Be Watchful (Mark 13: 3l-37)

by T.V. Philip

T. V. Philip, born in India and a lay member of the Mar Thoma Church, has worked and taught in India, Europe, USA and Australia. He is a church historian, and a former Professor at the United Theological College, Bangalore, India.

The following appeared in The Kingdom of God is Like This, by T.V. Philip, jointly published by the Indian Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge and Christava Sahitya Samithy (CSS), Cross Junction, M.C. Road, Tiruvalla-689 101, Kerela, India. The material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


That Christ will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead is an article of our faith. Unfortunately, the mainline churches have left it to the sectarian groups to teach and preach on the second coming.

Mark 13: 3l-37

But of that day or that hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son but only the Father. Take heed, watch; for you do not know when the time will come.

Christ will come again. He will come unexpectedly and suddenly. Therefore watch. Be on guard, be alert, lest he finds you asleep. That Christ will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead is an article of our faith. Unfortunately, the mainline churches have left it to the sectarian groups to teach and preach on the second coming.

The first three Gospels -- Matthew, Mark and Luke -- record a large discourse of Jesus at the end of his public ministry about the signs of the end of the present age and the coming of the Son of Man. Not only Jesus’ public ministry but the New Testament as a whole -- in the Book of Revelation -- closes with a vision of the end. The occasion for Jesus’ teaching on the signs of the end was the disciples’ remark that the temple in Jerusalem was adorned with beautiful stones and with gifts dedicated to God. Jesus’ reply was that the time is coming when not one stone would be left upon another; every one of them would be thrown down.

Then they go to the mount of Olives, opposite the temple. There, the disciples ask him when these things would happen. What would be the sign that they are all about to be fulfilled? Jesus refuses to tell them when the end will come but tells them about the signs of the end. What are the signs of the end? Many will come in the name of Christ, claiming to be the Messiah, but don’t be deceived. Don’t run-after false prophets, false Messiahs, false ideologies and false promises. You must be vigilant. There will be wars and rumors of war, there will be earthquakes and famines, but don’t be alarmed. There will be persecution, there will be internal strife and division within the community. Brother will betray brother, father will betray son and children will betray parents. The temple will be destroyed and Jerusalem devastated. But these were not to be themselves the end but only the signs that the end was near.

Jesus drew a lesson from a fig tree. As soon as its twigs get tender and its leaves come out, we know that summer is near. In the same way, when you see such things happening, you know the end is near. That is when people will see the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory. All these signs -- the cosmic catastrophes, the destruction of the temple, the persecution of Christians and the appearance of false messiahs are only preliminary to the coming of the Son of Man. In the Gospels, the focus is not on the signs but on the coming of the Son of Man and our readiness to receive him. We often forget the main message and give too much importance to the preliminaries. Luke reminds us, "When these things begin to take place, stand up and lift your heads, because your redemption is drawing near".

What happens when the Son of Man comes? Mark tells us that he will send his angels and gather together his elect. It is a time both of judgement and gathering. Matthew describes the scene in a very graphic way in chapter twenty-five. When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his throne in heavenly glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, he will separate the people one from the other as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.

The king will say to those on his right, Come, you who are blessed by my Father, take your inheritance. For I was hungry you fed me. I was sick, you looked after me. Then the righteous answer him, When did we see you hungry and fed you, see you sick or in prison and go to visit. The king replies, Whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did it for me. He orders the people on the left: Depart from me, you who are cursed; whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me. This is what happens when the Son of Man comes. What shall be our response to the coming of the Son of Man?

The time between the first coming of Christ and his second coming is the time of the church. Two things are expected of us during this period. In the first place, the Gospel must be preached to all nations. The time of the church is the time of mission. In the light of the coming of Christ, every Sunday is a missionary Sunday, every activity of the church should be a missionary activity. After the resurrection, the disciples asked the risen Lord. "Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?" He tells them that it is not for them to know the times or dates God has set by his own authority -- but they would be his witness in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth. The time before the coming of the Son of Man is a time for mission. The church is primarily mission. It is only in mission that we understand the nature of the church. It is in mission that we become the church. The needs and sufferings of the least of these brothers and sisters in our society will determine the nature of our mission.

Secondly, we need to be watchful and alert. On the Mount of Olives, the disciples asked Jesus the same question they asked him after the resurrection: When will these things happen? Jesus did not reply to that question. Instead he told them to be alert and watchful. Keep watch because you do not know when the owner of the house will come back -- whether in the evening or midnight or at dawn. If he comes suddenly, he should not find you sleeping. The parable of the ten virgins and the parable of the talents emphasize the suddenness and unpredictability of the coming of Christ and the need to be watchful and vigilant "Be ready, because the Son of Man will come at an hour what you do not expect him".

What does it mean to be ready and watchful? It means we look beyond the present to the future earning of Christ and his kingdom. It means the present should be understood in the light of the coming kingdom. It means that all aspects of the church’s life should be oriented towards the coming of Christ and the coming of his kingdom.

We live not only in expectation of the kingdom, not only in anticipation of the coming of the Messiah, but our whole life at present should be oriented towards the kingdom of Christ. The second coming is not simply a future event but an event which controls and directs our life at the present. It is an event which transforms our view of life. To be oriented towards the coming kingdom means that we live today as if we were already in the kingdom of God. To be oriented towards the second coming does not mean that we despise the world or run away from the affairs of this world or separate ourselves from the rest of humanity. We live in this world like any other people but with a hidden life of our own. The Letter to Diagnetus in the second century says,

Christians are not distinguished from the rest of mankind by country, by speech, or by dress. For they do not dwell in the city of their own or use different language or practice a peculiar life. ... But they dwell in Greek or barbarian cities according to each man ‘slot has been cast, and follow the customs of the land in clothing and food, and other matters of daily life, yet the conditions of citizenship they exhibit is wonderful, and admittedly strange. They live in countries of their own, but simply as sojourners; they share the life of the citizens, they endure the lot of foreigners; every foreign land is to them a fatherland, and every fatherland is a foreign land. ... They exist in the flesh but they do not live after the flesh. They spend their existence upon the earth, but their citizenship is in heaven... They love all men and are persecuted by all.

We should live in this world like others. We should not fight for the rights of Christians only but for the rights of all people, especially the rights of the least in our society. A Christian must never come to think that he or she is a permanent resident in this world. A Christian is in a permanent state of expectation, expectation of the coming of Christ and his kingdom and lives daily in the light of that expectation. Famine, earthquake, wars and rumors of war and persecution will not make us panic. All these things will happen. But we should live in the shadow of the coming kingdom. This is what it means to be watchful Jesus says,

Behold I am coming soon, and I will give everyone according to what he has done. lam the Alpha and the Omega, the First and the Last, the Beginning and the End

The constant prayer of the church is: Come, Lord Jesus.