The last two weeks of the church year are traditionally given to the apocalyptic. This year it was Mark 13:1-37. There is no part of the scriptures that might be more given to extremes of interpretation. Flights of fancy about the end times, which for some reason are always about our time, are built on the smallest of connections. At the other extreme are folks wishing to avoid that ditch by just saying that these parts of the scripture are a dead letter to us. What I want to do here is outline what I think is the road between those two ditches. I didn’t, and wouldn’t, take this into the pulpit because bluntly that time is too precious for what is in the end speculation however well grounded. But this is prime stuff for bible study. And that is where this comes from. In prepping two sermons a whole bunch of reflections were churned up. We spent a couple of Sunday morning bible studies laying groundwork and attempting to look a little deeper. How is Mark 13 not just a dead letter, but also well grounded?
The first thing I would recommend any time you are reading “end times” scripture is getting your toughest and most literal translation. Why? It will slow you down and make you look at each word and phrase, and the more readable translations often have an interpretation embedded already. What that means practically is getting out the old family King James or the ESV. I’m going to give you an example here comparing Mark 13:32 in the ESV and the NLT.
ESV: But concerning that day or that hour, no one knows (Mar 13:32 ESV)
NLT: However, no one knows the day or hour when these things will happen (Mar 13:32 NLT)
The NLT just reads along easily. Both translations give you the central idea that “no one knows”. But what the NLT steamrolls over is what “these thing” are. It elides the transition that is present in the original language. In Mark 13 Jesus is talking about two things:1) the fall of the temple in AD70 and 2) the end of the world. The NLT’s these things keeps the distinction squishy. The literal ESV, reflecting the clumsy Greek, reflects the positional emphasis of the words. “Concerning that day or that hour”, the verse signals a transition of subject. Jesus has been speaking about AD70 up until this time. But now, concerning that day or that hour, the Last Day, the End of the World, no one knows. The tougher translation slows you down to get that temporal transition.
So, that is the first big interpretation decision. Mark 13:1-31 talks about AD70 and Mark 13:32-37 talks about the Last Day. The main thing you can take away from the Last Day answer is no one knows so be prepared. Repeat that like a mantra anytime you are tempted by the “Left Behind” ditch. There are no signs. There is no way to figure out a timeline and where we are on it. No one knows.
But what about Mark 13:1-31? If it is all talking about AD70, is it a dead letter to us? If it is a dead letter why does Mark write verse 14? “But when you see the abomination of desolation standing where he ought not to be (let the reader understand), then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains (Mark 13:14 ESV).” Let the reader understand? Who is the reader? Even if you answer something like – “Mark wrote in the 50’s and the reader was Jewish Christians living in Judea”, you still need to deal with the idea of the Holy Spirit as the author. This is my second big interpretation decision. While Mark 13:1-31 in its full context is talking about AD70, the parenthetical remark “let the reader understand”, says that this is not a dead letter. We must avoid the Last Day ditch. We can learn nothing about that day from here, but it does mean something to us. What does AD70 mean to a Christian living today or at any time post AD70?
It is here that I like to introduce a distinction. There is the capital letter Day of The Lord, and then there are days of the Lord. We all have a personal day of the Lord at the time of our death. And a fair history admits of times that seem unthinkable, times when we say surely the Lord was at work either in judgment or in deliverance. (We don’t know that and can’t say for sure, but we don’t have to be idiots. These are the times when you fall into the divine passive – “we were delivered on that day”. The passive hides the true subject with a sense of mystery, but only one without ears wouldn’t get the point.) What I am going to suggest is that AD70 becomes for us a type of those small letter days of the Lord. And I am going to flesh out how that typology works in this case. Given the scriptural context of Mark 13:14, it is a well-grounded and narrow typology, but one that I think has amazing resonance. I’ll continue this tomorrow.