The Christian's Night Watch:
A Bible Study of Mark 13:33-37

by Rev. Sterling Durgy

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In the last verse of Mark 13, Jesus tells His disciples, "And what I say to you I say to all, 'Be on the alert!'" The Greek word that is correctly translated "Be on the alert" in the NASB may also be accurately translated by the single word: "watch." This command, which Jesus makes clear is given to everyone, follows a conversation that began when His disciples pointed out the splendor of Herod's Temple in Jerusalem. The teaching of Christ that follows is reported in Matthew 21:1ff., Mark 13, and Luke 21:5ff., and is often called "the Olivet Discourse." In contrast to the disciple's exuberance over one of the most impressive building complexes of the ancient world, Jesus foretold the complete destruction of the Temple, then went on to talk about conditions that would exist just prior to His second coming. His purpose was to prepare His followers for His absence.

The complete destruction of Jerusalem and its Temple complex by the Romans in 70 A.D. confirms the teaching of Jesus not only for this event, but for His return as well. If Christians were to "watch" for the events leading up to the destruction of Jerusalem, how much more all Christians should "watch" for His return according to Jesus' teaching at the end of Mark 13.

The wording of Mark 13:33-37 is unique to Mark's Gospel, but this teaching of Jesus is not unique to this chapter of Mark, the Olivet discourse, or the Synoptic Gospels. Indeed, the teaching of Jesus found here echoes throughout the New Testament; being stressed in the epistles and in the Revelation to John as well. Once we begin to pay attention to this teaching we will notice its echo not only in the words of many other books in the New Testament, but also in the tone of many passages in which this teaching is not explicit.

In Mark 13:33-37, Jesus teaches us the proper demeanor for Christians by comparing it to the manner in which servants should behave. In these verses we notice that:

  1. the master is away,
  2. each servant has been given work to do while the master is gone,
  3. danger exists in the absence of the master,
  4. and at the return of the master this period ends, but each servant is held responsible for faithfulness to given tasks.
Service, danger, responsibility, and accountability are thus the themes.

From this and other, similar teachings of Jesus we learn that danger may come from without or within. The danger that comes from without is often represented by the darkness of night and the grim possibility that some robber, under cover of the darkness, will dig through the earthen walls of the house to steal what is inside. This is representative of the very real, destructive evil of sin in our world. The danger that comes from within is the danger of becoming lax about one's behavior or becoming indifferent to the danger or to the master's return - perhaps becoming drunk, mistreating the other servants, or both. Whatever the source of the danger, the only effective approach is to be alert, careful -- watchful. In both cases the real problem is more the "darkness" in the heart than the absence of sunlight - in one case in the heart of the thief - in the other in the heart of the servant. "Night" is a metaphor for the spiritual darkness of sin.

In the ancient world, the night was commonly divided into periods of times called "watches," denoted by the Greek word phulake. A form of this word was often used for the guarding (watching) of prisoners in a jail, and another was used to refer to jails -- places where prisoners are watched. But it also has obvious relevance to the military. In Matthew 24:43, it describes the periods of time, called "watches," in which the master of the house might return - in this case, those in the midst of the night, the very watches in which it is most difficult to stay awake.

In Mark 13:33-37, two other Greek words are used for the command to "watch:" agrupneo and gregoreo. In both cases the word indicates alertness as well as the absence of sleep. In very similar passages in Luke's account of the Olivet Discourse, we are told to "be on guard" (Luke 21:34, NASB), for which prosexete (from prosexo) is used. This word carries the concept of "applying one's mind" to something, concentrating one's attention. The thought is similar to the one expressed by Peter in I Peter 1:13, where Peter tells his readers to, "gird your minds for action" (NASB), which is a good translation of what Peter is teaching, however, it doesn't fully communicate Peter's metaphor. The text literally reads, "girding up the loins of your mind." To "gird your loins" was to wrap your robe around your waist to prepare for hard physical labor. So what Peter is exhorting in his first letter is for Christians to "get down to business" in the matter of living for Christ. This means applying our minds to the serious business of living a life that is pleasing to our Lord, which Peter goes on to describe as living in holiness.

I Peter 1:13 also stresses the need for sobriety, another concept that Jesus brings into His teaching on watchfulness in Luke 12:45. The word nepho means to be "sober" in the sense of being "not-intoxicated." Again, Peter, in I Peter 5:8 writes, "Be of sober spirit, be on the alert. Your adversary, the devil, prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour." Watching so as not to be devoured by the devil is even more serious than watching to defend against a thief. In either case, people do not do a good job of watching when they are intoxicated! It takes a clear eye, a clear mind, devotion to duty, and perseverance to watch as Jesus taught us to do. As Peter warns, failure to watch could mean deadly consequences for Christians.

The victory of George Washington's army over the Hessian mercenaries at Trenton in the winter of 1776 provides a dramatic illustration of what it means to fail to watch. During the night, while the Hessians celebrated Christmas and drank heavily, colonial soldiers crossed the Delaware River and moved in close to Trenton. When the colonials struck, the Hessians, tired and hung-over, were caught entirely by surprise. Most of the Hessian soldiers were captured in a battle that lasted less than an hour. A watchful garrison could probably have held off Washington's army, a careless one was quickly overrun. Due to the carelessness of the Hessians, Washington's army won a much-needed victory, bringing renewed enthusiasm for the revolution. It was a major turning point of the war.

While Americans are happy for Washington's victory today, we should take a lesson from the careless Hessians. They failed their mission and the king they were employed to serve. So, too, in our own lives, if we fail to watch, the enemy of our souls can gain an easy advantage. From Luke 21:34 we learn that it is not just intoxication, but anything that fills our mind, pushes out awareness of God and spiritual truth, and causes us to lose our spiritual "bearings," that can cause us to stop being watchful. At this point, we take note of our inevitable human weaknesses. We cannot watch as we should without a humble dependence upon God. In Luke 21:36 Jesus teaches us that part of watching is devoting ourselves to prayer for God to sustain us. Doubtless this is why Peter links watchfulness, prayer, and the return of Christ in I Peter 4:7.

We also know from the teachings of Jesus that watching involves doing the work the Master has assigned us to do (Mark 13:34). There are many tasks in a large household, and the servants are each given his or her own portion of the work of maintaining the house. In the same manner, each Christian has opportunities to serve Christ. Some may seem routine. Others more special. But each is important, and at the return of the Master, each will be held responsible for how faithful each has been to their given tasks. No one servant can be everywhere and do everything, but each servant can do his or her own tasks (Titus 2:11-15).

Part of that service is paying attention to our thoughts and behavior. The darkness of night covers activities that are unacceptable in the light (John 3:19-21, Ephesians 5:11). A diligent servant will be certain to be found behaving in a manner his or her master would approve of. Therefore, behavior that is only "acceptable" when hidden by the darkness will be avoided (Romans 13:11-14, I Thessalonians 5:4-11). In Paul's letter to the Thessalonians he stresses the positive aspects of Christian character -- faith, love, and Christian fellowship -- as well as abstaining from evil (I Thessalonians 5:8, 11).

In Mark 13, knowing what pleased the master was a matter of obeying the instructions He gave to each servant. For each of us, this means paying close attention to the instructions He left for us in the Holy Scriptures. The more we want to please Him, the less we will pay attention to our own whims, and the more we will strive to understand what He wants of us so that we may do it.

In New Testament times, a guard who fell asleep on watch might have his clothes set on fire when discovered by his superior. Therefore, Jesus warns His servants, "Behold, I am coming like a thief. Blessed is the one who stays awake and keeps his garments" (Revelation 16:15). Matthew Henry summarizes this teaching quite well in his commentary on Matthew 24 verses 42-51, which begins, "To watch for Christ's coming, is to maintain that temper of mind which we would be willing that our Lord should find us in."

It is "night," the night of sin. Our Master is away. But He may return at any moment. Uppermost in our thinking should be His command to each one of us: "What I say to you I say to all: watch."

First printed in The American Night Watch Newsletter, Volume V, Part 10, October 1997.

Copyright 1999 Sterling M. Durgy. All Rights Reserved.

The American Night Watch is a trademark of the Christian ministry of Sterling M. Durgy.

Scriptures taken from the New American Standard Bible, Copyright 1960, 1962, 1963, 1968,1971, 1972, 1973, 1975, 1977 by the Lockman Foundation. Used by permission.

Permission is granted to reprint this article as long as the copyright is included, this statement is included, and the article is not sold to the recipients.

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This page was last updated October 22, 1999.