“But concerning that day or that hour, no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. Be on guard, keep awake. For you do not know when the time will come. It is like a man going on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his servants in charge, each with his work, and commands the doorkeeper to stay awake. Therefore stay awake—for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or when the rooster crows, or in the morning—lest he come suddenly and find you asleep. And what I say to you I say to all: Stay awake.”
Mark 13:32-37 ESV
After nine supernatural signs of God’s judgment, Pharaoh’s heart was no less softened, and he was no closer to submitting himself to God’s greater authority. Therefore, God promised to bring one plague more upon the land of Egypt. The LORD would come down and strike dead all the firstborn in the land, both human and animal. This vast yet targeted loss of life would finally cause Pharaoh to cast God’s people out of Egypt.
Yet this tenth sign was unique from the other nine in ways beyond simple escalation of intensity. In the previous plagues, the Israelites in the land of Goshen were unaffected in order to emphasize the distinction between God’s people and Pharaoh’s people. Yet with the tenth plague, the LORD would not avoid Goshen entirely. He would pass by every house in Egypt, both of the Egyptians and the Hebrews, and only the households marked with the blood of a lamb, as God directed, would be passed over by the LORD’s judgment.
Having slaughtered their lambs, eaten them in haste, and marked their doorposts with the blood, the Israelites huddled in their homes and waited for the sword to fall upon the Egyptians and for it to pass over them. They waited with sandals on and their staffs in hand. At midnight, the LORD did as He promised, and the night sky was pierced by the great cries of the Egyptians as each household discovered their dead.
Summoning Moses and Aaron that very night, Pharaoh ordered them to take the Israelites and all of their possessions out of Egypt once and for all. After 430 years in Egypt, Israel departed at last. Moses summarizes that fateful night with these words: “It was a night of watching by the LORD, to bring them out of the land of Egypt; so this same night is a night of watching kept to the LORD by all the people of Israel throughout their generations” (Exodus 12:42).
CONCERNING THAT DAY OR THAT HOUR // VERSE 32
In our present passage, we study the conclusion of Jesus’ Olivet Discourse. Let us remember once more that this teaching of Jesus began with Him leaving the temple with His disciples after a series of confrontational questions from the Jewish religious leaders that were intended to ensnare Jesus in His own words. Upon their exit, one of Jesus’ disciples commented to Him about how beautiful the temple was, to which Jesus said: “Do you see these great buildings? There will not be left here one stone upon another that will not be thrown down” (13:2). When He then sat down later on the Mount of Olives, overlooking the temple, four of His disciples asked Him these two questions: “Tell us, when will these things be, and what will be the sign when all these things are about to be accomplished” (13:4)?
So far, from verses 5-31, Jesus has been answering the second question. Particularly, in verses 5-13, He warned His disciples not to mistake ordinary tribulations as signs of God’s judgment upon Jerusalem. Instead, in verses 14-23, Jesus gave them the explicit signs of that coming judgment and warned them to flee Jerusalem whenever they saw. Finally, in verses 24-31, we were told what signs would immediately follow that great tribulation and again warned to consider those signs.
All of this means that Jesus has not yet answered the first question of His disciples: “when will these things be?” Yet that is the question that He answers in verse 32, saying, “But concerning that day or that hour, no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.”
While last week, we did consider what I have come to believe is Christ’s only explicit reference to the end of the world in this discourse (“Heaven and earth will pass away”), we still ought to note that Jesus referenced the passing away of all things in order to highlight the permanence of His words. He was, thus, sealing His prophecies with the kind of surety that can only come from the One through whom all things were made and without whom “was not any thing made that was made” (John 1:3). In other words, the destruction of the temple seemed so unlikely that Jesus needed to remind them of the eventual destruction of the created order itself and of the indestructability of His words.
Because even verse 31 serves to cement Jesus’ predictions about God’s judgment upon Jerusalem, the phrase that day or that hour in verse 32 does not refer to the passing away of heaven and earth but to the annihilation of the temple, the abomination of desolation. And Jesus stated definitively that only the Father knew precisely in advance on what day and hour that judgment would fall. Nor did the Father disclose that knowledge to any angel nor even to Jesus the Son.
Regarding the Son’s lack of knowledge, we come to a common yet very reasonable question: if God is omniscient (that is, all-knowing), then how can Jesus claim to be divine while also admitting a lack of knowledge? To answer this question, we must bring before us a great mystery of the faith that is somewhat like the great mystery of the Trinity, for they are both realities that are simply beyond our finite grasp. Here is how the Athanasian Creed puts it:
Now this is the true faith: that we believe and confess that our Lord Jesus Christ, God’s Son, is both God and man, equally. He is God from the essence of the Father, begotten before time; and he is man from the essence of his mother, born in time; completely God, completely man, with a rational soul and human flesh; equal to the Father as regards divinity, less than the Father as regards humanity. Although he is God and man, yet Christ is not two, but one. He is one, however, not by his divinity being turned into flesh, but by God’s taking humanity to himself. He is one, certainly not by the blending of his essence, but by the unity of his person. For just as one man is both rational soul and flesh, so too the one Christ is both God and man.
That is what we confess and believe to be true. Therefore, Jesus in His humanity is not omniscient, even though He most certainly is so in His divinity. While Jesus did not forsake His divinity when He became man, He very much did walk this earth as we do, only without sin. There are certainly splendid moments in Jesus’ life where a ray of His divinity pierced through the veil, yet throughout His life the Infinite One walked within finitude.
Again, it is important that we remember that the destruction of the temple in AD 70 is squarely what Jesus was speaking about. There are certainly many who take this verse to mean that even now as Jesus sits at the right hand of the Father He does not know when He is returning for His bride. But that is not at all what Jesus said here. Jesus is simply acknowledging that in His humanity even He did not know the exact date of Jerusalem’s judgment. Indeed, that admission was meant to guard His disciples against any false prophets who might have claimed such knowledge that even Christ Himself did not possess.
In this way, there is still significant application of this verse to our present waiting for Christ’s return. While Jesus most certainly does know precisely when He will return, we do not. In Luke 12:40, which seems to be pretty clearly about His second coming, Jesus says, “You also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect.” Of course, according to countless false prophets throughout church history, His return could be expected so long as you have the right revelation or mathematical formula. Yet we know them as false prophets precisely because their words proved false. Jeremiah 28:7-9 says,
Yet hear now this word that I speak in your hearing and in the hearing of all the people. The prophets who preceded you and me from ancient times prophesied war, famine, and pestilence against many countries and great kingdoms. As for the prophet who prophesies peace, when the word of that prophet comes to pass, then it will be known that the LORD has truly sent the prophet.
Jesus’ words are vindicated by their completion, whereas the lies of false prophets are inevitably exposed.
AND WHAT I SAY TO YOU I SAY TO ALL // VERSES 33-37
These final verses of the Olivet Discourse are Jesus’ concluding exhortation. Having answered their question about the signs and now having informed them that only the Father knew when the temple would be destroyed, He now gives them how they should live in light of that coming judgment. That exhortation is quite simply: stay awake. That command is present in each of these final verses except for verse 36, which only presents it from the negative by warning against falling asleep.
Some translations say “be watchful”, “keep watch”, or simply “watch” instead of stay awake, but the idea is the same. The duty of a watchman upon a city’s wall was to keep watch for anyone approaching the city, friend or foe, so that the city might be ready. To keep watch, the watchman needed to be awake, especially whenever his hour to watch came at night. Thus, the two phrases go together. Stay awake implies keeping watch, and keeping watch necessitates being awake.
Jesus gave this command because it is the attitude and posture that He expected of His disciples. The great tribulation upon Jerusalem was coming, and they needed to be able to properly discern between true and false signs so that they could escape being caught up in the slaughter. Such discernment required being awake and watching, being alert and on guard, being vigilant at all times. Thankfully, the Christians living in Jerusalem took this to heart and, as we have already said, fled from Jerusalem before the Romans cut off all possible escape routes.
Of course, the focus on Jerusalem has not stopped us from applying Mark 13 to our own day, and that is very much still true in regard to these verses as well. As we have said, God’s judgment against Jerusalem in AD 70 was a localized foretaste at the beginning of the church age of the great judgment that Christ’s return will bring upon the entire globe at the end of the church age. Thus, if Jesus’ disciples needed to be awake and watchful of the then coming judgment of Jerusalem, how much more awake and watchful ought we to be for the end of all things?
As ones who have experienced the grace of God through Christ, we ought to wait for our Lord’s return, our blessed hope, awake and watchful. This attitude goes hand-in-hand with Paul’s command to “look carefully then how you walk, not as unwise but as wise, making the best use of the time, because the days are evil” (Ephesians 5:15-16). The Christian life must never be one of sleepwalking through life or moving through on autopilot; rather, it must be alert and engaged at all times. C. S. Lewis was correct in saying through his demonic character Screwtape: “Indeed the safest road to Hell is the gradual one–the gentle slope, soft underfoot, without sudden turnings, without milestones, without signposts.”
While I am certain that Satan takes more immediate delight in stirring up persecution, I am also certain that it is not nearly as effective for his wicked purpose as the art of distraction. While this has always been true throughout human history, the television and the smartphone have taken things to new heights. It is often said that the brain is less active watching television than when sleeping, which would certainly make it the very opposite of what Christ commanding of us here. And by now we are no doubt all too familiar with how zombified we become as we care more about what is on our phone than what is actually in front of us. Indeed, the chief reason that I have forsaken smartphones altogether is that I have seen too many parents who only seem to look up from their phone long enough to yell for their children to stop doing something. Or perhaps we ought to look at how gaming is used to rob young men particularly of using their thumos for God’s kingdom.
There is very much a design to it all. Tony Reinke notes that as our age of automation increases the most in-demand resource is becoming human attention. Thus, there is an all-out war being waged for our focus. Yet the internet, social media, and algorithms have only intensified things, A. W. Tozer correctly identified the corrupting, sleep-inducing root of entertainment within the church of his day:
This is cause of a very serious breakdown in modern evangelicalism. The idea of cultivation and exercise, so dear to the saints of old, has now no place in our total religious picture. It is too slow, too common. We now demand glamour and fast flowing dramatic action. A generation of Christians reared among push buttons and automatic machines is impatient of slower and less direct methods of reaching their goals. We have been trying to apply machine-age methods to our relations with God. We read our chapter, have our short devotions and rush away, hoping to make up for our deep inward bankruptcy by attending another gospel meeting or listening to another thrilling story told by a religious adventurer lately returned from afar.
The tragic results of this spirit are all about us: shallow loves, hollow religious philosophies, the preponderance of the element of fun in gospel meetings, the glorification of men, trust in religious externalities, quasi-religious fellowships, salesmanship methods, the mistaking of dynamic personality for the power of the Spirit. These and such as these are the symptoms of an evil disease, a deep and serious malady of the soul.
But if the world is ever pulling us toward sleepwalking through life, how can we obey Christ and stay awake? First, we should stay awake by devoting ourselves to prayer. In verse 33, some manuscripts read, “Be on guard, keep awake and pray.” Even if those two words (and pray) were not what Mark originally wrote, many other passages of Scripture associate prayer with wakefulness and watchfulness. Consider Colossians 4:2, “Continue steadfastly in prayer, being watchful in it with thanksgiving.” Or 1 Peter 4:7, “The end of all things is at hand; therefore be self-controlled and sober-minded [both imply the kind of wakefulness that Jesus commands] for the sake of your prayers.” Tony Reinke says it well: “Paul calls us to the discipline of prayer. We must not only pray without ceasing; we must pray without ceasing in a spirit of undaunted alertness–that is, with full attention.” How could the Holy One demand anything less?
Indeed, because prayer is communicating with God Himself, what else could demand us to be more awake? Prayer has always required discipline, and it has not come easy to any man or woman at any time upon this earth. However, it runs antithetical in almost every way to our age of distraction.
Second, we must stay awake and watchful by doing the work that our Lord has left for us. This is the implication of Jesus’ parable in verses 34-36:
It is like a man going on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his servants in charge, each with his work, and commands the doorkeeper to stay awake. Therefore stay awake—for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or when the rooster crows, or in the morning—lest he come suddenly and find you asleep.
J. C. Ryle exhorts us:
We are to realize that we are all servants of a great Master, who has given to every man his work, and expects that work to be done. We are to labour to glorify God, each in our particular sphere and relation. There is always something for everyone to do. We are to strive each of us to shine as a light, to be the salt of our own times, to be faithful witnesses for our Master, and to honour him by conscientiousness and consistency in our daily conversation. Our great desire must be to be found not idle and sleeping, but working and doing.
The beauty of the Christian life is that even the smallest and most seemingly insignificant tasks throughout the day can be devoted to God’s glory and thereby become a most precious living sacrifice to our God. Indeed, it is this attitude that George Herbert expressed so marvelously within his poem, The Elixir.
Teach me, my God and King,
In all things Thee to see,
And what I do in anything
To do it as for Thee.
Not rudely, as a beast,
To run into an action;
But still to make Thee prepossest,
And give it his perfection.
A man that looks on glass,
On it may stay his eye;
Or if he pleaseth, through it pass,
And then the heav’n espy.
All may of Thee partake:
Nothing can be so mean,
Which with his tincture—”for Thy sake”—
Will not grow bright and clean.
A servant with this clause
Makes drudgery divine:
Who sweeps a room as for Thy laws,
Makes that and th’ action fine.
This is the famous stone
That turneth all to gold;
For that which God doth touch and own
Cannot for less be told.
Indeed, I would note that even properly observed rest is vigilantly in the Lord. The rest-work cycle of the Christian is done coram Deo, before the face of God. The counterfeit cycle of busyness and idleness never achieves an ounce of the wakefulness and watchfulness that Jesus demands.
In fact, properly observed rest to God reminds us of an important truth: we are not secured through our own vigilant keeping of God but rather by God’s vigilant keeping of us. Psalm 127:1 tells us this explicitly: “Unless the LORD builds the house, those who build it labor in vain. Unless the LORD watches over the city, the watchman stays awake in vain.” Notice that Solomon is not suggesting that God will Himself do the physical act of building a home or watching over the city. No, those actions must still be done, but unless they are done with ultimate trust and confidence in the LORD, they are done in vain. The same principle was seen during the night of the Passover and the exodus. Yes, the Israelites were required to stay awake and to keep watch for the tenth plague and their being expelled from Egypt by Pharaoh, but they could only do so because God Himself was keeping watch over them.
So it is with us. We must forsake the alluring vanities and trivialities of the world, and we must diligently devote ourselves to the work of our God and stay vigilant through the disciplines such as prayer and reading God’s Word. Yet Thomas Brooks said it well, “Till men have faith in Christ, their best services are but glorious sins.” This is the great separation between Christianity and every other belief system. They all call us to labor toward the hope of rest, but Christ gives to us rest and then calls us labor from that place of rest. Good works are necessary to the Christian life, but if they do not flow from our complete justification by grace through faith in Christ, then they are nothing more than well-dressed sins.
Finally, in the Lord’s Supper, we come to one more means by which the Lord stirs us awake. Each Lord’s Day gathering of God’s people, of course, ought to awaken us as we gather together as the visible body of Christ to praise, pray to, and hear from our great God. Yet we are visual and embodied creatures, who so often need things we can touch and taste. Therefore, God has given to us the ordinances or sacraments, which Thomas Watson calls visual sermons. Since we have begun to observe the Lord’s Supper each week this past year, I have experienced firsthand its rousing effect. We, of course, know that we ought to come each Sunday repentant of sin and making matters right with those whom we have offended throughout the week. Yet the warnings attached to the Lord’s Supper make that reality much clearer:
Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty concerning the body and blood of the Lord. Let a person examine himself, then, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment on himself. That is why many of you are weak and ill, and some have died.1 Corinthians 11:27–30
That warning is a call to wake up, to be alert, to give your full attention to what we are about to do. Do not sleepwalk through this! To take the bread and cup frivolously is to treat the body and blood of Christ that they represent frivolously.
Therefore, as we come to the King’s Table, we see both His grace and His judgment, His mercy and His wrath. We are both comforted and prodded, held tenderly in the arms our Father as well as lovingly disciplined by His hand. We are reminded all over again that Christ has accomplished everything on our behalf and also that we must continue to press forward for this life is a race of endurance that is only won by those who finish well. Let us, therefore, taste and see and be awakened again to the goodness of the finished work of Christ upon the cross and also hear His call to go forth as His body here on earth until He comes for us His bride.