“Learn this lesson from the fig tree: As soon as its branch becomes tender and sprouts leaves, you know that summer is near. In the same way, when you see these things happening, recognize that he is near – at the door. Truly I tell you, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things take place. heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away. Now concerning that day or hour no one knows – neither the angels in heaven nor the Son – but only the Father. Watch! Be alert! For you don’t know when the time is coming.” (CSB – Read the chapter)
Do you know what a paradox is? Unless you’re boned up on your literature lessons from middle school, it may be one of those words you know, but not really. I’ll help you out. A paradox is a statement that takes two ideas often considered to be opposites and puts them together in a way that makes them both true at the same time. For example, take the adage, “The louder you are, the less they’ll hear.” On its face, that seems totally counterintuitive. If something gets louder, it seems you would be likely to hear it better. When I’m watching TV and can’t hear what’s being said very well, I’ll turn it up louder to fix the problem. And yet, when when I get angry enough that I yell at my kids, they don’t really hear anything I say to them. A quiet conversation with someone is more likely to convey information accurately than if you shout at them. It’s a paradox. In this last part of Mark 13, Jesus is summarizing His conversation with the disciples about future events. As He does so, He offers them a paradox. Let’s explore this together.
Now, this is a longer bit of text than I would usually include (although I never exclude the context of a verse if I can help it). But I wanted you to be able to see both of the ideas Jesus puts forth here with His disciples. On their face, these two ideas seem totally contradictory of one another. At the same time, He says both of them, one after the other, without anything in between, suggesting He must consider both to be simultaneously true. So, what are these ideas.
The first idea is that if we pay attention to the signs, we will have some sort of a clue as to when His return will be. And, as you read through what Jesus says here along with John’s vision recorded in Revelation, it seems that we are given many signs to watch out for with the end in mind. Thanks to these things, there is a cottage industry and has been for a long time of folks who make it their business to pay attention to what they see as the signs of Jesus’ return. There has been no shortage of books over the years assuring readers that Jesus’ return is imminent. Author Edgar Whisenant wrote a book published in 1988 arguing why the rapture would happen that year. It was cleverly called, 88 Reasons Why the Rapture Will Be in 1988. In 1989, he published a follow-up book explaining why it would actually be in 1989. I believe he gave up after that.
It is easy to laugh off things like this, but a whole lot of folks take it very seriously. They will point to things like what Jesus says here as evidence for the worthwhileness of their efforts. He said very clearly that we should pay attention to the signs. When we see the kinds of cataclysmic things happening that He described earlier in this chapter, that’s our clue that His return is near. He’s at the door. It could be opened at any minute. We need to be getting our affairs in order because the end is at hand.
Jesus even went so far as to tell them that “this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things take place.” Now, we have to do a bit of interpretive gymnastics to make that apply to us, but for folks bent on maintaining a paying audience desperate to know when the end will come, that’s easy enough to do. For my money, Jesus is talking here about the destruction of Jerusalem which did happen within the lifespan of a single generation from when He was speaking, but for an industry bent on finding signs of the end of the world now, that’s not going to be the most popular interpretation.
So, the first idea here is that we can watch the signs and have some sort of a clue as to when Jesus is returning. The second idea, though, seems to wildly contradict that. He says explicitly that “concerning that day or hour no one knows.” In other words, no one has any idea when He is going to return. No one. Not a single soul. Only God the Father knows and He isn’t sharing the timeline.
Taking this one statement at face value, it would seem to make it absolutely pointless to waste even a second’s worth of time on watching for any kind of a sign. If the return is going to be a total surprise and come when we least expect it, why bother seeking any signs? Why not just live our lives and it’ll happen when it happens?
Do you see how there could perhaps be a bit of tension between these two ideas? On the one hand, we are to watch for signs. On the other hand, nobody knows when it will come which would seem to make watching for signs pointless. Furthermore, the kinds of things the sign-watchers have generally identified as positive signs have appeared in every single generation since Jesus said this. There has always been something going on around the world that would seem to offer positive evidence of the imminency of Jesus’ return. Yet here we are, chugging along like we always have been. So, which is it? Do we watch for signs or not worry about it? The answer to that is simple: Yes.
There have indeed been pointers suggestive of the nearness of Jesus’ return over the centuries of church history. The reason for that, I would argue, is that we are indeed living in the end times. We are in the final age of humanity before the restoration of all things. That age began when Jesus returned to the Father and it will continue until He finally returns. All the signs around us point to that conclusion. We are living in the end times. That is simply a much longer season than we often imagine it to be. Because of that, His return really could happen at any time. No one knows when it will come. He will come like a thief in the night. No one will miss it because it’ll be a pretty dramatic show, but we also don’t know when the curtain is going to rise on it. That means we need to live like we’re ready for it all the time.
We should be ready for Jesus to show back up at every moment…because He could. We need to live our lives each and every day in such a way that if Jesus were to suddenly drop out of the clouds, we don’t have any reason for shame or embarrassment. We need to diligently pursue the path of righteousness. We need to turn away from sin every time it confronts us. We need to actively forgive those who have sinned against us. We need to seek forgiveness from those we have wronged. We need to share the news with anyone who will listen. We need to live like we’re ready. Let’s get started on that today.