Well, May 21 came and went, and it turns out that Harold Camping was wrong. Jesus didn’t come back on that day. And no, he didn’t come back “spiritually” and secretly either, as Camping now claims (in yet another statement which contradicts Jesus’ words; see Matthew 24:26–27).
When you hear arrogant preachers like Camping announce that they have cracked a secret Bible code to unlock the date on which the end will come, you can know at once that they are either liars or fools. Jesus said so.
Jesus now shifts to a question that is a hot topic even today: what is “that day and that hour” in which he will return to the earth? Some commentators believe he is still talking about the destruction of the Jerusalem temple that would occur in 70 A.D., but there seems to be a transition away from that topic (Jesus begins by saying “but concerning…”). Remember, after he predicted the destruction of the temple (a singular event), his disciples asked him, “When will these things be?” (plural). They had more in mind than just the temple. Throughout Mark’s account of Jesus’ life, he has announced that God’s kingdom is coming. His disciples expect Jesus to set up this kingdom and rule over Israel, placing them in positions of power (Mark 10:37). When he announces that the temple will be destroyed, they’re probably assuming that this is part of the process in which he sets up his kingdom.
In a way, they’re right. When the temple is destroyed, it is an act of judgment on the religious leaders of the Jews and their failure to recognize the Messiah whom God has sent. Jesus will be vindicated in his claim to be Messiah, and his reign as God’s anointed King will be firmly established. This is part of what’s going on in Mark 13:24–27.
However, Jesus will not return to set up an earthly kingdom when the temple is destroyed. That will not take place until long afterward; in fact, we are still waiting for it. When Jesus talks about the destruction of the temple, he promises it will be within a few decades (Mark 13:30), and he tells his disciples that it will be preceded by a sign—the “abomination of desolation” (13:14). But now, when describing “that day or that hour” when he will return, Jesus doesn’t give any specifics at all! “Concerning that day or that hour, no one knows,” he tells them, “not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.” Not even the angels know when it will be. And during his earthly ministry, not even Jesus knows! God the Father is the only one who knows when the time will be.
Why is this? Why has God revealed so much to us yet hidden from us this important piece of information? I think the answer is revealed in the next few verses as Jesus tells us how to respond.
His message is absolutely clear: “be on guard, keep awake…stay awake…stay awake…stay awake!” Why? “No one knows…you do not know…you do not know.” He tells a parable about a man who goes away on a journey and leaves his servants in charge of his house. Apparently the man forgot to bring his cell phone, because the servants have no way of knowing when he’ll get back. So they need to stay awake, because he could return in the middle of the night, and they need to be ready for his arrival.
What does it mean to “stay awake”? It means to be on alert. You fall asleep when you think things will okay for the next few hours. You don’t fall asleep when you think that at any moment, everything around you will change.
To fall asleep means that you’ve bought into the lie that the world is going to keep on going as it always has. It means that you’ve bought into the lie that Christ won’t come back, that human institutions and banks and businesses and governments are permanent fixtures, that everything around you is stable and your future plans are all but certain (James 4:13–17). It means that you have bought into the values of your culture—its emphasis on human wisdom or careers or family or money or entertainment or comfort or food or sex—thinking that these values are an eternal standard for what’s really important. You are groggy, sedated, asleep.
To stay awake means that you recognize that all of this could be undone at any moment. Christ could return, and you don’t know when. This means that every day is the last day. By withholding from us the exact date when Christ will return, God the Father has shown us that we are already in the last days, and that we cannot count on anyone or anything other than himself. “All is vanity” (Ecclesiastes 1:2).
I don’t know about you, but for me, this is really hard. I settle naturally into the mindset that things will keep going like they always have. My life really isn’t going to change all that much in the coming years. Frankly, I find it depressing. I see how broken and unrighteous the world is; I see the sin that grips me; I see many reasons to lose hope. But Christ’s return is a game-changer. Everything will be upended when he overthrows all human kingdoms and sets up his own eternal kingdom in their place.
Today is one of the last days. And then he will come.