Once the question was put to the well known 19th century evangelist Dwight L. Moody: “What is the secret of your success?”
The answer was: “For many years I have never given an address without the consciousness that the Lord may come before I have finished.”
Much about what Moody said is in line with the words of Jesus himself. In the passages of scripture known as the Olivet discourse, where he spoke on the signs of his coming and his return in glory, he gave this same kind of application. One day, in the last week of his earthly ministry, several days before his betrayal, trial and crucifixion, the Lord described all this in a private teaching session with Peter, James and John on the heights of the Mount of Olives above the city of Jerusalem. The three gospels recount this teaching in Matthew 24, Mark 13 and Luke 21. Here are two previous posts in this blog on the Olivet discourse (Mark 13):
The application, then, of what Jesus had told Peter, James and John in the Olivet discourse, about the signs of his coming and his return in glory to gather together his people came at the end of his teaching. In light of his words about his return to take up his visible sovereignty in this world he gives his own application to his people of how to live in regard to the events that will come. Since believers in Jesus have the inside knowledge on the fact of the Lord’s return, it is reason not for calculation nor for speculation but for preparation. The incentive of his return is the incentive to live right and to work eagerly for Christ in hope and anticipation.
With the explanation of this incentive the Statement of Faith of the Christian and Missionary Alliance gets it exactly right:
“The second coming of the Lord Jesus Christ is imminent and will be personal, visible, and premillennial. This is the believer’s blessed hope and is a vital truth which is an incentive to holy living and faithful service.”
That’s the emphasis which is so often missing in discussion of end times prophecy: the anticipation of the Lord’s return is an incentive and motivation to holy living and active, faithful service. That’s the conclusion and his own application of his own prophecy of the events around his return to earth in glory in the Olivet discourse. This the point that he himself came to at the conclusion of the Olivet discourse. With all that Jesus said that day on the slopes of the Mount of Olives, when explained the events leading up to and then his return in glory, to take up his visible kingship of the world, his own words pointed out what is significant for his disciples in the light of the predicted events. It wasn’t about speculation or finding the order of events on a timeline or a chart; it was about being faithful to the very end no matter what would happen as the end drew closer.
So it may seem that many believers don’t really get the impact of what he was saying to all of us in the Olivet Discourse. We may follow the fashionable paths of the conversations about end times prophecy as we have in the past two to three generations and miss the point of why Jesus said what he said. We’ve become caught up in analysis and a tendency to date setting and have too often passed over the call of Jesus himself to a careful consideration and application of his words to our lives now. Since we have the privilege of the inside knowledge of the fact of the Lord’s return, he calls us not to use this knowledge neither for curiosity, nor for speculation nor for calculation but for preparation. His words are to fuel that incentive to live holy lives and work eagerly for Jesus in the hope of his certain return and loving anticipation of the hour that he is going to return.
“Now learn this lesson from the fig tree: when the branch becomes supple and puts out the leaves, you know that summer is near. In this same way you also, when you see these things happening, you know that he is near, right at the doors. Make no mistake, this generation will not pass away until all these things come about. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.”
“But concerning that day or hour – no one knows, not even the angels in heaven nor the Son, but only the Father. Watch! Be alert, since you do not know the time. It’s like a man who goes on a trip and leaves his house. He gives his household slaves the assignment, each one, to his or her word, and to the doorkeeper to watch for him. You all then watch, since you do not know when the Master of the house is coming, whether in the evening, in the middle of the night, at dawn or in the morning. Watch so that when he has come he will not find you sleeping. That which I say to you, I say to all of you, watch!” (Mark 13:28-37, Dale’s sight translation).
Believers in Jesus Christ must first of all pay attention for the signs of his return. His expectation is that they would have a continuous alertness to their lives to the signs of his coming, but with a his own reason why they are to pay attention. His expectation is what his followers, forearmed with the knowledge of his return and the preceding events, would first of all not be caught up in the routines of this world. His expectation was that his people were to pay attention to be able to recognize the signs of the end of the world as we know it, to when he returns and brings us the world as he wants it. But this expectation wasn’t to be the source of endless speculation and bickering about differing interpretations, but rather for diligence to be prepared for his return.
It’s extremely significant to understand Jesus himself expected that believers would be able to see and to recognize the signs of his return. All throughout the Olivet Discourse he used the word, “. . . you . . . ” in the plural sense to address the people whom he expected to understand and follow what he was saying. Certainly he meant the three apostles who were the immediate audience, who kept these words in their hearts and passed them down to us. But we need to include ourselves among the, “ . . . you . . .” in the plural sense as well, just as we do throughout the entire New Testament whenever we see that expression used and it cannot be restricted just to that particular place and time by a qualification that arises directly from the immediate context. Jesus used the word, ‘’ . . . you . . . “ in the plural sense with the expectation that believers throughout all ages would be able to compare what he had already explained with what was happening and to be able to tell that he was very near. His expectation was that his explanation of what would happen at the time of his return would give enough of an indication that he was ready to return and that his arrival was just around the corner.
So the first part of this is the lesson from the fig tree, in verses 28-29: “Now learn this lesson from the fig tree: when the branch becomes supple and puts out the leaves, you know that summer is near. In this same way you also, when you see these things happening, you know that he is near, right at the doors. The word which I’ve translated “lesson” is literally “parable.” It could also be translated, “analogy.” It’s noteworthy that this is the second time that Jesus has used the fig tree as an object lesson within the past several days. So here he used a familiar occurrence that happened every year as an indication of what would eventually happen only once, namely, the complete fulfillment of the signs for his return. And the summer, in the Mediterranean climate, was the time of harvest – which goes right back to his earlier talk about the harvest, the gathering of God’s people to himself at the return of Jesus. And then what Jesus meant by ‘these things’ were the previous signs which he had already explained. This would include the complete evangelization of the world (13:10). The most probable and significant application of what Jesus is talking about is to a definite period of time at the end where all the signs are taking place at an unprecedented intensity — including all the persecutions and upheavals.
The expectation of Jesus is clearly that his followers are to watch for the signs of his coming in all places and all ages. With this he contradicts the idea of the ‘imminence’ as applied to his return as meaning that there will be no identifiable and obvious signs preceding some kind of secret coming before his visible coming. He clearly expected his followers to be on earth and to have his words in hand as they watched the world for the signs of his coming. Even more, his expectation is that the watching for his coming would not require meticulous analysis of end times prophecy but understanding of his words according to the common sense meaning. This would mean that average believers with average intelligence could take his words and understand that he is near by comparing what he had said to what was happening in the world. Here is a list of what he had already explained would be the signs: first and most definitely the appearance of the Antichrist, evangelization of the world, worldwide persecution, and then the cosmic signs. All these would and should be something that would be understandable to an average believer with his words in hand and with an eye to what was happening in the world.
The attitude of anticipation and waiting doesn’t require deep and exact knowledge of Biblical prophecy. Indeed, we can see that this simply requires noticing the signs and understanding what they can mean. For example, during my college years, our family dachshund, Gretchen, knew that something was going to happen when my mother started spending more time in the kitchen doing some extra baking and food preparation. So she would lay on the rug near the back door of the house. She knew that someone from the family was going to come back home for a visit, and she wanted to be ready to give her greetings and spend some time with a beloved family member.
Along with the call to watch for the signs of his return, then, Jesus gives another promise for the future: the time of fulfillment of the signs of his return will not be long and drawn out. Rather, from what he said there is the indication that the time of contractions could be approximated to the normal lifespan of a human being at the most. And even more, he adds on the additional assurance that all these events will certainly come to the final culmination, upon the authority of Jesus himself.
This is what he is speaking about when he says, in verses 30-31: “Make no mistake, this generation will not pass away until all these things come about. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.” The point he is making is that there is the certainty of fulfillment within a normal person’s lifetime. He’s not giving an indication not of definite day and time but rather the approximation of the length of time within which the signs will be fulfilled. This restricts the time of fulfillment to within the lifetime of a normal person as the signs appear. The approximation of a lifetime is probably a much larger interval than it will really be, but it is wide enough and sufficient to keep anyone from becoming too comfortable and precise with calculating the time of his return too closely. This assurance then follows his earlier assurance that the days of spiritual, moral and political disaster would be cut short for the sake of his people (vv. 19-20).
He then adds on this assurance and notarizes it with his own stamp of authority upon his own words as more certain than the continued existence of heaven and earth: “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.” This notarization of the everlasting authority and reliability of his words is also, of course, applicable to all his words, of course. And here he is claiming a greater permanence for his words than was claimed for the Old Testament Law that the disciples had been brought up from early childhood to revere. This stamp, the guaranteed reliability of his words, then make it no gamble to stake one’s life on faith in and obedience to his word in sacrifice and effort in all ages, but they provide the extra assurance that his disciples would need even more as the end approaches most closely and the trials of their faith become perhaps the most severe that will ever be experienced by his followers in all human history.
The certainty of the words of Jesus is therefore the stamp of assurance on all that he had to say to his people. Jesus adds the emphasis here since it seems that his veracity and reliability may especially be tried and tested as things come closer to the end. Ultimately, though, scriptural faith in the scriptural Jesus must mean utter faith in his words to the end, whether that end is his coming in glory or the ends of our lives as our bodies succumb to physical death before he comes. And seemingly his extra emphasis on the utter reliability of his own words will be something that is utterly necessary in the final days before his coming, as well as something utterly necessary also for the days up to that time. A complete trust in his Word is not something that can be delayed until the signs are actually upon us. I couldn’t say that if we delay our trust until actual fulfillments are upon us that we won’t fall under the same kind of deception that falls upon the world of mankind as a whole at that time. We can and should rather take his statement, “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away,” as his assurance that the time that things get to their worst that the best is just around the corner, upon his own authority and veracity as the eternal Son of God.
Even more then, we can understand that what Jesus had to say about his return came from the heart of overflowing love and concern for each of us. His words were passed on to us because he wants us to be ready and because he wants us to understand what was going to happen. He wanted us to have the greater trust in his word than anything else that could trip us up in the world around us. So therefore his call to pay attention to his words about the circumstances attending his return in glory is his call of love for us because he wants us to be ready for him. And as I’ve already written, paying attention doesn’t mean a certainty in any calculations of the precise time of his arrival. Rather it still means living and serving with the uncertainty of the precise time of his arrival.
THE UNPREDICTABLE DATE AND TIME OF THE RETURN OF JESUS CALLS FOR US TO SERVE HIM WELL. If our anticipation of his soon return is real, it will mean alertness, effort and consistency in the fulfillment of our spiritual duties. This is the application from the prediction of Jesus’s return that is so often lost or underemphasized when believers get into end times prophecy: real anticipation of his c0ming return means serving him well in this life.
While there will be signs of his return, as Jesus himself has explained. watching for Jesus’s return is necessary at all times because the exact time of his return has not been revealed. He has given strong indications of the approximate time of his return, but he has left it open enough so that there is no possibility of delaying anything until the last possible moment. This is deliberate: he has set up his prophecy in such a way that watching and alertness is necessary at all times because that moment cannot be predicted or calculated.
Here, in verses 32-33, is where Jesus lays it on the line for us about how we don’t know the exact time of his return: “But concerning that day or hour – no one knows, not even the angels in heaven nor the Son, but only the Father. Watch! Be alert, since you do not know the time.” The exact time of the return is hidden in the secret counsel of God, according to what Jesus has just said. What this means is that the exact time of his return was not something that God the Father would reveal to the human consciousness of the Son of God in his earthly ministry to reveal to his people. And therefore since it was not something that Jesus was given to reveal, therefore no lesser being, no angel or human being can ever know that day or hour as well. Since it has not been revealed to any of his lesser servants either, it is deception for anyone to claim that he or she has that revelation. Note also earlier in the same chapter, in verse 6 and verses 21-22, in this same prophetic context: one of the marks of the false prophets and false Messiahs that were to come would be claims of certainty about something that Jesus himself did not claim certainty.
Since so we cannot know when the exact time – the day or hour that the Son of God appears in glory– really is, we can make no mistake about any kind of earthly claims to certainty on this point. Here Jesus himself in scripture has given us the warning, and no clearer warning could be given to the ages afterward about over-precision in the ‘when’ of his return, and against over-speculation and date setting. What the Son of God did not know in his human consciousness upon earth and did not have authority to reveal on earth is not something which any human being has authority to fill in. Whether someone presents himself or herself as a purported prophet or prophetess, or claims to have received a purported revelation from an angel, a lesser spiritual being (more likely a demonic angel of light), there is no following revelation to come that will give any more precision until he appears in the sky in glory.
Watching for the return of Jesus Christ therefore does not mean predicting the time of his return, and sureness of his coming does not mean certainty of the day or hour. Make no mistake about it, this is a tremendous warning necessary for any who would get caught up in trying to pin down dates and times too precisely. It is sheer spiritual insanity and the most debased kind of hubris to anyone to claim that something so significant that was not revealed to the Son to be revealed to us. And this was quite deliberate on the part of the God who knows us better than we know ourselves: if he had permitted it to be otherwise, our reaction would be to try to slack off until the last moment in our devotion to him in holiness and service.
So here’s a bit of lore about A. W. Tozer, which is unpublished to my knowledge, that demonstrates the correct application of this statement of Jesus. Tozer sat on the ordination committee of a pastor who was young at the time, and he later mentioned this to me when I asked him about what memories he had of Tozer. While he was himself undergoing the oral examination for ordination into the pastorate for our denomination, the Christian and Missionary Alliance, one of the pastors on the ordination committee, who was known to be really into end times prophecy, questioned the pastor in such a way that it seemed like he was trying to elicit some kind of precise time or date. So finally Tozer exclaimed, “God himself didn’t know that – how can you expect him to know that?”
Again, it is deliberate that the exact time of the Lord’s return is unknown to us now and unknowably to us until he does actually return. The reason is motivation: the true incentive of the imprecise knowledge available to us of the Lord’s return is to serve him faithfully now, upon earth. That way he has given us no reason for distraction with the cares of our lives, for passive waiting or obsessive speculation. Rather this uncertainty is necessary for us, to do what is best for us in light of his return in glory, for our occupation and immersion in conscientious service.
Jesus explains this and drives it home with a pretty down to earth analogy in verses 34-37: “It’s like a man who goes on a trip and leaves his house. He gives his household slaves the assignment, each one, to his or her word, and to the doorkeeper to watch for him. You all then watch, since you do not know when the Master of the house is coming, whether in the evening, in the middle of the night, at dawn or in the morning. Watch so that when he has come he will not find you sleeping. That which I say to you, I say to all of you, watch!”
I call this an analogy rather than a parable, since the term ‘parable’ brings up some rather strict, artificial rules from some interpreters. But the analogy of the master who is away and the servants who are left with responsibilities from him until his return, was a common reality in ancient societies, and the disciples then would understand it easily, and even in our society where slavery is illegal it is down to earth enough that we can understand it easily. The parallel passage in the gospel of Matthew adds the analogy of the thief in the night which was taken up by Paul as well, but Mark leaves it out for whatever reason, and whatever that reason may be does not cry out for us to fill it in with needless speculation. But this analogy would have definitely been applicable to the apostles who were sitting right there. They had been explicitly called as apostles, to be the emissaries of Jesus. It applies to the church then and now, as it has rightfully been understood throughout the ages of the church.
The call to faithfulness assumes that Jesus has already given definite responsibilities to his people throughout his word. From the preceding context also, this would mean dedication to world evangelization (13:10) and taking up the cross and standing for Christ even when it means probable martyrdom (13:11-13). So it would be quite legitimate to apply this to the responsibility to reach the world with the gospel, as in the three definite forms of the Great Commission: Matthew 28:18-20, Luke 24:44-47, Acts 1:8. Watchfulness therefore means serving and laboring for the Lord, and it is clear that he does not want to find anyone sleeping on his return. This is his warning against spiritual lethargy, slacking off, for whatever reason. In view of the previous context of the entire gospel of Mark, this would mean getting caught up in the activities of this world and self-indulgence and thus becoming the seed sown upon the thorns (Mark 4:18-19). So he himself sets before us the alternatives of faithfulness as meaning reward, unfaithfulness as losing the reward which is his approval. It’s a binary choice, from the Son of God himself.
So for us to take up and share the concern of Jesus for our faithfulness in service must ultimately mean faithfulness to the assignment which Jesus has given to his people, both individually and as a fellowship of believers. There are so many other reasons that are so often given for us to be faithful in service – following a tradition, maintaining our church’s status quo or even national survival and prosperity. But these are not the incentive that Jesus himself gave, which was rather personal faithfulness to him, to receive his approval of what we’ve been doing for him in the meantime while we have been waiting for his return. It is just like the statement of Charles Haddon Spurgeon: “The fact that Jesus Christ is to come is not a reason for stargazing but for working in the power of the Holy Ghost.”
This entire consideration of the Olivet Discourse should spur us on to greater concern and prayer, then, from each individual and for each individual, as to serving well until the Lord comes. I think this would mean much less attention to our pious platitudes and clichés, which we often prattle to sound more spiritual than we are. It would mean less unfair dealing, childish directions and outright interference, hijacking and sandbagging to our brothers and sisters in Christ as they go along with us along the journey of following Jesus for a lifetime, toward greater maturity and steadfastness in Christ. It means rather for us each one to give due consideration to one’s one level of faithfulness, maturity and steadfastness in Christ first of all.
Jesus Christ is returning again; he is coming back to our earth to rule with perfect justice and to bring perfect happiness to his people. The hope of the world is not some man made utopia but the return of Jesus to bring his perfection back to our world to stay. So while he has given his people advance knowledge of his return, his expectation is not that we would spend our time either in procrastination or speculation. His expectation is that we would be constantly and steadfastly faithful to him in the meantime. The eagerness that we may have to see the Lord face to face, which we may include in our songs and prayers, will mean a steady application of ourselves to his assignment for our lives – and that will not be a burden for us, but our joyous preparation for the life beyond imagination when we are in his presence forever.
The return of Jesus Christ’s return is the reason first of all to be prepared with the most basic preparation necessary, to be in a right relationship with him. Have you have entered his salvation through repentance and faith in him alone? Do you have the security in him that comes from a definite profession of faith and a life which shows the reality of having truly been born again of his Spirit?
Next, since Jesus Christ is the hope of those who have put their faith in him, that always remains a compelling reason to remain in that abiding relationship with him through continued faith, love and obedience, and for remaining in fellowship with him and with his people. He is the source for the strength to endure to the end as we remain in him and with his people.
Finally, Jesus Christ is the yearning of those who remain faithful in service for him. All their aspirations and all their desires will be ultimately fulfilled at his arrival. And that always remains our reason for consistency in service to and to be pleasing to him. That is the reason for us to seek to learn and live out his will is for the kind of people we are to be from his Word and for us to be faithful to his assignments to us in our lives until the end, to our last breath here or until his soon return.