Brief Thoughts On The "Last Days"
On Sunday we looked at Mark 13, which is often called "The Olivet Discourse." It's one of the hardest passages in Mark to understand, and I'm pretty sure you won't find a passage in Mark with a greater variety of interpretations. Commentators disagree about the meaning of this chapter, even when they agree about almost everything else.
The reason this passage is so confusing is that Jesus talks to the disciples about events in the future. Some of the things he's talking about seem to be a reference to events 30-40 years after he makes this speech. But in other places, Jesus seems to be talking about far distant events associated with the end of the world.
The latter topic theologians lump under a heading called "eschatology." It comes from the Greek word for last (eschaton), and thus eschatology is the study of "last things." There are a few things to keep in mind when we talk about eschatology. First, we cannot avoid the topic of the Second Coming of Christ. The New Testament talks about a Judgment Day and Jesus' Second Coming in a number of places. And thus, if we take the Bible seriously, we have to study eschatology. We cannot simply skip over it as unimportant or irrelevant.
But second, we need an attitude of humility when it comes to these discussions. There are literally dozens of eschatological positions that orthodox Christians have held. That means any eschatological position you hold is a minority position. Most Christians in history will disagree with whatever position you adopt. While that ought not to keep you from forming an opinion, it should keep you from being too belligerent about it. There is enough ambiguity in the key biblical texts, and enough diversity of interpretation, that it ought to cause us to hold our positions humbly. What Christians have agreed upon is that Jesus will one day come back personally, visibly, and triumphantly to judge the world. Beyond that, things get considerably more fuzzy.
Lastly, all theology is applied theology. As Mark 13:32-37 makes clear, the goal of Jesus' teaching is not endless speculation, but a changed life. We don't know when Jesus is coming back, but we do know that he is coming back. And that has implications for how we live faithfully now in this age.
If you want to read a good, short treatment of the various eschatological positions, I suggest chapter 23 "The Events of the Last Days" in John Frame's book Salvation Belongs to the Lord.