Where’s Jesus? He was gone, and Peter seemed to be on the verge of panic.
The previous day had been almost too good to be true. Jesus had turned Peter’s hometown of Capernaum upside down. It was the Sabbath (Mark 1:21). Jesus taught in the synagogue, and the people Peter grew up with — his friends, his family, all the familiar names and faces — were amazed and astonished. First, at Jesus’s teaching. Then, when a man with an unclean spirit spoke up, Jesus had simply answered, “Be silent, and come out of him!” The demon obeyed.
Capernaum was floored. Immediately Jesus’s fame was spreading. Then Jesus came to Peter’s own house and healed his mother-in-law of a fever.
To cap off the day, Peter’s house became the very center of the town’s attention that afternoon and evening (Mark 1:32–33). Jesus healed more sick and cast out more demons. It had been the greatest day of Peter’s life, the greatest day in the history of Capernaum. What might tomorrow hold?
Another surprise arrived that morning: Jesus was gone.
While It Was Still Dark
When Peter arose that next day, and Jesus was nowhere to be found, Peter rallied his people and launched a search. It didn’t take long to canvass Capernaum and conclude he wasn’t in town, so they turned their search to the wilderness areas, the desolate places, outside of town. That’s where they found him — alone, serene, content.
Jesus, what are you doing? “Everyone is looking for you” (Mark 1:37). As much as they wanted more miracles, there would be no encore in Capernaum. Jesus had already done his work, at least for now. It was time to move on “to the next towns,” he told them, so that he could preach there also, “for that is why I came out” (Mark 1:38). He came out of Capernaum to escape miracle-working fame so that he could preach his message elsewhere.
He also came out, as we find out in verse 35, to pray, for time alone with his Father:
Rising very early in the morning, while it was still dark, he departed and went out to a desolate place, and there he prayed. (Mark 1:35)
Something to Do
More is happening here than Jesus modeling a modern “quiet time.” Still, for centuries Christians have found the ring of wisdom here (even if precise lessons can be difficult to articulate). Jesus chose to rise while it was still dark. He embraced the early morning, rather than choosing to maximize sleep, even after a long, tiring day. Might we have something to learn from him about the opportunity of early mornings?
“When you have a great need, or a great calling, or a great opportunity, you rise early to meet it.”
Jesus is not the first early riser recorded in the Scriptures. When we begin to look, we find a surprisingly long legacy. After all, it has often been the days of early rising that have made history, the kinds of days worth recording. Great men of old, as today, rise early when they have something to do. Why not maximize your sleep if there’s nothing pressing or important to rise for? But when we have a great need, or a great opportunity, or a great calling— something compelling to attend to — we rise early to see to it.
Legacy of Early Rising
On the days that mattered most, Abraham rose early to check on the destruction of Sodom (Genesis 19:27), to send away Hagar (Genesis 21:14), and to answer God’s call to Moriah with his only son (Genesis 22:2–3). God told Moses to rise early to present himself before Pharaoh and require the release of God’s people (Exodus 8:20; 9:13). Later, he would rise early to inaugurate the covenant between God and his people at Sinai (Exodus 24:4; 34:4). Moses’s understudy, Joshua, succeeded him in the legacy of early rising, to cross the Jordan (Joshua 3:1), to take Jericho (Joshua 6:12, 15), to discover the traitor (Joshua 7:16), and to claim victory after a defeat (Joshua 8:10).
Gideon rose early to pursue the army of Midian on the famous day that would end with an army of three hundred men (Judges 7:1). The prophet Samuel, having heard of God’s rejection of Israel’s first king, rose early to confront Saul (1 Samuel 15:12). So also a young David, the next anointed, rose early to visit his brothers on the battlefield where he would eventually face Goliath (1 Samuel 17:20).
What Gets You Up Early?
When the Spirit of God speaks through his chosen instruments, and promises defeat over an approaching army, you don’t sleep in the next day. You rise early, as Jehoshaphat did, and ride out to meet the enemy, with a choir in holy attire leading the way (2 Chronicles 20:20–21). When national revival begins, and you rally the leadership to reinstitute sacred worship, you don’t saunter in late in the day. You rise early, as Hezekiah did, to set your collective faces and hands to the task (2 Chronicles 29:20).
When, after exile, the people gather to hear God’s word read and explained, you don’t wait till later in the day and allow other concerns to derail it. You begin early in the morning, as Ezra did, and proceed until it gets too hot at midday (Nehemiah 8:3).
When something really matters, we rise early for it. When tomorrow holds promise, or some great anxiety (2 Kings 19:35; Isaiah 37:36), we rise early to meet it. We rise to “start early” (1 Samuel 29:10–11) on a long journey (Genesis 31:55; Judges 19:5, 8–9; 1 Samuel 1:19). Good kings and armies rise early for battle (2 Kings 19:35; Isaiah 37:36). Men rise early to address pressing problems (Genesis 20:8) and make important covenants (Genesis 26:31). Our spiritual forebears rose early to take the land (Numbers 14:40), to check the fleece (Judges 6:38), to glean the field (Ruth 2:7).
And they rose early to pray. “I rise before dawn and cry for help,” says Psalm 119:147, “I hope in your words.” David writes in Psalm 5, “O Lord, in the morning you hear my voice; in the morning I prepare a sacrifice for you and watch” (Psalm 5:3). Even in the pain (and depression?) of Psalm 88, Heman the Ezrahite is not too despondent to get out of bed: “But I, O Lord, cry to you; in the morning my prayer comes before you” (Psalm 88:13).
Have you ever considered what are the things you’re willing to rise early for?
What we do first thing in the morning, over time, says a lot about our true priorities. In general, we have our best energy in the mornings, after we’ve just slept, once we’re fully awake. To what or to whom will we give the firstfruits of each day’s time and attention? Over time, we learn to give our best energy to what matters most, what we can’t accomplish with compromised focus and energy, what we cannot afford to be sidelined by the onslaught of each day’s distractions.
It is tragic to awake and run after sin and idolatry (Isaiah 5:11; Exodus 32:6). And it’s inappropriate (and irritating for neighbors) to be loud in the early morning (Proverbs 27:14). Which, for Christian purposes, can make the early mornings so valuable. The stillness. The quietness. It’s the least distracting time of the day.
“What we do first thing in the morning, over time, says a lot about our true priorities.”
What a time, with the mouths of the world closed, to hear and prioritize the voice of God — and respond to him, as Jesus did, in early morning prayer. What precious moments, before the world is awake and chirping, to gather a day’s portion from God’s word, as the manna waited for the Israelites when they awoke each morning in the wilderness. To have his voice be the first we hear each day. And to know that however early we rise, we will have his ear in prayer.
He Rose Early
The final chapter in the Gospel of Mark begins with another early rising, and an even more surprising one:
Very early on the first day of the week, when the sun had risen, they went to the tomb. And they were saying to one another, “Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance of the tomb?” And looking up, they saw that the stone had been rolled back. (Mark 16:2–4)
In the same way, John also notes the hour: “Mary Magdalene came to the tomb early, while it was still dark, and saw that the stone had been taken away from the tomb” (John 20:1). Luke adds his voice as well: “They were at the tomb early in the morning” (Luke 24:22).
It is fitting that when Jesus rose from the dead, he rose early. He had something to do. There would be no sleeping in when the new age was dawning. He rose with purpose. He rose early.