Mark 13: On guard


The Great Wall of China is one of the great wonders of the world. At more than 5,500 miles long, and some 30 feet wide at its widest point, urban legend has held from at least the early 1700’s that the structure would be the only man-made structure visible from the moon. While this myth has been proven untrue by the modern space program (you actually can’t see the wall from space with the unaided eye, but you can see a number of canals), the Great Wall, which was built as a defensive line against invaders from the north, remains one of the most recognizable and formidable defensive fortifications on earth.

It’s too bad it didn’t work.

That’s right. As amazing as the Great Wall is, it had one critical weakness. It was erected through mountains and valleys, crosses rivers and streams, and spans more than twice the width of the continental United States, but every so often, the Great Wall includes gates which allowed people and materials to pass back and forth between the different sides. And at those gates, the job of keeping the invaders out fell to guards.

In 1644, after nearly half a century of bitter war between the armies of the Ming Dynasty to the south and the Manchu armies to the north, General Wu Sangui, who disliked the rulers of the newly-founded Shun Dynasty, opened the gates at Shanhaiguan. The Manchu marched quickly south and captured Beijing, defeating the Shun Dynasty and the remnants of the Ming.

The greatest defensive fortification ever erected was defeated in one instant when one man let down his guard and opened the gate for the invaders to come in.

In Mark 13, Jesus’ disciples were marveling at the splendor of Herod’s magnificent temple mount. No expense had been spared to erect one of the ancient world’s engineering marvels, and these fishermen, tax collectors, and simpletons from Galilee were absolutely in awe of the thing. As they were following Jesus out of the temple area Tuesday afternoon, though, Jesus was far more concerned by the people. When someone suggested he appreciate the architecture and construction of the temple itself, Jesus declared that it would all be torn apart, a prophesy which was to come true in AD 70 when the Romans retook the city from Jewish rebels. When they asked him about the timing of these things, though, Jesus’ answer was decidedly more cryptic.

He said, “Watch out that no one deceives you,” and then went on to describe many of the signs and wonders which would mark the end of the age. A couple of things that jump out about this message:

  • The list of signs includes a number of very alarming things such as earthquakes, wars, persecution, and the desecration of the temple.
  • It does not include any specific dates. Also, the descriptions are generic enough to avoid giving any real indicator of a specific date.
  • The point is not to be watching for these specific signs to be realized. Rather, Jesus clearly aimed to provide the list as a heads up; this is what’s going to go down at that time.
  • The one theme which recurs over and over and over again throughout the chapter is simply, “Watch out!”

In fact, it’s this last one that I want to talk about for just a moment.

No less than five times in the chapter, Jesus tells his disciples to “Watch out!” or “Be on your guard.” In the original Greek, people would say something twice to emphasize it. Saying the same thing five times over and over again made absolutely clear that this was, in fact, Jesus’ main point in ch 13.

Followers of Christ must be on their guard, alert and watching for the imminent return of the Lord. However, I fear that we sometimes misunderstand the real job of the sentry. You see, a guard has three primary functions in life. The first is to watch for the bad guys. To do this, he needs to know who his enemy is. And actually, the easiest way to do this actually has nothing to do with the bad guy: learn how to recognize the good guys. For the guard at the Great Wall, this would have meant knowing the flags, uniforms, armaments and formations of friendly units and the appearance of friendly soldiers so that he could spot anything out of the ordinary. For the believer, it means being able to recognize the mannerisms and lifestyles of other believers: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control, obedience, evangelism, and more. These are the telltales of a Christian, and anyone who fails on one or more of these things is likely an enemy.

The second job of a sentry is to sound the alarm when the bad guys come. In China, four hundred years ago, General Wu recognized the Manchu approaching from the north side of the gate. As they reached it, though, he did not sound the alarm. Rather, he ordered his men to open the gate and let the bad guys in. As believers, we must not only recognize temptation and sin when they comes knocking on our door, but we must warn others about it so that they will not fall victim to it as well.

And the third job of a guard is to hold the line. That is, when the bad guys come, the sentry digs in and fights them off. He is the very front line of the defense. But it should be noted that you can’t expect to just hold the line on the spur of the moment. In the heat of battle, the guard relies on exhaustive training in combat and weapons. He needs to know his weapons, and know how to use them. For the believer, this means spending time studying the Sword of the Spirit, that is the word of God, the Bible. We must know it inside and out, and how to use it. He needs to stay in constant communication so that he knows the battle plan. For the believer, this demands prayer. And he needs to be physically, emotionally, and spiritually prepared to take on the enemy one-on-one. For the believer, this can only be a achieved by a lifetime of training in godliness. That means practicing right living according to the standards God has set out in Scriptures on a moment-to-moment basis, day in and day out.

So here’s the thing. So many people love to look at this passage and others for the hints that they provide about the end times. And to be perfectly honest, that’s a far more exciting thing to do because you can very easily run into a rather lively debate about any number of points. But as I said above, that’s not what this is all about. The point isn’t that we should be watching for these events as an advanced warning of the coming Last Day. We’ve already got that warning. It’s that we need to be doing the things that we’re supposed to be doing each and every day. And we need to be on the lookout for the enemy moving against us all the time.

“Watch out that no one deceives you” (vs 5).

“You must be on your guard” (vs 7).

“So be on your guard; I have told you ahead of time” (vs 23).

“Be on your guard! Be alert!” (vs 32)

“Watch!” (vs 37).


  • (4) I wonder if these disciples expected the earful they were about to get.
  • (5-8) Of course, recent headlines regarding earthquakes and wars, etc., fuel speculation that the birth pains have begun, and they surely have. But to say that the end will come presently on the basis of these headlines is not nearly so certain. Jesus’ wording implies that these things are just a beginning and do not set a timetable for the completion of the process. Know only that it will be soon, possibly even today, as has been the case for the last two millennia.
  • (9-11) Jesus’ statements here seem almost contradictory. He says, “Be on your guard!” but then, in the next breath, “Do not worry beforehand about what to say.” The point would seem to be, be prepared for any contingency, but don’t obsess. Trust God to provide what you need, when you need it.
  • (13) Even in extraordinarily difficult times, the call of the believer remains: stand true to the gospel and firm against the onslaught of Satan.
  • (18) Jesus’ comment here would imply that he does not know when this is going to happen. I suppose it’s a part of his self-emptying to become human.
  • (22) Indeed, there are plenty of people today who are considered practical messiahs.
  • (23) Again, Jesus repeats the challenge: “Be on your guard.”
  • (30) Generation could also be rendered as “age” or “era.” In God’s eyes, this era of the last days started with Jesus’ first coming and will end with his second.
  • (33) Again, we see the challenge to be on guard! And this time, it’s coupled with a very similar, “Be alert!”
  • (35) And again, “keep watch.”
  • (37) And yet again! “Watch!”

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