Passing Away: Watch!

Jesus-Apostles-vine-branch2Keeping Watch. 32 “But of that day or hour, no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. 33 Be watchful! Be alert! You do not know when the time will come. 34 It is like a man traveling abroad. He leaves home and places his servants in charge, each with his work, and orders the gatekeeper to be on the watch. 35 Watch, therefore; you do not know when the lord of the house is coming, whether in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or in the morning. 36 May he not come suddenly and find you sleeping. 37 What I say to you, I say to all: ‘Watch!’”

Here at the end of the Olivet Discourse, Jesus’ primary message is not about signs or their interpretations, but maintain vigilance – the watchfulness that is imperative, because no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. No knows which day will be that day, a phrase with clear eschatological resonance in passages which announce the day of Yahweh’s appearing (Amos 8:3, 9, 13; 9:11; Mic. 4:6; 5:9; 7:11; Zeph. 1:9f.; 3:11, 16; Obad. 8; Joel 3:18; Zech. 9:16; 12–14). As previously noted by Witherington [338], Jesus’ goal has been to get the disciples to focus less on the things that will happen and more on the one who will bring all things to a conclusion in due course – the Son of Man.

One of the phrases that has garnered attention in every age is nor the Son. Seemingly, there is a clear indication and confession of ignorance about the events at the end of the age. At one level it is the same mystery one faces when plumbing the Incarnation, that Jesus is fully divine and fully human. The history of heresy is filled with attempts of people to explain how there can be a divide between the human and divine. But I would suggest in this passage, there is no theological or chistological intention on Jesus’ part. It is a warning that what is needed is vigilance not calculation. If the ever-vigilant angels will not have a “playbook of signs,” it makes no sense for humans to prepare the checklist of signs. Not that generation after generation have not tried. The only common trait is that they are always wrong. That day is impossible to discern and so to prepare oneself for it. In this respect it stands in sharp contrast to the destruction of Jerusalem, which could be clearly foreseen and its devastation avoided by flight. The day of judgment will arrive so suddenly and unexpectedly that absolutely no one will have the least warning. That is why vigilance and confident faith are required of the disciples and the Church. Correctly understood, the qualification “nor the Son” indicates that even Jesus had to live by faith and to make obedience and watchfulness the hallmark of his ministry.

Jesus recognized one exception to the true ignorance implied: “except the Father.” The one certainty the disciples may have is that the day will come when God will execute his decision to judge the world, and for that purpose he will send forth his Son with the hosts of angels (Ch. 8:38; 13:26f.). The parousia and the judgment it will inaugurate are matters irrevocably decided. From this perspective the parousia is not conditioned by any other consideration than the sovereign decision of the Father, which remains enveloped with impenetrable mystery.

The exhortations to vigilance which follow are linked to the fact that the critical moment remains unknowable. The connection with v. 32 and with the brief parable which follows is underlined by reference to an ignorance of God’s secret counsel:

  • v.32 “But of that day or hour, no one knows
  • v.33 “You do not know when the time will come.”
  • v.35 “you do not know when the lord of the house is coming.”

In the parallelism that is developed “that day or hour,” the critical moment, and the moment of the householder’s return are identical expressions for the same reality: the mysterious moment of the divine intervention, which cannot be foreseen. Because the moment of crisis is unknowable, unceasing vigilance is imperative. The time of the appearing of the Son of Man in glory is unknown, but the fact that he will come is certain. The Church is called to live vigilantly in the certainty of that coming.

Final Reflection. Pheme Perkins [694] offers a final thought

“On the one hand, Mark underscores the certainty of Jesus’ word. Readers know that the death of Jesus on the cross does not end the story of salvation. On the other hand, Christians need not concern themselves with apocalyptic speculation. Disciples should remember that ‘doing the will of God’ (3:35) has no relationship to the timing of divine judgment. Neither should Christians concern themselves with the fate of those who persecute them or who reject the gospel. When Christians rush to judge others, they should remember this exhortation. The only question the master will ask is whether the servants have been faithful to their call as disciples.

“Living some two millennia after these words were spoken, many Christians today assume that the word about watchfulness has no significance for them. Yet we all know that human life is fleeting. A young man was murdered on the streets of a large city merely for asking some youths why they were verbally tormenting an elderly man. The young man’s fiancée discovers that her whole world has dissolved. Fortunately, the last words they had exchanged concerned love and their hopes for the future. A young woman went to pick up her infant from his nap and discovered that he had died of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome. Unfortunately,   V 8, p 695 her last interaction with the baby had been one of anger and frustration over the child’s fussing and crying. Both women are in terrible pain. They have been stripped of what they love most in the whole world. But the young mother has to face the nagging regret that she did not show her baby the love she feels for him in the last hours she spent with him. On a personal level, such stories remind us that we should be watchful as Christians. The early religious orders practiced a time of examining one’s conscience, in which all members assessed how their behavior of the day just past reflected (or neglected) the conduct expected of members of their order. Being a faithful Christian does not just ‘happen’ like crabgrass or dandelions popping up in the lawn. It requires the care, attention, and cultivation of an expert gardener.”


  • Alan Cole, Mark: An Introduction and Commentary. Vol. 2 of Tyndale New Testament Commentaries (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1989) 481-84
  • John R. Donahue and Daniel J. Harrington, The Gospel of Mark, vol. 2 of Sacra Pagina, ed. Daniel J. Harrington (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2002) 366-83 (study of Mk 13:1-37)
  • Wilfred Harrington, Mark, The New Testament Message, v.4 (Collegeville, MN: Michael Glazer Press, 1979)
  • William L. Lane, The Gospel of Mark, The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publication Co., 1974). 444-5, 81-4
  • Philip Van Linden, “Mark” in The Collegeville Bible Commentary, eds. Diane Bergant and Robert J. Karris (Collegeville, Minn.: Liturgical Press, 1989) 930
  • Wilfred Harrington, Mark, v 4 of New Testament Message, eds. Wilfred Harrington and Donald Senior (Collegeville, Minn.: Liturgical Press, 1979) 205-9
  • Pheme Perkins, The Gospel of Mark in The New Interpreter’s Bible, VIII (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1994) 693-5
  • David Turner and Darrell L. Bock, Cornerstone Biblical Commentary, Vol 11: Matthew and Mark (Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, 2005). 519-20, 24
  • Ben Witherington, The Gospel of Mark: A Social-Rhetorical Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2001) 336-50
  • Brian Stoffregen, CrossMarks Christian Resources, available at


  • Gerhard Kittel, Gerhard Friedrich and Geoffrey William Bromiley, Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans, 1995)
  • Horst Robert Balz and Gerhard Schneider, Exegetical Dictionary of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1990)

Scripture – The New American Bible available on-line at

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