173. Who are the “Elect” (eklektoi) in Mark 13:20?

Despite the notoriety of the idea of ‘the elect’ within systematic and historical theology, the corresponding Greek term eklektos only occurs twenty-three times in the New Testament, ten of which occur in the Gospels. Twice it defines the Messiah as “God’s chosen one” (Luke 23:35; John 1:34). In Matthew’s Gospel it occurs once in the saying of Jesus “many are invited, but few are chosen” (22:14 NIV), as the conclusion to the Parable of the Wedding Banquet. In some Greek manuscripts it also occurs at 20:16, at the conclusion of the Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard. Nestle-Aland Novum Testamentum Graece (28) does not regard it as part of the original text of Matthew’s Gospel. It also occurs in the Parable of the Persistent Widow (Luke 18:7) where Jesus applies the parable in his statement “And will not God bring about justice for his chosen ones, who cry out to him day and night?” These usages in Matthew and Luke seem to refer to people who put faith in God (or the character in the parable who reflects him) and show this by the way they respond. It is not used to define Israel per se in these texts, but undoubtedly some in Israel could be categorized in this way, if they responded to God and his Messiah appropriately.

Paul uses it six times (Romans 8:33 (chosen NIV); 16:13 (chosen NIV); Colossians 3:12 (chosen NIV); 1 Timothy 5:21 (elect angels NIV); 2 Timothy 2:10 (elect NIV); Titus 1:1 (elect NIV)). It occurs four times in 1 Peter (1:1 (elect NIV); 2:4 (chosen NIV), 6 (chosen NIV), 9 (chosen NIV)). And then twice in 2 John 1 (chosen NIV), 13 (chosen NIV) and once in Revelation 17:14 (chosen NIV). Apart from the reference to ‘angels’ in 1 Timothy 5:21 and to Jesus in 1 Peter 2:4, 6, the term refers to followers of Jesus. The quotation of the phrase “chosen race” (Isaiah 43:20) in 1 Peter 2:9 applies language describing Israel in the Old Testament to the new followers of Jesus. It is interesting to speculate what difference of meaning the NIV translators intend with the variation chosen/elect in these different contexts and how this alternation shapes the perception of the text by readers. Is this variation at all justified? But that is a question for another blog article perhaps.

The other six usages occur in Jesus’ final discourse. The statements by Jesus in Mark 13:20, 22, 27 are paralleled in Matthew 24:22, 24, 31. The content of the declarations indicate that Mark and Matthew are incorporating the same material and follow a similar ordering. So presumably these two Gospels are employing the term eklektos with the same meaning in these three verses. We are going to focus attention on these three occurrences as we seek to discern what Jesus might have meant when he used this term in this last discourse with the four apostles. Despite the fact that the NIV translators have used the equivalent “chosen” in Matthew 22:14, in all three verses in Matthew 24 they render hoi eklektoi as “the/his elect” (similarly in Mark 13). What is it about this context that leads the NIV to use the phrase “the elect” as the translation in these three verses and what are they signalling to readers by this choice?

We note first that in this discourse Jesus is speaking to four of his Jewish apostles and so we have to consider what this phrase hoi eklektoi would have meant to first century Jewish people. But then we also have to consider what meaning Jesus was intending to convey by using this term. Let’s consider Mark 13:27 first.

In many commentaries on Mark 13, there is considerable agreement that Mark 13:24-27 describes events related to the Second Coming of the Messiah. The subject of the verb “see” in v. 26 is an implied third person plural referent. The closest noun that would fit the requirements is “the powers (hai dunameis) that are in the heavens” (v. 25). Are these “powers” those who will see the son of man coming in the clouds?”  This seems to be case (cf. Joel Marcus, Mark 8-16 Anchor Yale Bible, 904). The subject switches in v. 27 to the Son of Man who “will send his angels and gather his elect (hoi eklektoi autou) from the four winds, from earth’s end until heaven’s end” (my translation). Jesus announces that the Son of Man, i.e., himself as returning Messiah, using angels as his agents, will collect together all of “his chosen ones or his elect.” This collection signals the end of human history it seems. 

We are not told where this gathering occurs or what happens once this action is complete. His focus is upon those he describes as “his chosen ones or his elect.” Jesus does not define who they are, but presumably we can infer that they are those who have responded in repentance and faith to his announcement of “the good news.” Given his prophecy in 13:9 that this gospel must be proclaimed to all the nations, Jewish and non-Jewish followers of Jesus will constitute “his chosen ones or his elect.” These are the ones who have accepted the new arrangement he has implemented, i.e.,  “the covenant” based on his blood sacrifice (14:24) “poured out for many.”

I would argue that here Jesus is redefining what hoi eklektoi meant in Judaism. This chosen status is based on a covenant that Yahweh has made through Jesus’ agency. This category includes all peoples who put confidence in the good news of the Kingdom. The term no longer defines only Jewish people or proselytes who participate in the Abrahamic covenant. Jesus is creating a new definition based upon his work, his status as Messiah, and his imminent sacrificial death and resurrection.

The other occurrences of hoi eklektoi occur in the mid-section of the discourse, i.e., 13:14-23. Jesus describes the terrible judgment that will come upon Jerusalem and the Temple because of “the abomination that causes desolation” in vv. 14-17. He then urges his followers to pray that these events will not occur in winter, because the distress will be beyond imagining (vv. 18-19). Jesus then asserts (v. 20) that if God did not limit the destruction and distress, “all flesh,” i.e., all humanity, would not “be rescued/saved/delivered.” This action probably is not referring to spiritual salvation, but rather preservation of human life in the context of this distress. It is interesting that the phrase “all flesh” (pasa sarx) occurs in the Greek translation of Genesis 9:11 (and also is repeated twice in 9:15-17) where God promises “never again will all life (pasa sarx) be destroyed by the waters of a flood.” Of course, the flood and the forces that will destroy Jerusalem and the Temple and generate this “great distress” both serve as God’s agent of judgment. I would suggest that Jesus is referencing this divine promise made in Genesis 9 in Mark 13:20.

So Jesus declares that Yahweh (the Lord) “will shorten (ekolobōsen) days” so that humanity will survive. In the New Testament the verb koloboō only occurs in Matthew 24:22 and Mark 13:20 and means “curtail, cut short, mutilate.” This verb does not occur in the Septuagint. Jesus does not seem to be paraphrasing a specific Old Testament passage in this verse. We do find a similar idea expressed in Isaiah 1:9 where the prophet admits that “if the Lord Sabaoth had not left us offspring, we would have become like Sodoma and been  similar to Gomorrah” (NETS). Similarly, the idea that Yahweh does not destroy Israel for the sake of the faithful remnant also finds expression in Isaiah 65:8-10.

Jesus makes no promise in vv. 19-20 that he will intervene and prevent his followers from experiencing this distress. What he does promise is that God cares for hoi eklektoi and so will not allow humanity, among whom are included the chosen/elect, to be entirely destroyed through this thlipsis. Jesus envisions human civilization will continue beyond this time of distress. The mission God has inaugurated through Jesus and entrusted to hoi eklektoi, namely communicating the good news to the nations, also will continue. Jesus indicates that God has chosen (exelexato) these people. At this point he does not explain the criteria God uses in discerning who among humanity belongs to this group.

The other use of hoi eklektoi occurs in Mark 13:22. Jesus warns his followers (“if anyone says to you (plural)” v. 21) in the context of this period of distress not to be deceived by claims that the messiah has arrived (v. 21). He adds an explanation in v. 23. False messiahs and false prophets will emerge (v. 22) demonstrating power to do signs and wonders. Some people will claim that such miracle workers are the messiah (as Jesus warns in v. 21). Jesus warns his followers not to believe such claims (v.21). The intent of these false messiahs and false prophets is to “deceive, if possible, the chosen ones or elect.” 

If the term “the chosen ones” refers in vv. 20 and 27 to Jesus’ followers, then presumably it use in v. 22 will refer to the same group, unless a different definition is offered in the text at this point. However, none is given. Rather, Jesus (v. 23) continues his discourse with a declaration: “Now you (plural) be on your guard (blepete = watch); I have told you (plural) everything ahead of time.” He repeats the second person plural personal pronoun he used in v. 21. Presumably Jesus warns his followers, represented by the four disciples with him, that people will make these claims about a new messiah (whose presence would invalidate necessarily Jesus’ claims to be Messiah) in their hearing. He is warning them, his followers, not to be deceived by such claims. I would suggest that Jesus’ use of these second person plural pronouns is another indication that  he refers to his followers with the term hoi eklektoi. 

In my view, as I have tried to argue from the exegesis of the text of Mark 13:20-27, the term hoi eklektoi has the same sense that we find generally elsewhere in the New Testament writings. It describes the followers of Jesus Christ and defines their status within human history because they have responded to the invitation of salvation offered through the gospel. As participants in the covenant Jesus has established, they now form hoi eklektoi. The theological implications of this description deserve careful reflection. I would suggest the same factors apply to the understanding of this term as it occurs in the parallel texts in Matthew 24.



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