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Chapter 20. The final crisis (Mark 13)

Chapter 20. The final crisis

Please read Mark 13

Not long ago I had the exciting experience of a trip to Wembley Stadium for the Championship football play-off final. It was a great day out, watching Bristol City playing for the privilege of entering the Premier League. Even though we lost, it was a good day, because for the first time I saw the new Wembley. It’s truly an amazing venue. You behold it for the first time as you emerge from the Underground station. You reach the top of the steps and look out; and you simply stop and stare. In fact, so many people stop and stare at that point that the police are stationed there specially to keep you moving! Already you can see the famous arch towering over the skyline and the great, multi-coloured crowds streaming up Wembley Way and up the ramps beyond. And now you follow them, processing up to the iconic statue of Bobby Moore and in through the doors in the glass curtain walls. Up you climb, up to the very top, until at last you emerge inside the gigantic, unbroken oval of the stadium itself, rapidly filling up with the cheering multitudes, 90,000 strong. Wembley is a stunning building – and so it should be, given what it cost! But if someone told me that day that shortly, the entire edifice would be totally demolished, violently razed to the ground so that not a trace remained, I would be shocked. I’d be appalled. I would feel that some desperate crisis must be in store to make that happen, that London itself must be in for some devastating fate.

If you can imagine that, then perhaps you can grasp, just a little, how Jesus’ friends feel at the start of Mark 13. It is not a state-of-the-art football stadium they are worried about, but a building far more impressive and whose meaning is a thousand times greater. Along with Jesus, they are just leaving the Temple in Jerusalem, the beating heart of the Jewish religion. To them the Temple is like Wembley Stadium, the Houses of Parliament and Westminster Abbey all rolled into one, and more besides. This place is the heart of their nation. Now Jesus calmly tells his horrified disciples that all this is to be obliterated, razed to the ground. In what follows, Jesus explains to his people what the years ahead will be like. What lies in store for the world is not just a single disaster, but years of crisis extending all the way through to the day when he returns to this earth. That means this is a message for us as well. For Christians, every time is a time of crisis. The question Jesus answers for us here is how we are to live through the crisis. The message of Mark 13 is serious and downbeat, reminding us forcibly that following Jesus is not a game or a hobby, but a matter of life and death.

Let’s see how this chapter fits in to Mark’s gospel. Chapter 12 ended with a warning against the hypocrisy of the religious leadership. Overall, chapters 11 and 12 spell out the judgement of the King on the old regime – the Temple worship and all that it stands for. That’s why chapter 13 fits in here so well. Jesus now moves beyond declaring judgement on the Temple and the old order: here we find him explaining exactly how that judgement will fall. This chapter forms a bridge between Jesus’ public ministry, which has just concluded, and his passion and death, which bring in the new age. But we also have to notice how different this chapter is from the rest of Mark. The rest of this gospel is basically a very simple story. It’s not difficult to understand what is going on. This chapter is different! At times it seems like a little bit of Revelation dropped into the middle of a gospel – in fact it is often known as the ‘Little Apocalypse’. Parts of it have aroused a good deal of controversy: it’s not entirely straightforward!

Jesus and the Twelve are leaving the Temple and as they look around, they are struck once more by the magnificence of the buildings (v.1). We know from the eye-witness accounts that this is a stunning building. It dominates the whole city; it’s covered with marble and gold; it’s one of the wonders of the world. Herod the Great used the top Roman engineers; archaeologists today have confirmed the quality of Herodian building, wherever it is found. From Josephus we know that the standard size of the stones in the Temple walls was over ten metres long and five metres wide. The Jews may detest the Herods, but they are fiercely proud of their Temple. This is an impressive building – and now one of the disciples invites Jesus to join him in admiration. Jesus’ reply is hardly encouraging (v.2). Not surprisingly, the disciples are speechless. Not until they reach the slopes of the Mount of Olives, on their way out of town for the night, do four of them pluck up the courage to ask Jesus what on earth he is talking about. As they sit there, just across the Kidron Valley from the city, they have a breathtaking view of the Temple; and as the sun sets, glinting off its towers and pinnacles, they put their question (vv.3-4). In what follows, we need to understand that for the disciples, if the Temple is destroyed in this way, that can only mean that their whole nation is destroyed; and if their nation is destroyed, that must mean that God is coming in judgement, with what the prophets called ‘the day of the Lord’, the end of the age. Their question embraces not just a building, but the fate of the whole world. By now they have learned to take Jesus’ words very seriously. They no longer have any doubt that if Jesus says it, it will happen.

Jesus’ reply occupies the rest of the chapter. What he says is of shattering importance, not only for the disciples of those days, but for us, the disciples of today. Jesus is making it clear that this age is indeed going to end; and it will end with his return in glory; and he tells us how to be ready. But in this chapter he describes not one, but two great events that lie in their future. One is the destruction of the Temple, of Jerusalem; the other is his own return at the end of the age. To the disciples, those two events must surely coincide; but Jesus tells them they are not the same and must not be confused.

First, in vv.5-13, Jesus warns them what the future looks like for his followers. Then, in vv.14-23, he warns them specifically what will happen when Jerusalem is destroyed and how they must be prepared. Finally, in vv.24-37, he talks about his own glorious return.

Living through the crisis

In vv.5-23, Jesus is saying, From now until I return to the earth, it is going to be tough. It will be one extended time of crisis for you, my people. In the middle of that, there will be this great cataclysm when God comes in judgement on this city. But don’t jump the gun, because that’s not the end. We will look first at the judgement on Jerusalem: this is the subject of vv.14-23. This is not the end of the age, but it will be so terrible that for those involved, it will seem just like it.

We begin with the warning in v.14. Frankly, this sounds highly mysterious! In fact, Mark is being deliberately obscure, probably for security reasons – that’s why he adds this phrase ‘let the reader understand’. The ‘abomination that causes desolation’ is a reference to the prophet Daniel – specifically Dan 9:27, 11:31 and 12:11 – where God warns Daniel about an invader who will commit an outrage in the Temple, desecrating the sanctuary. That prophecy was fulfilled by a Hitler-like tyrant, an evil madman named Antiochus Epiphanes around 167 BC. He built an altar to the god Zeus in the Temple sanctuary and sacrificed pigs on it. Jesus’ point is that that desecration, that abomination, is going to happen again, only this time it will be even worse. When you see it happen, then get out of town! Run for the hills. Vv.15-23 expand on that warning – stop for nothing, don’t even go home to get your stuff. It will be worse still for pregnant or nursing mothers; it will be worse if it’s winter because the roads will be impassable: pray it doesn’t happen then! Terrible times are coming – so bad that if they continued for very long, death would come to everyone in the land – but even in those terrible times, Jesus says, God is still in control (v.20). He will make sure that he protects his people. The Church will survive the disaster. There will be people out to distract you, false leaders trying to lead you astray (v.22), but don’t be put off. Don’t lose sight of me and what I have told you. I have warned you: be ready, be on guard (v.23). This is the first great crisis.

History tells us that all this came to pass in the years 66 to 70 AD, within 40 years of Jesus speaking these words. The Jews rebelled against Rome. For a while it even looked as if they might prevail. But then the Romans hit back; and meanwhile the Jewish factions began to fight one another. The party called the Zealots took over the Temple and as the Roman legions approached the city, and the threat of destruction grew nearer and nearer, they permitted all sorts of outrages within the Temple precincts. They allowed criminals to wander into the Holy of Holies; there was murder in the Temple Courts; finally they enthroned a clown as High PriestThe enthronement by the Zealots of the clown named Phanni as High Priest is recorded by Josephus in his Jewish War.. Perhaps that is the specific event that Jesus refers to in v.14. We can’t be sure. History also tells us that many people saw the disaster that was looming and fled the city while they had the chance. The Church in Jerusalem remembered Jesus’ warning and fled to the hills, to Pella across the Jordan; and they were kept safe. Meanwhile, the Romans arrived. They laid siege to Jerusalem; and in that siege the most appalling events took place. Hunger stalked the city. There’s an account of a mother who killed, roasted and ate her own child. The defenders fought among themselves. Finally, with the Temple in flames, the Romans broke in to the city. The priests continued the routine of sacrifice until the last possible moment when the sanctuary was destroyed. The remaining defenders were slaughtered; and then at the command of the new emperor Titus, the magnificent Temple was levelled to the ground, never to rise again. The generation that rejected the Lord Jesus was judged. The old regime of priesthood and sacrifice was gone for good, fulfilled in the ultimate sacrifice of Jesus himself. Jesus says, I have told you everything ahead of time (v.23). His word can be trusted. We have the proof.

There would be this first great, dreadful crisis: Jesus warns them about it; and for us today, the fall of Jerusalem lies in the distant past. However, as we look now at vv.5-13, we see that Jesus describes the whole of this age, from his first coming to his second, as a time of great crisis. So how do we live through it?

First, we live through the crisis by keeping our focus (vv.5-8). The disciples have just asked Jesus, When is it going to happen, and what will it look like? But Jesus is not concerned, as so many people are today, with giving calendar dates or drawing up charts of the last days. Jesus is not interested in satisfying our curiosity. He is interested in preparing us to face the days we live in. The days ahead will be difficult; it will be easy for us to get distracted. There will be wars: if you are not in the middle of one you will certainly hear about them in other places. There will be conflicts between one nation and another; and famines, and earthquakes. It’s very painful, but it’s normal. The message is: there is no golden age just round the corner. At times in history – such as the opening of the twentieth century – people in the West, including many Christians, foolishly believed there would be. Today we ought to know better. It’s a false hope. Until Christ returns, one disaster, one difficulty will succeed another.

Jesus says, This will be a time of false religious hopes as well (v.6). People will appear making all kinds of claims to be able to save the world; they will claim to do what only I can do. The point of his words is not to give us information, but to help us to keep our focus. ‘Watch out that you are not deceived!’ With all the turmoil around you in the world, with all the claims of false religion, as powerful as it may seem – don’t take your eye off the ball. Don’t be distracted by anything from following Christ. In particular, says Jesus in vv.7-8, don’t imagine that the end of the world has arrived just because these disasters are happening. These are just the warnings of what lies ahead. Labour pains certainly hurt; and they tell you the birth is coming soon, but labour pains are not the birth. You must be faithful to the end.

Second, we live through the crisis by facing suffering (vv.9-13). If times are going to be hard for the people of the world in general, Jesus says, it will be even harder for you, my friends. The world will not love you because you follow me; and it will certainly not like the message you bring them about me. Jesus is saying, This is going to be normal life for Christians. Today, around the world, Christians are persecuted on a massive scale, not because they have done anything wrong but simply because they follow Christ. In every single Muslim majority country in the world today, the people of Jesus are persecuted – and in many other places too. Sometimes, v.12, that opposition comes from the closest and most painful quarter – from your own family, bitter and full of hatred just because of your allegiance to Christ. I have friends who know just what that means. Jesus says, Believer, disciple, the way to live through the crisis is not to keep your head down nor to stay where it’s safe, but to face suffering wherever you are called to go. If it comes to it and you are standing in court, says Jesus in v.11, don’t worry because I will be there with you. My Spirit will be with you, and he will give you the words to say, even if the sentence hanging over you is death. If we are disciples of Jesus, we need to count the cost. Discipleship, according to the Bible, is cross-shaped. Are we ready to face suffering for the Name?

Third, we live through the crisis by spreading the gospel (vv.9-11 again). When you are dragged in front of the authorities, Jesus says in v.9, it is not so you can persuade them to let you off, but as a witness to them, that there in the place of greatest danger you will still speak of Jesus Christ. V.11 paints the same picture. The words you need to speak are not to protect yourself, but to honour me. That’s the agenda: that’s always our agenda: to point men and women to the Saviour. Jesus has been speaking these words in part to prevent his people from obsessing about the end of the world and get us to concentrate on living faithfully while the world goes to rack and ruin. But here in v.10 he gives one clear and glorious sign of the end. What will bring about the end of the age? Melting ice caps? A giant meteor strike? Nuclear war? No: the end will come when God looks down and sees that his Church has finished the task he gave us – to carry the good news of Jesus to the ends of the earth. It must happen! When every last people group has been reached, in some lost valley or in a hidden corner of some vast city, when the name of Jesus has been spoken under every sky, the angels will get moving and the Son of God will return to the earth in glory.

Fourth and last, we live through the crisis by trusting God’s purposes. V.10 shows us God’s great purpose for the Church, that we will preach his salvation to every corner of the world. We need to be confident that God knows what he is doing. When the work is hard, and we face setbacks; or things don’t turn out the way we planned and longed for and we haven’t a clue why, we need to trust God’s purposes. One day, we will see more than we do now. Whether we will ever understand fully, even when we stand in glory, I don’t know. God’s understanding will always be infinitely deeper than ours. What is certain is that the questions that trouble us now won’t trouble us then; that we will praise him for doing every last thing which he has planned to do; and that it’s best to learn to trust his purposes right now!

The closing note of this section in v.13 is blunt yet comforting. If you belong to Jesus Christ, then his purpose is to bring you home. Standing firm is the proof of true salvation: if you belong to him, this will happen, as Jesus assures the suffering church in Smyrna (Revelation 2:10). And there will be one generation of his people whose faithfulness will culminate in the privilege of seeing and recognising him as he comes in his glory.

Recognising the King

If you had been standing on the streets of Manhattan around 8.30 on Tuesday morning, 11th September 2001; if you had heard, seen, felt and smelled the events of that morning, as one by one the aircraft swept in to strike the towers of the World Trade Center, and the collapse that followed, you would have known in your heart that the world would never be the same again. Christ’s return, which is described here in vv.24-31, will be more – an event that will not merely change history, but wind it up for good. It will be visible and unmistakable; like 9/11 it will come as a profound shock; but it is most definitely on its way. While the fall of the Twin Towers could be seen directly from just a few square miles in New York City, God will see to it that the return of his Son, King Jesus, is visible from every corner of the earth. With delight or with horror, every man and woman alive on earth that day will recognise the King. In this passage Jesus teaches his followers about his own return.

First, Christ’s return will be catastrophic (vv.24-25). Throughout this chapter, remember, Jesus is speaking of these two great climactic events, the Temple’s doom and his own return. The preceding verses are very clearly about the fall of the Temple and Jerusalem; v.23 has rounded that off as Jesus tells his friends that they are now safely forewarned about what will happen then; and now v.24 begins a new section. ‘In those days’ is an expression the Old Testament often uses to describe the end times, the days of judgement. v.26 states explicitly this is about his own coming. In vv.24-25 we find described the cosmic signs which will immediately precede his return – a prediction which reads very strangely to us. The first point to make is that these verses are worded in Old Testament language. The prophets often spoke about the Day of Judgement, what they called ‘the Day of the Lord’, in terms like this. In particular there are two references in the prophet Isaiah which we should look at: Isaiah 13:9-10 and Isaiah 34:4. Note how strikingly similar these prophecies sound. The question often asked is this: Are we meant to take these pictures literally? Will there really be these terrifying signs in the sky? It’s a good question, and a difficult question, which we can’t ignore.

Some very respected commentators say that these prophecies are simply speaking of political upheavals. They are metaphorical descriptions of the downfall of great nations; so we shouldn’t expect to see any ‘signs in the sky’ at all. They point out that in Isaiah, these prophecies are applied to nations like Babylon which were overthrown thousands of years ago – and the sun certainly didn’t stop shining then, neither did the stars fall! That’s undoubtedly true, but in spite of that, there are good reasons for believing that Jesus does mean us to expect cosmic signs of his return. One reason is the close connection with v.26 where Jesus speaks of what will be seen. A second reason is that Jesus is probably drawing a contrast with what he’s just said in v.22 – that at the time of the great crisis in Jerusalem there will be false Messiahs performing false signs and miracles to deceive people. Now here in v.24, he is saying, When the true Messiah appears, that is when I return, there will be these genuine signs, written in the sky for all to see. That contrast doesn’t work if they are not visible signs. A third reason is that the immediate context of those Isaiah references does not limit the prophecy in question to Babylon, Edom or any other nation. Isaiah has something grander and more ultimate in mind as well. The Bible does teach us that the story of the universe is bound up with the story of mankind. When Adam and Eve fell, when they first sinned, the impact was not confined to the human race. The consequences of their sin rippled out throughout the world and on through the whole of creation: nothing was untouched. Romans 8:19-22 teaches us that the whole of creation is eagerly waiting for the freedom it will gain when the human race is saved and restored. In view of that, it is not surprising that when Christ returns to save his people and judge the world, there should be disturbances on a cosmic scale to accompany the eventThere is a view that the descriptions here – and those in Revelation 6:12-14 as well – are not only metaphorical but don’t even refer to the return of Christ. This view states that the ‘coming’ referred to in v.26 is Christ’s coming to God the Father to receive his Kingdom; and that this took place with the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple in AD 70. In this way the reference to ‘this generation’ in v.30 can be easily understood to mean ‘the people who are alive now’. This view is set out, for example, by Dick France in his recent commentary on Mark (see Introduction) and in his commentaries on Matthew 24. It is also supported by N.T. Wright (see his Jesus and the Victory of God, pp.339-365). We do not have the space to tackle these issues in full here; but as far as this passage is concerned, the view fails to account for the emphasis on what will be seen, especially in v.26.. The day will come when God ‘will shake not only the earth, but also the heavens’ (Hebrews 12:26). When Christ returns in glory, the impact will be so great that even the sun, moon and stars will be affected. We don’t know exactly how that will happen and we should not get hung up on this issue. We should remember that the Bible frequently uses the ‘language of appearance’: it is certainly not interested in astronomical precision. What matters is what people on earth will see on that day. They will see the light draining from the sky – whether it’s day or night when he comes. Darkness will fall. In that moment, they will all realise that something utterly catastrophic is beginning.

These verses are echoed in Rev 6. The disciple John is one of the group of four sitting there with Jesus under the trees on the Mount of Olives; sixty years or so later the same John is given this vision of what the last days will look like. He has heard it from Jesus: now he sees it played out (Revelation 6:12-14). Now read the next two verses. The Lamb is the Lord Jesus. When King Jesus returns, everyone will know it. Everyone will recognise him – but for many it will be too late.

Secondly, Christ’s return will be majestic (vv.26-27). We know that ‘Son of Man’ is one of Jesus’ favourite ways of describing himself. On one level it simply means ‘a human being’. But on another level it also means something far higher – especially when the Lord Jesus begins to speak of his own coming in glory, as he does here. That’s because he is again drawing on Old Testament language, this time from Daniel 7:13-14. He comes ‘with the clouds’; in the Bible that is always a picture that describes the glory and power of God appearing – what is called a theophany. But his Second Coming is not to be a private transaction between him and God the Father. It will be public and open – everyone will see it. When Jesus came to earth the first time, there was a dark, obscure village; and a dirty manger; and some scruffy shepherds. There was a baby who grew up to be a man, a man who walked the dusty streets and hillsides, was rejected, who suffered, who ultimately died a horrible death in apparent defeat. There was no glory then, no honour, no splendour. How different when he comes again in ‘great power and glory’! Just as surely as those planes could be seen in the skies over New York on that day of disaster, so the coming of the Son of Man will be visible to all. This is the triumph of the Son of Man, this is the vindication of the suffering Messiah; this is God saying: Behold your King!

In v.27, we see he sends out the angels and gathers in his people. In the Old Testament, that is what God says he will do (Deuteronomy 30:4). The New Testament doesn’t often say directly that Jesus is God, but it often shows us Jesus doing what only God can do; this is an example. When Christ returns, he will gather his people together around him. We will meet him; and we will celebrate – what a day! Notice what’s changed here. Up until now, the focal point for God’s people on earth has been the Temple, which Jesus is looking at as he speaks; but the days of the Temple are over. The gathering point for God’s people will be his Son, King Jesus. The ones who are gathered are the elect – God’s called and chosen people, all those who know him and love him. From wherever they are, at earth’s farthest bounds, because in Christ we are one people, whatever our race and background. Again this verse confronts us with a stark reality. Those gathered and saved are his own people; but those who don’t know the Lord Jesus will be gathered and judged. Christ’s return for them will truly be a day of disaster. On that day, they will recognise the King; but it will be too late.

Thirdly, Christ’s return will be certain (vv.28-31). This ‘lesson from the fig tree’ is a simple country saying. In ch 11 the fig-tree was used as a parable to represent the nation of Israel: that’s not the case here. You can get into all kinds of strange ideas if you try and read that meaning into this folk saying – and people have done that! The meaning here is perfectly simple. In the Middle East, most of the trees are evergreen; but the fig tree is not. In the winter, its branches are bare; and in fact they stay bare until late spring when the sap starts flowing, the twigs soften and the leaves appear. When the fig tree comes to life, you know that it’s almost summer. As Jesus speaks, in fact, it is just that time of year, just before Passover. He is sitting on the Mount of Olives, well-known for its fig-trees as well as its olives. Around them there are fig trees just bursting into green life again; Jesus says, when you see a fig tree like that, you know for sure that summer is just round the corner. So when you see the signs, you know that it’s near, right at the door as it were.

Again, there is a difficulty to resolve here. Is Jesus still talking about his Second Coming, or has he gone back to the fall of Jerusalem? The difficulty arises from v.30. The word for ‘generation’ nearly always means literally that – the people who are present at any one time in history. Either Jesus is now talking about the fall of Jerusalem – about forty years away – or else he means something different like ‘this race’ or ‘people like you’. This question is very difficult to answer for sure. We know that Jesus’ main aim in this discourse is to prepare his people for whatever is to come. This whole time, remember, is a time of crisis – right through to the Second Coming. Within that time, the fall of Jerusalem is one spectacularly terrible crisis. I think that when Jesus says this in v.30, he is referring mainly to that great crisis, which would happen within one generation. He is answering the disciples’ original question (v.4). But at the same time he is warning us that at every point, we must recognise the signs of the times – like the leaves coming out on the trees in spring – and understand what they are pointing to. There would very soon be signs that pointed to the Jewish War and the destruction of the Temple: they must act on those signs. Later on there would be signs pointing to Christ’s return; and we must act on those. In any case, the force of this passage for us is clear. All these things will happen: they are sure and inevitable (v.31). The message is that nothing in this world is permanent, nothing is for ever. Whether we are Christians or not, we must get hold of that vital truth. But Jesus is for ever. His words are for ever. They are true, reliable and certain.

Muslims, too, believe that Jesus the Messiah is coming back. They say he will come back, announce that Mohammed really was the final prophet, destroy all the crosses and live and die an ordinary death as a man. This passage shows us how far wrong those ideas are. When the Lord Jesus comes back, he doesn’t come quietly; nor does he point to anyone else. He doesn’t speak like a prophet, saying, These are words which have been given me to say. He says, My words will never pass away. Only God can say that! Jesus does what only God can do. He says he is coming back – and he is. We don’t know when, but he is coming.

Preparing for the end

As the Lord Jesus continues to speak of his Second Coming, in the closing verses of Mark 13, the emphasis changes slightly. The main message in vv.32-37 is that we do not know the day he is coming – and for that reason, we must be ready all the time. Jesus is coming back; and we must be ready. This section is about preparing for the end. How do we do that? Firstly, we prepare – by not guessing the date (vv.32-33)! It is not hard to grasp the basic message here. You don’t know when I am going to come back, says Jesus. We must not lose sight of that main thrust. However, there is a well-known difficulty in what Jesus says here – indeed it could be said that Mark 13:32 is one of the most difficult verses in the Bible. Jesus is saying, The only person who knows when I am returning is the Father. The Son does not know. In other words, Jesus himself doesn’t know. Now what does that say about Jesus? If Jesus is truly God, as we believe, surely he knows everything? How can he not know something as important as the date of his return? Both Muslims and Jehovah’s Witnesses use this verse to claim that Jesus is really something less than God, because he is saying there is at least one piece of information which he does not possess. Could they be right?

The first point to make is that this very passage clearly teaches the deity of Christ. In v.26, Jesus says that the Son of Man – that is Christ himself – will come on the clouds with power and glory. That statement, using that language, clearly and unambiguously implies that he is God. ‘Coming with the clouds’ in the Bible describes the appearance of God himself. Again in v.31, Jesus declares that his words will never pass away. He doesn’t say, as a mere prophet would, The words of God won’t pass away, but, My words won’t pass away. So it is inadmissible to take the very next verse to mean that Jesus is less than fully God. The way we have to understand v.32 is to remember that Jesus Christ is both fully God and fully man. He has two natures – a divine nature and a human nature – in one person. Look at 4:35-41. They are in the boat, a violent storm blows up and the disciples are panicking. What do we find Jesus doing here? In v.38 he’s fast asleep in the back of the boat. Then in v.39 he stands up and tells the wind and waves to shut up – and instantly, they do. In his divine nature, Jesus Christ is the Lord of Creation who silences a storm. In his human nature, Jesus is the man who’s had a tiring day and falls asleep on a cushion. He is the man who is God, God who has become man; one person with two natures. It’s difficult to understand, yes, but this is the truth the Bible bears witness to.

In his human nature, Jesus had to learn in the same way that we do. The New Testament tells us that he learned as he grew up (Luke 2:52). He learned the things that every child has to learn; and he learned what suffering meant (Hebrews 5:8, another verse people struggle with). In his finite human nature, Christ does not have all knowledge – humanity is limited. But in his divine nature, he is omniscient. He knows all things. Here in 13:32, Jesus means that in his human nature he does not know the day and hour of his return. In his divine nature, however, he does. But, if we can put it this way, he is choosing not to ‘access’ that knowledge because he wants to emphasise that these matters are for God, and the authority of the Father, and not for men to investigate. By the way, when he says ‘Son’ here, it’s likely we should understand that to mean ‘Son of Man’, emphasising his humanity, rather than ‘Son of God’, emphasising his deity. However, here is the main point of vv.32-33. If even the angels don’t know when Christ is returning – the angels who dwell in the very presence of God, the angels whose understanding is clear and unclouded by sin – there is no way that we can figure it out! If even the Son is content to leave it to the Father, we should be too! We don’t know when he is coming back. That ought to be clear enough – but it hasn’t deterred some people from making predictions, counting off signs, and telling us when the date is going to be – whether that is the Jehovah’s Witnesses, or some Christians who tell us with great confidence that such and such a world event is a sure sign of the imminent return of Christ. To pick a few random examples from recent decades: the Six Day War in Israel, 1967; the expansion of the Common Market or European Union in the 1970s and 80s; and the Chernobyl accident of 1986 have all been picked up by end-time enthusiasts as specific, biblically defined signs of the last days. We should be very wary of any such predictions.

Now, we may well suspect that the time of Christ’s return is very soon. When we look at what is happening in the world, and the various unprecedented crises and disasters, we may well find it impossible to believe the world can continue on its present course for much longer; and that may well be right. We are to live as though it could happen at any moment – because it might. Even then, we should remember that people have thought that many times before in history; clearly they were wrong. The unmistakable signs of Jesus’ coming will appear only just before the end, when it will be too late to prepare. Scripture simply does not give us the information to predict a date. It’s not hidden there in code – however long you spend looking, you won’t find it. Aren’t Jesus words here clear enough? We don’t prepare for the end by guessing the date!

Secondly, on the other hand, we don’t prepare for the end by ignoring the fact (vv.34-36). Jesus illustrates his warning about the time with a little parable (v.34). Here is a wealthy householder with a number of servants. He is going away, but at some point he will return. As he leaves, he gives each of his servants a job to do, and he gives the doorkeeper special responsibility to watch out for his return. Clearly, the householder is Jesus himself. That’s the picture; vv.35-36 then apply the message directly. Now the servants in this household have a number of options, some better, some worse, but the one thing they must not do is to pretend that the master is never coming back. V.35 says you don’t know when he is coming; but the parable assumes with absolute certainty that he is. That message has sounded throughout this chapter (see again vv.7, 26, 27, 32); and now again in v.35. It might be evening, midnight, just before first light or at sunrise – the four watches of the night, in Roman thought – but it will come! The most blind, and frankly the most stupid response anyone can make to the news of Christ’s return is simply to refuse to believe it.

It is not surprising if someone who does not believe in Jesus Christ at all will not accept the fact of his return. But in these words Jesus demands that we reckon with him. He demands that we understand he is not just a figure from history that we can leave safely in the past, or in the pages of a book. He calls us to recognise him as the King who is coming back to claim his throne; and he calls us to listen, obey and be ready – to prepare for the end. We also have to say that it is not only non-Christians who live as though Christ is never coming back. How do our lifestyles show that we expect the Lord to return at any time? How does it show up in our priorities, in our ambitions, in the way that we spend our money? When he returns, and we see his face, we will leave behind the toys of this life without a second glance. So why should they mean so much to us now?

Thirdly, we prepare for the end, quite simply, by doing the job. Let’s revisit the picture in v.34. In this picture the householder, the Lord Jesus, gives to each servant their appointed task, so that they will all be ready for his return. Who are these servants? This message comes first to church leaders. The ‘doorkeeper’ probably refers specially to pastors and church leaders who have the specific responsibility for guarding God’s people who are under their care, protecting the ‘house’ from marauders, from anyone who might break in and cause mayhem – to change the picture, it’s the role of the shepherd with the sheep. That is how leaders, in particular, prepare for the end. The Lord Jesus has charged us to do this; it is what he wants to find us doing whenever he comes back to the house.

Jesus, however, is careful to make sure that his words are not just for the leaders. As he speaks, he has an audience of only four, but look at v.37. This message is for all God’s people. We are all to watch out for Christ’s return – the word used in these closing verses is a strong one (Greek gregoreo): it means more than the ‘look out’ of earlier in the chapter. It means stay alert, keep awake, don’t be taken off guard. The way that we keep watch is to get on with the job he has given us to do – v.34: ‘each with his assigned task’ – whatever that may be, whatever our assigned ministry may be in whatever place he has put us. We should not expect that serving Christ faithfully should be easy. We have seen in this chapter, in v.10, how Jesus talks about the gospel coming to every nation on earth before he returns. That’s exciting, and it’s moving, but the gospel for all nations is not just a vision about missionaries or peoples far away. It is a vision to galvanise us in our ministry wherever we are. The Lord Jesus is coming back. We don’t know when, and we can’t guess the date, but we certainly must not ignore the fact. We must be prepared for the end. The message is urgent. ‘What I say to you, I say to everyone: “Watch!”’