Mark 13 – Signs of the End of This Age & The Imperial Cult

In chapter 14 Jesus prepares for the Last Supper, so tomorrow we’re going to look at…

Mark 13
Signs of the End of This Age

Venus and Mars sculpture group reworked to portray an Imperial couple (created 120–140 AD, reworked 170–175).
The Imperial cult of ancient Rome identified emperors and some members of their families with the divinely sanctioned authority of the Roman State. The framework for the Imperial cult was formulated during the early Principate of Augustus, and was rapidly established throughout the Empire and its provinces, with marked local variations in its reception and expression.

Augustus’ reforms transformed Rome’s Republican system of government to a de facto monarchy, couched in traditional Roman practices and Republican values.

1 And as he went out of the temple, one of his disciples saith unto him, Master, see what manner of stones and what buildings are here!

13:1-37 – the Olivet discourse, as this chapter of Mark is commonly called, falls into five sections:

1. Jesus’ prophecy of the destruction of the temple and the questions of the disciples (vv. 1-4).

2. Warnings against deceivers and false signs of the end (vv. 5-23).

3. The coming of the Son of man (vv. 24-27).

4. The lesson of the fig tree (vv. 28:31).

5. Exhortation to watchfulness (vv. 32-37).

“What manner of stones” – according to Josephus (Antiquities, 15.11.3), they were 37 feet long, 12 feet high and 18 feet wide.

2.And Jesus answering said unto him, Seest thou these great buildings? there shall not be left one stone upon another, that shall not be thrown down.

3 And as he sat upon the mount of Olives over against the temple, Peter and James and John and Andrew asked him privately,

4 Tell us, when shall these things be? and what shall be the sign when all these things shall be fulfilled?

The disciples thought that the destruction of the temple would be one of the events that ushered in the end times (see Matt 24:3).

5 And Jesus answering them began to say, Take heed lest any man deceive you:

6 For many shall come in my name, saying, I am Christ; and shall deceive many.

7 And when ye shall hear of wars and rumors of wars, be ye not troubled: for such things must needs be; but the end shall not be yet.

8 For nation shall rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom: and there shall be earthquakes in divers places, and there shall be famines and troubles: these are the beginnings of sorrows.

9 But take heed to yourselves: for they shall deliver you up to councils; and in the synagogues ye shall be beaten: and ye shall be brought before rulers and kings for my sake, for a testimony against them.

Repoussé pendant of Alexander the Great, horned and diademed like Zeus Ammon: images of Alexander were worn as magic charms (4th-century Roman).
When the Romans began to dominate large parts of the Greek world, Rome’s senior representatives there were given the same divine honours as were Hellenistic rulers. This was a well-established method for Greek city-states to declare their allegiance to an outside power; such a cult committed the city to obey and respect the king as they obeyed and respected Apollo or any of the other gods.

“Beaten” – infraction of Jewish regulations was punishable by flogging, the maximum penalty being 39 strokes with the whip (see 2 Cor 11:23-24).

10 And the gospel must first be published among all nations.

11 But when they shall lead you, and deliver you up, take no thought beforehand what ye shall speak, neither do ye premeditate: but whatsoever shall be given you in that hour, that speak ye: for it is not ye that speak, but the Holy Ghost.

12 Now the brother shall betray the brother to death, and the father the son; and children shall rise up against their parents, and shall cause them to be put to death.

13 And ye shall be hated of all men for my name’s sake: but he that shall endure unto the end, the same shall be saved.

14 But when ye shall see the abomination of desolation, spoken of by Daniel the prophet, standing where it ought not, (let him that readeth understand,) then let them that be in Judaea flee to the mountains:

“The abomination of desolation – see  Dan 9:25-27; and see the notes in Matt 24:15.

“Standing where it ought not” – see 2 Thess 2:4.

“Let them that be in Judea flee to the mountain” – see note on Matt 24:16.

15 And let him that is on the housetop not go down into the house, neither enter therein, to take anything out of his house:

Augustus as Jove, holding scepter and orb (first half of 1st century A.D.).
In 30/29 BC, the koina of Asia and Bithynia requested permission to worship Octavian as their “deliverer” or “saviour”. This was by no means a novel request but it placed Octavian in a difficult position. He must satisfy popularist and traditionalist expectations and these could be notoriously incompatible.

“The housetop” – see note on 2:4 and Lk 17:31.

16 And let him that is in the field not turn back again for to take up his garment.

17 But woe to them that are with child, and to them that give suck in those days!

“Them that are with child, and to them that give suck” – representative of anyone forced to flee under especially difficult circumstances.  A nursing baby and its mother might perish under such conditions.

18 And pray ye that your flight be not in the winter.

19 For in those days shall be affliction, such as was not from the beginning of the creation which God created unto this time, neither shall be.

“Affliction, such as was not from the beginning” – see note on Matt 24:21.

20 And except that the Lord had shortened those days, no flesh should be saved: but for the elect’s sake, whom he hath chosen, he hath shortened the days.

21 And then if any man shall say to you, Lo, here is Christ; or, lo, he is there; believe him not:

22 For false Christs and false prophets shall rise, and shall shew signs and wonders, to seduce, if it were possible, even the elect.

23 But take ye heed: behold, I have foretold you all things.

24 But in those days, after that tribulation, the sun shall be darkened, and the moon shall not give her light,

“Tribulation” – see v. 19 and note on Matt 24:21.

25 And the stars of heaven shall fall, and the powers that are in heaven shall be shaken.

Augustus in Egyptian style, on the temple of Kalabsha in Egyptian Nubia.
In the Eastern provinces, cultural precedent ensured a rapid and geographically widespread dissemination of cult, extending as far as the Augustan military settlement at modern-day Najran.

The description in vv. 24-25 doesn’t necessarily refer to a complete breakup of the universe.  It was language commonly used to describe God’s awesome power and frightening judgment on a fallen world (Eze 32;7-8; Joel 2:10, 31, 3:15; Amos 8:9.

Yet, it doesn’t mean that God won’t tear up the entire universe.  He made it, He can certainly destroy it and create it.  As He said after the end He will create a new heaven and a new earth (Rev 21:1-2).

26 And then shall they see the Son of man coming in the clouds with great power and glory.

“Coming in the clouds with great power and glory” – a reference to Christ’s second coming (see 8:38; 2 Thess 1:6-10; Rev 19:11-16, 22:12-13).

27 And then shall he send his angels, and shall gather together his elect from the four winds, from the uttermost part of the earth to the uttermost part of heaven.

“Gather together his elect” – in the Old Testament God is spoken of as gathering His scattered people (Deut 30:3-4; Is 43:6; Jer 32:37; Eze 34:13, 36:24).  This post-tribulation even is probably the gathering of those who managed to be saved through the Great Tribulation.

It is debated whether Jesus’ second coming is before or after the Great Tribulation.

I believe that Jesus will come back before that Great Tribulation, which is the last 3½ years of the 7 years.  I believe this partly because:

And one of the elders answered, saying unto me, What are these which are arrayed in white robes? and whence came they?

And I said unto him, Sir, thou knowest. And he said to me, These are they which came out of great tribulation, and have washed their robes, and made them white in the blood of the Lamb (Rev 7:13-14).

I believe it is the non-believers/heathens/pagans that will experience the Great Tribulation.  Yet, Jesus may not come until after the 3½ years, but nobody but the Father knows (v. 32).

Temple of Augustus and Livia, Vienne (modern France). Originally dedicated to Augustus and Roma. Augustus was deified on his death in 14 A.D.: his widow Livia was deified in 42 A.D. by Claudius.

28 Now learn a parable of the fig tree; When her branch is yet tender, and putteth forth leaves, ye know that summer is near:

29 So ye in like manner, when ye shall see these things come to pass, know that it is nigh, even at the doors.

30 Verily I say unto you, that this generation shall not pass, till all these things be done.

31 Heaven and earth shall pass away: but my words shall not pass away.

32 But of that day and that hour knoweth no man, no, not the angels which are in heaven, neither the Son, but the Father.

33 Take ye heed, watch and pray: for ye know not when the time is.

34 For the Son of man is as a man taking a far journey, who left his house, and gave authority to his servants, and to every man his work, and commanded the porter to watch.

35 Watch ye therefore: for ye know not when the master of the house cometh, at even, or at midnight, or at the cockcrowing, or in the morning:

36 Lest coming suddenly he find you sleeping.

37 And what I say unto you I say unto all, Watch. 1 After two days was the feast of the passover, and of unleavened bread: and the chief priests and the scribes sought how they might take him by craft, and put him to death.

Cameo depicting the apotheosis of Claudius (mid-1st century CE).

The Imperial Cult

The Roman imperial cult was essentially a “religion” based upon the deification of Roman emperors. It had its origins in eastern and Greek practices, in which kings were often said to be gods.

Roman emperors were regularly deified after their deaths by an act of the Senate. 

The attribution of deity was seen as the highest possible manifestation of gratitude and honor, and participation in the imperial cult was a religious way of expressing gratitude for the benefits experienced during that emperor’s rule.

There was no expectation that the deified emperor would continue to intervene in human affairs, and sacrifices were also made to the “genius,” or spirit, embodied in his current, living successor.

The imperial cult had both a religious and a political function, serving as a unifying factor in the empire and as a test of loyalty. Refusal to participate in the cult by offering sacrifices In honor of the emperor could result in execution.

Temple to Caesar near the Cave of Pan at Caesarea Philippi

The New Testament’s central confession that “Jesus is Lord,” as well as references to Christ as “Savior” and the “Son of God,” while based upon Jewish and Christian theology, also served to undermine the lofty assertions of the imperial cult.

Emperor Marcus Aurelius (161-180 AD) and members of the Imperial family offer sacrifice in gratitude for success against Germanic tribes.

In the backgrounds stands the Temple of Jupiter on the Capitolium (this is the only extant portrayal of this roman temple). Bas-relief from the Arch of Marcus Aurelius.

The silver denariu mentioned in Mk 12:15 bore the image of the emperor Tiberius and the inscription “Augustus Tiberius Caesar, Son of the Divine Augustus,” reflecting both the deification of Augustus and Tiberius’s desire to highlight his filial relationship to his deified predecessor.

The imperial cult placed early Christians in the empire in a dilemma. On the one hand the cult was fundamentally a manifestation of the antichrist, while on the other, Christians were called upon to respect the institution and power of government (Rom 13).

This quandary was anticipated in the Jews’ question about paying taxes, and Jesus’ answer pointed to a paradox of the Christian life: Believers, though in the world, are not to be of it. 

…the Upper Room.