“What I say to you I say to all: Stay awake.”
These words close Mark 13, the chapter recording Jesus’ ‘Olivet Discourse’. Jesus has spoken about future events, both the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple in AD 70 and his still-awaited return in glory. Faced with wars and rumours of wars, He calls his disciples to remain faithful, trusting in His Word and Spirit’s enabling as they continue the task of preaching the gospel to all nations.
Three times in the closing verses of Mark 13, Jesus says “stay awake”.
That means more than noticing what is happening in the world. It means awareness of what God is doing and focus on His purposes. In our age of instant information, we hear of wars and see the images. We may think we are alert because we are informed, but Jesus challenges us to a different level of consciousness –awareness of God’s work and assurance of God’s timing.
So, are you wide awake?
The same word translated ‘stay awake’ in Mark 13 appears another three times in Mark 14 (‘watch’ in the ESV). Jesus is back with the disciples on the Mount of Olives a few days after his Olivet Discourse. In between, we have read of the plot to kill Him, His anointing in Bethany, Judas’ decision to betray Him, His last Passover meal and institution of the Lord’s Supper, and His prediction of Peter’s denial. Now, He goes to the Garden of Gethsemane. As He turns to prayer, He commands His disciples to “Stay here and watch” (verse 34).
You know what happened next. They slept! Three times, Jesus came to them and rebuked them. Specifically, He spoke to Simon Peter, saying, “Could you not watch one hour? Watch and pray that you may not enter into temptation” (verses 37-38).
Three times in Gethsemane, Jesus came to the disciples and found them sleeping.
Three times in Mark 13 and another three times in Mark 14, He charged them to stay awake.
Three times Peter would deny Jesus just as Jesus had said he would shortly before He went to Gethsemane.
Reflecting on Jesus’ command to Peter to stay awake, I was drawn to Peter’s letters, where the apostle passes on the lessons he has learned to a new generation of believers. In 1 Peter 5:8, he writes:
Be sober-minded; be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour.
Satan wants to destroy God’s work of God and prevent God’s work through us. We must be alert to his lies.
So, what is Satan’s chief tactic against you?
Is it temptation to a specific besetting sin?
Or perhaps doubts about the faith or your ability to hold on to it?
Maybe he accuses you, saying you cannot be forgiven, that you are beyond God’s grace.
Behind each of these attacks are Satan’s lies.
The lie that you cannot resist the temptation or that giving into it will bring happiness.
The lie that God’s Word cannot be trusted or that your own ability to hold on is what saves.
The lie that Christ’s sacrifice was not enough or that God’s promise never to abandon you is unreliable.
Hear the words of the apostle Peter, forged in the crucible of experience.
Be watchful for Satan, alert to his schemes.
It is not only Peter who reminds us of Jesus’ command to stay awake and be watchful. The apostle Paul does so too. In Colossians 4:2, he writes:
Continue steadfastly in prayer, being watchful in it with thanksgiving.
We must watch out for diabolical opposition, but we must also be watchful for divine opportunities. Steadfast in prayer, noticing what God is doing and giving thanks for it as we seek His wisdom and leading.
So, are you continuing steadfastly in prayer?
Do you simply go through the motions or do you pray because you know it is only through prayer that we can see as God sees, love as God loves and act as Christ acts.
Be watchful in prayer, alert to God’s leading.
We have another use of the same verb by the apostle Paul, in Acts 20:28-32 where he speaks to the Ephesian elders:
Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood. I know that after my departure fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves will arise men speaking twisted things, to draw away the disciples after them. Therefore be alert
We need to stay alert to the possibility that some of those who have been appointed to shepherd the flock will instead abuse it. We have heard the stories in recent years, but the apostle predicted it. We must recognise that could even be us.
Listen to Paul’s charge. The Church belongs to God. It was obtained with His own blood. And our task of overseeing it is a gift from the Holy Spirit. Yet, Paul says, fierce wolves will come among the flock and they may even arise from among these elders.
What turns a shepherd into a wolf? Marcus Honeysett’s book Powerful Leaders? for an insightful analysis. Put simply here, though, it is the pursuit of a following.
When unchecked, the desire to be successful, to have an impact, to leave a legacy can go awry. When it becomes about ourselves – my reputation, my legacy, my ministry – not the Lord – His glory, His inheritance, His service – we have a problem.
So, who are you making disciples for – yourself or Jesus?
Do you speak much about Jesus, or do you tend to drift into talking about yourself?
Are you encouraging people towards maturity and healthy dependence on Him or keeping them as infants with an unhealthy dependency on you?
Does the way you lead suggest that you are aware of the sacred trust you have, to be given responsibility to watch over God’s precious people, guiding and guarding them?
I should add that this command to watch is not only to each individual elder but to the group collectively. It expects mutual accountability.
Be watchful as shepherds, alert to the allure of power.
So, here we have three things we must be watchful for. Three reasons to stay awake.
First, the devil is on the prowl. We must stay awake to be on the defence.
Second, God is at work. We must stay awake to be steadfast in prayer to follow Him.
Third, shepherds can turn on the flock. We must stay awake to stay true to our calling.
These three reasons for watchfulness are also found in the Lord’s words to Peter when He predicted his denial. Let us hear what Jesus said to him from Luke Chapter 22 verses 31 to 34:
Simon, Simon, behold, Satan demanded to have you, that he might sift you like wheat, but I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail. And when you have turned again, strengthen your brothers.
Do you see the three ideas we saw in the epistles?
Watchful because Satan wants to destroy.
Watchful in prayer because God is at work.
Watchful as shepherds who strengthens our brothers.
Except here it is not about what Peter does at all.
Here is Peter, confident in his strength, faithfulness and dependability. That has been me too often. I like to think I am capable. I want to be reliable. That is not a bad thing, I suppose, but in it is the seed of pride.
And that pride sends me into a slumber where I miss Satan’s schemes, God’s promptings, and my own desire for significance.
I am strong, so Satan cannot get at me.
I am capable, so I do not need to pray.
I am faithful, so I will not ever abuse power.
Peter was confident, but Jesus knew just how weak this big fisherman was. He knew his denial was coming. He had heard Satan demanding to get his claws into Peter. He knew Peter did not have what it takes to stand against that attack. Only through Jesus’ intercession could Peter be saved. Jesus knew that was why He must go to Gethsemane and on to Golgotha.
He knew too that Peter’s failure won’t be final. He knew He would stand days later on the Galilean shoreside beside a smouldering fire, the smell of grilled fish in His nostrils, asking Peter three times whether he loves Him (John 21).
Three times the question for the man who denied Jesus three times. The Lord’s heart surgery, tenderly restoring Him and calling Him afresh to follow and to feed His sheep.
Simon the fisherman became Peter the apostle because of the Lord Jesus who called Him, interceded for Him and commissioned Him.
You too have become, have you not, what you now are through the grace of Christ alone who called you, who intercedes for you and whose commission to make disciples for Him is your priority?
We do not know when the Master will return, but He is surely coming soon.
So, wake up and be watchful.
Watchful for Satan, alert to his schemes.
Watchful in prayer, alert to God’s leading.
Watchful as shepherds, alert to the allure of power.