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Despite his sometimes far-reaching emphasis on exile, and despite his rather hyperbolic insistence that the end-times does not mean “the end of space-time continuum,”(pg. 321) N.T. Wright is entirely correct in arguing that Mark 13 should not be read as an apocalyptic message about the Second Coming of Christ. Keeping Mark 13 in its context of Mark 11-14, and understanding it as part of Jesus’ overall pronouncement on the temple, means that we should understand Mark 13 as referencing and finding fulfillment in the destruction of the temple in AD 70.
Wright understands “Son of Man” to be a reference to Jesus being Israel’s representative, rather than as a title for Jesus’ humanity. As King David was a hologram of Israel, Jesus, as the Son of David, is a hologram of Israel. The “Son of Man” then, Wright argues, can be seen in Mark and in Daniel, as not necessarily a “super-hero” but as a representative of Israel. In Daniel, the prophetic visions of mighty animals warring against the Son of Man should be understood then as the epic battle of evil nation states against Yahweh’s people, Israel. The Son of Man ‘coming’ in Daniel 7:13 refers to an ascension to the Ancient of Days (Yahweh), and so it should be seen similarly in Mark 13:26. As Wright argues, ultimately Daniel 7 and Mark 13 are stories of vindication and exaltation, (pg. 361) not only of the Son of Man but ultimately of Israel.
Jesus’ prediction of the fall of the temple was a risk, but if it came to pass, it would be his vindication. As Wright argues, if the temple was not destroyed within the generation as Jesus predicted, then Jesus’ whole ministry and message would have been that of “a charlatan, a false prophet, maybe even a blasphemer.” (pg. 361) And while there is the possibility of prophetic telescoping happening in Mark 13, where the prophesy can have multiple fulfillments, it is important to understand it first and foremost in its historical fulfillment. As Wright says, “this is how the story must end. If Jesus is not the last prophet, he is a false prophet.” (pg. 362)
Through Jesus’ messianic mission, Israel was being redefined. Israel would no longer be a community defined by ethnicity. It would now be a community defined by repentance. If the people did not heed Jesus’ message, they would become Babylon, the arch-type of oppression and exile. The leaders and the people who rejected and railed against Jesus’ radical teaching would inevitably “discover themselves in the position that they had thought was reserved for the pagans,” namely, judgment. (pg. 329)
Jesus’ message, while radical, was not revolutionary. As Wright rightly points out, it was the Pharisees who were looking for revolution. Jesus’ message was consistent with a classic prophetic profile. Jesus, as prophet and Messiah, was standing in a long tradition of prophetic critiques from within Judaism. He was following in the way of the prophets. As such, his message was in no way anti-Jewish. It was a message for a specific people in a specific moment in history.
If, following Wright, Mark 13 is understood not as part of the doctrine of the Second Coming, but as temple discourse, there is still the question as to whether or not the early church understood it as Wright presents it. Dale Allison suggests that 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 is Paul’s interpretation of Mark 13, or a tradition closely associated with it. (Allison, 135) While Wright’s interpretation works while looking at Mark 13, Paul’s adaptation, as well as Matthew’s in Matthew 24, seems to suggest that the early church understood it to be referencing Jesus’ Second Coming.
Wright does address the parallel passage in Matthew 24, and argues that the disciples’ question is “when will you be physically installed as king?” Jesus’ response (Matthew 24:4-51) is that he will be installed when the temple is destroyed. (pg. 342) Part of the problem, Wright argues, lies in the fact that the Church has not understood the fall of Jerusalem as theologically significant.
The question then is, how do academics and pastors communicate Wright’s presentation of Mark 13 to the church at large? How do we teach about the theological significance of the fall of Jerusalem? And how do we show the proper separation of Mark 13 from the overall doctrine of the Second Coming, given that the North American evangelical culture is held captive by Left Behind (and Zionist) eschatology?