Jesus Says Stay Awake

So I have a younger brother whose name is Aaron. He’s five years younger than me, and one time like almost twenty years ago now, we were in central Europe together and we had this crazy thing happen to us — and I was just reminded about this last week because I got to spend a little time with Aaron, and we were reminiscing about this bizarre experience. Here’s what happened:

We were in central Europe, staying in this big bread & breakfast hostel-type thing, and it’s the middle of the night, everyone is asleep, and all of a sudden I wake up because someone in the house is screaming. I was fast asleep and just like that, this scream wakes me up, and I’m lying there, eyes wide open — and if you can remember 20 years ago, America’s reputation internationally was not great —  and so my first thought was, of course, that some bad guy had come into this house and is going room by room killing people, and because there’s only about ten rooms in the house, he’s about to be at our door. I’m super still; I’m not making a sound; and I’m realizing that all of this is happening, and so I did what any of you would have done: I shake my brother and tell him to wake up because someone is about to murder us.

And so he woke up. And then for next couple hours we are trying to figure out what to do. Our hearts were pounding — I remember it felt like it was going to come through my neck. And we kept putting our ears to the door trying to hear this bad guy, and we were running through all kinds of scenarios and plans. Should we open the window and climb on the roof? Should we grab a candlestick and fight? Should we read the Bible out loud and just start singing? We put everything on the table. 

And at this point in the story, in that moment, the one thing I knew for sure was that I was awake. I was not dreaming. I was awake — we were both awake — and we were paying attention. We stayed awake the entire night.

Now, it ended up being nothing. A kid in the room beside ours apparently had a bad dream and did the screaming. Nobody was hurt. Everybody was okay. So there’s a good ending. But the thing I remember the most was how awake I was that night. I was completely, totally awake. 

Goal for the Sermon

And that matters for today’s sermon because Jesus tells us to “stay awake” six times in Mark Chapter 13. Jesus introduces the idea first in verse 9 when he says “Be on your guard,” and then he says it again in verses 23, 33, 35, and 37.  

So in the longest section of teaching in the Gospel of Mark — Mark 13 — Jesus’s central command, which he repeats six times, is to wake up. So what does that mean and why? The goal today is to answer that question, and here’s the plan:

We’re going to start with an overview of the whole Chapter, and then we’re going to see two reasons why Jesus tells us to stay awake. That’s the plan, so let’s pray and we’ll get started. 

Father, I ask that you would give us light today in your Word. In this moment, by your Holy Spirit, open our hearts now to receive what you have for us. In Jesus’s name, amen. 

An Overview of Mark 13

Okay, let’s start with an overview of this chapter, and look, this is a hard chapter. It can be a little confusing because we’re not exactly sure what Jesus is talking about here. So I think the context helps us. Remember, as we’ve seen over the last two chapters, that the temple has been the topic of conversation. Jesus came into Jerusalem in Chapter 11 and right away he went to the physical temple with his disciples. That’s where Jesus has been spending his time, and he’s been having these confrontations there with the Jewish leaders. Pastor Joe showed a handful of those confrontations last week. 

So when we get to Chapter 13, Mark starts the chapter by telling us about a new conversation Jesus had with his disciples — and this conversation is the one that sort of wraps up all the talk about the temple.

It starts in verse 1. Jesus and his disciples are walking out of the temple, and one of the disciples — who goes unnamed here — looks at the temple and is bedazzled by its beauty. And so this disciple says to Jesus, “Look, Teacher, what wonderful stones and what wonderful buildings!” 

The disciple was impressed by the temple, because the temple was impressive. Herod’s temple was still under construction at this time, but most was complete, and it would have been a sight to see. It was decked out in white marble and it was layered with plates of gold, and it was massive — it was like 35 acres of enclosed space. That’s the size of US Bank Stadium. This was the largest temple in the ancient world, and really at any point in history, this would have been an incredible building. So this disciple says “Wow!”, and he wants Jesus to comment, too. He wants Jesus to be impressed by this building, too. But Jesus replies, “Yeah, this building is great, and the whole thing is coming down.”

And that would have been the moment when the music stopped. The record would have screeched, and the disciples would have been stunned. Nobody expected this. This temple was the pride of city, and of the entire Jewish nation. It was one of the largest structures in the entire world. And Jesus, just like that, says it’s going to burn. This would have been shocking. And so Jesus here starts teaching about when the Romans are going to come and destroy Jerusalem, including this temple — which happened in 70 AD. The destruction of the temple is a historical event that Jesus predicted.

But what gets confusing about this chapter is that it’s hard to tell sometimes whether Jesus is talking about the destruction of Jerusalem in 70AD or if he’s talking about the end of the world. Is Jesus talking about the siege of Jerusalem which will happen in the immediate future, or is Jesus talking about the final day of God’s judgment?

These Days and Those Days

And the answer is Yes. Jesus is talking about both. And there’s some debate on the details, but most agree that Jesus is sometimes referring to the immediate future; and other times he is referring to the end of time. And Mark, I think, gives us a clue to know which is which: it has to do with the phrase “these days” (13:2, 4, 8) and “those days” (13:17, 19, 20, 24, 32). 

When Jesus says “these days” he’s talking about the fall of Jerusalem in 70AD — that’s in verses 1–13 and verses 28–31. When Jesus says “those days” (or “that day”) he’s talking about the end of time — that’s in verses 14–27 and verses 32–37.  

You can see this shift clearly in verse 32. Jesus says in verse 30 that “this generation will not pass away until all these things take place.” He’s talking about the destruction of the temple in 70 AD. But in verse 32 he says, “But concerning that day or that hour, no one knows…” Here he’s talking about the end of time. 

And the reason Jesus talks about both of these together is because the destruction of Jerusalem in the immediate future is a foreshadowing of the coming judgment at the end of time. One way to say it is: “These days” of impending destruction is a picture of “those days” that will come later. [Everybody tracking?]

And now, with all that being said, Jesus’s main concern in the passage is not the details of what will happen; it’s also not the timeline of when it will happen; instead, Jesus’s main concern is that his disciples persevere through whatever suffering they face, and that they persevere in view of his return. That is what Jesus wants. That is what Jesus tells us to do, and he tells us to do this with this simple idea: he says “stay awake.”

We persevere through tribulation, with the end of the world on its way, by staying awake. That’s how it all fits together, and here is where we can start digging in.

Two Categories of Rationale

What does it mean to stay awake? (Or to “be on guard” — it’s the same idea, Jesus repeats it six times in this chapter). What does that mean? Well, Jesus gives us two reasons: 

  1. Stay awake because of what you know.
  2. Stay awake because of what you do not know. 

And these are more like categories instead of points. So let’s start with the first. 

1. Stay awake because of what you know.

For this category Jesus tells us three important facts about reality:

  • The bad will get worse
  • False teaching will spread
  • He’s coming back to gather his people. 

We can see these in the passage. First, let’s look at:

A. The bad will get worse. 

That’s verse 19, 

For in those days there will be such tribulation as has not been from the beginning of the creation that God created until now, and never will be.

Jesus is talking about the future, and again although there’s some debate about exactly what he has in mind, one thing is clear: it’s not going to be good. There is going to be a severe tribulation, and it’s going to feel like absolute mayhem. 

And I know, right away, we have this instinct to pinpoint this. We want to figure out what Jesus is talking about, and it’s easy for us to imagine that all of this must be some far away, terrible experience, kind of like one of those dystopian movies that’s come true. We think this is the Twilight zone.

But just for a little perspective, as Americans, we should realize that we’re in the minority experience when it comes to tribulation. 

We should remember that a lot of Christians have lived after Jesus said these words, and they have lived through atrocious circumstances.† 

Is there going to be a coming, future tribulation period? Millions of Christians around the world would say they’re already in it. The latest research says that the persecution of Christians worldwide is worse in 2018 than ever before. 

So look, without getting into those details, I just want us to get the principle here: it’s that either way you dice this up, what is bad will get worse before the end comes.

What mean is that, at the most basic level, the bad parts of our culture never evolve to become less bad. Sometimes I think we assume it will. I think sometimes we’ve picked up a bad case of evolutionary theory in regards to social morality, and we can think that, if we just give it more time, even bad people will come to their senses and somehow become a little more good. And that sounds optimistic, but it’s just not true — and actually it’s dangerous. 

C.S. Lewis wrote The Great Divorce to make this point. Lewis says, “Evil can be undone, but it cannot ‘develop’ into good. Time does not heal it.” And that’s true for the evil in our society, and for the evil in our own hearts. Leaving it alone does not work. 

And that means, if anything, we cannot be passive. We cannot be passive to the wrongs of our world, or to the wrongs in ourselves. And if we’re not passive, what are we? We’re awake.

Stay awake because we know the bad gets worse.

B. False teaching spreads. 

That’s verse 21. 

And then if anyone says to you, ‘Look, here is the Christ!’ or ‘Look, there he is!’ do not believe it. 22 For false christs and false prophets will arise and perform signs and wonders, to lead astray, if possible, the elect.

In the future, Jesus says, there will be rampant deception. He says that false messiahs and false prophets are coming to deceive the world, and if possible, to deceive the elect — he’s talking about the church, those who have believed in him. The church will be — we will be — attacked by false teaching. 

And this might be the easiest for us to see today because it’s situation we’re in. There are false teachers everywhere, and it started as early as the first century. Most of the New Testament letters were written to address false teaching that had already crept into the church. In fact, one of the main reasons for the office of pastor is to guard the church’s doctrine against false teaching. That’s what pastors are for. 

So let me do a quick side-note here on pastors:

If we think that pastors are big cheese, we’ve got it wrong. Pastors are more like gospel custodians. It’s a role of service, not a role of power. And I want you to know we’re serious about this at Cities Church. When our pastoral team meets together every other week, it does not feel like a table of kings. It is a room full of happy janitors

And we’ve got a lot of work to do because deception is coming for us. False teaching and false anything is trying to weasel its way into our church, and so we’ve got to be on guard. Pastors are supposed to stay awake to help others stay awake. We all need to stay awake because we know false teaching spreads.

C. Jesus is coming back to gather his people. 

That’s in verse 24. 

But in those days, after that tribulation, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, 25 and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken. 26 And then they will see the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory. 27 And then he will send out the angels and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven. 

This whole part here, verses 24–27, is loaded with Old Testament allusions. The phrase in verse 26 is taken straight from the Book of Daniel. “The Son of Man [will come] in clouds with great power and glory.” That’s Daniel Chapter 7, verse 13. And unmistakably here, by Jesus saying this, he is claiming to be the Messiah, and not just of suffering, but also of glory

Remember what Jesus has been saying up to now in the Gospel of Mark. He has told his disciples that he is going to Jerusalem to die; he has come into this city to be killed (see 8:31; 9:31; 10:33–34). But here he says, one day, he is coming back in apocalyptic splendor. Which means, the Son of Man who will be marred beyond recognition will one day be the sovereign king of power and glory. 

And in the book of Daniel where Jesus quotes this is a coronation passage — it’s about when the Messiah is given his kingdom. God’s Messiah will be given all dominion, and in Daniel that looks like “all peoples, nations, and languages” serving him (Daniel 7:14). 

Which is the same thing happening in Mark 13. Jesus, the Son of Man, is going to come back and he’s going to “gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of the heavens” (verse 27).

This is really important. Notice the vast array of people this is: this is people from the four winds! That is north, south, east, west. This is people from every conceivable direction there is. And they all converge on one single point: it’s that Jesus is their king. Jesus is an exclusive Savior with universal importance, and that magnifies his power and glory. There is nobody like him, and he’s everybody’s only hope. And the whole world is trending toward this realization. 

So we have to use our imaginations here. The apostle John gives us a little glimpse of what this will be like in Revelation 5. There will be a massive assembly of people — men, women, boys, and girls — from every tribe and nation on the face of the earth. It’s going to be colorful and and it’s going to be loud. And everybody together, with all of our amazing differences, we are going to sing one song because we worship one king — and he’s the king who died for us! He’s the king who shed his blood to bring us together to bring us to him. We will all together worship our one king together, and his name is Jesus.

Jesus is really coming back. This will happen. The Second Coming of Jesus is the most pervasive and repeated truth in the New Testament, and the Christian life is what we do until that day. And in summary, what we do is we stay awake. 

Stay awake because of you know. And then Jesus gives us a second category.

2. Stay awake because of what you do not know. 

This is actually the brunt of the passage. Notice down in verse 32. 

But concerning that day or that hour, no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. 33 Be on guard, keep awake. For you do not know when the time will come.

That’s about as plain as it gets. “Be on guard [and] keep awake” because you don’t know when Jesus is coming back. And if that wasn’t clear enough, Jesus says it again in verse 34. This time he tells a little parable. A man goes on a journey and leaves his servants in charge, but he doesn’t tell them when he’s going to return. And therefore, they need to always be ready. He could come back at any moment. So stay awake. 

How Difficult Is This?

And if we’re being honest, at least when I see this, that sounds very difficult to me. That’s because I can’t help but read Jesus’s words here as a sleep-deprived human being. I know what it’s like to be tired, and y’all know what that’s like. Most of us probably don’t get as much sleep as we should, especially if we have young kids, and if you’re tired, you know that having to stay awake is hard. Think about what that’s like.

Last year Melissa and I went to the orchestra with Sahr and Sara. And it was a great time. First we had an awesome dinner together, and after we ate and were full, then we went and sat in this cozy, dim-lit room, and then the soft music started. And it was beautiful music — but almost too beautiful. And it wasn’t long, and I was in an absolute battle. I was fighting to stay awake, and whatever you do in those situations, you don’t want to be a shaker. You know that guy. Sometimes he sits next to you on a plane. He’s the guy who starts nodding his head, and then he shakes. Yeah, that’s embarrassing. You don’t want to be that guy. So I’m fighting to keep my eyes open, and that is a rough place to be. 

So I want to know if that’s what Jesus means here. How hard is this going to be?

Deeper Than Physical Sleep

Now, just to be clear, there is nothing easy around here — that’s why we have the Holy Spirit — but for your encouragement, Jesus is not talking about physical sleep. 

The command to “stay awake” is not a command to literally not sleep — the Bible actually talks about sleep as a means of grace; it’s a daily ritual of humility and faith, and it’s good for us (see Psalms 3:5, 4:8; 121:4; 127:2) — so when Jesus says to “be on guard” or “stay awake” he’s talking about something deeper. Jesus is using the contrast between physical sleep and physical awakeness as a metaphor for the spiritual.

Jesus’s command to “stay awake” is a warning against spiritual preoccupation and distraction.

Jesus means stop putting your spiritual life at the bottom of your list. Stop trying to just fit Jesus in only when he’s convenient for you. Stop treating the Christian life like it’s a bunch of boxes you just need to check. 

When Jesus tells us to stay awake he means to be vigilant about his reality. Don’t lose sight on the meaning of this world. Don’t loosen your grip on God’s purpose for you. Be awake to what is. That’s the point.

Awake to the Realness of Jesus

And this is where it’s so relevant for us. Jesus tells us to “stay awake” because unless we’re awake, unless we’re paying attention, we will crowd our lives with things that make Jesus seem less real than he is.  

And that’s our greatest problem, right?

I am more convinced now than ever that our greatest problems come when other things are more real to us than Jesus. That is how our burdens grow. When we carry our burdens by ourselves they keep us from seeing Jesus and then they just get heavier. They start to eclipse the realness of Jesus. They drown out the music of his grace. And Jesus is saying, Hey, don’t let that happen. Wake up.

Okay Jesus, I want to wake up. I want to be awake. But what about when I’m not? Is there good news for the spiritual sleepy? — which can be all of us at times.

I mean, I wish we all had a switch we could just flip on and keep on, but that’s not how it works, and so what about when I’m weary? What about when I’m spiritually exhausted? I’ve been praying but it feels like God doesn’t hear. I’ve been trying to move in the right direction but the trouble does not leave. I’ve made some mistakes and I can’t get past the guilt. I’m lonely and I’m smothered by shame. I want to be awake, but I don’t know how.

Okay, I’ve got good news for you: Even though we will slumber and sleep, the Bible tells us that Jesus will never slumber or sleep. In fact, the Bible says that Jesus upholds us and keeps us at every moment by his power. He promises to always be with us; he promises to never change; and those burdens we carry are burdens he can take.

And so whatever you might be holding onto right now, he can take it. Trust him. 

And see, it’s in trusting him that we stay awake. It’s in daily casting our anxieties on him. We stay awake by needing Jesus to be who he is. That’s how we live in his realness.

We know Jesus is coming back — but we don’t exactly when. This day could be “the world’s last night.” So, Jesus says, be ready. That doesn’t mean be antsy or restless or frantic or scared; it means be alive to gospel truth. Be awake to the realness of Jesus because Jesus is real, and one day we’re going to see him.

The Table

And this Table is meant to say that. The apostle Paul says that when we eat the bread and drink the cup we are “proclaiming the Lord’s death until he comes” (1 Corinthians 11:26). So we come here to remember that Jesus died for us, and to anticipate his return. And so in one way, this Table is kind of like a weekly wake up call. This Table brings us back to the reality of Jesus, and it helps us stay awake. 

And so if you’re here this morning and you trust in Jesus — if Jesus is your hope — we invite you to eat and drink with us. We will serve the bread first, and then the cup. 

†  Take, for example, that just a few decades after Jesus said these words there were Roman powers like Nero who fed Christians to lions. Or take that 500 years ago, during the Reformation, you would be burned alive for reading the Bible in English. Or consider that today, in many countries like North Korea, Afghanistan, northern Nigeria, and Sudan — being a Christian in these places is a death sentence. In fact, the latest research claims that because of Islamic extremism and ethnic nationalism, the persecution of Christians worldwide is worse in 2018 than ever before.