Mark 13:24-37, Stay Awake and Be Alert!

[October 31, 2010] We come now to that exciting subject, the coming of the Son of Man. What are we to make of it? The title, “Son of Man,” comes from Daniel 7:13 and names Him who will overcome the world and establish the kingdom of God. In Daniel He is an awesome supernatural figure who comes with the clouds of heaven, and of course, Jesus identifies the Messiah—and Himself—with this figure.

We recall what Jesus said in Mark 12:35-37 about the people’s expectation of Him as the Son of David. The scribes taught them that the Messiah is the Son of David and, accordingly, they were expecting someone like David. Jesus, however, said that the Messiah is so much more: “YHWH said to [David’s] Lord, ‘Sit at My right hand until I put Your enemies underneath Your feet.’” After Jesus accomplished what He was about to accomplish in Jerusalem (offering Himself as a sin-offering for the people and fulfilling the type of the Passover), He would ascend to heaven—not just to become heavenly but to sit at God’s right hand (that is, to reign)—and there He would remain until the kingdom of God was fully established.

This means that He would come as this heavenly One, as the transfigured glorious One whom John saw on Patmos. However, this coming is not the “until” that Psalm 110 speaks of. He would continue to sit at God’s right hand until all His enemies were subdued, even death itself. That is, He would continue to reign until the end of the age-to-come, the age of the kingdom, when God will be subjecting all things under His feet. Not until that is accomplished will the eternal age begin. It will be, however, during the age-to-come that God will fulfill all His promises to Israel through the Messiah, and that age will begin with the coming of the heavenly Son of Man in the clouds, with great power and glory.

Jesus was taking the way of the cross and laying down His blameless soul in death in order to become this One, the Firstborn of creation who will mediate salvation to the creation. He also called upon His own, those whom He made His own, His believers, to exist in this world-under-judgment in the same way, in the way of the cross. We are not to participate in glory in this world, but by taking up the way of the cross we will participate in His glory when He comes. We are “joint heirs with Christ, if indeed we suffer with Him that we may also be glorified with Him” (Romans 8:17).

So last week, when we examined Mark 13:5-23, we heard Jesus describe the condition of the world in which we will live until He comes. Now is the time of patient endurance in the way of the cross. The kingdom of God is far more than a revived “kingdom of David,” but it will not be established by Christ until His coming in glory. If we try to establish it ourselves, with our own hands, we will fall under the powers of the world and be enslaved by them for their own purposes, as we have seen countless times happen in the course of history. This was what some Jews were attempting in the time of Jesus, and Jesus pronounced God’s judgment on them. The church is not that. The secret of the kingdom of God is within it, but it is a secret, a mysterium, a “sacrament.” This mystery is the real presence of Christ within it. Christ living within and among us is the hidden Christ of glory, but in the world He is the Christ of the cross. He who lives within us, and whose real presence we know among us in the church, lives as the One who takes up the cross and denies Himself and loses His soul. The church knows Him and the power of His resurrection but does so in the fellowship of His sufferings, becoming conformed to His death (Philippians 3:10). We always bear about in the body, however, the putting to death of Jesus so that the (divine, resurrected) life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies, for we have this treasure (this divine life) in earthen vessels that need to be broken in order to reveal it and impart it to others (2 Corinthians 4:10, 7, 12). Praise be to God!

When the terrible persecution under Nero took place just prior to the desecration of the Temple by means of the abomination of desolation (Mark 13:14-20) in 70 AD, believers expected the Son of Man to come immediately. It was a scandal for many of them that He did not, and with the vacuum in leadership caused by the martyrdom of people like Peter and Paul, it took some time before the church got back on its feet. It was not until around 90 AD that Paul’s letters were collected and circulated among the churches and John’s gospel was written to recapitulate and crystallize the meaning of the Gospel for the churches. In the interim, as the epistles of 2 Peter predicted and Jude describes, many strange speculations took hold and false teachings spread in the church.

I think the Gospel according to Mark was written just before the crisis of 70 AD took place, in an atmosphere of awful persecutions. This accounts for the sense of urgency we detect throughout the gospel. Yet in this gospel Jesus does not predict that the end will come immediately. Though “immediately” is a favorite word of Mark’s, it does not appear in 13:24 even though it appears in the parallel passage in Matthew 24:29 that Mark was certainly aware of, for the following words in Mark’s account are identical to the words in Matthew’s account). For example, in the parable of the tenants in Mark 12:1-11, Jesus (in verse 9) predicts the destruction of the tenants—the leadership in Jerusalem—and that God would give the vineyard (the people of Israel) to others. If this is a prediction of the rise of Rabbinic Judaism (also alluded to in 12:28-34 and again in 12:41-44) after the destruction of the Temple and the devastation of Jerusalem in 70 AD, then Jesus must have expected a period of time after that event.

Interpreters have said that the abomination of desolation in Mark 13:14-20 has not yet happened, but I think that it is disingenuous to disconnect these verses from 13:1-2 and 4. Moreover, the context in which this chapter is set, namely Jesus’ confrontation with the tenants of the vineyard ever since His entry into the City in 11:1-11, namely His cursing of the fig tree, His “judgment” of the Temple, and His exposure of those who would examine Him, all point to the disaster that He predicted in 13:2. The destruction of the Temple refers to the destruction of that Temple. It has already happened, and it happened a long time ago.

Nevertheless, the meaning of those events has continued. Both the synagogue and the church live in the world under God’s judgment, as exiles. The character of the world remains and will remain what it was then.

The Son of Man will Come (13:24-28)

The transitional words that begin verse 24, “But in those days after that tribulation,” speaks of an indeterminable span of time between the desecration of the Temple and the coming of the Son of Man. Verse 32 tells us that no one knows, or will know, when the Son of Man (“that day”) will come.

Mark speaks of a cosmic upheaval affecting the sun, moon and stars (or at least the appearance of them). He does not dwell on the earthly distress that Luke 21:25-26 does or speak of the “sign” of the Son of Man seen in heaven as Matthew does in 24:30. He only says that this cosmic upheaval will happen “at the time when” (tote) the Son of Man shall come “in clouds with great power and glory.”

Moreover, Matthew, Luke and Mark all agree in saying not just that the Son of Man will come but that “they will see” His coming. His coming will be seen by all (apparently), and therefore will not only be an actual event but also a supernatural manifestation—something that will happen inwardly as well as outwardly—for how else will everyone see the same event?

At that time the Son of Man will send the angels to gather His elect, His chosen, “from the four winds, from the end of the earth to the end of the heaven.” This does not refer to His gathering of the church but to His gathering of Israel. The prophets spoke of how when the Messiah comes He will gather all Israel together, even the “lost tribes” of the northern kingdom (which seems impossible after all this time). The gathering of all Israel does not refer to the Zionist Movement of modern times (even if this is a sign) but to an event that will occur when the Messiah comes.

The church, however, will be taken by an unseen thief who comes in the night. The first-fruits will be gathered to the throne of God and the harvest will be reaped before “they will see the coming of the Son of Man,” for when He comes, we will come with Him (1 Thessalonians 4:14; see 2 Thessalonians 1:10). In other words, we will be resurrected to be with the Lord when He is still hidden from the world, before He manifests Himself to Israel and the nations.

The Parable of the Fig Tree (13:28-31)

Let us now interpret the parable of the fig tree. (We might accept the possibility that it is used differently in Matthew and Luke.) We are, of course, reminded of the fig tree in Mark 11:12-14 which, we are told had leaves—without fruit. That is the sign. This fig tree, symbolized the flourishing of the people who had returned to the land from exile, represented most notably by the flourishing of the Temple in Jerusalem. Then know, Jesus says, that the summer is near. When Jesus cursed the fig tree because it flourished with leaves but had no fruit, it withered from the roots. This did not represent a rejection of the people of Israel—according to the Old Testament “the gracious gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable” (Romans 11:29)—but the end of the provisional sign of their “return from exile.” Palestinian Israel returned to the condition of the exile, even while they continued to live in the land (which they did).

When Jesus says, “When you see these things happening,” “these things” refers back to the question of the disciples in 13:4, “When will these things be?” They were referring to the destruction of the Temple in 13:2. When Jesus says, “know that it is near, at the doors,” He is referring to the destruction of the Temple. “These things” then refer to all the things that He said in 13:5-23. The final sign before the destruction of “these great buildings” will be when they “see the abomination of desolation standing where it should not” (13:14). In other words, the disciples will be able to tell when the destruction of the Temple is about to occur.

“This generation shall by no means pass away until all these things happen.” Jesus spoke these words in 30 AD, 40 years before the Temple was destroyed. The generation that was alive when He spoke would live to see “these things.” This much is clear.

In the Gospel according to Luke this is less clear, and therefore I suggest that in Luke this parable may be used differently (to refer to the coming of God’s kingdom), and therefore “this generation” has a broader meaning (probably referring to the genus of people, rather than to their lifetime).

Be Vigilant! (13:32-37)

The coming of the Son of Man, however, is not so predictable. In fact, it is not predictable at all. “Concerning that day or hour, no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but the Father.” “You do not know when the time is.” Not even Christ (in His humanity) knew the time, for in His “emptying” Himself (Philippians 2:7) He took on our human limitations, without sin. In glory (and already in resurrection) He is not bound by those limitations, not even His humanity is, for His glory is the participation (koinonia) of His humanity in all the properties of His divinity.

There is someone on the radio (Harold Camping) who insists that we can accurately predict the Lord’s coming, that ignorance of the time of His coming only pertained to the time when the Lord spoke. This is a false and dangerous teaching. Jesus is quite clear that at the time of His coming, we will not know “when the Master of the house comes, whether in the evening or at midnight or at cockcrowing or in the morning.” We have to be vigilant because we do not know. If we think He is coming in 2011, He may come suddenly in 2010 and find us asleep! Nor can anyone say that this passage refers to unbelievers. “They do not know but the believer does know.” If Jesus is the Master of the house, then the slaves to whom He gives authority and to each his work, and whom He commands to watch are clearly His believers. “Watch therefore, for you do not know when the Master of the house comes … lest He come suddenly and find you sleeping.” “What I say to you, I say to all.”

Jesus speaks this passage, 13:31-37, with great urgency. Family Radio (and anyone else who makes this mistake) is making a grave mistake by ignoring and invalidating the passage’s plain meaning. I would not emphasize this except for the fact that Jesus Himself apparently takes this matter quite seriously.

Why is it so serious? What is it, exactly, that Jesus urges upon us here? No one knows the day or the hour. Why do we have to “beware, be alert … watch!” What if the Master of the house comes suddenly and finds us sleeping? Would that be so bad?

What does it mean to “sleep”? Paul was obviously familiar with these words when he wrote 1 Thessalonians 5 in 50 AD. He was concerned there that the Day not overtake us like a thief. A thief comes to steal what is valuable, and leaves the rest. “The rest”—meaning the unbelievers—“sleep, but let us watch and be sober.” “Those who sleep, sleep during the night, and those who get drunk are drunk during the night; but since we are of the day, let us be sober, putting on the breastplate of faith and love and for a helmet, the hope of salvation.”

So, being “awake” means more than just anticipating His coming. It means being sober, aware and prepared. The watchman is awake during the night, as if for him it were the day. We know certain things, and this knowledge (epignosis)—the revelation of Christ, the presence of the kingdom of God in Him—enables us to live in the “day,” even if in the world around us it is still night. For, though the kingdom of God does not come until He comes, for us it has already come in Him. In so far as we “possess” Him (He in us and we in Him) through the Holy Spirit, we know the kingdom of God within and among us. To be awake means that we live with this awareness, and being aware of this as our reality, it makes a difference.  

To be awake means that we do not confuse the reality that is in Christ with the world around us that is still in the thick of night. To watch means that we know the difference and do not get caught up in the night. Instead, as far as the world is concerned, we wait for Him. We exercise patience and endurance with respect to the world. We do not use “zeal” to impose the will of God on others. We suffer persecution without fighting back. We know that this is the world and that it is under God’s judgment, we do not get caught up in its dreams, its ideologies and utopian visions. We wait.

And in the meantime, we do not drift off into sleep. We not only wait passively, but we are vigilant and practice faithfulness to Him in anticipation of the coming day. This means faithfulness in prayer (the disciples failed to “watch” and pray with Jesus when Jesus was in the Garden) and faithful in our confession (Peter failed to watch himself when he was in the courtyard of the high priest). In correspondence with the rest of the Gospel according to Mark, to “watch” means to be faithful in the way of the cross and not to become impatient for the coming Day.

On the one hand, we live with respect to the world as if at any moment it will pass away. We are ready to leave at the drop of the hat. We will not look back like Lot’s wife. Perhaps, if we are weighted down with the world and attached to it, when He comes and calls us to be with Him, we will not be ready and He will (temporarily) leave us behind, until we are ready (see Luke 17; 1 Corinthians 7:29-31).

On the other hand, He may not come today or tomorrow or in our lifetime. So while we do not let ourselves get weighted down by the world and we do not let ourselves get attached to it (or enslaved by it), we also need to live wisely and responsibly, as if we are here for the long haul. As God through Jeremiah told those in exile, “Build houses and dwell in them, and plant gardens and eat their produce, take wives and beget sons and daughters … and seek the peace of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the LORD for it; for in its peace you will have peace” (Jeremiah 29:5-7). Do not recklessly destroy the environment because you say, “The Lord is coming,” or be happy when wars or natural disasters occur because they are signs of His coming. No. “Seek the peace of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the LORD for it; for in its peace you will have peace.” Like Daniel, we need to live responsibly in the world even while we wait for the Lord’s coming.

This is the struggle. For if we live in society as if we are here for the long haul, we must watch and be vigilant that we do not become attached to it. For the world that crucified our Lord is the world that we still live in. While they may be friends of the church today, they can never be comfortable with its message. We will always be strangers and exiles here. To be vigilant means that we never forget this. Our home is with the Lord who was rejected by this world. And so, though He may not come soon (though He may!), we always live in anticipation of His coming, longing for His coming, longing to be with Him.

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