An Exegetical Approach to the Eschatology of Mark

Ray Summers  |  Southwestern Journal of Theology Vol. 1 - Fall 1958

The word “eschatology” is derived from two Greek words: the adjective eschatos meaning “last”, and the noun logos meaning, in this instance, “doctrine” or “teaching”. Eschatology is, therefore, a study of the doctrine of last things. It relates to a series of subjects which have to do with the experience in the world order and in the eternal order. The subjects usually treated in a study of eschatology are: the kingdom of God, death, the resurrection, the interim between death and resurrection, the second coming of Christ, judgment, and eternal destiny.[1]For full discussion of these subjects the reader’s attention is called to a work due to be relased January 1959, Ray Summers, The Life Beyond (Nashville: The Broadman Press, 1959).

These doctrines occupied a very prominent place in the thinking of the early Christians. This interest in eschatology has been a continuing element in Christian thought. It is a theme provocative of most lively discussion today; its relevance can hardly be questioned. The aim of this article is to investigate the subject as it appears in Mark. The limitations of the article will permit very few references to other New Testament passages. The reader will understand that there is no attempt here to present the total eschatology of the New Testament.


I. The Kingdom of God

The eschatological emphasis which appears first in Mark is the kingdom of God. The term “kingdom” was used in several ways in Jesus’ day. Sometimes it referred to a geographical territory over which a king ruled; sometimes it referred to the people over whom a king ruled; sometimes it referred to the rule itself. A comparative study of the term when it relates to God indicates that it is used in this last sense, i.e., the kingdom of God is the reign of God in the hearts of his subjects. It is a rule or reign that is spiritual in nature; it is not limited geographically, racially, or temporally.


The Kingdom Inaugurated

The first emphasis on the kingdom as reflected in Mark is the fact that with the appearance of Christ as God’s Messiah the kingdom of God became a reality among men. Following his baptism and wilderness temptation, Jesus appeared in Galilee “preaching the gospel of God, and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand: repent and believe in the gospel”‘ (1:14f.). According to Matthew and Luke, John the Baptist had preached the same message when he appeared as the forerunner of Jesus (Matt. 3:1-12; Luke 3:3-14). John called the people to repentance as preparation for the coming king. He identified Jesus as that king and proclaimed that the coming of Jesus meant the coming of the kingdom of God. Jesus continued that same emphasis. His appearance meant that God’s kingdom had broken into history.

It is this emphasis on the concept of the kingdom which has been presented as “realized eschatology”. While many have made important contributions, C. H. Dodd stands as the most prolific scholar at this point. In brief summary his view of “realized eschatology” may be seen under the following ideas. First is the idea of fulfillment, i.e., the meaning of history is summed up in the appearance of Jesus. The eschaton has moved from the future to become present reality.[2]C. H. Dodd, The Apostolic Preaching and Its Developments (New York: Willet Clark and Co., 1937), p. 147, and New Testament Studies (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1953), p. 171. Second, the supra-historical has entered history and henceforth history will be different qualitatively from what it was before the new order started with the appearance of Christ.[3]C. H. Dodd, The Parables of the Kingdom (London: Nisbet and Co. Ltd., 1935), pp. 43-44. It is now a redemptive process, i.e., Heilsgeschichte. Third, the realization of the kingdom of God means the overthrow of the powers of evil; the defeat of the powers of evil is not a hope for the future; it is a present accomplishment.[4]C. H. Dodd, History and Gospel (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1938), pp. 148-49. Fourth, the realization of God’s kingdom among men means the judgment of this world. The Kingdom sifts and tests the character of men in judgment even now.[5]Ibid., p. 149. Fifth, this realized kingdom means the realization of eternal life here and now.[6]Ibid. Acceptance of Jesus Christ means that eternal life becomes present reality to the extent that not even physical death can break that relationship.

While one accepts all these principles, he feels that they do not cover the entire concept of the kingdom of God. Even Dodd[7]C. H. Dodd, Apostolic Preaching, op. cit., p. 161. must make room for the concept of “sheer finality” in the Parousia and final judgment. The early Christians knew that the kingdom of God had become reality but they looked to the future for the consummation of that kingdom. For that reason the term “inaugurated eschatology” is more appropriate than “realized eschatology”.[8]In addition to the above works of Dodd see the following on “realized eschatology”: C. H. Dodd, The Coming of Christ (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1951); C. H. Dodd, New Testament Studies (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1935); John Bright, The Kingdom of God (Nashville: Abingdon-Cokesbury Press 1953); William Manson (et. al.), Eschatology (Edinburgh: Oliver and Boyd Ltd., (1952); Alan Richardson, The Gospel and Modern Thought (London: Oxford University Press, 1950).

This concept of the kingdom of God as a present reality is seen in Jesus’ reference to the “secrets of the kingdom” (4:11) which had been given to his disciples. It is seen in his parables of the seed growing mysteriously (4:26) and the mustard seed (4:30). The idea of activity is central in each illustration. The kingdom is a present reality but it is not static. It is growing mysteriously and is destined to grow from a very small beginning (the mustard seed) to a very great product (the mustard tree). Jesus spoke of man’s receiving the kingdom “as a little child” (10:15) and to one inquirer he said, “You are not far from the kingdom of God” (12:34). All these references point up the idea that the inaugurated kingdom of God is a present reality among men.


The Kingdom Consummated

The above emphasis on the present reality of the kingdom does not exhaust the concept. The additional idea of the ultimate consummation of the kingdom has already been’ introduced in Jesus’ story of the mustard seed; A future consummation was anticipated in the request of James and John that they sit on Jesus’ right and left when he assumed the throne of his glory (10:37). Even though their idea of that event was an erroneous one, it reflected anticipated consummation.

Jesus, too, anticipated a future consummation when he spoke of those who would see the kingdom come with power (9:1). The exact meaning of this passage is much disputed but all recognize in it some idea of consummation. In other places Jesus spoke of this coming consummated kingdom in terms practically equivalent to heaven. This is observed in his statement relative to the desirability of one’s entering the kingdom of God with one eye rather than entering hell with two eyes (9:47). It is observed, too, in his statement relative to the difficulty of a rich man’s entering the kingdom of God (10:23-27). There the idea is equated with salvation. On the occasion of the institution of the Memorial Supper Jesus spoke of drinking the cup new in the kingdom of God (14:25). Whether this means the ultimate consummation in the eternal order or merely a renewal of fellowship beyond the cross is disputed. In either instance it is linked with those passages which look to the ultimate consummation of the kingdom. The kingdom is a reality; the kingdom is an ever enlarging reality; the kingdom looks to an ultimate consummation.


II. The Second Coming

One of the teachings of Jesus which was most precious to the early Christians was that known as the second coming. The term “second coming” is not a New Testament term. It is rather a term used early among Christian writers to distinguish between the first coming (incarnation) and the second coming (return of the Lord to the earth).[9]Justin Martyr, “First Apology of Justin,” The Ante-Nicene Fathers, ed. Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1956), I, 180. The New Testament term is simply “coming” oil’ “presence”, i.e., Parousia.[10]A. Feuillet, “Le Sens du mot Parousie dans L’Evangile de Matthieu,” W. D. Davies and D. Daube (eds.), The Background of the New Testament and Its Eschatology (Cambridge: The University Press, 1956), pp. 261-80. Except for two references this doctrine is found in Mark only in chapter 13. The two exceptions are 8:38 where Jesus referred to his coming in glory with the angels (unquestionably a reference to his second coming) and 14:62 where he spoke of the Son of Man’s “sitting at the right hand of power, and coming in the clouds of heaven.” This may refer to the second coming or it may refer to his vindication of his claims in the experience of the resurrection. Interpreters are divided; most likely it refers to the second coming.

Mark 13, known as “The Little Apocalypse,” .is the main discussion of Jesus relative to the second coming. The discussion grew out of Jesus’ statement about the destruction of the Temple .and the disciples’ question about the time and signs of that event. Jesus answered their question in two parts. He spoke first of his coming in judgment upon Jerusalem and then of his coming in judgment upon the world. He said that the two were separate events. He used the judgment on Jerusalem to illustrate his coming in judgment upon the world and closed with the emphasis, “Watch”.


Coming in Judgment on Jerusalem (13:1-23)

The background of this discussion is most instructive. It was Tuesday afternoon of Passion Week. As they went out from the Temple the disciples called Jesus’ attention to the beauty of the Temple (13:1). Jesus startled them to temporary silence by saying that the time was coming when the Temple would be completely destroyed (13:2). They went on out from the Temple and up the Mount of Olives on their way to spend the night in Bethany. From the slopes of the Mount of Olives they looked westward to Jerusalem with the Temple the most prominent part of their view and the rays of the descending sun displaying the brilliance of white marble and gold. The disciples could contain their curiosity no longer. Led by Peter they asked (1) when the Temple and Jerusalem would be destroyed, and (2) what would be the signs of Jesus’ coming and the end of the world (Mark 13:3-4; Matt. 24:3; Luke 21:7). Apparently they were looking upon all that development as one event. They could not think of history beyond the fall of the Temple. In his answer, however, Jesus divided the two events explaining carefully that they were not one and the same though one might be used to illustrate the other.

In 13:5-23 with the parallels in Matthew and Luke Jesus discussed his coming in judgment on Jerusalem and the relationship of his followers to that event. It would be preceded by growing rumors of wars until those rumors became reality. This became reality in the climax of rebellion in A.D. 66 which resulted in the fall of Jerusalem in A.D. 70. All of these disturbing conditions including even natural calamities were to be regarded as illustrations of God’s real judgment when the end should come (13:7-8). Jesus’ followers were to suffer severe persecution as they went out to spread the gospel to the ends of the earth. They would be hated and despised by man, even their own families, in those troublesome times (13:9-13).

The climax of all of this would come when the city of Jerusalem itself was invaded by the “abomination of desolation.” Jesus warned his followers to flee for safety outside the doomed city. History records how many escaped in just exactly the way Jesus instructed them. Many seeing from the housetops the approaching enemy did not take time to go down and collect their belongings. They fled over the flat roof-tops of the houses, dropped over the wall of the city and joined those who fled from the fields to the hills (13:16). Those were most difficult days for expectant mothers and for mothers with babes in arms. As he looked to those days Jesus told his followers to pray that the time of flight not be winter with its additional travel hazards. He issued (Matt. 24:20) one last subtle thrust at the legalistic Pharisees in suggesting that they pray that their flight not be on the Sabbath; a legal Sabbath Day’s journey (three-fifths of a mile) would not take them out of the reach of the Romans! So severe were those days to be that none could survive a long siege. God would shorten the time for the sake of his people (13:19-20). He gave them one final warning about trusting in false Messiahs and one final reminder that he was giving them helpful warning in the light of that which was to come. So exact were the conditions and events of A.D. 70 that many have charged that these passages were interpolated into the teachings of Jesus after the events; they hold that no one could so accurately predict such events!


Coming in Judgment on the World (13:24-37)

As Jesus turned from the coming in judgment on Jerusalem to the coming in judgment on the world he emphasized two ideas; the certainty of the fact of his coming; the uncertainty of the time of his coming. He explained that his coming in judgment upon the world was not one and the same event as the predicted destruction of Jerusalem. All three Synoptic Gospel records make this clear. The exact point where he stops discussing one and starts discussing the other is not always clear. The exact time sequence is not clear.[11]For helpful treatment of this problem see B. H. Carroll, “The Four Gospels,” Vol. 2, An Interpretation of the English Bible (New York: Fleming H. Revell Co., 1916), pp. 288-89; Charles John Elliott, Commentary on the Whole Bible (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1954), VI, 149; R. C. H. Lenski, The Interpretation of St. Matthew’s Gospel (Columbus: The Wartburg Press, 1943), p. 947.

The certainty of the fact of his coming is set out in 13:24-31. His coming will be accompanied by startling phenomena in the natural world. Some interpreters see this (vv. 24-25) as apocalyptic imagery; others make room for literal interpretation. Unquestionably his coming (v. 26) is literal and his calling men to judgment is literal (v. 27). The meaning of verse 30 is greatly disputed. Some interpreters[12]A. B. Bruce, “The Synoptic Gospels,” Expositors Greek Testament (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., n.d.), I, 296; David Smith, Commentary on the Four Gospels (New York: Doubleday, Doran and Company, Inc., 1928), I, 418. think that it is a “flash-back” to the destruction of Jerusalem. Other interpreters understand “generation” to have a qualitative reference to wicked men who will be in the world rejecting Christ right up to the time of his return. This is Lenski’s[refLenski, op. cit., pp. 952-53.[/ref] understanding and he relates it particularly to the Jews. Carroll[13]Carroll, op. cit., pp. 304-05. understands it as a prophecy of the continuance of the Jews as a race right up to the time of Christ’s return. Broadus[14]John A. Broadus, “Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew,” An American Commentary on the New Testament, ed. Alvah Hovey (Philadelphia: American Baptist Publication Society, 1886), p. 490. and others think that Jesus is speaking only of the principle involved in what he has been saying, i.e., violence, turmoil, persecution, rumors of his return, continued preaching of the Word—these would be fulfilled in that generation and in every other up to the second coming.

The uncertainty of the time of the Lord’s return is underlined in Mark 13:32 and Matthew 24:36 in Jesus’ statement that the exact time of his second coming was knowledge reserved for the Father alone; it was not even revealed to the Son in the days of his flesh, nor was it revealed to the angels. It must be understood that Jesus is not here setting out a commentary on the extent of the limitation of his consciousness. He was showing the impossibility of man’s determining the end by showing that such knowledge was withheld both from the Son and the angels. Strack and Billerbeck[15]Hermann Strack und Paul Billerbeck, “Das Evangelium nach Matthaus,” Kommentar zum Neuen Testament aus Talmund und Midrash (Munchen: C. H. Becksche Verlagsbuchandlung, 1924), I, 961. quote Rabbi Jochanan to the effect that it was commonly assumed by the Hebrew people that angels had superior knowledge to men. According to rabbinical tradition God did nothing which he did not talk over with the angels. Rabbi Schimeon, however, interpreted Isaiah 63:4 to mean that God withheld knowledge regarding the day of judgment even from the angels. If angels are not told and if Christ in the days of his flesh did not know, surely we can get along without the knowledge!

Jesus’ closing admonition (13:33-37) was very natural. Since we know that he is coming back and since we do not know when he is coming back we are to “Watch.” Jesus told a story of a man going on a journey, leaving work to be done by his servants, and returning at a time unknown to them. We are to apply that story in personal experience. He has gone to the Father’s house; he has left work for us to do; he will return; we do not know when he will return; therefore, we are to be busy at the task assigned and ever alert to his return.


III. The Resurrection

While the doctrine of the resurrection of the dead is a major emphasis in the New Testament, it has little place in Mark. It is definitely found but relatively its place is small. There is a strong presentation of the resurrection of Jesus. For the early Christians and for all Christians this is proof of the resurrection of the dead. By the resurrection of Jesus the domain of death has been invaded and death has been robbed of part of its prey. This is the basis for the Christian hope that in God’s own time all shall be raised.

Jesus predicted his resurrection often. In 8:31 he predicted that he would be put to death but would be raised on the third day. In 9:9-10 he instructed Peter, James, and John to say nothing about his transfiguration until after his resurrection. Again in 9:30 and in 10:32-34 he predicted his death and resurrection. In 14:58 he promised to meet the disciples in Galilee after his resurrection.

The first demonstration of the reality of Jesus’ resurrection was the report that the tomb was empty and that “a young man” had announced that Jesus had been raised (16:1-8). From 16:9 on through 16:20 there are many different readings in the extant manuscripts. Although the place of the appearances of Jesus is questioned in Mark, these appearances are clearly a part of the other Gospels. This section of Mark lists four of the appearances of Jesus: to Mary Magdalene (16:9); to two in the country (16:12); to eleven (16:14); to a group at the time of the ascension (16:19).

The doctrine of the survival of the death of the body is implicit in the appearance of Moses on the Mount of Transfiguration. The definite doctrine of the resurrection of the dead is limited, however, to one passage, 12:18-27. This was an occasion of controversy with the Sadducees who denied any sort of survival beyond death. They told a clever story which doubtless they had used often to confuse the Pharisees whose view of the resurrection included restoration of the body to previous functions and relationships, even to the begetting of children. Their story was that of seven brothers who were in turn married to the same woman; each lived with her in the relationship of husband and wife; no one of them had children to give him a prior claim on her. The question of the Sadducees was, “Of the seven, whose wife will she be in the resurrection?”

Jesus’ answer pointed out three errors in their thinking. First, they did not understand even the Scriptures which they accepted (the first five books of the Bible). They claimed that the resurrection is not found there; Jesus held that it is (12:26; 27). Second, they did not give proper consideration to the power of God to bring about the resurrection (12:24). Third, they did not understand that the resurrection life will transcend the nature and relationships of this life (12:25). In his answer Jesus firmly endorsed the doctrine of the resurrection.

IV. Judgment and Eternal Destiny

Relatively speaking there is little in Mark on Judgment and eternal destiny. There are a few passages and in them the themes are interwoven.

The destiny of the wicked is described in terms of condemnation. The scribes deserve “greater condemnation” than less informed people who reject Christ (12:40). The one who does not believe the gospel is condemned (16:16—missing from many manuscripts). It would have been better for Judas if he had never been born. This destiny of the wicked is also described in terms of the unquenchable fires of hell (9:43, 45, 47-48). These are terrible words from one who did not use words lightly. God has provided an alternative for man. If man refuses it he chooses for himself this terrible destiny. It is his total responsibility.

The destiny of the righteous is described here as eternal life. In 10:17-22 Jesus discussed with an inquirer the way to obtain eternal life. In 10:30 he told his followers that a part of their reward for following him would be eternal life. The word for life is the most transcendent one in the New Testament. The word eternal means never ending. While it is descriptive of a quality of life it cannot be stripped of its universal use of that which has no end.



The conclusions to this study may be simply stated: Every essential element in New Testament eschatology is found in brief form in Mark. Often the element is almost in “seed” form; the doctrine will be fully developed elsewhere in the New Testament. The eschatology of Mark is the same as the eschatology of the remainder of the New Testament. There is a consistent pattern observed in the application of the principle of the analogy of faith.


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