57. Waiting for the Master, Watching for the Thief (Luke 12:35-40)

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Gospel Parallels §158

'Must Be Prepared,' artist unknown
'Must Be Prepared,' artist unknown

35  "Be dressed ready for service and keep your lamps burning, 36  like men waiting for their master to return from a wedding banquet, so that when he comes and knocks they can immediately open the door for him. 37  It will be good for those servants whose master finds them watching when he comes. I tell you the truth, he will dress himself to serve, will have them recline at the table and will come and wait on them. 38  It will be good for those servants whose master finds them ready, even if he comes in the second or third watch of the night. 39  But understand this: If the owner of the house had known at what hour the thief was coming, he would not have let his house be broken into. 40  You also must be ready, because the Son of Man will come at an hour when you do not expect him." (Luke 12:35-40, NIV)

Are you complacent? Spiritually dull? Is your spiritual life going nowhere fast? This lesson is for you.

Jesus has been teaching about material things -- greed (with the Parable of the Rich Fool) and worry (that there won't be enough, with assurance that God cares for the ravens and wildflowers). He concludes with a call to focus on what is really important -- the gift of the Kingdom that the Father bestows.

But now the teaching shifts into another vein altogether -- the coming of the Son of Man and judgment at the end of the age (12:35-13:9). The connection is the vital importance of the Kingdom compared to the relative unimportance of material things. The first and second parables in Jesus' teaching on his Second Coming contrast laziness and self-indulgence with diligence and a focus on the Kingdom. (See Appendix 2G. Introduction to Eschatology.)

Waiting for the Master to Return (Luke 12:35-36)

"Be dressed ready for service and keep your lamps burning like men waiting for their master to return from a wedding banquet, so that when he comes and knocks they can immediately open the door for him." (12:35-36)

In this Parable of the Watchful Servants (which is found only in Luke), Jesus sets the scene: a master has gone to a wedding banquet and his servants are waiting up for him, even though he is delayed. The image seems to come from a rich household, perhaps Roman, where slaves are expected to anticipate their master's wishes. The word translated "master" is Greek kyrios, "one who is in charge by virtue of possession, owner." The word is also used as a term of respect, something like our "sir" for someone who is in a position of authority, "lord, master." It takes on divine connotations, however, because it is used in the Greek Septuagint translation of the Old Testament to translate the Hebrew word Yahweh, the name of God. Thus, when Jesus is addressed as Lord, it isn't fully clear whether "sir" or "God" is meant. Certainly in the New Testament Epistles we see this exalted usage. 543 But here in 12:36, "master" refers to "owner," and only to Jesus by analogy.

"Wedding celebration, wedding banquet," is the plural of Greek gamos. This is not an allegorical reference to the messianic banquet, the Marriage Supper of the Lamb (Revelation 19:7-9; Luke 14:15). That is to take place after the coming of Christ and all the saints are to partake of it. Rather the wedding banquet in our passage ia just an element of the parable reflecting uncertain length; it indicates that the master is relatively close by and can return at any time. Let's resist the temptation to read more into it than is there.

Be Dressed Ready for Service (Luke 12:35a)

"Be dressed ready for service and keep your lamps burning." (12:35)

The disciples, Jesus says, are to be dressed and ready, just like the servants in the household of a master who is expected momentarily. The phrase translated, "Be dressed and ready for service" (NIV), is more literally rendered by the KJV: "Let your loins be girded about." Leon Morris explains, "The long, flowing robes of the Easterner were picturesque, but apt to hinder serious labor, so when work was afoot they were tucked into a belt about the waist."544

But what about when work is delayed? Can't a person relax and take it easy until it appears like more work will be needed? Not in the application of Jesus' parable. As Jesus draws the analogy, the servants (disciples) are to stay awake and be ready at a moment's notice to welcome the master. They are specifically commanded not to consider themselves off duty, but on duty.

I remember my Army days when each of us was supposed to spend a night every few months as "charge of quarters," awake and alert all night in a barracks of sleeping men. But the unwritten rule was to sleep in the bunk provided in the room. If there had been some emergency in the middle of the night, the sleepy attendant wouldn't be alert and ready enough to do much of anything. It's that kind of unwritten policy of spiritual laziness that Jesus seeks to avoid in us.

Keep Your Lamps Burning (Luke 12:35b)

"Be dressed ready for service and keep your lamps burning." (12:35)

The lamps (Greek lychnos) referred to are the small clay lamps. To keep them burning requires both an expenditure of effort and resources. Lamps kept burning must be refilled periodically with olive oil, the wicks must be trimmed occasionally, and they must be checked lest the wind were to blow one out.

In California, we experienced an energy shortage for which the government mandated electricity savings. We shut off unneeded lights, stores were half lit, and auto malls no longer had as many lights blazing. During this emergency, to leave lights on was wasteful, even illegal. Energy frugality was the law in California. But not in Jesus' kingdom. Until the master comes, the lights will remain lit so that when he arrives, the house is prepared for his entrance. Now isn't the time to relax and cut back, but a time for renewed vigilance, renewed effort, renewed investment of our energy as we prepare for Jesus' coming.

Waiting for Their Master to Return (Luke 12:36)

"...like men waiting for their master to return from a wedding banquet, so that when he comes and knocks they can immediately open the door for him." (12:36)

The master shouldn't have to bang on the door and wait while his servants get up and come sleepily to the door, stumbling over things in the dark. When the master arrives, the servants are to be ready. His coming is their most important priority; their own weariness and self-indulgence isn't to take over. They are servants.

The word translated "waiting" is Greek prosdechomai, "to look forward to, 'wait for.'" It has the connotation of "receive favorably,"545 and thus is not just a dutiful waiting, but an anticipation of one who is hoped for, expected, and looked forward to.

Watching When He Comes (Luke 12:37a)

"It will be good for those servants whose master finds them watching when he comes." (12:37a)

The word rendered "watching" is Greek grēgoreō, "to stay awake, be watchful, to be in constant readiness, be on the alert."546 It comes from a word meaning "to wake or rouse up someone."

Have you ever tried to drive late at night and struggled to stay awake? I have. Perhaps the best thing to do is to stop and take a break. Get out of the car into the brisk air of night. Walk or run back and forth to get the blood circulating. Then when you begin to drive again, leave the window open so the air blasts into your face. Chew gum. Listen to the radio. Talk, pray, or sing out loud. Staying awake when you are weary is work. It is discipline. It requires diligence. But if you are driving, your life, and the life of your passengers, depends upon you staying awake.

The Master Serving the Servants (Luke 12:37b)

"It will be good for those servants whose master finds them watching when he comes. I tell you the truth, he will dress himself to serve, will have them recline at the table and will come and wait on them." (12:37)

They may be servants, but now the parable takes a very strange twist, a role reversal. The master they have so eagerly prepared for tells them to be seated at the table. He girds up his own clothing and begins to serve them.

This isn't what you'd expect from any Roman master -- far from it. But it is what Jesus' disciples have found to surprise them at some of their more difficult times. Jesus is present to help them. He is a leader, and a demanding one. But he is not aloof. He is the Servant Leader, from whom all of us learn to serve and take on a servant mentality.

  • He is the Suffering Servant of Isaiah who pours out his life unto death and is numbered with the transgressors (Isaiah 52:13 - 53:12).
  • He is the Humble Servant who washes the dirty feet (and souls) of his disciples (John 13:4-17).
  • He is the Son of Man who does not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many (Mark 10:45).

Jesus upends the world system by making the poor rich and the rich poor, the meek inherit, and the mournful leap for joy.

And so, in Jesus' remarkable parable, the servants who wait up to all hours to welcome their master with style are rewarded to a meal he serves to them himself. What a wonderful and unexpected blessing!

Even in the Second or Third Watch (Luke 12:38)

"It will be good for those servants whose master finds them ready, even if he comes in the second or third watch of the night" (12:38).

Jesus repeats the phrase that began 12:37 in this verse: "It will be good for those servants whose master finds them watching ... ready...." And then he suggests that even if they have to stay up to the wee hours of the morning, they will be rewarded for their readiness. The Romans divided the night into four watches, while the Jews divided it into three (Judges 7:19).547

Notice that the Parable of the Watchful Servants has two main themes:

  1. The master's return may be delayed, and
  2. The master's servants must nevertheless be ready.

Jesus doesn't teach us a precise timetable for his return -- no matter what any prophecy teacher tells you. We have but the bare outlines, and some sign posts, event triggers that we know will precipitate other events. But in the fog of everyday life we just don't know when he is coming.

Disillusioned by Delay

When I was a boy, I remember listening to my godly Presbyterian pastor declare that the coming of Christ was imminent. That the signs in the Middle East with the new State of Israel were such that Christ could come very quickly. When I was newly married, someone suggested that Christ was coming so soon that it probably wouldn't be a good idea to have children -- I'm glad I ignored him.

It's possible to become disillusioned. It didn't happen when I expected it, we reason -- wrongly -- so it follows that it will not happen at all. It may surprise you to find that you could find thoroughly cynical Christians even in the first century. Peter writes:

"First of all, you must understand that in the last days scoffers will come, scoffing and following their own evil desires. They will say, 'Where is this "coming" he promised? Ever since our fathers died, everything goes on as it has since the beginning of creation.'

But do not forget this one thing, dear friends: With the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day. The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.

But the day of the Lord will come like a thief. The heavens will disappear with a roar; the elements will be destroyed by fire, and the earth and everything in it will be laid bare.

Since everything will be destroyed in this way, what kind of people ought you to be? You ought to live holy and godly lives as you look forward to the day of God and speed its coming." (2 Peter 3:3-4, 8-12a)

Anticipating the Thief (Luke 12:39)

Jesus concludes the Parable of the Watchful Servants with a curious saying, if not a full-blown parable:

"But understand this: If the owner of the house had known at what hour the thief was coming, he would not have let his house be broken into." (12:39)

The phrase "broken into" is Greek dioryssō. In the New Testament it is used of a thief who "digs through" the (sun-dried brick) wall of a house and gains entrance, "break through, break in."548 Homes in Palestine were typically barred at night, while wealthier homes might lock the door with a key. But thieves didn't try to storm the door -- not at night when it would surely wake the inhabitants. They would dig through the mud-brick wall of the house, ever so silently, to gain entrance at night, steal valuables, and then exit without waking the family.

The only way to defeat such a robber would be to stay up all night, alert and listening for any sign of entry.

The saying about "a thief in the night" is almost proverbial in the New Testament to describe the unannounced and unexpected coming of Jesus:

"You know very well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night." (1 Thessalonians 5:2)

"The day of the Lord will come like a thief." (2 Peter 3:10)

"I will come like a thief, and you will not know at what time I will come to you." (Revelation 3:3)

"Behold, I come like a thief! Blessed is he who stays awake and keeps his clothes with him, so that he may not go naked and be shamefully exposed." (Revelation 16:15)

The only way to catch a thief trying to enter your house by digging through the wall is to stay awake so you can hear him. In the same way Jesus will come -- unanticipated, unexpected. The only way you can be ready for his Coming is to stay spiritually alert and awake. Otherwise you will be caught unawares. This tiny parable makes two points:

  1. The Son of Man is coming unexpectedly, and
  2. You must be alert for his coming, even if your alertness must be long-maintained.

Be Ready! (Luke 12:40)

He sums up the parable with this explicit command:

"You also must be ready, because the Son of Man will come at an hour when you do not expect him." (12:40)

The Greek word translated "be ready" is hetoimos, "ready," from the verb hetoimazō, "to cause to be ready, put/keep in readiness, prepare."549

On February 9, 2001, the U.S.S. Greenville submarine surfaced underneath the Japanese fishing boat Ehime Maru, killing nine persons. How could this happen? The Greenville had a marvelously trained crew, the envy of the fleet. One contributing factor: the presence of 16 civilians in the control room made communications less open, less easy. Officers were in a hurry to complete a maneuver and impress the guests, and the fire-control technician didn't communicate his concern with the position of a nearby ship. They were preoccupied with the visitors. They were in a hurry. They weren't fully alert. And the result was tragic.

What Destroys Readiness?

What does readiness for the Son of Man consist of? What is this alertness? This awakeness?

Partly, it has to do with sin. When we indulge ourselves certain sins, we immediately dull the edge of our lives and our awareness. Sometimes we can fool ourselves. We know something is wrong. We know something isn't exactly pleasing to the Lord, but we indulge ourselves and do it anyway. He'll forgive us, we tell ourselves. And he will. But this self-indulgence, this moral compromise, prevents us from walking closely with him and being alert to his voice. We exchange the minor sin for intimacy with Jesus -- and the trade is never worth it. It is a deception of the devil to neutralize our influence.

Partly, it has to do with prayer. We must take time, spend time in prayer and communion with Jesus if we are to be spiritually alert, spiritually awake. When we're too busy, too preoccupied for that, our guard is down. If this becomes a pattern -- even though we may attend church -- we can become spiritually sleepy.

Partly, it has to do with our beliefs. The final verb in our passage is Greek dokeō, "to consider as probable, think, believe, suppose, consider."550 The KJV renders the phrase, "The Son of man cometh at an hour when ye think not." NIV renders it "do not expect him." If you don't think that it is probable that Jesus will come in your lifetime, then you are extremely vulnerable to being taken by surprise when he returns.

This has a lot to do with the preaching in your church, and your own study of the scriptures. I hope you'll study out the relevant scriptures. Not to bolster somebody's theory or chronology of future events (you're likely to be wrong anyway), but to keep you prepared, ready, so that if he were to come this week or next, you wouldn't be surprised, but ready, ready to meet him.

If Jesus were to come today, would you be ready?


Father, I know how easily I can become preoccupied, complacent, dull. Please forgive me for my self-indulgence, my lack of discipline, my prayerlessness, and my spiritual laziness. Re-teach me, Father, to be on the cutting edge of your Kingdom. Help me to be ready for Christ's coming. In Jesus' name, I pray. Amen.

Key Verse

"You also must be ready, because the Son of Man will come at an hour when you do not expect him." (Luke 12:40)


Click on the link below to discuss on the forum one or more of the questions that follow -- your choice.

Let's keep away from arguing various theories of the Second Coming. We probably have different views. These arguments will cause us to miss the point of Jesus' teaching, and transfer our thinking to someone else's teaching. Let's stay focused on the scripture before us. Here are some questions about this week's lesson:

  1. Describe the ideal servants waiting up for their master. What qualities is this wealthy slave-owner looking for in his servants (12:35-36)?
  2. What kind of energy and investment does it require of the servants to be ready during the nighttime hours?
  3. The master in Jesus' parable is pretty strange (12:37). When he arrives home and is pleased with his servants, he fixes them dinner! What is the point of this part of the parable?
  4. A second mini-parable involves a thief and a homeowner (12:39-40). What is the point of this parable?
  5. Let's get personal. What helps you keep your spiritual edge? What kinds of things cause you to lose your spiritual alertness? Don't speak hypothetically, but personally.
Discipleship Training in Luke's Gospel, by Dr. Ralph F. Wilson
Lessons compiled in 805-page book in paperback, Kindle, & PDF.


Abbreviations and References

[543] Kyrios, BDAG 576-578.

[544] Morris, Luke, p. 217.

[545] Prosdechomai, BDAG 877.

[546] Grēgoreō, BDAG 207-208.

[547] Marshall, Luke, p. 537, cites Strack and Billerback I, 688-691 for the Jewish watches, and several verses for the Roman watch system (Matthew 14:25; Mark 6:48; 13:35; Acts 12:4).

[548] Dioryssō, BDAG 251.

[549] Hetoimos, BDAG 400-401.

[550] Dokeō, BDAG 254.

Copyright © 2024, Ralph F. Wilson. <pastor@joyfulheart.com> All rights reserved. A single copy of this article is free. Do not put this on a website. See legal, copyright, and reprint information.

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