The gospel of Mark contains 16 chapters. Around the midway point of chapter 8, the tone and focus of the book changes. Whereas the first half emphasized Jesus’ miraculous power and ministry, the second half settles upon the road to his suffering and death. As we move toward Easter (Mk. 16) I’ll use these next few blogs to travel the road Jesus walked in the record leading up to his death and resurrection.
Shortly before his last Passover meal with his disciples, Jesus taught his disciples about his second coming (Mk. 13). Toward the end of this speech, he mentions that no one knows “that day or that hour” when he would return “not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father” (13:32). Then he warns them three times in the next five verses to “stay awake” since they couldn’t know when Jesus would return (vv 33-37). He concludes with the direct, “And what I say to you I say to all: Stay awake.” Notice that in this passage Jesus uses this phrase “stay awake” three times. Think he’s trying to tell us something?
A couple days later he shared his last meal with the disciples. That night he went to Gethsemane to pray before his betrayal. Jesus was anguished by the “cup” of suffering he was about to drink (14:33-34). He took his inner circle of disciples (Peter, James and John) with him and told them to “remain here and watch.” Then, while Jesus was in agonizing prayer, his closet companions couldn’t stay awake. Just a few days earlier they received Jesus’ emphatic warning to “stay awake” and now they were falling asleep. Three times in vv 37-41 Jesus returned from praying to find his disciples falling asleep. Three times Jesus said “stay awake.” Three times his disciples fell asleep. Have we too missed Jesus’ most emphatic exhortations? With disappointment he asked them, “Could you not watch one hour?” Then he warned them, “Watch and pray that you may not enter into temptation. The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak” (v 38).
Mark captures the failure of the disciples to hear and obey Jesus’ teaching to stay awake. Of course, Jesus was talking about more than just avoiding falling asleep while we pray. He was giving instruction about our spiritual awareness. With the repetitive command to stay awake, Jesus spoke to all his disciples throughout the ages about the need to remain alert. I think for us it can become easy to lose our spiritual edge and focus. It doesn’t take much of a lapse in alertness to become desensitized to the spiritual reality upon us by the pseudo-comforting distractions around us. Staying awake spiritually involves looking past the clamor of worldly attractions. It’s about perceiving the presence of the kingdom of heaven growing up like wheat among the tares of modern society. Are you remaining aware, staying awake to the ongoing revealing of the Kingdom and the immanent coming of our Lord?
The question left to consider is how: how can we stay awake? Jesus’ activity shows us the key. First, while he issued the command to stay awake, he was teaching, but his disciples weren’t listening well. We know they didn’t hear this teaching or take it to heart enough by their quick failure in the garden the next chapter. Earlier when Jesus prophesied about his death for the third time, the first response of the disciples in James and John’s petition to sit at the right and left hand of Jesus in his glory (10:33-37). They just weren’t listening! If we are to stay awake spiritually we need to listen closely to what Jesus is saying. We need to read Scripture with our minds and hearts, with our eyes and ears. Jesus said it so often: “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.”
Another way to stay awake is found when the disciples failed to do this very thing in the garden. Jesus was praying and they were supposed to as well. Jesus said “watch and pray,” but they slept. Jesus’ passionate praying before his betrayal prepared him to receive God’s will—even in suffering and death—with power and grace. If we are to stay awake in the midst of a world in a spiritual stupor, then we need to diligent in prayer. No wonder Paul advises to “pray without ceasing” (1 Thess. 5:17).
Listening and praying won’t tell us when Jesus is coming again, but they will get us ready to receive him when he comes. May we, as the bride of Christ, stay awake as we eagerly await his glorious coming!