoun "this" is uncertain. The casual reader will suppose it refers to the crumbling of the Temple buildings. Not so. The following question is much more inclusive in its reference to "these things." The question deals with the consummation of the warfare between Jesus and all his enemies, human and demonic. It was clear that this warfare produced an unparalleled reversal in all things, in permanence and power, wealth and greatness, sin and righteousness. But what would be the sign that this warfare was about to be ended? The question has bothered Christians ever since. Perhaps we start aright by observing that Jesus, as so frequently is the case, did not really answer the question, but took their asking as an opportunity to warn them against both false hopes and false fears.

It was a false hope to follow those who would come in the name of Christ, saying, "I am he!" They must avoid such feverish excitement (vs. 6) . It was a false fear to judge from international conflict that the end was at hand. They must not give in to such alarms (vss. 7-8). The end would not come as soon as that, or with that kind of harbinger.

Fear, of course, would not be a sin, but certain fears would be. They should not be afraid of their enemies, but be concerned only with how to give their testimony fearlessly (vs. 9). God had a purpose in allowing them to face tribunals and terrorism (vs. 10) : the gospel must thus be preached in weakness to powerful men of all nations as Jesus preached from the cross to the centurion (Mark 15:39). They were not to worry in advance over these courtroom scenes. The Holy Spirit could be counted upon to speak through them (as he spoke through Jesus to Caiaphas and Pilate). Concern for dating the end must be replaced by concern for enduring to the end (vs. 13). For both this hatred and this endurance, Jesus’ own story provided the best illustration.

Nothing could make clearer the absolute antithesis between a world order in which "you will be hated by all for my name’s sake" and a kingdom in which the God of love redeems all for his own sake. So absolute was this contradiction between hatred and love that the imagination staggers at the effort to conceive it, or to say how the transition could take place from one world to the other. Jewish seers had long adopted the most extreme language to indicate what would happen in that Day. Mark employs their visions here in verses 14-18. The upshot of these verses was simply to stress the truth that before God’s love could be made the basis of world order there would necessarily be "such tribulation as has not been from the beginning of the creation" (vs. 19).

Yet the sequel which we expect to find is simply not there. These verses do not describe the accomplishment of all things (vs. 4). Even after inconceivably terrible tribulation, the end does not come. Even after such dread signs, the disciples must not be trapped by them into following false messiahs and false prophets. They are forbidden to base their own hopes or fears upon external crises of this sort. Their Messiah has come. Their primary duty is endurance in his name. Nothing will be done to make their baptism any easier than his.

This does not mean that there would be no triumph of the Kingdom of love over the realm of hatred. Men would see the Son of Man enthroned with majestic glory and terrible power, coming to rule over men and to gather his people, the living and the dead (vss. 26-27). This is exactly the same message which Jesus gave the high priest (Mark 14:62), and it is implied in his declaration concerning the Temple’s destruction (Mark 13:2). The time will come, because it has come, when "the kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ, and he shall reign for ever and ever" (Revelation 11:15). But they will not see him until simultaneously the usual light for seeing has failed (Mark 13:24) and until the powers which rule men have been dethroned (Mark 13:25).

Such are the signs which disciples may well notice, tokens that the usual standards of power and glory have been shaken by the power and glory of the Risen Lord. When this kind of earthquake shakes their world, then they will know that he is very near, "at the very gates." Otherwise his work, his mission, his salvation, would decay and pass away, while the world order that had been challenged by his work would remain forever unchanged. So, to put the message of this paragraph (vss. 28-31) in a word, Jesus made despair impossible for his followers. Are they tempted to despair because summer is so far away? Yes, but if they believe in his glory and his power, they will see the fig tree’s leaves (vs. 28). Are they tempted to despair because of the unbroken chain of generations one after another? Yes, but they must remember that his promise is to their own generation (vs. 30). Do heaven and earth appear unchanged by his mission and commission? Yes, but his words are more eternal even than they. Is such despair inevitable and such faith impossible? When a disciple thinks so, he should recall such words as these: "all things are possible with God" (Mark 10:27). For Mark, at least, Jesus had defined faith by an impossibility which had become possible: God’s redemption of the world through a crucified Messiah.

That was why Mark chose a particular parable to conclude this concluding lecture by the Messiah. Here is a final warning against sign-watching and time-charting. Not even the Son knows the day in advance (vs. 32). The test of a disciple’s faithfulness is not the accuracy of his predictions but his patience and endurance in watching. But the man who sits at the door scanning the horizon is not watching. No, true watching is accomplished when each servant performs his assigned work (vs. 34). To sleep is to forget that this work has been assigned by the Lord, and to delay its completion. To watch is not anxiety over heavenly cataclysms but obedience to the very Person who has assigned the task. The nature of this Person and his assignment are both described perfectly in the Passion Story. Suddenly, this crucified Lord will come to those whom he has hired. Will they be alert and ready? Only if they watch as he watched in Gethsemane. This was the final command of Jesus to all disciples in every century, the warning of the fig tree: "What I say to you I say to all: Watch" (vs. 37).

Bibliographical Information
"Commentary on Mark 13". "Layman's Bible Commentary".