The key question in reading Mark 13:24-37 is its relation to Mark 13:5-23. In the first section Jesus alerted his disciples to a coming conflagration in which they must beware of deceivers and persecutors who will attempt to enlist them in the service of the Jewish revolt of 66-70 C.E. Does Jesus continue this motif in Mark 13:24-37 or does he shift the topic to something beyond the immediate circumstances of the trials of disciples in the 30s-60s C.E.? In other words, does 13:24 introduce a new narrative horizon within the text or does it continue the previous one?
Martin Gustavo, in my estimation, has convincingly argued that a new narrative horizon arises in Mark 13:24 (Biblica 90  457-483), and my discussion below is heavily dependent upon his work. The former horizon was an answer to a specific question. The disciples asked when the temple would be destroyed and how they might discern (“sign”) its eventuation. Jesus responded in Mark 13:5-23 with several imperatives (“watch”) and temporal qualifiers (“when you hear…when you see”). The disciples asked when will “these things” happen (13:4) and Jesus advised them about how to act when “these things” happen (13:23). Jesus identified realities that would shape their discipleship as Jerusalem fell and the temple was destroyed. He gave them “road signs” for identifying what was happening and when it would happen so that they would know what to do. Consequently, Jesus exhorts his disciples to endure to the end (13:8, 13) which is the end of the circumstances Jesus is describing, that is, the destruction of the temple. “End” in Mark 13 (the only place where it occurs in Mark) is contextualized by the narrative in which it is found. Jesus is not speaking eschatologically in Mark 13:5-23 but apocalyptically about the fall of Jerusalem. Mark 13:23 effectively ends the conversation about “these things” as if Jesus says, “now I have answered your question.”
This horizon shifts in Mark 13:24. The strong adversative signals this as well as the temporal qualifier: “but…after the tribulation…” Unlike the previous section, there are no imperatives (no second person verbs, “you…”), advice or “road signs” for this next topic. The urgency is gone and the immediacy of the circumstances is now distant. There is no more “when you see…hear” this or that, but instead a general “then” (Mark 13:26). This is a new act in the drama of redemptive history beyond the destruction of Jerusalem.
This new horizon employs startling apocalyptic language (e.g., Isaiah 13:10) and eschatological language about the coming of the Son of Man (e.g., Daniel 7:13-14). Jesus utilizes this language to speak of deliverance. In future days, days beyond the destruction of Jerusalem, when the earth is yet convulsing under the powers of the nations (such as Babylon or Rome), the Son of Man will come to gather his elect. “They” (the elect on the earth) will see the Son of Man coming with his angels and the angels will gather them from the ends of the earth. This ingathering of the elect, alluding to previous such redemptive acts by God in the history of Israel, will climax history itself as the Son of Man comes to fully reign upon the a new earth. Whereas in the previous section (Mark 13:20) God shortened the days for the sake of the elect, in this section God gathers the elect from the ends of the earth (Mark 13:27). This is not that, that is, the coming of the Son of Man here does not refer to the destruction of Jerusalem. Consequently, here Jesus lifts the eyes of his disciples beyond the horror of the destruction of Jerusalem to a future day after that destruction when the Son of Man will fully reveal himself in power and glory before the whole earth for the sake of his elect.
Gustavo argues that Mark 13:28-37 actually offers an interpretative key for seeing the two horizons—one in Mark 13:5-23 and the other in Mark 13:24-27. In the first half of this section (Mark 13:28-31) Jesus provides a “parable about knowing,” but then in the second half provides a “parable about not knowing” (Mark 13:32-37). In essence, Jesus says, “From the fig tree, learn there are signs that ‘these things’ are about to happen, but there are events for which there are no signs as even the Son of Man does not know the day when he will come.”
From the fig tree—a parable about knowing—you can know when summer is near. In the same way, by what Jesus has described the disciples can know when “all these things will happen” (Mark 13:30). “These things” put us back to Mark 13:4 and the question about the destruction of Jerusalem. Jesus predicts that “these things” (the destruction of Jerusalem—or the first horizon of Mark 13:5-23) will happen within a generation.
And, should they doubt whether the temple will be destroyed or not, Jesus reminds them that his word—his prediction—is as certain as the heavens and earth themselves. This is a word which they can believe and upon which they can act with assurance. “When you see…and when you hear…” they should do what Jesus tells them to do.
But there are future events about which no one knows the time, even the Son of Man. The parable of the gatekeeper underscores the point, that is, he does not know when the owner will return. Like the owner, the timing of the Son of Man’s appearance is unknown and indeterminate as far as anyone except the Father knows. The disciples, then, are called to be alert (the word for “watch” in Mark 14:37 is different from the word for “watch” in Mark 14:5, 9, 23). In the former horizon they could “see” when things would happen—they would see the signs, but in this situation they can only remain alert to the sudden arrival of the Son of Man.
The two parables, then, alert us to the two horizons. The fig tree parable suggests that we can know when “these things” will happen, and the disciples are to “watch” and act. But the gatekeeper parable suggests that there is no sign of the coming of the Son of Man and the disciples will joyously receive him but they are not called to act in response to the events.
The differences between the two horizons are organized in the below table.
Mark 13:5-23, 28-31
The First Horizon
Mark 13:24-27, 32-37
The Second Horizon
|Temporal Qualifiers (“when you…”)||No Temporal Qualifiers|
|Imperatives to Act (“flee”)||No Imperatives Other Than “Be Alert”|
|“Watch” from Greek to “See” (“look”)||“Watch” from Greek to “Be Alert”|
|Fig Tree Parable of “Knowing”||Gatekeeper Parable of “Not Knowing”|
|Elect Protected and Days Shortened||Elect Gathered with the Angels|
|Signs For What Will Happen||No Signs of Coming; It is Sudden|
|“These Things” or “All These Things”||“That Day”|
|Deceivers Announce: “Christ is Here!”||The Son of Man Comes|
|The Son of Man Knows||The Son of Man Does Not Know|
In the first horizon, disciples “watch and act” but in the second horizon they “wait and receive.” In the first horizon, disciples reject the revolt as identical with the kingdom of God, but in the second horizon they welcome the owner (king) back to his lands (kingdom). The first has already happened, but we yet await the second, the coming of the Son of Man in all his glory and power when he will gather his elect from the ends of the earth.
The king will come home–the Son of Man will come. Consequently, disciples do not align themselves with the nations and kingdoms of this earth. The Son of Man, the owner, will return to his kingdom and disciples await the coming of their king instead of joining other kings in their wars, conquests and violence. Disciples remain alert and attentive to the coming kingdom of God.