What do you do with difficult Bible passages?

Our church have been working through Mark’s Gospel both in our Sunday morning services and at our midweek life group.  Most of Mark feels like plain sailing (well, there is the occasional storm). However, there are a couple of more challenging texts. I suspect that the ones that stand out are Mark 10 which raises the thorny issue of divorce and re-marriage. Then there’s Mark 13 with its discussion of “signs of the times.”

Jesus begins by talking about the coming end of the temple.  His disciples are awestruck by this impressive wonder of the ancient world. Jesus’ response is “make the most of it because it won’t be around for long.”  The disciples are startled. Such an event would be earth shattering, world ending. They begin to ask Jesus about the signs of the end. Jesus appears to be answering two questions through the passage, one about the specifics of AD70 and the destruction of Jerusalem, the other bigger question about his return.  There are some unusual terms as well such as “The abomination of desolation” and references to a generation that won’t pass away.  Even heavy weight commentators seem to wrestle with the chapter and there are as many opinions on what it all means as there are commentaries.

So, how do we handle such passages whether when preaching, leading Bible study or looking at them for our own personal study?  My suggestion is that you take it in two stages.

First of all, have a read through the Bible passage and identify the things that are concrete and certain.  There are some things when you read through Mark 13 that are definitely there without much controversy.  I would identify them as follows:

  1. The disciples are confronted with earth shattering, shocking news.
  2. Jesus is able to predict the future
  3. Jesus warns about troubles and persecution
  4. It is possible to be deceived.  We are to be discerning.
  5. War and natural disasters are part and parcel of living in this world now. 
  6. Jesus is coming back but we are not given a date and a time for this.
  7. We are to be alert and ready for when Jesus comes back.

From those key points, we have some helpful and crucial application.  Jesus teaches us how to live in this frightening and chaotic world. At times it will feel like our world is ending but we are not to lose our nerve. We are to keep trusting him and keep serving him by telling others the good news because he is coming back.

It’s important to get yourself -and those studying the passage with you rooted and anchored in to these foundational truths. If this is all that you take away from a study of Mark 13, then that’s brilliant.

However, we don’t have to stay there.  So in Stage 2 I would encourage you not to be frightened of the bits you find difficult -whether that’s difficult to understand or difficult to apply. Lean into them.  Keep digging into those difficult bits, wrestle with them, ask more questions.  What you’ll find is that this enriches and deepens your understanding and appreciation of the things you’ve already learnt from the chapter.

Now, it may feel at first like there’s no way that you can understand and answer those difficult questions.  It’s tempting to reach straight for the commentaries -and there’s certainly a place for that. However, there’s a lot that you can work out even before you get to the books. 

Let’s take for example Mark 13:14

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.

What’s that all about?  Well, there are a few clues.  The first is that Mark adds an observation “let the reader understand.” In other words, Mark is saying that his intended initial audience, the first readers will instinctively and immediately know what he is getting at.  The term “abomination of desolation” was something they would get and know how to act on. The warning is not intended to be something confusing for them but something useful. When the abomination came, they would recognise it/him. 

Secondly, the phrase is a reference to something already said in the Bible.  That’s one reason why the readers would understand.  Although the wording isn’t quite the same, Daniel’s prophecy in Daniel 9:27 appears to be saying something similar.  In other words, Jesus is saying something to the effect of “You know how Daniel talked about something/someone so abominable that they would cause deep despair/distress/desolation? Well, something just like that is about to happen soon.”

Now, there are some pieces to the jigsaw that we won’t know obviously from the text.  But we know the questions to ask.  They are.

  1. Would the disciples have known what the “abomination of desolation” was that Daniel spoke about? Had his prophecy been fulfilled?
  2. Did the early believers act at any point in a way that suggested that they had understood Jesus’ warning?

The answer to both questions is “yes”.  As we saw in this article.  The disciples were able to look back to a previous “abomination of desolation” so that they knew the kind of thing to look out for. We also know that they were able to respond when danger came in AD70 and find safety.  This also helps us to get a feel for what the specific “abomination” was in their day.

Now, this isn’t just dry intellectual knowledge. We can learn from this verse some great things to help us in our faith.  Specifically, we can face devastating, earth-shattering situations now, knowing that Jesus is not surprised by them and that he is Lord over all that we might face.

The point I wanted to make here though was that when we face the trickier passages, we don’t need to run away from them. Nor do we just have to take the word from some “expert” about what they mean but with careful study and investigation we can see not just what the text is saying but specifically what God is saying to us through it.

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