Reflections on Mark 13 —
As they were leaving the Jerusalem temple, one of Jesus’ followers casually commented on the beauty of this iconic shrine of Jewish faith and the buildings around it. Something in this remark signaled to Jesus that this was another teachable moment. Jesus turned and said to the man, “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone shall be left upon another which will not be torn down.”
Jesus had occasionally forewarned His disciples about terrible things to come, but this remark hit home with the core members — Peter, James, John, and Andrew. Later, in the quiet of the evening, these four approached Jesus privately to question Him. Jesus elaborated on events and signs of things to come–many of which are still ahead of us today. Jesus’ discussion of future worldwide wars, famines, false teachings, tribulations, and His eventual return sparks much debate about when these things will happen and in what order they will occur. The study of eschatology and prophetic events is indeed fascinating, and warranted, but what is easily overlooked is the point Jesus was trying to make. Multiple times in His dialogue, Jesus implored His disciples to be alert. To explain Himself, Jesus used a metaphor of a master preparing to leave on a journey, leaving his servants in charge until he returned:
“It is like a man away on a journey, who upon leaving his house and putting his slaves in charge, assigning to each one his task, also commanded the doorkeeper to stay on the alert. Therefore, be on the alert—for you do not know when the master of the house is coming, whether in the evening, at midnight, or when the rooster crows, or in the morning…” — Mark 13:34-35
The slaves in this story were to keep doing their work every day as if the master would soon return. They were to trust in their master’s word, believing it to be true, keeping it even if he was absent for weeks on end. Naturally, the slaves would be tempted to slack off as the truth of the master’s eventual return faded into a distant memory. Over time, they may even come to believe the master would never return and assume they could do whatever they pleased without any accountability. They would start to feel comfortable in the mansion, pretending it was theirs to enjoy as they saw fit. Eventually, they would convince themselves that their imaginary world was real, and lose sight of the master’s instructions. They would forget he was returning, that he existed at all. How utterly embarrassing it would be if the master returned, and found his slaves in this state! The only way the slaves could avoid such embarrassment was to stay alert–remind themselves the master was still in charge, that even when the master was away, their actions mattered. The master’s will was to be followed until he returned.
When Jesus says be alert, He is not just saying “be prepared”, like a Cub Scout. He is telling His followers to live fervently, faithfully, even when it seems like God is distant, even when it seems like there is nothing more to life than the here-and-now. Jesus tells us this because it is easy for us to succumb to the godless, unaccountable, live-for-the-moment lifestyle so prevalent in our society. The apostle Paul warns the believers in Thessalonians to “…not sleep as others do, but let us be alert and sober” (I Thessalonians 5:6). We need to avoid spiritual sleepiness. A drunkard is dangerous behind the wheel because his ability to reason is greatly deterred and he is slow to react. A sleepwalker is dangerous because his body is moving around obstacles while his mind is disengaged. A believer who is spiritually asleep is in danger as well.
When I am spiritually asleep, I live as though God didn’t exist. When I’m in this state, there are no consequences for my actions. I am deluded into believing I am accountable to no one and can do as I please. According to David, a person who lives as though God doesn’t exist is foolish (Psalm 14:1). There is clear an indisputable evidence that He is all around us, watching us. Yet somehow, I convince myself that the massive pile of sin in my heart is not there, that the sin I’m about to commit won’t be noticed, is justified, and won’t come back to haunt me.
When I am spiritually asleep, I squander precious resources with no hope of profitable return. I am completely consumed with addressing the To-Do list immediately in front of me, and deaf to the Spirit’s prompting. My life is defined only by the routine of life, routine tasks I do every day: waking up, drinking coffee, watching GMA, driving to work, sitting at a desk and nodding off in meetings for eight hours, driving home, eating dinner, and going to sleep. Day slips into day, week into week, month into month, and before I realize it, I have nothing of value to show for it. I have squandered precious time.
When I am spiritually asleep, I am cold and impersonal. I have no remorse for my self-absorbed, heartless living. My interactions with my wife, kids, coworkers, and friends are shallow and thoughtless. It’s like I’m on autopilot, coasting my way through the hours, offering no comfort, encouragement, or help.
New Testament authors frequently reminded their readers to watch for signs of spiritual sleepiness. Their poignant admonitions to be alert are completely relevant to Christians living in a material world. They show us many ways we can succumb to spiritual sleepiness, and how desperately we need the Spirit’s help to stay awake.
Alert about my Attitude
In Colossians 4:2, Paul urges that believers devote themselves to prayer, keeping alert in it with an attitude of thanksgiving. If you look closely at my heart, you will see how often I am ungrateful, discontent with life. There is something like a cyclical clock in my psyche that transitions every few weeks between happy and gloomy. In the gloomy times, I am most tempted to be spiritually asleep. There are things that bound up my heart and fill my thoughts with bitterness. Paul says to combat this with devoted prayer–crying out to the Spirit with a mind focused on thankfulness, looking for things to be thankful for. I need to make an intentional effort to be thankful, especially for the things that are really getting me down. God is using these things to refine me and make me trust Him more. And, He is more than willing to give me what I need to endure, to handle it righteously.
One thing I’m trying this year is starting my daily journal with something like, “Lord, Thank you for…”, and then filling in the blank with the stuff that’s really bothering me. Sometimes it takes several sentences, and a lot of imploring of the Holy Spirit, to get my mind thinking in the right way. I have found that has helped align my attitude in the right direction before moving on with the day.
A poem by Ella Wheeler Wilcox says it well:
One ship drives east and another drives west
With the selfsame winds that blow.
‘Tis the set of the sails
And not the gales
Which tells us the way to go.
Our attitude is the sail that directs the course of our life. We do well to make sure our sail is set for thankfulness, not discontentment.
Alert about Satan’s Schemes
In I Peter 5:8-9, Peter says to be of sober spirit, on alert, because the devil prowls about like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour. Not only is my heart prone to be thankless and discontent, I’ve also got an adversity that wants to rip it to shreds! Satan knows my weaknesses, and he uses them to his advantage. He is particularly skilled at accusing, discouraging, casting doubts, and sinking me into despairing moods that are difficult to escape. When I am spiritually asleep, I listen to him, and believe his lies. If I am alert, grasping the truth of God and His great love, mercy, and grace, I can resist Satan, staying firm in the faith.
Alert about my Friends’ Needs
In Ephesians 6:18-20, Paul says to be on the alert by persistently praying for other believers. I often get complacent about praying for my spiritual family, even those in my smaller fellowship groups. They all seem to have their act together, and don’t appear to struggle with the problems that plague me 24/7. When I am spiritually asleep, I forget that the heart of every man is deceitful and desperately sick (Jeremiah 17:9). Even the nicest people have a heart like this. I have to remind myself that everyone, without exception, has massive problems. It may be a hidden sin, a bad habit that can’t be kicked, a wayward child that is a constant source of anxiety, an upcoming confrontation, a nagging health issue that won’t go away, or a combination of these. Some are just better than others at expressing their problems. Keeping this truth in the forefront of my mind, I am more eager to pray persistently. As we pray for our fellow believers, imagine the trials they are enduring, and recall that all trials are God’s way of refining us. With that in mind, pray for strength of soul, faith to trust what God is doing, patience to wait for Him, hope that things will be better someday, and rest from daily burdens.
Alert about the Consequences of my Actions
In I Corinthians 15:33-34, Paul urged the Corinthians to “…become sober-minded…and stop sinning, for some have no knowledge of God…” Some Corinthian believers questioned the legitimacy of the resurrection, convinced that “you only live once” (YOLO). No resurrection meant no afterlife, no heaven and hell, no Great White Throne, and no judgment of works. As a result, they lived without accountability and did as they pleased. Their life philosophy could be summed up with the phrase, “let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die!” No wonder Paul chided these Christians for their foolishness, as he reminded them of the authenticity of the resurrection, proven by fulfilled prophecy and over 500 eyewitnesses (I Corinthians 15:3-8). Today, we have all the more reason to believe the resurrection is real–considering the disciples’ fervent devotion to the cause (resulting in death for some of them), the continuance of the Christian faith for over 2000 years, and the millions of changed lives.
However, just because I believe in the resurrection with my brain doesn’t mean I automatically live like it will happen. I can be just as unaccountable as those Corinthians, living as though there are no consequences for my selfish facts I’ve done, and no rewards for courageous acts I could do. This is spiritual sleeping. I need alertness to recognize that the things I do in this life really do count in eternity. As Paul says, “…we will all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may be recompensed for his deeds in the body, according to what he has done, whether good or bad” (II Corinthians 5:8-10). Even our words will be judged. As Jesus says, “…every careless word that men shall speak, they shall render account for it in the day of judgement. For by your words you shall be justified, and by your words you shall be condemned” (Matthew 12:36-37). The things I do in this life, big and little, matter a lot in eternity. I see this as both a deterrent for evil, and an opportunity for good. Jesus tells us to store up treasures in heaven. We earn these by works done in faith, in obedience to the Lord, to be pleasing to Him. When Abraham believed God when He told him he would have a son in his old age, God “credited it” to him as righteousness (Romans 4:18-22). It was a deposit in Abraham’s heavenly bank account, a treasure in heaven. The good works of the saints also make up the metaphorical fine linen adorning the church when we meet up with Jesus, like a bride meeting her groom (Revelation 19:8). We have an opportunity, every day, every hour, to accomplish good works from the Lord. It may be an encouraging word He is prompting you to say to a friend or coworker. It could be time spent with your spouse, to honor her and comfort her. It could be patiently listening to your child. Whatever it is the Lord is prompting you to do, do it! Do it boldly, for it matters in eternity.
Alert for False Teaching
Before Jesus warned His disciples to be alert, He told them not to be misled by anyone (Mark 13:5). In the time of Jesus’ ministry and the early church, false teaching was prevalent, as it is today. There are a lot of good teachers out there that speak with authority, who speak cleverly and convincingly as if they have all the answers to life’s problems. Sometimes, it’s hard to discern what is truth and what is just clever and appealing speech. We should not forget that the heart of man at its core is deceitful and desperately sick. Words spoken from an unconstrained heart will naturally be deceitful and self-serving. A good sermon focuses more on the refined, proven words of God and less on the crafty words of man.
We all have a hidden motivation to be heard, a secret desire to be recognized, admired, charismatic. Facebook fanatics like me love to have a following…many “friends” who “like” our postings. I laugh at myself, how often I check for those little, red indicators that tell me more people are reading and liking my stuff. I admit that I often write with a secret motivation to capture more readers, to feel validated in my writing. I need to keep focusing on writing the message God has given me with sincerity, with good intention. God made His words like fire in Jeremiah’s heart (Jeremiah 5:14). It burned if he didn’t express them. I sense that same burning in me, so I am compelled to write. But in my writing, I have to be sure that it is His message I am expressing, for His purpose, not my own words slanted to gain followers. Any time I do that, I am acting like a false teacher.
In II Peter 3:16, Peter warns that untaught and unstable people will resort to distorting God’s word. As sad as it sounds, there are those who would do anything, even twisting the message or buttering it up, to appeal to the emotions and win a following. God’s word is inherently pure–like silver refined in a furnace seven times (Psalm 12:6), and it is living and active (Hebrew 4:12)–it doesn’t need embellishment to be powerful. Be weary of people who add to it, disregard some of it, or change its meaning.
Rather than wrestle with difficult passages, we avoid them, refusing to accept that they apply to us. We tend to settle for over-simplified interpretations of the word, heavy with application, blunted by modern reasoning. Sadly, for many Christians, this is the extent to which they study God’s word. In Colossians 2:8, Paul cautions us to “…see to it that no one takes you captive through philosophy and empty deception, according to the tradition of men, according to the elementary principles of the world, rather than according to Christ.” Let’s be alert by carefully considering what we are taught, not accepting everything with equal in weight to God’s word. Like the Bereans in Acts 17:10-11, let’s exercise our minds through careful study and prayer, to discern what is truth and what is merely persuasive or misguided jargon. As Paul says, “be diligent to present yourself approved to God as a workman who does not need to be ashamed, accurately handling the word of truth” (II Timothy 2:15).
Paul says in Colossians 3:2, “set your mind on the things above, not on things that are on earth…” This is the essence of being alert. Being alert is like poking your head above the trees, seeing your destination more clearly, noting your direction, and assessing the next steps. Let the Spirit and God’s written word help you discern truth, to avoid the wrong path with its consequences, and recognize opportunities to do things that will have long-lasting, eternal impact.