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This is the third in our brief (and much more needs to be said about all kinds of terms and verses — like “prophetic” vs. “apocalyptic”) sketch of a partial preterist view of Mark 13. This view, I’d like folks to know, is not new — it is in fact old. Modern scholars who argue something along this line, with variations, include RC Sproul, GB Caird, RT France, and NT Wright. There seems to be a rise of evangelicals who prefer this view.
The Eschatological Discourse on Mt. Olivet (Mark 13; Matt 24; Luke 21)
In general, Jesus’ last discourse is concerned with the questions the
disciples ask about what Jesus means by saying “this here Temple will
be destroyed” and they ask two pointed questions: when will this occur
and what will be the sign? Scholars have argued over whether this is
one question in two forms, or two different questions. Furthermore, the
language of the Gospels on these questions differs: Mark, the earliest
account, says: “When will these things be? and, what will be the sign
when all these things are about to be fulfilled?” (Mark 13:4). Matthew
clarifies Mark’s second question with: “What will be the sign of your
coming and the consummation of the age?” (Matt. 24:3) Luke, like an
English teacher correcting language to its simplest form, says, “What
will be the sign when these things happen?” (Luke 21:7) E.B. White
would be proud of Luke. We can’t sort through all this but two
conclusions, so important for understanding this last discourse, need
to be stated: first, the subject matter of this discourse, as shaped by the questions, is about the
destruction of Jerusalem – not the end of the world some 2000+ years
down the road; and second, the disciples, at least, think the
destruction will lead somehow into the consummation.
Let me criticize the view that sees in this discourse, not a prediction of A.D. 70 but the end of the Great Tribulation, and what needs to be criticized is that, if this is what Jesus proceeds to discuss, then he has done a number on his disciples. They wanted information about the destruction of Jerusalem and he tells them in language that sounds like an imminent event but he is actually using language about the year 2009, just to take a date from the air to give it reality. This is not how prophetic language works. It works only if the prophet is speaking to contemporaries about things they will experience. It does no good to talk to Jesus’ disciples about the United Nations or Russia or the Palestinian-Israeli conflict or even Usama bin Laden and do so in terms that sound like 1st Century stuff. Now back to the text.
The first thing we need to do now is find where Jesus talks about the destruction of Jerusalem. I shall follow the Markan text, observing here that the differences with the other Evangelists are minimal and unimportant for what I am arguing. We run our fingers along the text and we find the following: false claims of messianic status, wars, earthquakes, and famines – things called “the birth pains” (Mk 13:8), a term used in apocalyptic and prophetic literature for sufferings that give new birth to the nation. As Casey Stengel used to say, “you can look it up.” Then Jesus predicts persecution for his followers, a persecution that leads fortuitously to evangelistic opportunities (13:9-11) – which sounds a little like parental advice to children when going through something bad – “you’ll grow from this.” “Yah, right!” they add. Then Jesus speaks of betrayals and the need to persevere (13:12-13). Next, Jesus speaks of the abomination of desolation, another apocalyptic and prophetic expression, deriving from Dan. 9:27; 11:31; 12:11, for an end-time sacrilegious act in the Temple’s most holy place. Again, you can look it up. When this occurs, so predicts Jesus, the tide will turn and really bad things will occur: “unequaled distress” (Mk 13:14-23). His disciples need again to be alert because deception will be the rule.
Now if we are looking for a statement of destruction, we have not yet seen it – unless it is symbolically expressed in the abomination of desolation. So, we go on in the text. Jesus next speaks the words that have so dazzled those who are taken by apocalyptic imagery as literal and physical descriptions. Let me translate, but here from Matthew 24:29-31 because it is more complete: “Immediately after the tribulation of those days – notice here the word “immediately”, Jesus mixes Isa. 13:10 and 34:4, “the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, the stars will fall from the sky, and the powers of the skies will be shaken. And then the sign of the Son of Man will appear in the sky/heaven, and then (now quoting Dan. 7:13f) the tribes of the land (not ‘earth’) will beat their breasts in mourning, and they will see the Son of Man ‘coming’ on the clouds of the sky with much power and glory. And the Son of Man will send his angels/messengers with a great trumpet blast, and the Son of Man will gather his elect ones from the four winds, from one end of the heavens to the other” (Matt. 24:29-31). The End. At this point Jesus gives a concluding illustration, from the fig tree – about reading signs, and tells them that this description is about the end. More importantly, Jesus says words that most have ignored: (I return to Mark 13:30) “Amen, I say to you that this generation will not pass way until/before all these things come to pass.”
We set out to find where Jesus spoke of the destruction of Jerusalem and it may appear he doesn’t. We must assume he did and we missed it. But before I discuss where that might have been described, let me speak to the implications of this last sentence of Jesus: “all these things will occur before this generation dies away.” First, generation means just that – contemporaries of Jesus who are standing there and who are not standing there, those who were alive as he was speaking. This term does not and cannot mean “race”, as if Jesus meant “this Jewish nation” will not pass away before the “coming” of the Son of Man. Instead, Jesus evidently thinks everything he has described must occur before the present generation dies away. The plain meaning of this statement by Jesus is stubborn. To quote C.S. Lewis, “That’s the worst [part about] facts – they do cramp a fellow’s style” (Letters, 256).
Now let us say that most lived to 65 and let us also say that Jesus said this in either 30 or 33 AD. This would mean Jesus is setting a terminal limit to about 30-40 years (assuming he is speaking to adults and is speaking roughly of one generation). That would mean Jesus is saying that all these things will take place before or about 30-40 years, which is about A.D. 70. (If you are still awake, you know where I’m headed.) These facts cramp many styles, especially those who think these words support either the pre-trib or post-trib viewpoint. Such a temporal limit was expressed two other times by Jesus: in Matt. 10:23 Jesus told his disciples they would not finish fleeing from or evangelizing the cities of Israel before the Son of Man came, and in Mark 9:1 Jesus said that some of those who were standing with Jesus would not die before they saw the Son of Man coming with power. So, we can conclude that at least three times Jesus had a temporal limit to the plan of God that can be reasonably established to be something like A.D. 70.
More tomorrow. Stay with us.