Are You Ready?
The end of all things is near. Therefore be alert and of sober mind so that you may pray. (1 Peter 4:7 NIV)
The study of eschatology, or end-times prophecy, at least at the popular level, often exists in an atmosphere more like a circus than an AA meeting. Peter seems to think that proper thinking about the end of all things should motivate sobriety and some sense of self-assessment.
Part of the problem is in how we think about “the end.” For example, upon reading this verse, despite the fact that Jesus says we will not know the timing of his return, many believers immediately jump to questions surrounding when “the end” is going to happen. Underneath this is an underlying assumption: if Jesus is coming back in our generation, we better get ready! Yet, according to all that Jesus and the New Testament teaches about Jesus’ return, our motivation for readiness derives from the fact that we do not know when He will return.
There is, however, an irony in modern thinking about end times. Although it seems that more people than ever are convinced this is the last generation (an unsustainable position from Scripture in any generation), one could argue that the church today is less ready for that return than any other generation. That ought to be enough to sober any of us, regardless of our eschatology.
The irony itself should be a clue that something is wrong since a biblical understanding of eschatology promotes an informed readiness. In other words, a biblical understanding of the end times fosters readiness and defines it for us.
A biblical understanding of the end times fosters readiness and defines it for us.
Readiness is Expecting the Unexpected
In the week leading up to Jesus’ crucifixion, He and the twelve were gathered on the Mount of Olives and Jesus gave what is often called the Olivet Prophecy. After instructing us that no one knows the day or hour of his return (Matt. 24:36), he goes through a series of parables to drive home his point. Each of them speaks to the need to be ready and tells us something about what it means to be ready. The first parable about the owner of a house.
42 “Therefore keep watch, because you do not know on what day your Lord will come. 43But understand this: If the owner of the house had known at what time of night the thief was coming, he would have kept watch and would not have let his house be broken into. 44 So you also must be ready, because the Son of Man will come at an hour when you do not expect him. (Matt. 24:42-44, emphasis added)
The point of this brief parable is difficult to miss. Disciples must be in a constant state of readiness because the return of the Son of Man will be unexpected. And the introductory line, “because you do not know,” (v42) makes it clear that even disciples will not know when He will come. They must keep watch because they will not know until they see Him. This leads to a similar but distinct parable.
Disciples must be in a constant state of readiness because the return of the Son of Man will be unexpected.
Readiness is Expressed in How We Use Our Resources
45 “Who then is the faithful and wise servant, whom the master has put in charge of the servants in his household to give them their food at the proper time? 46 It will be good for that servant whose master finds him doing so when he returns. 47 Truly I tell you, he will put him in charge of all his possessions. 48 But suppose that servant is wicked and says to himself, ‘My master is staying away a long time,’ 49 and he then begins to beat his fellow servants and to eat and drink with drunkards. 50 The master of that servant will come on a day when he does not expect him and at an hour he is not aware of. 51 He will cut him to pieces and assign him a place with the hypocrites, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.
Rather than focusing on a single owner of a house as representative of a disciple, this parable casts the disciple as a servant within a larger household whom the master (presumably the owner) has put in charge of other servants in his household. The focus, then, is on those disciples who are given responsibility to care for other disciples. Those disciples will be “judged” based on how they live in relation to the other servants for whom they had been entrusted with a responsibility of care.
When the master returns, it will be good for that servant if the master finds that servant giving food at the proper time to the other servants. On the other hand, servants are described as wicked when, instead of giving other servants food, they gorge themselves on the excess and begin to abuse the other servants.
According to this parable, readiness is not found in an awareness of when the master returns, but in doing what the master says, which directly involves caring for the other servants for whom they have been given charge. While it is certainly true (and probably Peter’s focus in 1 Peter 4:7-11) that all disciples must care for one another, this parable focuses on how such care must be embodied by those assigned to care for (lead) God’s people.
Readiness is not found in an awareness of when the master returns, but in doing what the master says.
These two parables, then, reveal that the return of the Son of Man will be unexpected and that the only way to be ready for it is to be busy doing the master’s will, which involves how we use our resources (spiritual or material) to care for other servants. The apostles apparently took this command to provide food for the other servants both materially and spiritually (Acts 6:1-4). Readiness is expressed through how we use our spiritual and material resources.
Readiness Means Being Wise and Not Foolish
The Parable of the Ten Virgins (Matt. 25:1-13) is familiar to many. Wedding traditions were quite different then as compared to now. The virgins were not the bride but her attendants or bridesmaids. They would go outside the town in which the bride was waiting, positioning themselves along the route which the groom, who was presumably away for any number of reasons, would be traveling to the wedding. In the case of this parable, it was evidently an evening wedding which required them to have lamps.
When the groom arrived, they would then escort him the rest of the way into the town and to the place where the celebration would take place. Their lamps would light the way. It was a procession resembling that of a dignitary who might be arriving to visit his subjects. In such cases a similar party of people would await his arrival outside the town and usher him into the city in a triumphal procession. It was an honored role to be chosen to await either a dignitary or, in the case of a wedding, the groom.
In this case, the bridegroom was unexpectedly delayed and so the bridesmaids all fell asleep. When the cry rings out that he had arrived, they awake to discover that their lamps were burning out. Only five of them had been wise enough to prepare for this unexpected contingency by bringing extra oil. The contrast between wise and foolish is introduced into what it means to be ready.
The other five were foolish and therefore disqualified for the honor at hand. They had to run into town, try to buy oil from a 24-hour oil shop and by the time they returned with oil, the bridegroom had not only arrived, but had been escorted into the banquet and the doors to the celebration had been closed.
Once again, a key point of the parable is the unexpectedness of the timing of the arrival of the Lord at his return (the bridegroom), and the necessity of readiness. Although wisdom is not defined within the parable (what it means to have extra oil, to be prepared), we are given a hint within the parable. When the five foolish virgins knock on the door requesting, “Lord, Lord, open the door for us.” The response, “I do not know you,” harkens back to Matthew 7:21-23 where many call “Lord, Lord” on that day, but he will say, “I never knew you.” Why? Because they were evildoers who did not do the will of the Father (which is spelled out in the Sermon on the Mount). Readiness looks like doing the will of the Father, putting the teachings of Jesus into practice (Matt. 7:24), or “obey[ing] everything I have commanded you” (Matt. 28:20).
Readiness looks like doing the will of the Father (Matt. 7:21-23), putting the teachings of Jesus into practice (Matt. 7:24), or “obey[ing] everything I have commanded you” (Matt. 28:20).
Readiness Requires Recognizing Our Unreadiness
These demands are impossible to fulfill and yet we must consume our lives with fulfilling them. As Karl Barth so effectively put it, “The only possible answer to the genuine insight into the imperfection of every human work is to eagerly get back to work.” We can only find the strength of God to enable us to do what He calls us to do in the recognition of our complete inability to do so and simultaneously by embracing the necessity to do what God calls us to do.
“The only possible answer to the genuine insight into the imperfection of every human work is to eagerly get back to work.” Karl Barth
This reality, that despite our inability to do what God has called us to do we must embrace the necessity to do so, is good cause for the sobriety which Peter calls us to (1 Peter 4:7). The fact that “the end of all things has drawn near” (lit. translation), that eternity has moved toward humanity in time, urges readiness in all of life.
Since Eternity collided with time in the Incarnation when God became man, then living ready for eternity looks like Jesus Christ! He displays the care, the self-giving, the welcoming of those living on the fringes, the embracing of the sick and powerless, the compassion of God for broken humanity, the power of God in what is utterly powerlessness to humanity (the cross), and therefore He is the picture of perfect readiness. Readiness consists of “Christ in you, the hope of glory” (Col. 1:27).