Mark 13:26-37. Doorkeepers in the master’s house.

“And then they will see the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory. And then he will send out the angels and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven. From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts out its leaves, you know that summer is near. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that he is near, at the very gates. Truly, I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all these things take place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away. (v26-31)

But concerning that day or that hour, no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. Be on guard, keep awake. For you do not know when the time will come. It is like a man going on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his servants in charge, each with his work, and commands the doorkeeper to stay awake. Therefore stay awake- for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or when the rooster crows, or in the morning- lest he come suddenly and find you asleep. And what I say to you I say to all: Stay awake.”(v32-37)

Standing on the Mount of Olives, overlooking the Temple, Jesus answers a question asked by his closest disciples. They’ve spent a week in and around the Temple, and Jesus has just left it, predicting that it will be destroyed. The disciples’ minds are filled with questions- when will this happen? What exactly is going to happen? What do we need to do now to be ready for it? They know that if the Temple is destroyed, all bets are off for Israel. They already expect Jesus to be crowned very soon as the Messianic King, and to establish God’s kingdom from Jerusalem. Now they see a connection between that, and the fall of the Temple. Surely, God is about to unleash his wrath on unbelieving Israel, destroy their Temple, and establish his king in righteousness to rule from Zion’s holy hill…

But when they ask for a timescale for all this, Jesus tells them to expect suffering and tribulation instead of victory. He tells them that they will be hated by everyone, imprisoned, and had up in court. He also warns them that when Jerusalem falls, they shouldn’t stick around to enjoy the victory party- they should flee, and not even wait long enough to grab a coat on the way out.

We can become very confused by Jesus’ answer, so although we’ve been through most of it already, if I may, I’ll just recap and briefly lay out what- and when- I think Jesus is talking about:

  •  Verses 5-8 The beginning of birth pains. Jesus is talking fairly generally about pain and suffering and false Messiahs. The four men he’s talking to will hear about these things. They are wondering about an instant Kingdom of God coming to earth. Jesus tells them it won’t be like that.
  • Verses 9-13 Suffering and persecution. Jesus goes on to say that not only will the Kingdom of God not come fully in a moment, but the disciples will undergo great suffering for Jesus’ sake. As they take the Gospel out to the nations, they will need endurance. Jesus is particularly addressing Peter, James, John, and Andrew, but we can extend his remarks to the first generation of disciples, and even to ourselves.
  • Verses 14-22 Jerusalem. Jesus is very plainly talking about the events of A.D.70, with the destruction of the Temple and the obvious cutting off of national Israel.
  • Verses 23-27 After Jerusalem. Jesus says that there will be huge upheavals in God’s dealings with the world and with the nations. And he says that the Son of Man will send out his angels to gather in the elect- which we are still seeing.
  • Verses 28-31 Jesus warns the disciples that when they see these things take place- and they will all take place within a generation- then they should know that “he is near, at the very gates”.
  • Verses 33-37 In the days when he is near, this is how the four- and all disciples- should live.

 We’ve already covered the chapter up to v25 in previous studies, so we’ll pick up at v26 this time. 

  1. Who will see the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory? And where will he be coming to and from?
  2. When Jesus says that the Son of Man will send out the angels and “gather his elect from the four winds”, what would the disciples understand by that phrase?
  3. What should the fig tree teach the disciples?
  4. Jesus is emphatic that his words will not pass away. What guides his choice of phrase?
  5. Is “that day or that hour” in v32 a different day and hour from “those days” in v24? If so, which day and hour is it?
  6. What big lessons should we learn from this passage?

 1.      Who will see the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory? And where will he be coming to and from?

The most obvious way to read this is just to read straight on from the previous verse. The powers in the heavens will be shaken, and they- i.e. those powers- will see the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory.

This fits perfectly with the whole thrust of the Son of Man’s coming. For us earth-centric folk, it seems natural to read the passage about the coming of the Son of Man as a reference to the second coming- to the time when Jesus will return to the earth as he promised. But perhaps that’s because in our heads, it’s all about “me, me, me”. When Jesus talks about the coming of the Son of Man, and about clouds and glory, the most obvious OT reference is Daniel 7:13. And that passage does not seem to be about a coming of the Son of Man to earth. In his vision, Daniel sees one like a son of man coming with the clouds of heaven to be presented before the ancient of days and to receive dominion and glory and a kingdom, that all peoples and nations and languages should serve him. This doesn’t sound so much like Jesus coming down from heaven to earth at the end of time as it sounds like Jesus coming into the throne room of heaven to be crowned as king of the universe. Jesus isn’t coming down to the earth; he’s going up into heavens.

Another strand of evidence on this point is that when we read here of the “coming” of the Son of Man, the word is “erchomai”, not “parousia”. Greek scholars say that “parousia” means “presence”, and is used elsewhere to talk about the return of the Son of Man to earth on the last day. “Erchomai”, on the other hand, simply means “coming”, and carries no connotations as to where Jesus is coming to or from.

Also remember that Jesus says that this generation will not pass away until these things have come to pass. That is the only point in the whole chapter at which Jesus puts a definite time-limit on anything. We ought to take note of it. The obvious meaning is stubborn. Jesus says similar things in Matt. 10:23 (the disciples will not finish evangelising Israel before the Son of Man comes) and in Mark 9:1 (some of the disciples will not die until the Kingdom of God comes). He is plainly not talking about the end of the world in either of those contexts.

 It is not the second coming, but the ascension, in view. This is Jesus being seated at the right hand of the Father in heaven while his enemies are put under his feet. It is not seen by those on earth, but it is seen by the powers in heaven, who are shaken by it. And so they should be- it is a momentous event.

That whole cluster of events- the resurrection, the ascension, the sending of the Spirit at Pentecost, and the fall of Jerusalem, are all really one big event stretched over a few decades. And they are causes of and (at least the last one) symptoms of the fall and rise of nations, of groups of people, in God’s purposes.

National Israel rejects its Messiah and puts him to death, but God vindicates him by raising him from the dead and appointing him as judge and king over all the earth. He ascends to heaven, from where he will rule, sat at the right hand of the Father. He sends his Spirit down on his people from heaven. Those joined to him are a new humanity. The church takes shape. This is an unprecedented development in human history. If the powers in heaven were shaken in the fall of Pharaoh and of Babylon, then much more so in the fall of national Israel and the rise of the church of Jesus Christ.

2.      When Jesus says that the Son of Man will send out the angels and “gather his elect from the four winds”, what would the disciples understand by that phrase?

When we read the word “elect”, we tend to think immediately of “Christians”. We assume that the two words are more-or-less synonymous. Those with a bit of theological nous might say, “No no, they’re not synonymous. Somebody can be elect and not (yet) be a Christian. The word elect refers to those people chosen by God. So all of them have been purchased by Jesus Christ, but not all of them are yet regenerate. Some of them probably haven’t even been born yet.” On that reading, the gathering in of the elect would mean the conversion of those whom God has chosen to faith in Jesus Christ. But although that is perfectly theologically correct, and is a natural extension of what Jesus means, it still seems pretty unlikely to be what the disciples would have understood by Jesus’ words. The disciples weren’t thinking like that at all. For them, the word “elect” didn’t conjure up images of believers from all over the globe; all races, all ages, all languages. At this stage, they had only a dim idea about the church. From Acts we can see that they had no idea about a global church including non-Jews. It seemed to take them by surprise when it happened.

So when they hear Jesus talking about gathering in the elect, what do they think he’s talking about? Who are these “elect”, and how are they to be “gathered in”, and what are they doing out at the “four winds” anyway?

The word “elect” in the Jewish mind could only really mean the nation of Israel. And when an Israelite speaks of the “elect” being “gathered in”, he is obviously speaking of a Jewish return from exile. The re-gathering of the dispersed Jewish exiles is a big theme in the Prophets, and is a big theme in Jewish hopes for the end times. In the Old Testament, to “scatter to” and “gather from” the “winds”, or “nations” or “corners of the earth”, are recurring expressions (for scattering, see Deuteronomy 30:3; Jeremiah 9:16; 18:17; Ezekiel 5:10,12; 12:14,15; 17:21; Zechariah 2:10. For re-gathering, see Deuteronomy 30:4, Isaiah 11:12; 27:13; 56:8; Jeremiah 23:3; 31:8; Ezekiel 11:17; 20:34, 41; 28:25; 34:13). If you’re wondering why it should be four winds, rather than seven, or eleventeen, it is because the earth has four corners, four rivers, and four winds, in a Jewish conceptual geology. Gathering exiles from the four winds simply signifies gathering them from the whole earth.

The scattering of Israel to exile, or the re-gathering of Israel from exile, are events with obvious theological import. If the nation is scattered, then that can only be because they have been unfaithful to God, and have fallen under God’s judgement. If the nation fragments it is because their faith has already fragmented. And if the nation is re-gathered, then that happy event is bound up with the salvation of Israel. God has had mercy upon his children, and has gathered them back from the far places so that they might worship him in unity and truth. The prophets talk about national scattering and national gathering in this way.

In Jesus’ day, while there are Jewish communities all over the Roman world, there are also plenty of Jews in the promised land. Things don’t look like they did in Ezekiel’s or Daniel’s day, when Israel was a nation held captive in a foreign land. There is a Temple in Jerusalem. There is a High Priest. There are daily sacrifices. The law given at Sinai is held up publicly as the law of the land. On the face of things, there is no need for a return from exile. But the consistent New Testament picture is that there has never really been a complete re-gathering of Israel from the exile in Babylon. After the utter disaster of 586 B.C., Judah was scattered to the winds, just as Jeremiah had foretold. Israel (the Northern kingdom) had already been scattered by Assyria, although perhaps many of them had migrated south to Judah at that time. The scattering of the Southern kingdom though, was a much more final and absolute disaster. The Davidic kingship was cut short. The Temple was ransacked and flattened.

There had been a return from exile, when Cyrus the Persian made his decree in the days of Nehemiah and Ezra, and that had been a cause for great rejoicing. The Temple was rebuilt and the gathered exiles re-covenanted themselves to God. But that had always been a faintly unsatisfactory affair. Not all the Jews wanted to return, and lots of them never did. Those who did were few and weak, and the temple they rebuilt was a pitiful shadow of Solomon’s glorious temple. Those who could remember Solomon’s temple wept for sorrow, not joy, when they saw the foundations laid for the new edifice (Ezra 3:12). And the Jews of Jesus’ day still looked for a great re-gathering of the exiles, and a restoration of the Temple to its former glory. Herod, in his attempts to be an acceptable king to the Jews (he wasn’t even Jewish, let alone from David’s line, so he had a fair bit of work to do to make himself acceptable), rebuilt the Temple and made it big and impressive. He understood that a true King of the Jews would make it his business to restore the house of God, and he tried to copy what the true king would do. Herod couldn’t do much about the exiles though. If the Jews had seen a king arise who could attract a huge number of the Jews scattered all over the Roman Empire to come back to Judea, then that would have been a big sign of God’s favour resting on the nation and her king.

So when Jesus talks about the Son of Man sending out his angels to gather in the elect, it isn’t just a prediction that each one of God’s chosen people will be individually brought to salvation. Rather, Jesus is claiming that he, the Son of Man, will be a greater and more glorious king that any before. He will bring God’s blessing on the people; he will send out God’s angels to gather in the scattered elect. It is perhaps a claim to greater glory than any mortal king had ever enjoyed- Jesus says that he will send out the angels- he will command the messengers of God. This Son of Man will be what even Adam failed to be, a real king with mighty authority, directing even the angels. Those messengers will go to the ends of the earth, to the four winds, to gather in the people of God.

But while the disciples would probably hear Jesus to be talking about a physical return of national Israel, I don’t think he really was. Bear in mind that Jesus has just said that the Temple will be destroyed, not one stone resting on another. The Temple was God’s house, where God’s people met together for worship. It had always been the visible focus of unity for the gathered people, ever since it had first been built. When the exiles returned from Babylon, Temple reconstruction was high up the list of things to do. But Jesus says that although the Temple will be destroyed, yet the exiles will be gathered in. Those two things don’t usually go together.

So what Jesus is saying is that the destruction of the bricks-and-mortar Temple does not mean permanent dispersion for the true Israel, for those really chosen of God. Rather, it means the ascension of the Son of Man to glory, and the sending out of the angels to gather his chosen people back from the four winds.

This is a continuation of Jesus’ theme of Temple destruction. The fall of the Temple means the fall of Israel and the vindication of the Messiah, which means disruption in the heavens, and the rise of a new people of God. We are to see a re-constitution of Israel as the twelve tribes under the twelve Apostles. Israel is God’s elect nation, but physical Israel is cut off, and spiritual Israel is to be gathered in, from all across the empire. And the Gentiles are to be gathered in as well, and joined to Israel.

Jesus is giving a huge re-interpretation to Israel’s future hopes. Physical Israel will be scattered, but the New Israel will be gathered in. And the focus of their unity won’t be the Temple, but will be the Son of Man himself. There will be no need for a bricks-and-mortar Temple. Something better will have arrived. Jesus himself, in his own body, will be the dwelling place of God. God’s people will meet with Jesus Christ among them, and so they will draw near to God.

 3.      What should the fig tree teach the disciples?

The Mount of Olives (oddly enough, given its name) is covered with fig trees. It is famous for them. The fig tree is deciduous- it loses its leaves in winter. And the leaves don’t grow back until fairly late in the spring. The leaves of the trees around Jesus would perhaps be poking out as he spoke, at Passover time. This is a very simple illustration, using things at hand to act as an immediate visual aid.

Given the way that the fig tree is consistently used in the Old Testament as a picture of Israel, it is very tempting to look for that sort of deeper parallel here. After all, Jesus has just drawn an extending comparison of official Judaism/Temple Judaism with an early-leafing fig tree in chapter 11. He’s acted out a parable, cursing the fig tree for bearing no fruit. But the picture just doesn’t seem to work in this chapter. The trouble in chapter 11with the fig tree that was Israel, is that it was already leafy but the leaves lied. It didn’t have any fruit on it. The use of the fig tree as a picture of Israel works because the fig tree ordinarily bears sweet fruit, and Israel should have borne fruit of justice and righteousness for God. In chapter 11, the whole comparison is to do with the fruit of the fig tree. Here, the fruitfulness or otherwise is irrelevant. The emphasis is on the timing of the appearance of leaves. I’ve looked, but I can’t really see it. When one of Sigmund Freud’s students asked him why he smoked cigars, he replied, “sometimes a cigar is just a cigar”. Here, I think a fig tree is probably just a fig tree.

We can see how Jesus’ illustration works. When the fig tree begins to show signs of life, summer is close. It’s just around the corner. We are glad to see the first signs of spring, and most of us are insulated from the effects of the seasons, having centrally heated homes and working in nice climate-controlled offices. An agrarian outdoorsy people would be much more closely attuned to the passing of the seasons than are we. The disciples would know to look out for the leaves appearing on the fig trees as a sign that spring was turning into summer.

Jesus tells them that they should be just as eager to look out for more important things. When the disciples see the things Jesus has been describing- when they see Jerusalem destroyed and they see Jesus ascend, and they see the elect beginning to be gathered in; then they will know that they really are entering a new era. They will know that the Son of Man could return at any moment to bring history to a close.

This doesn’t mean that Jesus will return immediately after the things described have taken place, but it does mean that he could. If the disciples on the Mount of Olives with Jesus were to ask themselves, “Could tomorrow be the last day?” then the answer would have to be “No”. There are too many things that still have to happen. Jesus has to die, remain three days in the tomb, rise again, spear to the disciples, ascend to heaven, and send the Holy Spirit. Jerusalem has to be sacked and the Temple destroyed. The elect have to be gathered from the four winds. But if the disciples, after all those things have taken place, were to ask the same question; the answer would be different.

 4.      Jesus is emphatic that his words will not pass away. What guides his choice of phrase?

Jesus’ choice of words here is astonishing. In the OT, the one whose words will never pass away is God himself. In the famous words of Isaiah, “the grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God will stand forever”. The permanence is God’s word is established in contrast to the created things which pass away. (Isaiah 40:6-8. Similar statements can be found in Psalm 102:25-27; 119:89, 160; Isaiah 51:6). Jesus uses those words, well aware that he’s borrowing his description from the Old Testament.

Just look at the way Jesus uses the Old Testament, the way he quotes some passages and uses imagery from to others in both his words and his actions. We can see that the written word of God has been his meat and drink from childhood. He has eaten and drunk and lived and breathed the Old Testament scriptures until they have become the marrow of his bones. He is able, spontaneously and constantly, to conjure up allusions to OT passages. He lives in the thought-world of the Bible like a native, and that is exactly what he is.

So when Jesus uses OT phrasing, we are right to go back and check the OT context. When we do so, we see that these words of Jesus are amazingly bold. Jesus’ claims to deity in the synoptic Gospels are deeper and more pervasive than we realise. By using language used in the OT of YHWH himself, Jesus implies that his words are on a par with the very words of God. When he speaks, it is with the voice of the eternal God. This is more than a claim to the role of a prophet. Jesus isn’t claiming merely to transmit messages from God- “Thus saith the Lord”. He says “My words…” Whatever Jesus says are the words of God, simply because Jesus says them.

5.      Is “that day or that hour” in v32 a different day and hour from “those days” in v24? If so, which day and hour is it?

“That day” is an indeterminate date which is the Father’s secret. No one knows the day. It is plainly not the same day as “those days” of v24, because people do know about the day of v24. Jesus himself knows about it, and he has just been telling the disciples about it. But even Jesus doesn’t know about the day of v32.

Linguistic scholars say that the Greek of v32 is adversarial- the thrust is: “But on the contrary, concerning that day, no-one knows the day or the hour”. The day to come is set in opposition to the events that Jesus has just said will take place within the lifetime of his hearers. The days of v24 are knowable from the signs- the day of v32 is not. Jerusalem’s fall can be foreseen. Jesus’ second coming cannot. “You do not know” and “No-one knows” is the repeated theme in these final verses (v32, 33, 35).

“That day” is a phrase used repeatedly by the prophets – Amos 8:3, 9, 13; 9:11; Micah 4:6; 5:10; 7:11; Zephaniah 1:9; 3:11, 16; Obadiah 8; Joel 3:18; Zechariah 9:16; 12:3,4 – to speak of the day of YHWH’s coming, the day when YHWH would reward the faithful and punish the nations. Jesus here uses the phrase to speak of the return of the Son of Man- the day when he will not only be at the gates, but will throw them wide and enter in. Again, he is claiming that he and YHWH are to be identified. The greatest and most terrible thing about the great and terrible day of YHWH is that it was the day of YHWH- it was the day when God’s presence would be among his people directly. Israel knew that to be in God’s presence was a dangerous thing. God hid himself in clouds, and no man could look on his face and live. If God is among his people, then he will, of necessity, purify his people. He will cast out the impure, consuming away evil with fire. Jesus claims here that the presence of the Son of Man will bring about “that day”.

This is well-connected to the flow of thought within the passage. Jesus, having warned his disciples of the things that they will face before they leave this fallen world, has then told them that after they have seen come to pass the things he has warned them about, they will know that history is at an end (at least in the Francis Fukuyama sense of the term). After the great upheavals of the ascension of the Son of Man and the formation of the church as the people of God, there remain no more surprises before the great surprise. There is nothing very much left to happen before the end. The Son of Man is at the gates, and he could enter at any moment. He is as near as is summer after the fig tree has begun to sprout. So now, Jesus warns them not to try to fix a precise date on the day when the gates will be flung open. He tells them that even the angels in heaven are not party to that knowledge. The Father alone knows.  Even the Son is ignorant of the timing of that day.

On the one hand, this raises theological questions about the union of the two natures in the person of Christ. On the other, it certainly discourages speculation about the timing of the last day. Calvin puts it well- “Surely that man must be singularly mad, who would hesitate to submit to the ignorance which even the Son of God himself did not hesitate to endure on our account”.

6.      What big lessons should we learn from this passage?

The parable Jesus draws here is full of goodness. A man is going on a long journey, and he knows he’ll be away from home for a while. He’s not quite sure how long- maybe he’s got some business to take care of a long way off, and it is uncertain how long it will take him to get it all sorted out. Maybe he’s only going for the day, but he’s just not sure whether or not he’ll be home for supper. So he gathers his servants together, tells them that he’s going to be away for a while, and gives directions about how the household is to be run in his absence. Each of the servants has his own work assigned to him, and that’s what he should be getting on with. The work of the doorkeeper is to stay alert and be ready for the master when he comes back.

Jesus then tells the four disciples that they are doorkeepers in the master’s house. They are to stay awake because they don’t know when he will return. It could be at evening, or at midnight, or at daybreak, or even the next morning. If they are going to be ready for him, then they can’t afford to go to sleep on the job.

The lesson for us is obvious. We are to watch and pray. We live at the end of history. I don’t mean that in the Harold Camping sense of “Jesus will return in the next few months”. The point isn’t that he will, but that he might. There is nothing enormous left to happen. His death and resurrection have taken place. He has ascended to receive a kingdom from his Father. He has been at work, gathering the elect from the four corners of the earth. Jerusalem fell nearly 2000 years ago. Jesus may not return for another 2000 years or more. But he may return today. It would be wonderful if he did. “Even so, quickly come”, as John says. And so we need to be ready.

John Wesley was once asked what he would do if he knew that he were going to die at 12:00 midnight tomorrow. His answer was that he would do nothing different- he’d carry on with his planned schedule- go here to preach this evening, then ride there to preach the next morning, then be at this meeting, then spend the evening with a friend of his, go to bed, pray, sleep, and wake up in glory.

That’s the point. We are servants of Jesus. Of course we look forward to his return. But we have a job to do in the meantime. He has given us a job to do. And so we should be getting on with it. That’s how we remain ready- we live in such a way that if Jesus did return today, he’d find us doing the work he gave us to do. We don’t need to know when he’ll be coming- we only need to know what we’re supposed to be doing in the meantime. Paul, Peter, and John, are full of the awareness that believers need to live in the light of the imminence of Jesus’ return. They can scarcely write a letter without touching on the theme (Romans 13:11-14; I Corinthians 15:58; 2 Corinthians 5:1-11; Philippians 3:20-4:1; Colossians 3:4-11, 23-24; I Thessalonians 5:1-11; I Peter 1:3-9; 2 Peter 3: 11-15; I John 3:1-3.). And even a passage like this tells us what we should be doing. We’re waiting for, and actively taking part in, the Son of Man’s gathering in of Israel. That, we now see, includes us- the Gentiles- grafted in to Israel’s olive tree (Romans 11). So we should be acting like disciples, working with the angels, building the church and looking for our Lord’s return. We should be practising for life in the new heavens and new earth with all the gathered people of God. It will be community life, but with a holy community. It will be great. The best practise we can get is to look at the Son of Man now. He will be the focus of life in heaven, and should be the focus of life on earth.

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