The Gospel Awakens Us to a Life of Watchfulness

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

If repetition is the key to learning, then parents must be great teachers. Right? I mean how many times do we give the same instruction to our children, day after day, week after week, month after month? Too many to count. And it's all because as human beings we are forgetful. Stuff leaks from our brains really, really fast. To be fair, once something is told to us even just once, we are personally responsible for it, aren't we? But I thank God when I'm reminded because I'm so weak and feeble much of the time.


When I come to Mark 13 I see Jesus, a parent, a big brother, a friend, telling His disciples in a repeated fashion to do something crucial, significant, life-altering, and eternity-impacting. As Jesus foretells the future of Jerusalem, there's a specific response He's wanting to develop in His disciples. It is one He engenders by repetition. One of the disciples in particular seemed to get this. He once wrote, "Therefore, I will always remind you about these things - even though you already know them and are standing firm in the truth you have been taught. And it is only right that I should keep on reminding you as long as I live. For our Lord Jesus Christ has shown me that I must soon leave this early life, so I will work hard to make sure you always remember these things after I am gone" (2 Pet. 1:12-15, NLT). Reminding others is the personal responsibility of the leader. Gratitude for the gracious and repetitious reminding from leaders is the personal responsibility of the follower.

As followers of Jesus we would do well not to miss the gracious and repetitious reminders of Jesus in Mark 13. For these reminders not only communicate something specific about the events of the future, but also tell us what we should expect so that we're not caught off guard. This is why Jesus tells His disciples in verse 5, "Don't let anyone mislead you..." and then follows it up with multiple reminders to, "watch out!" (v. 9), "Reader, pay attention!" (v. 14), "watch out!" (v. 23), "now learn a lesson..." (v. 28), "when you see..." (v. 29), " on guard! Stay alert!" (v. 33), "You, too must keep watch!" (v. 35), and "Watch for him!" (v. 37). I wonder what Jesus is trying to say here? The answer is that only the disciple with peanut butter for brains doesn't know the answer. And that's most of us, most of the time, isn't it? Thank you Jesus, for grace.

As I mentioned before, this passage is giving clear direction about a specific event that was soon to occur, if you're of one eschatological persuasion. Or it is specific instruction about an event that will occur in the future, if you're of another persuasion. Settling such matters is beyond the point of this post. My point is to emphasize the fact that the gospel - the good news of God's just wrath satisfied by His Son's death on the cross - resurrects a dead soul to life, and therefore demands of it and empowers it to stay alive. After all the ministry Jesus had done for the last three years, combined with all the discipleship He had invested into these men's lives, the one remaining, overarching command He leaves to them a week before He died be watchful, to pay attention, to learn, to be on guard, and to stay alert.


This is woefully illustrated in the next chapter. There we read that Jesus and His disciples "went to the olive grove called Gethsemane, and Jesus said, 'Sit here while I go and pray.' He took Peter, James, and John with him, and he became deeply troubled and distressed. He told them, 'My soul is crushed with grief to the point of death. Stay here and keep watch with me.' He went on a little farther and fell to the ground. He prayed...Then he returned and found the disciples asleep. He said to Peter, 'Simon, are you asleep? Couldn't you watch with me even one hour? Keep watch and pray, so that you will not give in to temptation. For the spirit is willing, but the body is weak.' Then Jesus left them again and prayed the same prayer as before. When he returned to them again, he found them sleeping, for they couldn't keep their eyes open. And they didn't know what to say. When he returned to them the third time, he said, 'Go ahead and sleep. Have your rest. But no - the time has come. The Son of Man is betrayed into the hands of sinners'" (Mark 14:32-41, NLT).

Jesus makes it plain to all of His disciples - past, present, and future - that obeying the command to watch and stay alert is necessary in order to not give in to temptation (14:38). To be sure, the greatest command Christ ever gave His disciples is to love one another. That's the one He left them with at the Last Supper. Yet still, unless we watch, stay on guard, and remain alert, we will not be able to obey the command to love one another, when it really counts. The temptation to hate and respond with bitterness and resentment is too great when we are not watching and praying, as Jesus told us to.


Paul realized this connection and wrote to the Christians at the church in Rome, "Owe nothing to anyone - except for your obligation to love one another. If you love your neighbor, you will fulfill the requirements of God's law. For the commandments say, 'You must not commit adultery. You must not murder. You must not steal. You must not covet.' These and other such commandments - are summed up in this one commandment: 'Love your neighbor as yourself.' Love does no wrong to others, so love fulfills the requirements of God's law. This is all the more urgent, for you know how late it is; time is running out. Wake up, for our salvation is nearer than when we first believed. The night is almost gone; the day of salvation will soon be here" (Rom. 13:8-12, NLT). The connection between the greatest command (to love one another), and the overarching command (to watch out) is unmistakably clear. If I don't watch out and stay alert, I won't be able to love one another.


This same theme is repeated in Paul's letter to the Thessalonian Christians. Writing about the same thing Jesus was teaching about in Mark 13 - the coming of the Lord - Paul writes, "Now concerning how and when all this will happen, dear brothers and sisters, we don't really need to write you. For you know quite well that the day of the Lord's return will come unexpectedly, like a thief in the night...But you aren't in the dark about these things, dear brothers and sisters, and you won't be surprised when the day of the Lord comes like a thief. For you are all children of the light and of the day; we don't belong to the darkness and night. So be on your guard, not asleep like the others. Stay alert and be clearheaded. Night is the time when people sleep and drinkers get drunk. But let us who live in the light be clearheaded, protected by the armor of faith and love, and wearing as our helmet the confidence of our salvation...So encourage each other and build each other up, just as you are already doing" (1 Thess. 5:1-11, NLT). Once again, with the promised return of Jesus in plain view, the overarching command of our lives is to "Stay alert and be clearheaded," so that we can "encourage each other and build each other up."


Perhaps Paul seemed to understand this concept the clearest, if for no other reason than he wrote about it the most. To the Christians in the Ephesian church he writes, "Live a life filled with love, following the example of Christ. He loved us and offered himself as a sacrifice for us, a pleasing aroma to God" (5:2). After explaining a lifestyle opposite of love (vv. 3-10), Paul turns to exhorting them just as he had done the Thessalonians and the Romans. "Take no part in the worthless deeds of evil and darkness; instead expose them...[T]heir evil intentions will be exposed when the light shines on them, for the light makes everything visible. Tis is why it is said, 'Awake, O sleeper, rise up from the dead, and Christ will give you light.' So be careful how you live. Don't live like fools...Make the most of every opportunity...Don't act thoughtlessly...Don't be drunk with wine...Instead be filled with the Holy Spirit...And give thanks for everything..." (vv. 11-20). Living a life of love, just like Jesus lived, is living a life that offers ourselves to one another, Just like Jesus did to us. Such a lifestyle is impossible when we are the disciples in the Garden of Gethsemane. Making the most of every opportunity to love one another can only happen when we are awake, watchful, alert, and on guard.


Why is this emphasis on watching and staying alert an overarching, final command to those who follow Jesus? Because doing the greatest thing He commanded and taught depends upon this one thing. In summary, if I'm asleep I can't love one another. And if I can't love one another, I can't rescue the world from the judgment that comes with Jesus when He returns to this planet. And in a more shocking and sobering sense, the chances are great that if I'm asleep, not loving one another, then I'm not truly a follower of Jesus. And that means I may be the subject of His judgment when He comes again, and not His rescue and salvation.


This is a fine line I want to be careful to point out, but not to cross with fingers pointed at anyone. It is another razor's edge...another one of those paradoxical statements in which Jesus says one thing, then says another that seems to contradict it, concluding for us that both are true...and that we ought not have any problems with it! On the one hand, Jesus is gracious with us and our sleepiness, just like He was with the disciples in the Garden. I can almost hear a tone in His voice in Mark 14:41. "Go ahead and sleep. Have your rest." No doubt, according to the context, He said this while simultaneously noticing the cohort of Romans soldiers led by Judas Himself. His gracious, merciful, patient, forbearing attitude is detectable. But it was too late be sleeping any longer in light of what was about to take place.

Jesus is a friend of sinners, and especially the weary and tired ones. He calls out to us, in Matthew 11, "Come to me, all of you who are weary and carry heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you. Let me teach you, because I am humble and gentle at heart, and you will find rest for your souls" (vv. 28-29, NLT). Jesus is calling to our minds Jeremiah 6:16 where the prophet also calls out on behalf of the Lord, "Stop at the crossroads and look around. Ask for the old, godly way, and walk in it. Travel its paths, and you will find rest for your souls" (NLT). Jesus wants us to rest. He Himself is the rest we long for deep down in our souls.

But on the other side of this razor's edge is the challenge to His followers that if we don't watch and pray and stay alert and be on guard, then we will be caught up in the mess of judgment when He returns. He told them in Mark 13, "You too, just keep watch! For you don't know when the master of the household will return - in the evening, at midnight, before dawn, or at daybreak. Don't let him find you sleeping when he arrives without warning!" (v. 35). During this time there will be the most intense season of trouble, suffering, pain and tribulation ever. In the parallel gospel account of this same teaching, Jesus compares the season to the the way it was, "in Noah's day. In those days before the flood, the people were enjoying banquets and parties and weddings right up to the time Noah entered his boat. People didn't realize what was going to happen until the flood came and swept them all away. That is the way it will be when the Son of Man comes" (Matt. 24:38, 39, NLT).

To make His point, He compares the one who doesn't obey His repeated commands to watch, to an evil servant who thinks, "'My master won't be back for a while,' and he begins beating the other servants, partying, and getting drunk" (v. 48, 49). What does Jesus say happens to this kind of servant? "The master will return unannounced and unexpected, and he will cut the servant to pieces and assign him a place with the hypocrites. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth" (vv. 50, 51, NLT). In the following parable of the Ten Bridesmaids, Jesus says that the five who were unprepared for the coming of the groom (25:8). When he came, they tried to get ready in a hurry, but to no avail. "While they were gone to buy oil, the bridegoom came. Then those who were ready went in with him to the marriage feast, and the door was locked. Later, when the other five bridesmaids returned, they stood outside, calling, 'Lord! Lord! Open the door for us!' But he called back, 'Believe me, I don't know you!' So you, too, must keep watch!" Through it all, Jesus says that only those who endure to the end will be saved (v. 13). Therefore, it stands to reason that those who say they follow Jesus but make no effort to stay awake, but instead indulge themselves in the things this world has to offer, are not truly followers of Jesus, and therefore will not be saved.


Which servant are you? Are you the evil servant? Or are you the "faithful, sensible servant"? This is "the one to whom the master can give the responsibility of managing his other household servants and feeding them. If the master returns and finds that the servant has done a good job, there will be a reward. I tell you the truth, the master will put that servant in charge of all he owns" (vv. 45-47, NLT).

Which bridesmaid are you? Are you the foolish one? Or are you the wise one who does what you need to up front to prepare for Jesus' coming? (see 25:4). All of us will fall sleep at one point or another, just like Jesus' disciples. Jesus tells us in His story that ALL of the bridesmaids "became drowsy and fell asleep", interpreting the groom's delay as time to chill out. But it was what they did BEFORE they fell asleep which defined them. "The five who were foolish didn't take enough olive oil for their lamps, but the other five were wise enough to take along extra oil" (vv. 2, 3, NLT). Jesus is patient with those followers who fall asleep. He is patient with us because we prepare for His coming by watching, staying alert, and being on guard for opportunities to love one another. However, Jesus is NOT patient with those who claim to be His followers and yet make no effort to watch out, stay awake, and be on guard. Those who interpret the delay in Jesus' coming as an opportunity to spend their lifetime in leisure will hear Him say on the day He returns, "I have no earthly idea who you are. What's your name, again?"


The gospel is the power of God to save those who believe this truth. If you are a follower of Jesus, then you are a person whose life is illustrated by multiple moments and opportunities you've siezed to love one another, just like Jesus loved you. You believe He will come again, and you live your life with an urgency that shows what you believe. God says to you, "In view of all this, make every effort to respond to God's promises. Supplement your...godliness with brotherly affection, and brotherly affection with love for everyone. The more you grow like this, the more productive and useful you will bein your knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. But those who fail to develop in this way are shortsighted or blind, forgetting that they have been cleansed from their old sins So, dear brothers and sisters, work hard to prove that you really are among those God has called and chosen. Do these things, and you will never fall away. Then God will give you a grand entrance into the eternal Kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ" (2 Pet. 1:5-11, NLT).

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