At the end of the Olivet prophecy, Jesus says: “Take ye heed, watch and pray: for ye know not when the time is” (Mark 13:33 KJV).
Jesus had just been describing to them the events that would shortly happen when the great buildings they had been admiring would be thrown down leaving not even one stone upon another. He gave them signs to look for: they would experience persecution, they would see Jerusalem encompassed with armies, and it would happen in their own generation. But they were to understand that this was not the end. He was also answering their question of when he would come again to be their King. And his answer to that was that no one except the Father knew. It was not necessary that they know, because when it happened it would be unmistakable; all they had to do was to be ready for it at any time.
The word for “watch” in the Greek is the idea of being ready, or awake. It doesn’t mean to never physically sleep, but is instead the idea of being children of light. In 1 Corinthians 11:27-32, Paul speaks of how believers become weak and sickly and fall asleep when they do not examine themselves regularly against the example of Christ. Prayer comes into this because it is through our communication with our God (speaking to God and hearing His words through reading and meditating on the Scriptures) that we gain the direction we need for examining ourselves.
Paul also mentions this concept in 1 Thessalonians 5:1-8 and equates sleep to drunkenness and being awake to being sober. As believers, the coming of Christ should never come upon us as a thief, because we know he is coming. Drunkenness is a state of forgetfulness and inhibition; instead believers were to be ‘sober’. If we are of the day, then we will put on the breastplate of faith and love, and wear the helmet of the hope of salvation.
Jesus continued by telling a story of a man taking a far journey and giving every man his work while he is away. No one knew when he would return, but every man was to be ready for his return at any time and busy at his work. What is the work that we want to be found doing when he returns?
Casting off the works of darkness and putting on the armour of light (Romans 13:11-12)
Yielding yourself unto God (Romans 6:13)
Praying (Matthew 26:40-41)
Doing all in love (1 Corinthians 6:13,14)
Keeping from temptation (Matthew 26:41)
Obeying your leaders and submitting to them (Hebrews 13:17)
Repenting (Revelation 3:3)
Watching is not about keeping our eye on the sky or trying to figure out when Jesus will return (although there is nothing wrong with seeking to understand prophecy). It is about being ready for his return which could happen at any time. For the disciples, it was yet many, many years in the future, and yet it was also at their very doorstep because their moment of death was also the moment of the Lord’s return for them. Their next waking moment will be the resurrection.
“For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first.” (1 Thessalonians 4:16 ESV)