During the season of Easter this year, we are following a short sequence of readings from the book of Revelation. The first such reading (Rev 1:4–8) was last Sunday, setting out the writer and the audience, as well as the key focus of the book: “Jesus Christ, the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth” (1:5).
The book begins with a striking opening phrase—in Greek, it reads apokalypsis Iesou Christou (1:1). The first word in this phrase can be translated in two ways, resulting in the two most common titles for the book—“Revelation” or “Apocalypse”.
The word revelation is related to a Latin word which means to disclose or make known; the word apocalypse is the Greek term which means to uncover or expose. This word sums up the distinctive nature of the book right at the start—this is an exposé of the highest degree!
The content of this exposé is declared to be “the word of God and the testimony of Jesus Christ” (1:2, 9). The book ends with a reminder that Jesus sent his angel to John with “this testimony for the churches” (22:16). All of this is being done in a context of some urgency: “the time is near” (1:3), for Jesus is coming soon (1:7; 22:7, 12, 20; see also 2:16; 3:11; 22:6).
The book was written to be read aloud (1:3; 22:18); it seems to invite the people listening to the story to envisage what is being described by using their own imaginations. This is already evident in the way that the dramatic tone builds in the opening sections of the work. First, in the section of the book set for last Sunday, there is a hymn in praise of Jesus, reminiscent of poetic sections in other New Testament books as well as in Hebrew Scripture (1:5–8).
Next comes a description of the author and the process of creating the book (1:9–11). This was apparently initiated by “a loud voice like a trumpet” (1:10) —a voice which belonged to a distinguished figure with an ominous presence (1:12–16), whose appearance caused the writer to “fall at his feet as though dead” (1:17). The scene is thoroughly biblical, in keeping with the pattern of portentous announcements in Hebrew Scripture as well as in the early chapters of some Gospels. This will be the first of a number of visions, in which startling creatures declare unnerving messages in vividly dramatic ways.
The Revelation of John was not the first book of this kind ever written; in fact, Jewish writers had been producing literature like this for some centuries, recounting visions of the heavenly realm and reporting teachings which have been passed on by ancient figures from the heavens. In the Hebrew Scriptures, there are sections of the prophetic works which have the same kind of tone, as prophets report the visions they have seen and the oracles they have heard from the Lord.
Indeed, within other parts of the New Testament, there are indications of similar interests and ways of viewing the world—a view that is often characterized as “apocalyptic”. The figure of John the Baptist can best be appreciated as an apocalyptic figure, declaring that the Messiah has come and the kingdom is at hand (Mark 1:7–8; Matt 3:2).
Jesus continued the apocalyptic message of John by announcing that the kingdom of God was near (Mark 1:15; Matt 4:17) or, indeed, present (Luke 17:20). Many of the parables of Jesus and not a few of his teachings reflect an apocalyptic view of reality (for instance, Mark 13:14–37; Matt 24:45–25:46, Luke 17:20–37).
The letters of Paul contain clear pointers to the way that Paul viewed the world through an apocalyptic lens, in which the return of Jesus would take place soon and the kingdom of God would be ushered in (1 Thess 4:13–5:11; 1 Cor 7:29– 31, 15:20–28; Rom 8:18–25). The view that “the last days” were to come was also held by other writers (Heb 1:2; James 5:3; 2 Tim 2 Pet 3:1–5; Jude 17–19).
The apocalyptic worldview had been developing in Israel for some centuries. From their origins, prophets had delivered oracles in the name of the Lord; over time, they also began to incorporate accounts of visions in their messages (Isa 6; Jer 24; Ezek 1, 2–3, 8–11, 37, 40–44; Dan 2:19; Joel 2:28–32; Amos 7–9; Obad 1; Hab 2; Zech 1–8).
In the later stages of the prophetic movement in Israel, this form of communication becomes dominant. The last half of two prophetic books (Daniel 7–12; Zech 9–14) contain interrelated sequences of visions in which contemporary events, and perhaps also future events, appear to be depicted in symbolic form.
This trend continues on in a number of books written through the second and first centuries BCE, many of which still survive today. In this period we find various works which use heavenly messengers to reveal insights about mysteries and provide predictions about the future.
Most widely-known are 1 Enoch, 4 Ezra, and 2 Baruch; in addition, a number of works in the Dead Sea Scrolls are apocalyptic in nature. All these works contain literary features typical of apocalyptic works, as well as certain theological elements relating to the end of the ages.
As we read the book of Revelation, we can identify certain literary features which are quite characteristic of apocalyptic literature. The authority of the author is a key concern (1:9–10; 22:8–9) and the declaration is made that what is now being revealed is a mysterious secret (1:20; 10:7; 17:5, 7). This revelation comes direct from God through his authorized messenger (1:1–2, 11– 20; 22:8–10).
The warning not to change the text (22:18–19) is characteristic of apocalyptic, as is the regular reminder of the author’s expectation that the present era is coming to an end (2:26; 21:1, 4) and his description of a vision of the beginning of a new era (1:1; 7:9–17; 11:19; 21:1–22:7; 22:12, 20). The role of angels and visions reflects typical apocalyptic features.
Also typical of apocalyptic are the many coded depictions which are conveyed in numbers: four (4:6–8; 5:6, 14; 6:1–8; 7:1–3, 11; 9:14; 14:3; 15:7; 19:4; 21:16); ten (2:10; 12:3, 18; 17:3, 12–16); twelve (12:1; 21:12–14, 21; 22:2); twenty-four (4:4, 10; 11:16; 19:4); 144,000 (7:4–8; 14:1–4); and the intriguing 666 (13:18).
Of course, the number seven, which recurs in numerous places throughout the book, is very significant: there are seven letters, 1:11; seven golden lampstands, 1:12, 20; seven stars, 1:16, 20; 2:1; seven angels, 1:20; 3:1; 15:7; seven spirits, 1:4; 3:1; seven seals, 5:1; seven horns and eyes, 5:6; seven trumpets, 8:2; seven thunders, 10:3–4; seven diadems, 12:3; seven plagues, 15:1, 6; seven golden bowls, 15:7; 16:1; and seven heads, 17:3, 9–10.
Finally, there is the crucial appearance of Babylon as a coded symbol of Rome (17:5, 18). This is a code used also in Jewish apocalyptic works.
The reader (or listener) of this work is invited into a world of unfettered imagination, with evocative imagery, enticing language, and disturbing rhetoric. The book appears to be describing the events that will take place in the immediate future; these chapters set the scene set for what will later be revealed as a colossal, cosmic battle between good and evil.
However, the style of the work is never straightforward and the message is never declared in direct propositional form. Many of the scenes contain words, images, and ideas which are already familiar from the Hebrew Scriptures— although they appear to be arranged in inventive new ways. Making sense of this book requires an act of creative imagination alongside a process of careful exploration, investigation, and interpretation.
The visions that are included in this spectacularly dramatic book evoke biblical language and imagery in various ways, as the author envisages the future by drawing from the scriptures of the past and reworking the images and ideas found within them as a message for the present.
In this post, I’m exploring the Gospel reading for this coming Sunday (Luke 3:1–6), as well as the continuation in the following Sunday’s reading (Luke 3:7–18), and looking at the person and the preaching of John the baptiser in this Gospel as a whole (with some helpful comparisons with the earlier Gospel of Mark as well as the Gospel of Matthew).
John the baptiser occupies a prominent place at the start of each canonical gospel. He is there in the very first scene of the beginning of the good news of Jesus, the chosen one(Mark 1:2–8), dunking into the river Jordan those who had heard his message of repentance.
Yes, that’s right: he dunked people into the river! Whilst there is interminable debate about the means by which baptism should take place in the church today (sprinkle, pour, or immerse; once or three times), there is not dispute that the basic meaning of the regular Greek word baptizō is to immerse, to submerge—to dunk!
Of course, those being dunked into the river included Jesus, who “came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptised by John in the Jordan (1:9–11). And that’s why John occupies an important place in the story of Jesus, for he performed the action that symbolised the deepening faith of Jesus, and crystallised the mission that Jesus was called to exercise.
The activity of John is interpreted by the author of this account with reference to the words of the prophet Isaiah: “a voice crying in the wilderness, ‘prepare the way of the Lord’” (1:2–3; Isa 40:3). The figure of John perhaps evoked comparisons, amongst the people flocking to hear him, with the great prophetic figure of Elijah, as described by the prophet Malachi: “I will send you the prophet Elijah before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes” (Mal 4:5).
Certainly, John appeared to claim this Elijah-like role for himself, in his manner of dress and his customary diet. He was “was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist” (1:6). According to Zech 13:4, “a hairy mantle” was the sign of a prophet. John is clearly reminiscent of Elijah, described by the messengers of the king of Samaria as “a hairy man, with a leather belt around his waist”—a figure immediately recognised by the king: “It is Elijah the Tishbite”, he said (2 Kings 1:8). He was most certainly not “a man dressed in fine clothes” (or “soft robes”), as Jesus later declared (Matt 11:8).
Likewise, John had a distinctive diet: “he ate locusts and wild honey” (1:6). This diet was kosher; the eating of locusts is expressly permitted in Lev 11:22, and the honey most likely came from a date tree, which was also permissible as a food source. The regular characterisation of the land of Israel at its best was of “a land flowing with milk and honey” (Exod 3:8, 17; 3:5; 33:3; Lev 20:24; Num 13:27; 14:8; 16:13–14; Deut 6:3; 11:9; 26:9, 15; 31:20; Josh 5:6; Jer 11:5; 32:22; Ezek 20:6, 15; Sir 46:8). John, quite clearly, “lived off the land”, with his rough clothing and basic diet.
John occupies the same place in the story in the book of origins (Matt 3:1–12) and is described as wearing the same clothing and eating the same diet (3:4). His message of “a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (Mark 1:4) is given stronger voice, in Matthew: “you brood of vipers … bear fruit worthy of repentance” (Matt 3:7–10). In Mark, John had referred to baptism “with water … and with the Holy Spirit” (Mark 1:8); in Matthew, he speaks of the “water for repentance” that he offers and the coming baptism of Jesus “with the Holy Spirit and fire” (Matt 3:11).
John refers to the one coming after him, “more powerful than me”, who comes after him (Mark 1:7); in Matthew’s account, this is expanded with reference to “his winnowing fork in hand … to gather the wheat … and burn the chaff” (Matt 3:12). John in this account declares that “the axe is lying at the root of the trees”, preparing to cull the unproductive trees (Matt 3:10). In classic apocalyptic—prophetic style, his message clearly has in view “the wrath to come” (Matt 3:7; see Isa 1:24; 13:6–22; Jer 4:3–5; 7:20; Ezek 7:5–27; 38:17–23; Dan 11:36; Hos 5:10; Mic 5:10–15; Nah 1:2–11; Zeph 1:14–18; 2:1–4; Sir 5:7).
So Matthew strengthens the apocalyptic dimension of John’s message. He also places a prelude before this, explaining the origins of Jesus as an infant, which contains clear pointers to the dangerous dimension of the coming of Jesus—the murderous inclinations of Herod regarding the infant Jesus prefigure the apocalyptic cataclysm spoken of by the adult Jesus (Matt 24:1–25:46). See further in https://johntsquires.com/2020/11/04/discipleship-in-an-apocalyptic-framework-matt-23-25/
In telling of his baptising activity, only Matthew (3:14–15) reports the conversation between Jesus and John the Baptist, in which Jesus states that for John to baptise him “is proper for us in this way to fulfil all righteousness”. In this way, Jesus begins his public ministry by demonstrating a central theme of this particular Gospel—that of obedience to the will of God. At this moment, he exemplifies the righteous-justice that is a central concern in this Gospel. See https://johntsquires.com/2020/02/06/an-excess-of-righteous-justice-matt-5/
By contrast, there is quite a different figure of John the baptiser presented in the orderly account of the things being fulfilled amongst us (as the Gospel of Luke portrays itself). First, in the chapters prior to the encounter of the adult Jesus and the adult John, Luke tells a different story. In this lengthy prelude (Luke 1:5–2:52) before the adult Jesus comes to be baptised by the adult Jesus (3:21–22), devotes substantial space in the story to telling of the already-exisiting relationship between Jesus and John.
In this prelude, there is no murderous rampage, as in Matthew’s story, but rather a joyful encounter between the two pregnant women, sitting at the heart of a series series of joyful songs in which the coming visitation of God is praised and anticipated in hope. (Jesus, in Luke’s Gospel, characterises his whole ministry as a “time of visitation from God” at 19:44.)
That visitation will be a time when God will “look favourably on his people and redeem them” (1:68), when a prophet will emerge “to give knowledge of salvation to his people by the forgiveness of their sins” (1:76–77). The coming time will exhibit “the tender mercy of God” (1:78), a time of “peace on earth among those whom he favours” (2:14), the coming of “a light for revelation to the Gentiles and glory to your people Israel” (2:32), the bringing of “the redemption of Israel” (2:38).
In the coming of the one who is promised, God will do “great things” (1:49); God will scatter the proud and lift up the lowly, feed the hungry and send the rich away empty (1:51–53), in actions which fulfil “the promise he made to our ancestors” (1:55). This is a time of blessing, as Elizabeth acknowledges (1:42), Zechariah foresees (1:68), and Simeon enacts (2:34). Jesus later will convey those blessings, to the poor and the hungry, to those weeping and those being reviled (6:20–23). See https://johntsquires.com/2020/12/14/advent-four-the-scriptural-resonances-in-the-annunciation-luke-1/
In the midst of these uplifting and inspiring hymns, the angel declares to Zechariah that he will be the father of the one who, “with the spirit and power of Elijah he will go before him, to turn the hearts of parents to their children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous, to make ready a people prepared for the Lord” (1:17). This son, of course, is John who is later introduced as baptising people “in the region around the Jordan”, where he was “proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (3:3).
In Luke’s account, John also fulfils the prophetic pronouncement as the one preparing the way of the Lord in the wilderness (3:4–6, citing Isa 40:3). Through his activity, “all flesh shall see the salvation of God” (3:6). In his preaching, the “brood of vipers” are still warned to “flee the wrath that is coming” (3:7) and “bear fruits worthy of repentance” (3:8).
The preaching attributed to him here (Luke 3:7–9) is almost verbatim the same as in Matt 3:7-10, although it is further extended by additional teachings about this repentance, in response to questions from the crowds, tax collectors, and soldiers (Luke 3:10–14). The teaching about “the one to come” (Luke 3:16–17) also mirrors the words in Matt 3:11-12, including the reference to the winnowing fork and the threshing floor. Inserted in the midst of this, however, is the reference to the people being “filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah” (Luke 3:15).
Luke strikingly characterises all of this preaching as “with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people” (3:18). The “wrath to come” (3:7) will bring opportunity for all to see “the salvation of God” (3:6) in these constructive exhortations. The Elijah-like dress of John, and his desert-like diet, is completely absent from the Lukan account—there is no hint of this idiosyncratic dimension at all. And in introducing all of this relatively more respectable activity of John, Luke provides a precise and details historical reference point for this activity (3:1–2). Luke has really “tidied up” the person of John in his account.
The work of John prepares the people; it also prepares Jesus, as the heavens open, a voice from heaven describes him to be “my Son, the Beloved”, and “the Holy Spirit descended on him in bodily form” (3:21–22). The Spirit then continues, leading Jesus into the wilderness (4:1), back into Galilee (4:14), and into Nazareth, where Jesus boldly claims that “the Spirit of the Lord is upon me” as being scripture which “has been fulfilled in your hearing” (4:21). Jesus confronts unclean spirits (4:31–37), deals with fevers and demons (4:38–41), and proclaims good news throughout Judea (4:44; a textual variant here reads Galilee, which would make more sense).
John is a much more constructive and positive figure in the Lukan narrative. He has lost almost all of his fiery apocalyptic appearance and nature. He still preaches the apocalyptic message, mentioning “the wrath to come”; but he provides more detail about the ethical way of living in response to the word of judgement, and prepares the way in positive ways for the message of good news to flourish.
Alone in Luke’s account, Jesus declares that “among those born of women no one is greater than John; yet the least in the kingdom of God is greater than he” (7:28). Those who accepted the baptism of John “acknowledged the justice of God”, whilst those “refusing to be baptized by him … rejected God’s purpose for themselves” (7:30). Aligning the baptism of John with the purpose of God is a strong Lukan claim; “the plan of God” is a central theological interpretive principle for the author of this work.
Sadly, the Lukan narrative about John’s baptising (3:1–20) ends with the note that Herod “added to all the evil things that Herod had done … by shutting up John in prison” (3:19–20). Herod in this reference was Herod Antipas, son of Herod the Great (who appeared in Matt 2:1–12). This Herod ruled the region of Galilee from 4BCE to 39CE as a puppet king in the service of the Romans, whom Jesus later contemptuously described as “that fox” (Luke 13:32).
His beheading and death, reported in great detail in other narratives (Mark 6:17–29 and Matt 14:3–12), is all but passed over in Luke’s narrative; there is the brief recognition by Herod that is reported in chapter 9: “Herod said, ‘John I beheaded’; but who is this about whom I hear such things?” (Luke 9:9).
Later in Luke’s account, John is portrayed as one who came “eating no bread and drinking no wine, and you say, ‘He has a demon’” (7:33)—in striking contrast to the Son of Man, who came “eating and drinking, and you say, ‘Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’” (7:34).
John lived life in the right way, and still was not recognised for his virtue. Jesus came with generous and open engagement with people across the spectrum of society, and was harshly judged. In this regard, both met a similar fate. And, indeed, both were put to death in an unjust manner under foreign authority.
He’s also mentioned in Acts, when that book refers to Apollos of Alexandria, who taught “the baptism of John” and was then subsequently informed further about “the Way of God” by Priscilla and Aquila (Acts 18:24–26). In this passage, also, knowledge of John provides the basis for moving to a fuller understanding of the messianic role of Jesus (Acts 18:27–28).
At time around, as we move into the first week of the church’s year, we move from The Year of Mark into The Year of Luke, we read Luke 21:25–36, the final apocalyptic speech of Jesus, which climaxes with the striking claim, “when these things begin to take place … your redemption is drawing near”.
This long speech that Jesus gives (reported with slightly different variations in Mark 13, Matt 24, and Luke 21) is a striking speech, with vivid language and dramatic imagery, drawn from the traditions and patterns that are found in the increasingly apocalyptic fervour of prophetic oracles delivered through the history of Israel. The apocalyptic character of the speech means that it certainly makes a mark!
So, as Jesus is in the forecourt of the magnificent Jerusalem Temple (Luke 21:1, 5), he sets out the way that his disciples should respond. During this apocalyptic discourse, Jesus has indicated that the situation still to come will be one of persecution: “they will arrest you and persecute you” (21:12), there will be betrayal and death (21:16), “you will be hated by all” (21:17), and false preachers will arise (21:8).
In this context, the fundamental act of discipleship will be to bear witness to the way of Jesus: “this will give you an opportunity to testify” (21:13) and “the words and wisdom” for this testimony will be given by Jesus himself (21:15). The role of the disciple will be to remain faithful throughout these trials: “by your endurance you will gain your souls” (21:19).
The need for such faithfulness is underscored by the closing words of Jesus’ teachings: “be on guard … be alert” (21:34, 36). Jesus had not advocated joining in the armed uprising; he counselled faithful following of his way of service. Mark’s report affirmed this; Luke’s account underlines and emphasises the importance of this response. “Be alert at all times, praying that you may have the strength to escape all these things that will take place, and to stand before the Son of Man” (21:36).
In reading apocalyptic material (such as Mark 13 and Luke 21), we also need to consider their typical literary characteristics. There are a number of common features in apocalyptic texts, which are striking in their impact and powerful in their capacity to invite attention. What is central to all apocalyptic writings is a clear portrayal of a stark conflict between good and evil, which often comes to a head in a grand cosmic battle. To put it in populist terms, apocalyptic texts “spin a good yarn”. They use the techniques of dramatic storytelling, or of good action films. They are vivid and compelling accounts.
Jesus is, by and large, adhering to the conventions of the genre, as he presents his graphic portrayal of what lies on store for his followers in this speech, which Mark says was delivered on the Mount of Olives, opposite the Temple (Mark 13:3)—although in Luke’s account, he is still within the Temple itself (Luke 21:1, 4; see also 21:37–38). In making use of this genre, Jesus demonstrates that speaking in apocalyptic terms is actually doing political theology within a specific socio-historical context. This is the third key element in seeking to understand apocalyptic.
Apocalyptic is “political theology” because it explores faith in the context of the realities of life in the polis, the city. It often provides a counter-narrative to the dominant story of the rulers and those in power, exposing the evil of their ways and proposing an alternative world in which righteous-justice will reign supreme.
The people of Israel, even from the time before they were taken into exile, had lived under the shadow of the dominant world power of the time—the Assyrians, who conquered the northern kingdom; then the Babylonians, who took the southern kingdom into exile; then, after a return under the Persians, an apparently more benign power, there came the crushing power of the Macedonian empire as Alexander the Great and his troops swept into the Jewish homeland.
Tellers of apocalyptic tales invited their listeners, living in times of crisis, to suspend disbelief, watch the vision unfolding, hear the angelic interpretation, even undertake the heavenly journey that the author retells; and to do this with expectation and hope.
Apocalyptic is always written in the midst of despair; despair fuelled by foreign invasion, murder and rape during the pillaging of that invasion, enforced slavery, religious repression, cultural imperialism, and societal oppression, with the loss of much-loved traditional practices and customs, disconnection from the homeland (the place where God resided), and a continuing sense of having been abandoned by God.
In the midst of all of this, apocalyptic texts invite their readers or listeners to have hope: hope that God would act; hope that despair would be dispelled and life would flourish once now; hope that the familiarity of traditions would be reinstated; hope that the evils perpetrated by the invading oppressors would be rectified by acts of divine revenge; hope that life, even in their own time, would be transformed into a realm where righteous-justice was in force, where the evils of lawlessness were dispelled.
There are clear, sharp pointers to the political situation of the time in which many works of apocalyptic are written—from the time of the Seleucid rulers (from the 180s BCE) through to the Roman conquest of Judaea (63 BCE) and on into the period we call the first century CE, when Jesus lived and then the Gospels were written. These works are political.
All of this, this, it should now be clear, is what Jesus was looking to in his parables of the kingdom, in his teachings about living with fidelity to the covenant with God, in his invitations to his followers to walk the way he walks, leading to the realm of God’s kingdom. His visions of cataclysmic times, in the apocalyptic speech of Luke 21, provide a hope-filled declaration that, despite the turmoil of the times, God is indeed acting to intervene in events, overturn evil, and institute the righteous-justice of God.
And all of this is intensely contextual, thoroughly political, firmly directed towards the injustices perpetrated under the religious and economic system of the Temple and the cultural and religious oppression of the Roman colonisers. In Mark’s account, Jesus refers to the “birth pangs” that are just beginning (13:8). They herald the coming good times when “the great power and glory” of the Lord is evident (Mark 13:26; Luke 21:26). In Luke’s version, this is the time when “summer is near” (21:30). That is the kingdom of God, in which much fruit is borne (Luke 8:15), much growth occurs (13:19), new life will emerge (9:22; 9:44; 18:33; 20:38); righteous-justice is enacted by God (20:15–17); and love of God and neighbour is practised by those in that kingdom (10:26).
Out of the darkness and despair, the agony of the birthpangs point to the hope of abundance that has been persistently proclaimed by Jesus. And so, we might pray: may that time come, may that kingdom be a reality, even in our time, even in our place; or, as Jesus taught us to pray, in thoroughly apocalyptic terms: “your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth, as in heaven”.
The Gospel reading for this coming Sunday (Mark 13:1–8) comprises the beginning of longer speech, a block of teaching which Jesus delivered to his disciples (13:3–37), some time after they had arrived in the city of Jerusalem (11:1–11). It’s a striking speech, with vivid language and dramatic imagery, drawn from the increasingly apocalyptic fervour of prophetic oracles delivered through the history of Israel. The apocalyptic character of the speech means that it certainly makes a mark!
This final speech of Jesus confirms the thoroughly apocalyptic character of his teaching. The parables he tells about that kingdom are apocalyptic, presenting a vision of the promised future that is in view. The call to repent is apocalyptic, in the tradition of the prophets. The demand to live in a way that exemplifies righteous-justice stands firmly in the line of the prophetic call. Such repentance and righteous-just living is as demanding and difficult as giving birth can be.
Mark’s Gospel has drawn to a climax with the same focussed attention to the vision of God’s kingdom, as was expressed at the start. The beginnings of the birth pangs are pointers to the kingdom that Jesus has always had in view. Jesus was, indeed, a prophet of apocalyptic intensity. But how do we make sense of this dramatic language in the context of the post-Enlightenment scientifically-aware world of the 21st century? How do visions of turmoil and warfare, oracles about fiery destruction and fierce retribution, relate to our contemporary world?
One way of understanding this kind of language and these kinds of speeches, whether by Jesus or any number of the prophets, is to claim that these words were spirit-inspired predictions, from long ago, of the turmoil and conflict that was to take place in the future. Sometimes this is seen to relate to the times immediately in the future of the writer, in the late 1st century in the case of this Gospel passage. Other interpreters claim that such speeches are pointing forward in time, to events that will take place well beyond the time of the reader, even into our own times (that is, the 21st century).
Like the final book in the New Testament, Revelation, this speech of Jesus in Mark 13 has been interpreted of fervent believers throughout the centuries as evidence that the end of the world was at hand. Repentance, now, is the bottom line; repentance, before the end comes, and it is too late.
Another line of interpretation holds that this kind of language needs to be understood as inspired scripture, which provides us with clear doctrinal statements about what is called eschatology (the study of the end times, the last days). In which case, this book could be mined as a source for teachings about “the last days”, instructing us so that we are aware and informed, and thus able to undertake interpretation of events that are currently taking place.
It may not be that we are right in the midst of those “last days”, but we are equipped with the capacity to interpret and understand what is happening—to know exactly where we are, now, in the alleged timetable of events leading up to “the last days”.
However, there are difficulties with both lines of interpretation. Neither understanding actually reflects the nature of the literature, the purpose for which each of the apocalyptic oracles and speeches were given in their own time. It is important to understand the literary nature of apocalyptic writings, as well as the social-historical context in which such works came into being. The same applies for Mark 13.
But first, we need to be clear about the Historical Context within high this Gospel was written.
Jewish people of the first century lived in one of two ways. Some were members of the nation of Israel which was occupied by a foreign military force, the Romans. (The Romans called this region Palestine). Others were members of a minority group of Jews who were permitted to exist in another nation. (These are known as Jews of the Dispersion). Life in such situations demanded compromise.
For Jews living in the Dispersion, the degree of compromise might vary—but compromise was inevitable. For those living within Israel, the need for compromise was a constant irritant. Some groups, like the Sadducees and the priests, accepted the compromises and did well out of them. Many common folk simply made the best of the situation. Others resented what was imposed on them. They looked back to an earlier time in the history of Israel, when the troops of another foreign force, the Seleucids, held power in Israel. An honoured group of Jews, the Maccabees, had led an armed insurgency which brought victory over the Seleucids in the years 167 to 164 BCE. For a time, Jews had ruled Israel once again.
From the time that Roman troops had occupied Palestine, in 63 BCE, there was tension. It would wax and wane according to the attitudes of the Jewish leaders and the political imperatives at work through the Roman governors. In the year 66, the governor, Florus, demanded money from the Temple treasury in Jerusalem. This was too much for some Jews; hostilities broke out in various places across Palestine. The war which resulted lasted eight years; in 70 CE, the Temple in Jerusalem would be burnt to the ground, and by 74 CE, all active Jewish resistance to the Romans would be quashed.
In this setting, amidst the battles fought in Galilee, Samaria and Judaea, apocalyptic hopes were inflamed. Many of the Jews actively fighting the Romans believed that their actions would help to usher in the long-promised kingdom, in which God would reign over Israel and foreign troops would be banished. Perhaps a significant number of the followers of Jesus also believed that the kingdom of God was drawing near, as Jesus had proclaimed some decades earlier, in the events of their own day.
Should the followers of Jesus, then, join with the rebel groups in rising up against Rome? Was the way to the kingdom to be won through conflict, martyrdom, and military victory? Or was there another way? Remarkably, one writer chose to answer these questions by writing about the way which would have been chosen by Jesus.
The earliest written account that we have for the life of Jesus—the beginning of the good news of Jesus, the chosen one (which we know as the Gospel according to Mark)—appears to deal with precisely these issues as it assembles and reshapes many of the stories told about Jesus. It is strongly marked by apocalyptic overtones, from the urgent message which Jesus utters (1:14–15) to his parting description of apocalyptic terrors (13:3–37).
This work does not provide a clear declaration against military involvement; but this implication can be drawn from its pages. This Gospel was written for first century Jews who were who were caught up in a fervent hope that the kingdom of God was soon to be ushered in, but who were also struggling with what it meant to follow the way of Jesus.
Mark tells the story of Jesus—a person who submitted to his death, at the hands of the Romans, without raising any weapons in defence. The way of Jesus, according to Mark, was the way of suffering obedience and faithful discipleship. The answer to the questions posed lay in following the way of Jesus. That is the focus of the story that he tells—what does it mean for us to follow Jesus in our own context? The work does not set out to answer the question, “is the end at hand?”, and not even to set out a timetable of events leading to that end. It simply asks, how best do I follow Jesus?
The last set of instructions which Jesus leaves for his disciples, delivered as he sits opposite the magnificent Jerusalem Temple (13:1), sets out the task which lies ahead for the disciples. During this apocalyptic discourse, Jesus speaks explicitly about their future commission (13:9–13). The situation will be one of persecution: “you will be beaten” (13:9), and “they [will] bring you to trial” (13:11); there will be betrayal and death (13:12), and “you will be hated by all” (13:13). False preachers will arise (13:5–6) and fraudulent claims will be made (13:21– 22).
In this context, the fundamental act of discipleship will be to bear witness to the way of Jesus: “you will stand … as a testimony” (13:9), “the good news must first be proclaimed” (13:10), what you are to say will be given by the Holy Spirit (13:11). The role of the disciple will be to remain faithful throughout these trials: “the one who endures to the end will be saved” (13:13). The need for such faithfulness is underscored by the closing words of Jesus’ teachings: “beware, keep alert … keep awake … keep awake” (13:33, 35, 37).
The Gospel reading for this coming Sunday (Mark 13:1–8) comprises the beginning of longer speech, a block of teaching which Jesus delivered to his disciples (13:3–37), some time after they had arrived in the city of Jerusalem (11:1–11). It’s a striking speech, with vivid language and dramatic imagery, drawn from the increasingly apocalyptic fervour of prophetic oracles delivered through the history of Israel. The apocalyptic character of the speech means that it certainly makes a mark!
We also need to consider the nature of such literature, the purpose for which each of the apocalyptic oracles and speeches were given in their own time. It is important to understand the literary nature of apocalyptic writings, as well as the social-historical context in which such works came into being. The same applies for the apocalyptic speech of Jesus reported in Mark 13.
The typical literary characteristics of apocalyptic texts are well-documented. There are a number of features which are found consistently throughout such texts, features which are striking in their impact and powerful in their capacity to invite attention. What is central to all apocalyptic writings is a clear portrayal of a stark conflict between good and evil, which often comes to a head in a grand cosmic battle. To put it in populist terms, apocalyptic texts “spin a good yarn”. They use the techniques of dramatic storytelling, or of good action films.
An apocalyptic text is typically composed in a narrative style, relaying a divine revelation which has been given to a human figure in a visionThat human figure is often someone from the pages of the Hebrew Scriptures. The claim that this figure dictated the revelation is a literary device, designed to claim authority for the work; linguistic and historical analysis inevitably demonstrates that the figure claimed as author could not actually have written the work.
Often an angel will interpret the vision (or visionary journey) that has been revealed to this figure. We can see this, for instance, in Rev 1:1–2. In the case of Mark 13, however, such a revelation comes directly from Jesus, without any angelic mediation.
When relating the events of the end times, apocalyptic literature may include a chronology of events that are to occur; frequently these events are placed in the near future, giving sense of urgency to the message being proclaimed. So Jesus outlines a sequence of events that are yet to take place (13:8, 10, 14, 21).
The present time is painted in bleak tones in apocalyptic texts (13:11–13, 17–19, 24–25); by contrast, the visions of the future are bright, positive, and hopeful (13:26–31). God will ensure that the final conflict results in victory; the world as is currently known will be replaced by a glorious period. Often the visions of these end times mirror the language and ideas of creation stories, telling of how God triumphs over the primordial forces of chaos. The darkness that enshrouds the earth (13:24–25) will be replaced by glorious divine light (13:26).
In such revelations, some human beings belong to a group that will assuredly be saved—thus, Jesus refers to “the elect” (13:27); by contrast, the rest of humanity will face utter destruction. In the speech by Jesus, this fate can be inferred from the insistent repetition of “keep alert … keep awake … keep awake” in 13:33–37.
Many apocalyptic works will describe this fate in gruesome detail, often in surreal or fantastic terminology, through grand visionary accounts.
Whilst inferred in Mark’s account of the speech by Jesus, the gruesome details are added in Matthew’s version; the master will “cut the slave in pieces and put him with the hypocrites, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Matt 24:51; this is repeated at 25:30, and reinforced at 25:46).
Alongside this, the fate of “ the elect” is celebrated: in the story of the bridesmaids, “those who were ready went with him into the wedding banquet; and the door was shut”, leaving the unprepared locked outside (25:10). In the parable of the talents, those affirmed are told, “I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master’” (25:21, 23). In the parable of the sheep and the goats, the righteous are invited to “inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world” (25:34) and “enter into eternal life” (25:46). The dichotomy is clear.
So Jesus is, by and large, adhering to the conventions of the genre, as he presents his graphic portrayal of what lies on store for his followers in this speech, delivered on the Mount of Olives, opposite the Temple (Mark 13:3). An in making use of this genre, Jesus demonstrates that speaking in apocalyptic terms is actually doing political theology within a specific socio-historical context.
Apocalyptic is doing theology, in a particular way. It can best be regarded as political theology—that is, it explores faith in the context of the realities of life in the polis, the city. It often provides a counter-narrative to the dominant story of the rulers and those in power, exposing the evil of their ways and proposing an alternative world in which righteous-justice will reign supreme.
The people of Israel, even from the time before they were taken into exile, lived under the shadow of the dominant world power of the time—the Assyrians, who conquered the northern kingdom; then the Babylonians, who took the southern kingdom into exile; then, after a return under the Persians, an apparently more benign power, before the crushing power of the Macedonian empire under Alexander the Great and his successors.
This pattern of an unbroken development from preexilic and exilic prophecy through to the inter testamental period and on into the time of Jesus and the early church, and the ensuing centuries. (We traced some dimensions of that in the earlier post exploring “ the end”, ***
John J. Collins writes that “Apocalyptic literature evokes an imaginative world that is set in deliberate counterpoint to the experiential world of the present. Apocalypticism thrives especially in times of crisis, and it functions by offering a resolution of the relevant crisis, not in practical terms but in terms of imagination and faith.” See https://readingreligion.org/books/apocalyptic-imagination
We might well say, from this, that the function of apocalyptic is like that if a fairy story, or a fable-or a longer book or play or film, in which the reader or viewer is invited to “willingly suspend disbelief” and enter into the story that is being offered.
Tellers of apocalyptic tales invite their listeners, living in times of crisis, to suspend disbelief, watch the vision unfolding, hear the angelic interpretation, even undertake the heavenly journey that the author retells; and to do this with expectation and hope.
Apocalyptic texts are written in the midst of despair fuelled by foreign invasion, murder and rape during the pillaging of that invasion, enforced slavery, religious repression, cultural imperialism, and societal oppression, with the loss of much-loved traditional practices and customs, disconnection from the homeland (the place where God resided), and a continuing sense of having been abandoned by God.
In the midst of all of this, readers and listeners of apocalyptic texts are invited to have hope: hope that God would act; hope that despair would be dispelled and life would flourish once now; hope that the familiarity of traditions would be reinstated; hope that the evils perpetrated by the invading oppressors would be rectified by acts of divine revenge; hope that life, even in their own time, would be transformed into a realm where righteous-justice was in force, where the evils of lawlessness were dispelled.
There are clear, sharp pointers to the political situation of the time in which works of apocalyptic are written–from the time of the Seleucid rulers (from the 180s BCE) through to the Roman conquest of Judaea (63 BCE) and on into the period we call the first century CE, when Jesus lived and then the Gospels were written. These works are political.
All of this, this, it should now be clear, is what Jesus was looking to in his parables of the kingdom, in his teachings about living with fidelity to the covenant with God, in his invitations to his followers to walk the way he walks, leading to the realm of God’s kingdom. His visions of cataclysmic times, in the apocalyptic speech of Mark 13, point to the reality that God is now acting to intervene in events, overturn evil, and institute the righteous-justice of God.
And all of this is intensely contextual, thoroughly political, firmly directed towards the injustices perpetrated under the religious and economic system of the Temple and the cultural and religious oppression of the Roman colonisers. The birth pangs that are just beginning (13:8) herald the coming good times when “the great power and glory” of the Lord is evident (13:26) as “the Son if Man … will gather his elect” (13:27), a time when “summer is near” (13:28). That is the kingdom of God, in which much fruit is borne (4:20, 28), much growth occurs (4:32), new life will emerge (8:31; 9:31; 10:34); 12:27), righteous-justice is enacted by God (12:9-11) and love of God and neighbour is practised by those in that kingdom (12:32-34). Indeed, Jesus says that “when you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near”, in the parallel (and expanded) account in Luke (see Luke 21:31).
Out of the darkness and despair, the agony of the birthpangs point to the hope of abundance that has been persistently proclaimed by Jesus. And so, we might pray: may that time come, may that kingdom be a reality, even in our time, even in our place; or, as Jesus taught us to pray: “your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth, as in heaven”.
The Gospel reading for this coming Sunday (Mark 13:1–8) offers an excerpt from longer speech, a block of teaching which Jesus delivered to his disciples (13:3–37), some time after they had arrived in the city of Jerusalem (11:1–11). It’s a striking speech, with vivid language and dramatic imagery. As Jesus’ last long speech in this Gospel, it certainly makes a mark!
The speech is delivered beside the towering Temple, built under Solomon, rebuilt under Nehemiah (13:1, 3). That temple was a striking symbol for the people of Israel—it represented their heritage, their traditions, their culture. The Temple was the place where the Lord God dwelt, in the Holy of Holies; where priests received sacrifices, designed to enable God to atone for sins, and offerings, intended to express the people’s gratitude to God; where musicians led the people in singing of psalms and songs that exulted God, that petitioned God for help, that sought divine benevolence for the faithful covenant people
Or so the story goes; so the scriptures said; so the priests proclaimed. The holiest place in the land that was holy, set apart and dedicated to God. Yet what does Jesus say about this magnificent construction? “Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down” (13:2). Jesus envisages the destruction of the Temple. Not only this; he locates that destruction within the context of widespread turmoil and disruption: “nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be earthquakes in various places; there will be famines” (13:8). And then, to seal this all, Jesus refers directly to the fact that “the end is still to come” (13:7).
The End. Eight centuries before Jesus, the prophet Amos had declared, “the LORD said to me, ‘the end has come upon my people Israel; I will never again pass them by’” (Amos 8:2). Amos continues, declaring that God has decreed that “on that day … I will make the sun go down at noon, and darken the earth in broad daylight. I will turn your feasts into mourning, and all your songs into lamentation; I will bring sackcloth on all loins, and baldness on every head; I will make it like the mourning for an only son, and the end of it like a bitter day” (Amos 8:9–10).
That image of The Day when the Lord enacts justice and brings punishment upon the earth, because of the evil being committed by people on the earth, enters into the vocabulary of prophet after prophet. Amos himself declares that it is “darkness, not light; as if someone fled from a lion, and was met by a bear; or went into the house and rested a hand against the wall, and was bitten by a snake. Is not the day of the LORD darkness, not light, and gloom with no brightness in it?” (Amos 5:18–20).
Isaiah, just a few decades after Amos, joined his voice: “the Lord of hosts has a day against all that is proud and lofty, against all that is lifted up and high … the haughtiness of people shall be humbled, and the pride of everyone shall be brought low; and the Lord alone will be exalted on that day” (Isa 2:12, 17). He warns the people, “Wail, for the day of the Lord is near; it will come like destruction from the Almighty!” (Isa 13:6).
Isaiah uses a potent image to describe this day: “pangs and agony will seize them; they will be in anguish like a woman in labour” (Isa 13:7). He continues, “the day of the Lord comes, cruel, with wrath and fierce anger, to make the earth a desolation, and to destroy its sinners from it” (Isa 13:8), and later he portrays that day as “a day of vengeance” (Isa 34:8).
Zephaniah, who was active at the time when Josiah was king (640–609 BCE) declares that “the day of the Lord is at hand; the Lord has prepared a sacrifice, he has consecrated his guests” (Zeph 1:7); “the great day of the Lord is near, near and hastening fast; the sound of the day of the Lord is bitter, the warrior cries aloud there; that day will be a day of wrath, a day of distress and anguish, a day of ruin and devastation, a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and thick darkness ” (Zeph 1:14–15).
Habakkuk, active in the years just before the Babylonian invasion of 587 BCE, declares that “there is still a vision for the appointed time; it speaks of the end, and does not lie” (Hab 2:3); it is a vision of “human bloodshed and violence to the earth, to cities and all who live in them” (Hab 2:17).
Later, during the Exile, Jeremiah foresees that “disaster is spreading from nation to nation, and a great tempest is stirring from the farthest parts of the earth!” (Jer 35:32); he can see only that “those slain by the Lord on that day shall extend from one end of the earth to the other. They shall not be lamented, or gathered, or buried; they shall become dung on the surface of the ground” (Jer 35:33). He also depicts this day as “the day of the Lord God of hosts, a day of retribution, to gain vindication from his foes” (Jer 46:10).
And still later (most likely after the Exile), the prophet Joel paints a grisly picture of that day: “the day of the Lord is coming, it is near—a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and thick darkness! Like blackness spread upon the mountains, a great and powerful army comes; their like has never been from of old, nor will be again after them in ages to come. Fire devours in front of them, and behind them a flame burns. Before them the land is like the garden of Eden, but after them a desolate wilderness, and nothing escapes them.” (Joel 2:1-3).
Later in the same oracle, he describes the time when the Lord will “show portents in the heavens and on the earth, blood and fire and columns of smoke; the sun shall be turned to darkness, and the moon to blood, before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes” (Joel 2:30–31). Joel also asserts that “the day of the Lord is near in the valley of decision; the sun and the moon are darkened, and the stars withdraw their shining” (Joel 3:14–15).
The language of The Day is translated, however, into references to The End, in some later prophetic works. In the sixth century BCE, the priest-prophet Ezekiel, writing in exile in Babylon, spoke about the end that was coming: “An end! The end has come upon the four corners of the land. Now the end is upon you, I will let loose my anger upon you; I will judge you according to your ways, I will punish you for all your abominations.” (Ezek 7:2–3).
And again, Ezekiel declares, “Disaster after disaster! See, it comes. An end has come, the end has come. It has awakened against you; see, it comes! Your doom has come to you, O inhabitant of the land. The time has come, the day is near—of tumult, not of reveling on the mountains. Soon now I will pour out my wrath upon you; I will spend my anger against you. I will judge you according to your ways, and punish you for all your abominations.” (Ezek 7:5–8). This day, he insists, will be “a day of clouds, a time of doom for the nations” (Ezek 30:3; the damage to be done to Egypt is described many details that follow in the remainder of this chapter).
Obadiah refers to “the day of the Lord” (Ob 1:15), while Malachi asserts that “the day is coming, burning like an oven, when all the arrogant and all evildoers will be stubble; the day that comes shall burn them up, says the Lord of hosts, so that it will leave them neither root nor branch” (Mal 4:1).
Malachi ends his prophecy with God’s promise that “I will send you the prophet Elijah before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes; he will turn the hearts of parents to their children and the hearts of children to their parents, so that I will not come and strike the land with a curse” (Mal 4:5–6). This particular word is the final verse in the Old Testament as it appears in the order of books in the Christian scriptures; it provides a natural hinge for turning, then, to the story of John the baptiser, reminiscent of Elijah, who prepares the way for the coming of Jesus, evocative of Moses.
Another prophet, Daniel, declares that “there is a God in heaven who reveals mysteries, and he has disclosed to King Nebuchadnezzar what will happen at the end of days” (Dan 2:28), namely, that “the God of heaven will set up a kingdom that shall never be destroyed, nor shall this kingdom be left to another people. It shall crush all these kingdoms and bring them to an end, and it shall stand forever” (Dan 2:44).
Whilst the story of Daniel is set in the time of exile in Babylon—the same time as when Ezekiel was active—there is clear evidence that the story as we have it was shaped and written at a much later period, in the 2nd century BCE; the rhetoric of revenge is directed squarely at the actions of Antiochus IV Epiphanes, who had invaded and taken control of Israel and begun to persecute the Jews from the year 175BCE onwards.
The angel Gabriel subsequently interprets another vision to Daniel, “what will take place later in the period of wrath; for it refers to the appointed time of the end” (Dan 8:19), when “at the end of their rule, when the transgressions have reached their full measure, a king of bold countenance shall arise, skilled in intrigue. He shall grow strong in power, shall cause fearful destruction, and shall succeed in what he does. He shall destroy the powerful and the people of the holy ones.” (Dan 8:23–24). This seems to be a clear reference to Antiochus IV.
Still later in his book, Daniel sees a further vision, of seventy weeks (9:20–27), culminating in the time of “the end” (9:26). In turn, this vision is itself spelled out in great detail in yet another vision (11:1–39), with particular regard given to the catastrophes taking place at “the time of the end” (11:1–12:13; see especially 11:25, 40; 12:4, 6, 9, 13).
This final vision makes it clear that there will be “a time of anguish, such as has never occurred since nations first came into existence” (12:1), when “evil shall increase” (12:3) and “the wicked shall continue to act wickedly” (12:10). The visions appear to lift beyond the immediate context of the Seleucid oppression, and paint a picture of an “end of times” still to come, after yet worse tribulations have occurred.
Could these visions of “the end” be what Jesus was referring to, as he sat with his followers on the Mount of Olives, opposite the towering Temple? Later in the same discussion with his disciples, he indicates that “in those days, after that suffering, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken” (Mark 13:24). This picks up the language we have noted consistently throughout the prophetic declarations, in Amos, Joel, Isaiah, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Ezekiel, and Daniel.
The judgement of God, says Jesus, with the “gathering up the elect from the four words, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven” (13:27), will be executed by “the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory” (13:25)—language which draws directly from the vision of Daniel concerning “one like the Son of Man, coming with the clouds of heaven” (Dan 7:13).
So the resonances are strong, the allusions are clear. Jesus is invoking the prophetic visions of The Day, The End; the judgement of God, falling upon the wicked of the earth. And he deliberately applies these vivid and fearsome prophetic and apocalyptic traditions to what he says about the Temple. By linking his teaching directly to the question of four of his disciples, Peter, James, John, and Andrew (Mark 13:3), enquiring about the Temple, Jesus appears to be locating the end of the Temple—its sacrifices and offerings, its psalms and rituals, its wealth and glory … and perhaps also its priestly class—in the midst of the terrible, violent retributive judgements of the Lord God during the days of the end.
The language also resonates with the end section of 2 Esdras, in which God informs “my elect ones” that “the days of tribulation are at hand, but I will deliver you from them”. Those who fear God will prevail, whilst “those who are choked by their sins and overwhelmed by their iniquities” are compared with “a field choked with underbrush and its path overwhelmed with thorns” and condemned “to be consumed by fire” (2 Esdras 16:74–78). (This book claims to be words of Ezra, the scribe and priest who was prominent in the return to Jerusalem in the 5th century BCE, but scholarly opinion is that it was written after the Gospels, perhaps well into the 2nd century CE.)
All of the happenings that are described by Jesus in his teachings whilst seated with his followers outside the Temple (Mark 13:3) can be encapsulated in this potent image: “this is but the beginning of the birth pangs” (13:8). This is imagery which reaches right back to the foundational mythology of Israel, which tells of the pains of childbirth (Gen 3:16). It is language used by prophets (Jer 4:3; 22:23; 49:2; 49:24; Hos 13:13; Isa 21:3; 66:7–8; Micah 4:9; 5:3).
This chapter in Mark’s Gospel, along with the parallel accounts in Luke (chapter 21) and Matthew (chapter 24), are regarded as instances of apocalyptic material. The meaning of apocalyptic is straightforward: it refers to the “unveiling” or “revealing” of information about the end time, the heavenly realm, the actions of God.
Such a focus does not come as a surprise to the careful reader, or hearer, of this Gospel. This style of teaching is consistent with, and explanatory of, the message which the Gospels identify as being the centre of the message proclaimed by Jesus: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news” (Mark 1:14); “repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near” (Matt 4:17); “I must proclaim the good news of the kingdom of God to the other cities also; for I was sent for this purpose” (Luke 4:43). Each of these distillations of the message is apocalyptic—revealing the workings of God as the way is prepared for the coming of the sovereign rule of God.
Apocalyptic is the essential nature of Jesus’ teachings about “the kingdom of God”. This final speech confirms the thoroughly apocalyptic character of Jesus’ teaching. The parables he tells about that kingdom are apocalyptic, presenting a vision of the promised future that is in view. The call to repent is apocalyptic, in the tradition of the prophets. The demand to live in a way that exemplifies righteous-justice stands firmly in the line of the prophetic call. Such repentance and righteous-just living is as demanding and difficult as giving birth can be.
Mark’s Gospel has drawn to a climax with the same focussed attention to the vision of God’s kingdom, as was expressed at the start. The beginnings of the birth pangs are pointers to the kingdom that Jesus has always had in view. Jesus was, indeed, a prophet of apocalyptic intensity.
Of course, that still leaves the basic interpretive question: how do we make sense of this apocalyptic fervour in today’s world??? So to grapple with that, there’s more posts coming …..
When we come to the end of the New Testament, we find that the final book bears the name of the apostle John. We know it as the book of the Revelation of John. This book, however, is dramatically different from the Gospel that also bears John’s name. It has its own utterly distinctive character and style.
This book has some indications that it is to be understood as a letter. The opening section (1:1–20) includes an explicit identification of the author (1:4) and the location of his writing (1:9); a brief description of the situation of the recipients (1:9) along with a listing of the specific cities in which they lived (1:11); and a short blessing and doxology (1:4–5).
The book also contains the text of seven short letters, to the churches in these seven cities (2:1–3:22). The closing section (22:8–21) reiterates the role of the author (22:8) and concludes with a blessing formula (22:21). Each of these elements reflects traditional letter-writing style.
The author identifies himself as John (1:4, 9; 22:8) and notes that he was living on the island of Patmos (1:9); church tradition has equated him with John, the disciple of Jesus, as well as the author of the fourth Gospel and three letters. However, this book is strikingly different from the Gospel and the three letters.
Some have argued that the tone of the book might reflect the style of one of “the Sons of Thunder”, as the disciple John was labelled (Mark 3:17); but such a generalisation is not grounded in specific evidence.
Both the style of Greek employed and the way that biblical imagery is deployed sets this book apart from the Gospel which bears John’s name; whilst that book is steeped in biblical imagery and language, it is done in a more subtle and sophisticated manner.
The issues addressed in each of the letters which are attributed to John are internal church matters, quite different from the broader view of society which is in view in Revelation. These letters require separate consideration from the dramatic scenes which follow.
The recipients of the book, identified generically as “the seven churches that are in Asia” (1:4), are then named one by one, by city (1:11). In the details of the seven letters which are addressed specifically to these seven churches (2:1–3:22), we might imagine that we will find insight into the specific situation in these churches, which is being addressed in this book.
Yet, a careful reading of these particular letters indicates that they are written and delivered in response to a dramatic vision of a distinguished figure with an ominous presence, who instructs the author to write the letters to the angels of the various churches (1:9–20).
Furthermore, the content of a number of these letters introduces additional elements which are striking and unusual—seven stars held in a man’s hand, seven spirits of God, seven golden lampstands, white robes and a white stone, immoral behaviours and strange teachings which exhibit Satanic influences.
As we read on, we discover that this turns out to be just a little “sampler” of the far more complex and intricate world of heavenly beings and exotic creatures, who populate a series of increasingly bizarre and disturbing visions throughout the rest of the book. The whole book is much more than a letter, or a series of letters.
The opening and closing chapters give a number of clues in this regard. The work is characterised as being words of prophecy (1:3; 22:10, 18–19). The prophecy which is presented in this book is summarised as what must soon take place (1:1; 22:6). Both at the beginning and at the end of the book, the author declares that he is looking forward in time, reporting events that will soon occur.
However, this is not simply John’s view of what is to happen; what he writes, he maintains, has first been made known to him by an angel (1:1; 22:6, 8). So, the visions reported in chapters 4–21 are encircled by strong assertions of their significance and import.
As the book ends (22:6–21), a series of statements and affirmations reinforce the importance of what has been revealed in these visions.
First, the author repeats the explicit claim that this was shown to him by an angel (22:8–9). The instruction he is given, to make this known (“do not seal up the words”, 22:10), ensures that the message will become public—the author must write letters and report visions to those who will listen.
Then the author intensifies the moment by reporting the direct words of Jesus: “It is I, Jesus, who sent my angel to you” (22:16); the message has a clear heavenly origin.
Next comes a dire warning not to tamper with the words as revealed by these means (22:18–19); the style is that of a solemn oath. The work closes with a prayer which looks to the way of Jesus in the future, “Come, Lord Jesus” (22:20), and a final formulaic benediction of grace (22:11, evoking the opening blessing of 1:4).
Ways of interpreting this book
The book of Revelation has probably become the most misunderstood book of the New Testament—because of the enigmatic nature, and the dramatic power, of these visionary sections. There are numerous theories seeking to ‘explain’ the meaning of the visions and to ‘prove’ the identity of the various figures who appear in these visions.
There are many approaches that have been taken to explain the vivid imagery which depicts the future judgement of humanity, which has led to this also being one of the most misused books of the New Testament. It has been interpreted by groups of fervent believers throughout the centuries as evidence that the end of the world was at hand.
How, then, do we seek to “understand” this book? When ever we turn to scripture, are we looking for clear doctrinal statements? In which case, this book could be mined as a source for teachings about “the last days”.
Or do we hope to encounter stories which help us to understand what has transpired in history? In which case, we will look for evidence that pins down the content of this book and grounds it in real-life events.
Both approaches require us to develop an extensive system of interpretation for reading this book. This is not a simple or straightforward task.
An alternative (and often employed) way of reading this book is to consider that it is prophecy which provides a set of predictions about the future. Sometimes this is seen to relate to the times immediately in the future of the writer, in the late 1st century. Other interpreters claim that the book is pointing forward in time, to events that will take place beyond the time of the reader, in our own times (that is, the 21st century).
Some people will want to read the book simply as literature in its own right; as a work of art, it has the power to generate ideas and responses without necessarily tying these down to what is “true” or “accurate”. Ideological critics might wish to engage in dialogue with the book in relation to the violence which runs throughout the visions.
Some readers have considered this book to be an expression of patriarchal power, caught up in the masculine enterprise of solving disputes through coercion and violence. Others have undertaken a search for an alternative vision of peacemaking in the midst of human warfare, as the lamb who was slaughtered is the one who ultimately triumphs.
How do you come to this book?What is the lens, the perspective, that you employ, to read this dramatic and different book?
Whatever the way is that we seek to approach our reading of this book, it will influence the kind of understanding that results. Because the work does not lay down one simple narrative line; because it is so rich and intricate in its symbolism; because it places layer upon layer, image upon image, it will produce multiple readings with multiple appreciations. Such is the complex nature of interpreting biblical texts.
This coming Sunday, the Revised Common Lectionary takes us to the very start of the earliest written account telling the story of Jesus of Nazareth: to the beginning of the good news of Jesus, chosen one, Son of God (Mark 1:1).
But there’s much about Jesus that we “know” that isn’t evident from this earliest and shortest story. We can deduce that Jesus was born to a Jewish family in a small town in Galilee (northern Israel). The precise date of his birth is not known, although it is now thought to be somewhere around the year 4 BCE. The town was most likely Nazareth. Indeed, in this work (the Gospel according to Mark), he is clearly identified as Jesus of Nazareth (Mark 1:24, 10:47, 14:67, 16:6).
There is no story in this Gospel which places the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem, as we find in two later works (Matt 2:1-8; Luke 2:4,15; see also John 7:42). Elsewhere, he is known as “Jesus, the son of Joseph” (Luke 2:23; John 1:45, 6:42) and “the carpenter’s son” (Matt 13:55); but this particular Gospel contains no reference to the father of Jesus, only to his (unnamed) mother (Mark 3:31).
The region of Galilee was governed by Herod (Luke 1:5), and the whole of the land of Israel was part of the Roman Empire (Luke 3:1). Few people were extremely well off in the Roman Empire. A flourishing merchant class plied its trade on land and sea, but, like the vast majority of people in his country, Jesus did not enjoy a lavish lifestyle.
Jesus’ father, Joseph, worked in the building trade, probably as a carpenter. His mother (who was probably only 14 or 15 when he was born) had a number of other children after Jesus was born (see Mark 3:31-35). The family would have lived in a basic house made of mud or wood, and divided into two: one half for the family, the other half for their animals.
Jesus was raised as a good Jew. We can hypothesise much about his upbringing and faith. He knew the daily prayer of the Jews, the Shema (“Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God is One”). He also knew the major annual festivals of his people: Passover, Harvest (later called Pentecost) and Tabernacles.
Jesus attended the synagogue each Sabbath, where he watched the scrolls containing the Hebrew scriptures unrolled, before they were read (in Hebrew, the sacred language) and explained (in Aramaic, the language of the common Jewish folk). Jesus, like all his fellow–Jews, believed that his God, Yahweh, was the one true God. He followed the traditional practices of worship and studied the scriptures under the guidance of the scribes in his synagogue.
Since Israel had been occupied by foreign forces for many centuries before Jesus was born, first by Greeks, and then by Romans, he would have grown up in an environment where Greek (the common international language of the time) was spoken. Jesus would probably have understood Greek; but it would have been unlikely that he used Greek often; Aramaic was his native tongue.
Jesus would certainly have encountered the soldiers of the Roman Empire, and knew the kind of deference that they expected. Some of his contemporaries, in zealous obedience to the Torah, attempted to use force to overcome the Roman colonisers. Unlike them, Jesus did not take up arms in an attempt to rid the land of the Romans. He understood the constraints of living in an occupied land.
At a mature age (by tradition, in his early 30’s), Jesus made his way south towards Jerusalem, into the desert regions, along with other Jews of the day. Beside the Jordan River he listened to the preaching of a strange figure—a desert-dwelling apocalyptic prophet named John (Mark 1:4-8).
This man, named John, had a number of striking features (1:6). His dress, a tunic made of camel’s hair, with a leather belt, is reminiscent of Elijah the Tishbite, who dressed in a similar manner (2 Kings 1:8). His diet, comprising locusts and honey, evokes the ascetic life of a desert dweller ( …). The impression is clear: John intends to evoke the prophet Elijah.
Elijah exercised his role of prophet under the corrupt rule of Ahab and Jezebel. The most famous stories about Elijah take place in the desert, as the prophet speaks of a coming drought (1 Kings 17:1-7), and then challenges the dominant authorities, berating them for worshipping Baal rather than the Lord (1 Kings 18:20-29), and calling for their repentance (1 Kings 18:30-40). He is remembered as a fearsome figure with an apocalyptic message (Mal 4:4-6).
In Mark’s Gospel, the later desert-dwelling prophet, John, evokes the memory of the earlier desert-dwelling prophet, Elijah. He comes on the scene right at the start of the story, dressed in the manner of Elijah, and in a fulfilment of Isaiah’s prophecy (1:2-3), announces that he is preparing the way for the coming of a “more powerful one”, who will baptise God’s people with the Holy Spirit (1:7-8).
This is real “fire-and-brimstone” preaching! The fire in the message of “the more powerful one who is coming” is implicit in Mark’s story; it is made explicit in the accounts of Matthew and Luke, who each report John as saying, “he will baptise you with the Holy Spirit and fire” (Matt 3:11, Luke 3:16).
John’s message was the traditional prophetic call to repent (1:4). Prophets occasionally call directly for repentance (Isa 1:27; Jer 8:4-7, 9:4-5, 34:15; Ezek 14:6, 18:30; Zech 1:1-6), but so many of the oracles included in both major and minor prophets provide extended diatribes against the sinfulness of Israel and call for a return to the ways of righteousness that are set out in the convening with the Lord. When prophets called for repentance, they were seeking a striking and thoroughgoing change of mind, a reversal of thinking and acting, a 180 degree turnaround, amongst the people.
Accompanying this, however, was a very distinctive action that John the desert dweller performed, of immersing people into the river (Mark 1:5). Our Bibles translate this as “baptising”, but it was actually a wholesale dunking right down deep into the waters of the river.
Our refined ecclesial terminology of “baptism” is often associated, in the popular mind, with cute babies in beautiful christening gowns surrounded by adoring grandparents, aunties and uncles. This leads us far away from the stark realities of the act: being pushed down deep into the river, being completely surrounded by the waters, before emerging saturated and maybe gasping for air.
Such a dramatic dunking was designed to signify the cleansing of the repentant person. Repentance and baptism were necessary for the ushering in of the reign of God, according to John. Jesus appears to have accepted this point of view; it is most likely that his baptism was an intense religious experience for him. He underwent a whole scale change of mind, a reorientation towards the mission that was thrust upon him.
From the moment of this intense experience, Jesus was fervently committed to the renewal and restoration of Israel. His first words, as reported in this shortest and earliest account of his ministry, were clear and focussed (1:14-15). There are four key elements: fulfilment of the time, nearness of the kingdom, the need to repent, and belief in the good news. Repentance is pivotal in this succinct summary of his message. It was the heart of the message that Jesus instructed his followers to proclaim (6:12).
After this dramatic dunking by the desert dweller, Jesus left his family and began travelling around Galilee, announcing that the time was near for dramatic changes to take place. He gathered a group of men and women who accepted his teachings, journeying with him as he spread the news throughout Galilee. The intense religious experience of his dunking meant that the fierce apocalyptic message spoken by the desert dweller was lived out in a radical way in daily life by this group of deeply committed associates of Jesus. The intense religious experience associated with his dramatic dunking by the desert dweller had a deep and abiding impact.
Messengers like John have always been an important part of God’s “strategy” for working in human affairs. There are always those who are called to prepare others for God’s coming and to announce what God is doing.
The challenge for us in this Advent season, then, is to create an environment in which we can listen to the sharpness of the words spoken by God’s messengers, and recognise the ways that we ourselves are called to bring this challenging message to our world in our time. Aligning ourselves with the message of John is quite a challenge!
Keep awake! These are the last two words of a dramatic passage towards the end of a work entitled the beginning of the good news of Jesus, chosen one. We know this by the name bequeathed by Christian tradition: “the Gospel according to Mark.”
I Keep awake!
Keep awake! are the last two recorded words spoken by Jesus in this long speech, given to his disciples outside the Temple in Jerusalem. This is the last long speech of Jesus recorded in this Gospel, uttered just hours before he is arrested and put on trial for blasphemy.
After his arrest, Jesus, the master story-teller, the wordsmith supreme, is uncharacteristically silent in this story (14:61, 15:5). He speaks only once at his trial before the Sanhedrin (14:62), and once again when brought before Pilate (15:2). So this speech to his disciples (13:5-37), and especially these last two words, keep awake!, are significant and important.
Keep awake: these two words set the theme for the four weeks of Advent, that start this,coming Sunday. Advent literally means towards the coming. It is what pregnant women do; they look towards the coming of the expected child. It is what young children do, as dinner time approaches; they look towards the coming of their working parents, returning home to share in the evening meal and associated rituals.
It is what we are called to do during these next four weeks; to look towards the coming of Jesus, the one whose birth we celebrate on Christmas Day.
And as we look towards the coming, we are instructed to keep awake (13:37, and see also 13:35), to keep alert (13:33), be alert (13:23), and beware (13:9 and 13:5).
II Prophetic oracles and apocalyptic writings
The context for these exhortations is instructive. These words are uttered to people who will find themselves in the midst of a series of challenging crises. There will be wars and rumours of wars (13:7), earthquakes and famines (13:8), persecution and trials (13:9-11), ruptures within families (13:12) and unwarranted hatred (13:13). Sacred places will be despoiled (13:14) and religious imposters will flourish (13:22), while sufferings will be widespread (13:19) and a global environmental disaster will ensue (13:24-25).
These events are all standard elements in apocalyptic works of the time—writings which were created in the midst of events perceived as tribulations and catastrophes, out of which a message of hope was born. Apocalyptic writings developed after the return from Exile of the people of Israel, from the uprising led by the Maccabees in the 2nd century BCE onwards, and were particularly common in Jewish literature through until the century after the time of Jesus.
Apocalyptic emerged out of the oracles delivered by the prophets in earlier centuries, when kings were in power in Israel. The prophets spoke out against the injustices seen in their society. Their oracles spoke of the punishment that they believe God was going to bring on the people. Over time, through the experience of exile, captivity, and then return to the land under foreign rule, the message of doom was strengthened.
The prophets, and then the apocalyptic works, include many references that resonate with what Jesus is saying in his speech in Mark 13. The threat of future wars is noted in Isaiah 19:2, Jeremiah 51:46, and Daniel 7:21. Graphic prophecies in Daniel 9:25-26 and 11:40-45 intensify this portrayal of the wars that are to come.
2 Baruch 70:7-8 ramps this up even more: “And they shall come and make war with the leaders that shall then be left. And it shall come to pass that whoever gets safe out of the war shall die in the earthquake, and whoever gets safe out of the earthquake shall be burned by the fire, and whoever gets safe out of the fire shall be destroyed by famine.”
Hatred and falling away from God is included in a number of apocalyptic writings: 1 Enoch 90:22-27, 91:7, 93:9, Jubilees 23:14-17, and in one of biblical commentaries found amongst the Dead Sea Scrolls, 1QpHab 2.1-10. That sacred places will be despoiled is described in the Testament of Levi 15:1 and the Apocalypse of Elijah 2:41 4:21.
Suffering and distress are signs of what is to come in many books within apocalyptic elements: in the prophetic oracles of Jeremiah 30:7 and Joel 2:2, in another scroll from the Dead Sea Scrolls, 1 QM 1.11-12; and in the Testament of Moses 8.1.
Cosmic signs are associated with the coming time of doom. The Lord will shake the earth, according to Isaiah 13:13, 24:19; Joel 3:16; Amos 9:1,9-10; Haggai 2:6,20-22; and 2 Baruch 70:8, cited above; and see also Job 9:6.
Flashes of lightning are noted at Psalm 97:4, in prophetic oracles at Isa 62:1, Zech 9:14, and the Epistle of Jeremiah 61, as well as in 2 Baruch 53:9. What looks quite like an eclipse is regularly noted in prophetic oracles: Isaiah 13:10, 24:23, 34:4; Jeremiah 4:23; Ezekiel 32:7-8; Joel 2:10, 30-31; Amos 5:20; and Zephaniah 1:15. It also features in apocalyptic writings such as 1 Enoch 80:4; 4 Ezra 5:4-5; and the Testament of Moses 10:5 (and see also Job 9:7).
The darkness that ensues takes us back to the chaotic origins recounted in Gen 1:2, evoked again in Jer 4:23. Darkness is understood to be a sign of judgement in the prophets: Exodus 10:21-29, Isaiah 13:9-16, Jer 13:16, and Amos 5:18,20.
“If this is what life is like now”, the argument of apocalyptic writings usually goes, “with all of these catastrophic events tumbling one upon another — then because of our faith, we have confidence that the future will be a time when God will intervene, dramatically and affirmatively, to ensure that justice is done.”
And so, hope is affirmed, even as these works provide extensive lists of the terrible hardships and dramatic crises being experienced. Indeed, hope itself features in prophetic oracles (Isa 29:17, 38:18, and 51:5), as well as apocalyptic works such as 4 Ezra 6:25, 7:27, and 9:7-8, and 2 Baruch 70:9.
III Hope in the midst of despair
The apocalyptic signs and portents noted in Mark 13, whilst resonating with ancient experiences and expectations, also seem to have some resonances with our current situation, and the year of serial challenges that we have all experienced.
What has 2020 been like for you? For myself, I have experienced suffocating smoke, followed by the threat of a spreading fire in a nearby national park, clearly visible from my front door, even if still a few kilometres distant.
I myself was not directly damaged by the fires, but I have seen numerous frightening images and videos of firefighters standing firm right in the midst of terrible firestorms, heart-wrenching images of animals who have been hurt or whose habitat was destroyed, and so many tragic scenes of people surveying the devastation wrought by the fires to their homes and possessions. That in itself felt cataclysmic enough to be “apocalyptic”.
However, the fires, there came a very sudden and severe hailstorm, and then the frightening irruption of a pandemic bearing a virus that spread rapidly across the globe. Smoke and fire, hail and plague: it has felt like a massive year!
Since the impact of COVID-19 became evident in March, we have all experienced restrictions on how we gather and how we live, the stresses that this placed on our regular ways of living, and in some cases the fracturing of relationships that ensued. Some people have experienced illness or loss of friends or loved ones because of the pandemic.
Community grief is deep in some regions. Recovery from the bushfires in the midst of a pandemic is a hard task. Envisaging life in the “new normal” presents multiple challenges to everyone.
And the environmental warnings from what we have experienced are clear and strong. Our climate is changing, and the way it is impacting our society is significant and enduring. No longer are we faced with the task of mitigation; we need to take seriously the process of adaptation, at a rate more rapid, more,extensive, and more insistent than we might previously have considered. The “new normal” must be very, very different, indeed.
The challenge offered to us by this passage, as we read it this year, in the context of all that has transpired, is to hold fast to the note of hope, that Jesus offered his first disciples, and which holds still for us today.
In the midst of all these trials, Jesus affirms that the one who endures to the end will be saved (13:13). He assures his followers that the Lord has cut short those days (13:20), and looks to the time when the [Lord] will send out the angels, and gather his elect from the four winds (13:27). Once again, the speech in Mark 13 draws from standard apocalyptic elements to provide assurance in the midst of despair.
How might these words of hope be the dominant notes for us at the end of 2020? Each one of us needs to work out how we respond, what we can do, who we can work with, how we can adapt. Reimagining the way we gather, worship, shop, visit, eat together, and travel, requires dedicated commitment over the coming months. It is a task for us all.
And if we continue to hold to that task, then perhaps this imaginative story might actually become the story of our future: The Great Realisation
Jewish people of the first century lived in one of two ways. Some were members of the nation of Israel which was occupied by a foreign military force, the Romans. (The Romans called this region Palestine). Others were members of a minority group of Jews who were permitted to exist in another nation. (These are known as Jews of the Dispersion).
Life in such situations demanded compromise. For Jews living in the Dispersion (also called the Diaspora), the degree of compromise might vary—but compromise was inevitable. For those living within Israel, the need for compromise was a constant irritant. Some groups, like the Sadducees and the priests, accepted the compromises and did well out of them. Many common folk simply made the best of the situation.
Others resented what was imposed on them. They looked back to an earlier time in the history of Israel, when the troops of another foreign force, the Seleucids, held power in Israel. An honoured group of Jews, the Maccabees, had led an armed insurgency which brought victory over the Seleucids in the years 167 to 164 BCE. For a time, Jews had ruled Israel once again.
From the time that Roman troops had occupied Palestine, in 63 BCE, there was tension. It would wax and wane according to the attitudes of the Jewish leaders and the political imperatives at work through the Roman governors. In the year 66, the governor, Florus, demanded money from the Temple treasury in Jerusalem. This was too much for some Jews; hostilities broke out in various places across Palestine. The war which resulted lasted eight years; in 70CE, the Temple in Jerusalem would be burnt to the ground, and by 74CE, all active Jewish resistance to the Romans would be quashed.
In this setting, amidst the battles fought in Galilee, Samaria and Judaea, apocalyptic hopes were inflamed. Many of the Jews actively fighting the Romans believed that their actions would help to usher in the long-promised kingdom of God. This kingdom would represent a new era, in which God would reign over Israel and foreign troops would be banished.
The term apocalyptic describes this attitude. It comes from the Greek word apokalupsis, which mean ‘unveiling’ or ‘revealing’. It indicates a belief that God would act to unveil, or reveal, the new era.
Perhaps a significant number of the followers of Jesus also believed that the kingdom of God was drawing near, as Jesus had proclaimed some decades earlier, in the events of their own day. After all, Jesus spoke the language of apocalyptic and told stories about the kingdom that God had in store for his people.
Should the followers of Jesus, then, join with the rebel groups in rising up against Rome? Was the way to the kingdom to be won through conflict, martyrdom, and military victory? Or was there another way?
Remarkably, one writer chose to answer these questions by writing about the way which would have been chosen by Jesus. The earliest written account that we have for the life of Jesus, which opens with a declaration about the beginning of the good news of Jesus—which we know, by tradition, as “the Gospel according to Mark”—appears to deal with precisely these issues as it assembles and reshapes many of the stories told about Jesus.
It is strongly marked by apocalyptic overtones, from the urgent message which Jesus utters (the kingdom is at hand, 1:14–15) to his parting description of apocalyptic terrors (there will be earthquakes and terrors … you will be hated by all … there will be suffering, such as has not been from the beginning of the creation … the powers in the heavens will be shaken … they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in clouds’ with great power and glory, 13:3–37).
This Gospel was written for first century Jews who were who were caught up in a fervent hope that the kingdom of God was soon to be ushered in, but who were also struggling with what it meant to follow the way of Jesus.
So Mark tells the story of Jesus, a person who submitted to his death, at the hands of the Romans, without raising any weapons in defence. The way of Jesus, according to Mark, was the way of suffering obedience and faithful discipleship. The answer to the questions posed lay in following the way of Jesus. And this Gospel particularly emphasises the necessity of faithful discipleship; follow me is an important refrain (1:17, 19; 2:14; 10:21).
The high cost of this following is also made clear in Jesus’ teachings. As the earliest readers of this Gospel struggled to live out their faith in a vibrant but challenging situation, they remembered and treasured stories about Jesus’ travels to Gentile lands (4:35–5:21; 6:45–8:13). During these travels, Jesus showed that the kingdom would include people who were regarded by many Jews as being unclean, dishonoured, and beyond salvation: disabled people, Gentiles, women, and mentally ill (i.e. demon-possessed) people.
So this account of Jesus is infused with drama and intensity as the story moves from one incident to the next. Yet, the whole Gospel is a carefully-crafted piece of literature. The structure of the work conveys the significance of Jesus and the necessity of faithful discipleship in the midst of suffering. (See my outline of this Gospel below.)
Mark writes to help believers understand what it means to follow Jesus and to take up our cross (8:34) in the time of expectant waiting as the kingdom is at hand (1:15). Just as Jesus crossed over the margins of society, so must we; as Jesus suffered, so may we; but as he lives, so may we know the presence of God’s chosen one with us. The Gospel story is an invitation to follow Jesus along this pathway.
This year we have the opportunity to listen to the story of Jesus as it is offered in this Gospel. Each Sunday, the lectionary offers a selection from the beginning of the good news of Jesus the chosen one. May we listen, hear, engage — and be transformed.
An outline of the story told in the beginnings of the good news about Jesus
This blog draws on material in MARKING THE GOSPEL: an exploration of the Gospel for Year B, by Elizabeth Raine and John Squires (self-published 2012).