“But of that day or that hour knoweth no one, not even the angels in heaven, neither the Son, but the Father. Take ye heed, watch and pray: for ye know not when the time is. It is as when a man, sojourning in another country, having left his house, and given authority to his servants, to each one his work, commanded also the porter to watch. Watch therefore: for ye know not when the lord of the house cometh, whether at even, or at midnight, or at cockcrowing, or in the morning; lest coming suddenly he find you sleeping. And what I say unto you I say unto all, Watch” (Mark 13:32-37).
Humans have a preoccupation with the prospect of the end of the world– or, if nothing else, the end of their particular world. People who would not otherwise consider religious messages eagerly watch shows speculating on the end of the world based upon all kinds of different “predictions” and the like. There always seems to be some cause or another for such speculation. Not long ago it was the turn of the millennium. Presently many are focused on the end of 2012. After that there will most assuredly be some other time.
This type of speculation is not foreign to Christianity, and it is certainly not foreign to interpretations of the so-called “Olivet Discourse,” presented in Matthew 24-25, Mark 13, and Luke 21. All kinds of postulates are made about exactly when the world will end and how based, at least in part, on Jesus’ words in this discussion.
If there is ever a time when it is good for us to be good Bible students, it is certainly when so much speculation is at hand. Mark’s version makes the context very clear: Jesus has declared that all the stones of the Temple will be toppled (Mark 13:2). Some of His disciples utter the same questions that haunt people to this very day– “when shall these things be, and what shall be the sign when these things are all about to be accomplished?” (Mark 13:4).
In context, “these things” represent the Temple and its destruction. And here we have the ultimate irony of this whole discussion: Jesus’ answer to the questions is not really what the disciples wanted to know. And it goes a long way to show us that the questions that people most often ask today cannot be answered to their satisfaction!
Jesus goes on to say that there will be false Christs deceiving the people, wars and rumors of wars, nations and kingdoms rising up against one another, earthquakes, and famines (Mark 13:6-8). Our immediate impulse is to look into the history books and find the precise events concerning which Jesus speaks, and, no doubt, we can find such things. And that, of course, is Jesus’ point– at what point in human history have there not been false teachers, wars and rumors of wars, nations and kingdoms rising up against each other, earthquakes, and famines? They are always happening somewhere!
Later Jesus will provide some specific conditions that will be met, and to “get out of Dodge” when the Roman army comes to town (cf. Mark 13:9-23), and predicts the establishment of the Kingdom and the end of the covenant between God and Israel (Mark 13:24-31).
But when? We have the classic statement: only the Father knows (Mark 13:32). Much has been made of this statement in terms of Christology, but that is quite separate from the point. Jesus tells the disciples, point blank, that they will not know exactly when these things will take place (Mark 13:33). There is no watering down of this idea, no concept that at the last minute a revelation will be given to them. They simply will not know.
Attempting to ascertain the precise set of conditions and circumstances that will lead to Jesus’ return, therefore, is utterly futile. If the disciples were not going to know precisely when Jerusalem would be destroyed, why should we believe that anyone is going to know precisely when Jesus will return?
It may seem unbelievable to many, but Jesus’ main point in the “Olivet Discourse” is not to lay out a road map to the apocalypse. As Peter will say, all things will continue as “normal” until the moment comes (cf. 2 Peter 3:2-12). True, Jesus does give His disciples some things concerning which they need to be considering and for which they must prepare. And that, in the end, is the real message.
In declaring that no one will know precisely when these things will take place, He exhorts the disciples to take heed, watch, and pray (Mark 13:33). He presents the image of the master leaving the house and instructing the doorkeeper to remain awake, since the master’s return may be at any time (Mark 13:34-36). And Jesus’ universal message, to first century disciples awaiting the judgment on Jerusalem to twenty-first disciples anxious for His return, is to “stay awake” (Mark 13:37)!
This is the thread that runs throughout the whole discourse (Mark 13:5, 9, 13, 23, 33-37). In the extended version that Matthew provides, the theme is just as evident (Matthew 24:36-25:30). This is, in fact, the theme that runs throughout all of New Testament eschatology (cf. 1 Thessalonians 5:1-10, 1 Peter 4:7-11, 2 Peter 3:11-12, Revelation 2-3, 22:7, 11-12).
As long as God shows patience toward mankind there will be people who will speculate regarding the times and conditions of the Lord’s return. Do not be deceived into believing any of them. The “Olivet Discourse” does pave the way, but not in the expected sense. It is not for us to know when the Lord will return, but the Lord has made many things evident. He will return. There will be judgment. It will happen in God’s good time. It is not for us to doubt these things or to speculate regarding them. Instead, we need to be ready. We must stay awake. We must live our lives serving God, ready if the Lord returns tomorrow or after another two thousand years. We must always be ready for the challenges that come with our walk with God, and to stand firm and endure despite them. Let us avoid the frenzy of folly, and always be on guard for the Lord’s return!
Ethan R. Longhenry