Please see here for a different interpretation of the Olivet Discourse.
Last week we spent our time on verses 1 to 31 of Mark chapter 13. And although the NIV gives those verses the title ‘Signs of the End of the Age’, I suggested that in those verses the Lord was speaking about, not the end of the age, but he was speaking about the fall of Jerusalem to the Romans and the destruction of the temple which took place in AD70. Now, the interpretation I gave last week is not the most common interpretation of those verses. Most interpreters say that those verses are not only about the destruction of the temple in AD70, but they’re also about the coming of the Lord at the end of the age. So, the most common interpretation is that it’s about both things: the destruction of the temple and the Lord’s second coming. And so, those who interpret the passage that way say that here are the signs we should watch out for which tell us that the Lord is coming again.
But there’s a problem with that interpretation. Do you remember what it was? The problem is that in verse 30 the Lord says that this generation — that is, the people who were alive when he said these words — will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened. In other words, he was describing an event which would happen soon and which they would see. Well, that event was not his second coming, because we’re still waiting for it. No, that event he was describing was the fall of Jerusalem and the destruction of the temple which happened in that generation.
And there’s another problem with the traditional view. And we’re going to get to it in a minute. We’ll come back to it. But the way I interpreted the Lord’s words fits in with what we know from the history of that period. The Lord warned that false prophets would arise; and they did. The Lord warned that there would be rumours of wars and earthquakes; and there were. The Lord warned that believers would be persecuted and hated; and they were. But when those things happen — he said — don’t panic. Don’t be alarmed. Don’t be alarmed by those things; but be alarmed when you see what the Lord calls ‘the abomination that causes desolation’. And that Lord was most likely referring to the time when Jewish Zealots inside the city desecrated the temple and appointed a clown as high priest. And not long after that happened, the Roman armies surrounded Jerusalem and besieged it.
However, before the horrors of the siege happened — and terrible things happened during the siege when their food ran out — before the horrors of the siege happened, the Christians in the city left the city. Why did they leave? They left because they paid attention to the Lord’s words here in Mark 13 where he told them that they should flee for their lives to the mountains. And since they believed what the Lord said, those early believers left the city so that when the Romans besieged it, the believers who had left were safe.
And then do you remember? I suggested that when we read in verse 26 that they would see the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory, he was not foretelling his second coming, but he was foretelling how he would come to the Jews in Jerusalem in judgment; and he was going to use the Romans to punish them for their unbelief and hardness of heart, because instead of believing in the Saviour, they rejected him. So, they would see the effect of his judgment on the people of Jerusalem. But he would also send out, not his angels, but his preachers, to preach the good news to all the nations so that all who believe would receive forgiveness from God and the hope of everlasting life.
So, that’s what we were thinking about last week. It’s not the most common interpretation, but I’m not the only one to hold to this interpretation which seems to me to make better sense of the passage than the traditional interpretation. And do you remember? Everything the Lord said in this chapter was prompted by what happened in verses 1 to 4. One of the disciples expressed amazement at the size of the temple. And the Lord replied that the time was coming when it would be destroyed and not one stone would be left on top of another. And that was shocking news for the disciples, because they couldn’t imagine a world without the temple; and it seemed to them that by announcing the destruction of the temple, he was announcing the end of the world. So, they asked him:
When will these things happen? And what will be the sign that they are about to be fulfilled?
And in verses 5 to 31 he answered their question and he told them when the temple would be destroyed and what signs they should look out for. But then in today’s verses — verses 32 to 37 — he went on to talk about the end of the world. So let’s look at those verses now.
And unfortunately the NIV leaves out one small, but important word at the beginning of verse 32. The NIV translates the verses:
No-one knows about that day or hour….
And the one important word it leaves out is the word ‘but’. You see, the verse should really be translated:
But concerning that day or hour, no one knows.
You see, when you translate the verse in that way, it makes clear that the Lord is beginning a new topic. I’ve been telling you about this; but now I’m going to tell you about something else. Everything I’ve said to you so far concerns this; but now what I’m going to say concerns that. Do you see? He was talking about the destruction of the temple. Well, I’ve told you about that; and now I’m going to tell you about something else.
And what’s the something else? What new topic is he moving on to? He’s now going to tell them about ‘that day’. What day? The Old Testament prophets used to talk about ‘that day’ or ‘the day of the Lord’ which was a day of salvation and of judgment: the day when the Lord would come to judge his enemies and to save his people. And it’s used in the same way in the New Testament. For instance, in Matthew 7:22 the Lord refers to those who ‘on that day’ will claim to be his followers, but who will be sent away. In Luke 12:10 he says that ‘on that day’ it will be more bearable for Sodom than it will be for those places who rejected his disciples. In 1 Corinthians 3:13 Paul refers to ‘the day’ when the quality of a preacher’s work will be judged. And in 2 Timothy 4:8 he refers to the crown of righteousness which the Lord will award to him ‘on that day’.
In other words, the expression ‘that day’ refers to the great day of judgment which is coming, when the Lord Jesus will judge the living and the dead, all those who have ever lived; and those who, in this life, did not believe in him will be condemned for their sins and will be sent away from his presence to suffer eternal punishment; but those who, in this life, believed in him will be declared ‘not guilty’ and will be brought into the presence of the Lord in the new heaven and earth to possess that fullness of joy and those pleasures forevermore which he has prepared for all who trust in him.
So, that’s what the Lord is talking about now. He’s talking about ‘that day’. ‘That hour’ refers to the same thing. ‘That day and that hour’ refer to the great day of judgment when the Lord Jesus will come in person with great power and glory to judge the world. The fall of Jerusalem to the Romans and the destruction of the temple in AD70 was a foretaste of what would come later. It was a foretaste of what would happen when the Lord comes again to judge, not just the unbelieving Jews in Jerusalem, but when he comes again to judge the whole world.
And here’s the thing: concerning that day or hour, no one knows. In other words, no one knows when that day will come. No one knows when it will arrive. No one knows when it will be. And you see, that’s the second big problem with the traditional interpretation of verses 5 to 31. Do you remember? I said one problem was verse 30 where the Lord said that that generation would see the events he was describing. So, he can’t have been describing his second coming, because it had to happen in their lifetime. That was the first problem. The second is this: people who hold to the traditional interpretation say that in verses 5 to 31 the Lord is announcing the signs of his coming. When you see leaves on a fig tree, you know summer is near. Well, when you see these signs, you’ll know the end is near. According to the traditional interpretation, he’s saying that you’ll know that his coming is near; there are signs to watch out for. But that can’t be right, because here in verse 32 he’s telling us that no one knows when he will come again. No one knows. You can’t tell when it will happen. You can’t predict it. Concerning that day or hour, no one knows.
Really? No one knows? Surely the angels must know, because they’re in the presence of the Lord in heaven? They must know. No, not even the angels in heaven know. Well, surely the Lord Jesus, the Son of God, must know? Surely he must know the day when he will come again. Well — remarkably! — according to verse 32, not even the Son knows. The angels in heaven don’t know; the Son of God doesn’t know. There’s only one person who knows when this day will be, and it’s God the Father. God the Father is the only person who knows when that day will be.
Now, people want to know how that can be. Surely God the Son must know? Surely God the Son must know all things? Surely there is nothing he does not know? How can he say that he doesn’t know? Well, the theologians try to explain it by referring to the incarnation and to how his ignorance of that day is true in terms of his humanity. In terms of his divinity, he knows, but in terms of his humanity, he does not know. And that might well be correct. However, since the Lord says that only the Father knows, then that presumably means the Holy Spirit also does not know. So, how can it be that God the Holy Spirit does not know? Well, I don’t know. I can’t explain it. We believe the Father is divine; we believe the Son is divine; and we believe the Spirit is divine. We believe they are one God in three persons. But how it can be that only the Father knows when that day will be and the Son and the Spirit do not know is beyond our knowing.
But the point of the Lord’s words in this verse is not to make us speculate about the nature of God, but it’s designed to show us that we cannot know or predict or work out when the Lord will return to judge the living and the dead. We don’t know; and we cannot know.
But because our hearts are hard and because we so often do not believe God’s word, men and women have often speculated on when that day will come. On Wikipedia there’s a page on predictions and claims for the second coming of Christ. And the page lists not all predictions, but only those by notable groups or individuals. And even though the list is not complete, it’s a long, long list.
It begins with three theologians who predicted the Lord would return in the year AD500. According to Wikipedia, their prediction was based in part on the dimensions of Noah’s ark. What the dimensions of Noah’s ark have to do with it, who can tell? Let me jump forward to William Miller and the Millerites who expected the Lord to return on 22 October 1844. When Miller published his prediction, he recorded that visitors flocked to converse with him on this matter. So many people wanted to know when the Lord would return and they were convinced by what he said. But since the Lord did not come as expected, the day became known as the Great Disappointment. Then someone called Joseph Morris announced it would happen in 1861; and so his followers did not bother to plant any crops that year, because the end was coming. Joseph Smith of the Mormons predicted the Lord was coming in 1891; and the Jehovah’s Witnesses said it would be in 1914. A man called Herbert W. Armstrong thought it would happen in 1935; then in 1943; and then in 1975. Many of you will remember the name Harold Camping who predicted that the end of the world would happen on 6 September 1994; then he changed it to 21 October 2011. Jerry Falwell predicted in 1999 that it would happen within 10 years. Those dates have all come and gone, but there are others who have announced that the Lord will come again in 2019 and in 2020 and in 2021 and in 2024 and in 2025 and between 2030 and 2033 and in 2057.
Again and again and again men and women make these predictions, predictions that prove to be false; and predictions which are foolish and sinful, because the Lord himself has told us that no one knows when that day will be. No one knows when it will be and so we can’t work it out.
Verses 33 to 37
And since that’s the case, what should we do? Since we cannot know when the Lord will come again to judge the living and the dead, what should we do? Well, instead of trying to work it out, we need to be on our guard and we need to be alert. Do you see that in verse 33?
Be on guard! Be alert!
Then the Lord adds:
You do not know when that time will come.
You don’t know; therefore be on guard; be alert.
And to underline the need for vigilance, the Lord told a parable about a man who went away. And before he left, he put his servants in charge, each with his assigned task. And the man told the servant at the door to keep watch. And that doorkeeper has to keep watch because he doesn’t know when the man will return. Will he come in the early evening? Will he come at midnight? Will he come when the cock crows when it’s still dark? Or will he come at dawn? Since the doorkeeper doesn’t know, he needs to keep watch at all times and be on guard and be alert so that when his master arrives, he won’t be found sleeping, but will be wide awake and ready to open the door for his master.
The man in the parable who went away stands for the Lord Jesus, doesn’t he? That’s obvious, because just as the man went away, so the Lord Jesus has gone away. He’s gone away from the world, because after his death and resurrection he ascended to heaven, which is where he is now, seated at the right hand of God the Father. He’s gone away. But he’s promised to come back again, just as the man in the parable made clear that he was coming back. But just as the man’s servants didn’t know when their master would return, so we don’t know when the Lord Jesus will return. We don’t know when he will come.
And, then, just as the doorkeeper had to keep watch, so we have to keep watch. We have to be on our guard and we need to be alert, so that when the Lord comes again, he won’t find us unprepared, but he’ll find us ready for his return.
And to make clear that this is a message for everyone and not for the disciples alone, the Lord adds in verse 37:
What I say to you, I say to everyone: ‘Watch!’
The word translated ‘watch’ is actually ‘stay awake’. So, instead of sleeping, stay awake. Now, the Lord isn’t referring to physical sleep; he’s not forbidding us from sleeping at night. But by using the image of sleeping, he’s warning us that we need to be ready, not unready; we need to be prepared, not unprepared.
So, what does he mean by staying awake? How can we be ready and prepared for his coming? What does it mean to be on guard and alert? Or put it another way: What do you need to do so that you don’t have to fear the coming of the Lord, but can look forward to it? After all, do you remember? That day is a day of judgment and salvation: a day of disaster for some and a day of salvation for others. It will be disaster for those who did not in this life believe in him, because when he comes he will condemn them for their sins and send them away from his presence to be punished forever for all that they have done wrong. It will be a disaster for them.
But it will be a joy for those who in this life believed in him, because when he comes he will declare them not guilty of their sins and they will go in to enjoy everlasting life and fullness of joy in his presence.
That day will be a day of disaster for some; and a day of salvation for others.
So, how do you get ready for that day? Well, you get ready for that day by believing in Jesus Christ, the only Saviour of the world, who loved us and who gave up his life as a ransom to set sinners free from the condemnation they deserve. You’re to believe in him, because whoever believes in him will never be condemned by God, but receives instead the free gift of eternal life.
There is no other way to get ready. The only way to get ready is to turn from your sins and to trust in the Saviour, asking God to forgive you your sins for the sake of Christ who died for sinners. And so, if you believe in him, and continue to believe in him, persevering in the faith every day, then you need not fear the day of his coming, but can look forward to it, because when he comes, it will be to bring you in to everlasting life in God’s presence, where there will be no more troubles and trials, but only perfect peace and rest — fullness of joy, pleasures forevermore — which God has prepared for all his people.
And we can be forgiven like this, because God the Son became one of us; and took the blame for us; and suffered the punishment we deserve; and satisfied the justice of God on our behalf; so that, if you believe in him, God will never, ever, ever demand any further payment from you for what you have done wrong.
And knowing this, believing this, you can look forward to the Lord’s coming. You don’t need to dread that day, but can look forward to it, because the one who is coming is your Saviour who loved you and who gave up his life for you; and he’s coming to take away all your sorrow and sadness and to give you joy in his presence forever.