It is mid-November, and the Church is contemplating the Last Things. There is a really awful strain of thought out there when it comes to dealing with eschatology and the Second Coming.Unam Sanctam Catholicam: We Should Watch for Signs of Christ’s Return
It is mid-November, and the Church is contemplating the Last Things. There is a really awful strain of thought out there when it comes to dealing with eschatology and the Second Coming. These are the people who say, “God doesn’t want us to think about this. We don’t know when it’s going to happen; it could be tomorrow or ten-thousand years from now. We’re not supposed to look for signs anyway. It’s not worth focusing on.” Usually, they trot out Mark 13:32: “But of that day or that hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.” The reasoning seems to be, “Since Jesus Himself says He doesn’t know the hour, what purpose is there for us to think about it?”
This is such a sadly misguided reductivist reading of the text. If we read the entirety of Mark 13, we will see that the whole chapter is a string of signs that Jesus specifically tells us to watch for. I’m not going to parse the entire chapter, but let’s look at the immediate context of Mark 13:32. Jesus was asked about the signs of the end of the age. After listing various indicators (such as persecution), He says:
But in those days, after that tribulation, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken. And then they will see the Son of man coming in clouds with great power and glory. And then he will send out the angels, and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven.
From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that he is near, at the very gates. Truly, I say to you, this generation will not pass away before all these things take place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.
But of that day or that hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. Take heed, watch and pray; for you do not know when the time will come. It is like a man going on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his servants in charge, each with his work, and commands the doorkeeper to be on the watch. Watch therefore—for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or in the morning—lest he come suddenly and find you asleep. And what I say to you I say to all: Watch. (Mark 13:24-37)
First, notice the lesson of the fig tree: “As soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth leaves, you know that summer is near. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that he is near, at the very gates.” In this passage Jesus is specifically saying that signs manifested on the earth will give us knowledge that His coming is near. How anybody can read this passage and think we are not supposed to pay attention to signs in the world as indicator’s of Christ’s return is beyond me. He literally says, “There’s going to be signs that will give you insight into the proximity of my return.”
Only after saying this does He say that nobody knows the day or the hour. How does this fit in with what Christ said in the previous verse? In verse 31 He says to pay attention because the signs of the times will let us know when He will return, while in verse 32 He says no man knows the day nor the hour. How do these go together?
The answer is pretty simple. Just because nobody knows the precise moment when Christ will return does not mean there isn’t anything we can know about it. While cautioning us that knowledge of the exact time is not possible, Jesus wants us to know that we can discern the season of His coming. That’s why His parables on this question are seasonal: when we see the fig tree putting forth leaves, we know we are moving into the season of summer—and what to expect when summer comes. Similarly, we cannot know the exact day nor the hour, but through attention to the “signs of the times”, we can know when it is near.
Jesus uses another seasonal-weather parable to address this same issue. In Matthew 16:2-3, He tells the Pharisees:
When it is evening, you say, ‘It will be fair weather; for the sky is red.’ And in the morning, ‘It will be stormy today, for the sky is red and threatening.’ You know how to interpret the appearance of the sky, but you cannot interpret the signs of the times.
There are two implications here:
(1) Discerning the “signs of the times” is akin to discerning the weather. You don’t know exactly when the first rain drops will fall, but you know that a storm is coming “soon” when all the signs are there.
(2) The tone of Jesus’s words tells us that we should be attempting to make this discernment. He seems to express surprise that His hearers are not already doing so.
To return to Mark 13, we see that Jesus’s final admonition is for watchfulness. He uses an example of servants waiting for their master to return from a journey. The servants do not know exactly when the master will return, “in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow.” Does that mean they should not watch because they don’t know the precise moment? On the contrary, Jesus says, “Take heed, watch and pray; for you do not know when the time will come…And what I say to you I say to all: Watch.” The fact that we do not know the exact time is an argument to pay closer attention for the Master’s return. You may not know what time of night he will return, but you know He is coming and that His return is close.
Thus when we read all of Mark 13, the message that emerges is this:
The coming of Christ will be preceded by a series of signs. The signs are not specific enough to let us know the exact day or time, and speculating on such would be futile. But nevertheless, the signs will be sufficient for us to know that we are moving into the “season” of Christ’s return. We are to be attentive to these things and prepare ourselves for His coming, even more so to the degree we know the “season” is near.
Sure, I get there is significant debate over what constitutes a “sign”, what the signs means, and so on. But the point is this: Anyone who tells you we are not supposed to try to discern the signs of His coming is being disingenuous about what the Bible actually says.