Bringing the Text to Life

Sunday, November 18, 2018

Need-to-Know Basis Mark 13:1-8

Need-to-Know Basis

God will not withhold from us what we need to know.


When a government agency deals with sensitive information, the agency will attempt to restrict access to this information to all except a few for whom such access is absolutely necessary for optimum performance. The government of God deals with us sometimes in the same way. We’re on a need-to-know basis.


For material based on today’s OT text, see “Hannah and the SBNRs,” November 15, 2015, at

For an alternative idea pertaining to Hebrews 10:11-14 (15-18), 19-25, see “One-and-Done.”


How much knowledge exists in the world today?

It’s a nonsensical question. How can knowledge be quantified?

Some people have tried. A study published in Science Express seven years ago attempted to calculate the world’s total technological capacity, that is, the “information humankind is able to store, communicate and compute.”

The conclusion of this study — which is now outdated — was that “humankind is able to store at least 295 exabytes of information. (Yes, that’s a number with 20 zeroes in it.) Put another way, … that’s 315 times the number of grains of sand in the world. But it’s still less than 1 percent of the information that is stored in all the DNA molecules of a human being.”

That, ladies and gentlemen, is a whole lot of information. And that was seven years ago!

No single human being is capable of knowing everything. We are fed via media too much information as it is. We see too much, we hear too much and we talk too much.

Perhaps, then, if someone tells us that we’re on a “need-to-know basis,” we are not offended. We might be relieved. Knowledge brings responsibility. Sometimes, ignorance is bliss.


Whence came the phrase “need-to-know basis”?

The expression probably has military origins. When the government or the military believes that certain information is extremely sensitive, the files are placed under severe restrictions. Access to the information is limited only to a few people who absolutely “need to know” in order to fulfil their duties.

In these cases, the government does not want someone who is unauthorized or lacking proper security clearances to be privy to sensitive data.

But “need-to-know basis” exists in other contexts as well. For example, wiseGEEK tells us that “when authorized engravers work on a new set of printing plates to produce government currency, each engraver receives only a section of the finished design. In this way, no single engraver ever sees the entire printing plate, so he or she could not be coerced into reproducing it for counterfeiters.”

Parents — to cite another example — do not tell their children everything. They don’t want their children to be burdened or to worry about things children should not worry about.


And God, likewise, does not tell us everything, perhaps for similar reasons.

We’re on a need-to-know basis.

In Acts 1:7, Jesus tells his disciples that there are some things they do not need to know. “It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority.”

But here’s the thing: Sometimes, we do need to know!

In today’s text, clearly, the disciples need to know. What do they need to know?

They had been in the temple together. It is possible that the disciples had never been to the big city before. This might have been their first trip to Jerusalem. They probably had not wandered far from the Sea of Galilee, which gave them their livelihood. So, when you take country kids to the city for the first time, or bring some uneducated fishermen from the uncultured north, you’re going to get kids or fishermen who are mightily impressed with what they see.

All of the disciples were impressed. “Look at these buildings! So cool! Look at this temple! And the size of the blocks of granite! Wow!” No wonder, then, that as they were leaving the temple, some of the disciples remarked on the beauty of the temple, expressing amazement at the size of the stones used to construct it. “Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!” (v. 1).

Jesus was not impressed. Of course, he’d been to the temple before and had even held a seminar there at the age of 12 for some of the most learned rabbis of the country. Jesus told the disciples that the temple was just a heap of rocks. “Ah, you’ve noticed! Yes, these buildings and stones are huge, but I will let you in on a secret. The day is coming when not a stone will be left untouched. This place is going down.”

After this comment, the disciples and Jesus continued on their way. But when they reached the Mount of Olives, four of the disciples — Peter, James, John and Andrew — took Jesus aside and away from the others (perhaps they thought the other disciples did not need to know), “and they asked him privately, ‘Tell us, when will this be, and what will be the sign that all these things are about to be accomplished?’” (vv. 3-4).

Surprisingly, Jesus agreed with them — to a point. At the end of this chapter, Jesus reminded them that “about that day or hour [when the heavens and earth will pass away] no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father” (v. 32).

So Jesus begins to share what he knows and what he feels these four disciples are ready to hear.

What does he say, and what does it mean?


Our reading is only a small part of what Jesus says to them. Here’s how he begins: “Beware that no one leads you astray. Many will come in my name and say, ‘I am he!’ and they will lead many astray. When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed; this must take place, but the end is still to come. For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be earthquakes in various places; there will be famines. This is but the beginning of the birth pangs” (vv. 5-8).

So what do the disciples need to know? What do we need to know?

We need to know that false shepherds exist. False shepherds are always lurking — looking for sheep to fleece. Their selling point? That whereas most of us are on a need-to-know basis, they are not. They are among God’s inner circle and therefore have access to knowledge no one else has. But, they croon, we too can know what they know. Be cautious, Jesus, says. What you need to know is that no one knows more than you do right now. He will later say that neither he nor the angels know what is known only to God. Be careful about signing on with a charismatic leader who claims to have knowledge no one else has.

We need to know that faithfulness to God is not about buildings, regardless of their size. The temple was beautiful. No doubt about it. But the temple of stone and marble was destroyed. All that remains is a wall. Yet, the church of Jesus Christ is alive and well. We may worship in buildings, but God does not live in buildings made by human hands. God dwells in the human heart.

We need to know that our faith is linear. In other words, our faith is not circular. Life doesn’t keep going round and round in meaningless and repetitious rounds of suffering and despair. Rather, it is headed toward a culminating point — a point about which we know very little. There was a beginning, and there is an end point. God did not create us and the world in which we live to languish indefinitely with the consequences of our sin. God is a God of history. God is going to wrap things up. This is our hope. Jesus told the disciples that when the temple comes down, it is not the end, but the beginning of the “birth pangs” … the end is still to come, and then a new beginning.

We need to know that there is no cause for alarm, verse 7. Sometimes when everything is falling apart, coming down, things are really, for the first time, coming together.

Father Michael K. Marsh writes, “I remember the morning of my divorce. I remember the afternoon my younger son called and said, ‘Dad, I just joined the Marines!’ I remember the night my older son died. With each of those events one of the great buildings of my life was thrown down. Stones that I had so carefully placed and upon which I had built my life no longer stood one upon another. Temples of my world had fallen. My world had changed and my life would be different.”

He goes on to write that we all build temples, and many of them come crashing down. Jesus reminds us that in the midst of the rubble, God is standing there and prepared to help us rebuild.


What don’t we need to know?

Well, for example:

The Russians partied so hard when World War II ended that the entire city of Moscow ran out of vodka.

Don’t need to know that.

You once held a world record when you were born for being the “youngest person on the planet.”

Don’t need to know that either.

More people die while taking “selfies” than from shark attacks.

Don’t need to know that.

The world’s tallest building — Burj Khalifa — is so tall that, after seeing the sunset at ground level, you can grab a lift to the observation deck at the top and watch the sunset again!

Don’t need to know that.

And, we don’t need to know when Jesus is coming again. If we did need to know, we’d have been told. We’re on a need to know basis.

We don’t need to know what is going to happen tomorrow. If we did, we’d have been told. See Matthew 6:34. We’re on a need-to-know basis.


What should we do?

First, and therefore most important, keep calm and get ready for Thanksgiving dinner. Don’t forget cranberry sauce.

Second, be alert and watchful. The TSA and other law enforcement agencies continually remind us to be alert for suspicious behaviors, objects that seem out of place, anything that seems wrong.

Jesus, too, tells us to “keep awake.”

Two Sundays from now we will celebrate the First Sunday of Advent. As we approach a new year in the church liturgical calendar, and as we enter the Advent season preparing for the celebration of the birth of the Christ child, we are reminded to “keep awake.” Let’s watch the way we live. Let’s prepare our hearts for the day-to-day demands of living. Let’s be in a state of readiness.


Ron Harris, Timothy Merrill, Judy Nuss, David Randall, Melanie Silva and Carl Wilton contributed to this material.


Possible Preaching Themes:

  • How to live in perilous times
  • When is Jesus coming again?
  • Signs of the times



Marsh, Michael K. “Apocalypse — When the temple falls.”, November 16, 2009. Retrieved May 26, 2018.

Leonardo, Alina. “What are 15 useless facts we don’t need to know?”, September 30, 2017. Retrieved May 26, 2018.

“Need to know.” Wikipedia. Retrieved May 21, 2018.

“What is a need to know basis?” Retrieved May 21, 2018.

Wu, Suzanne. “How much information is there in the world? Scientists calculate the world’s total technological capacity.”, February 10, 2011. Retrieved May 21, 2018.


Click here to download a ZIP file of the Nov-Dec 2018 issue as Word Docs.


Worship Resources

Music Links


God Offers Christ to Mend the Earth
We Are a New Creation
I Know Whom I Have Believed


Hallelujah to the King of Kings
I Love You, Lord
This I Know (Crowder)

WFor licensing and permission to reprint or display these songs on screen, go to The Praise songs suggested by Homiletics can be found in most cases on Google by using the title as the search term.

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on Mark 13:1-8

from Nov 18, 2018

Macular degeneration is a condition that degrades a person’s central field of vision. Rather than seeing what is directly in front of one’s eyes, an individual’s sight is limited to the peripheral field. Similarly, Jesus’ disciples in this reading suffered from a spiritual version of macular degeneration because their vision of the temple was acutely impaired. As such, the... Read more (you must be logged in to read the commentary)

Animating Illustrations

“There are known knowns” is a phrase from a response U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld gave to a question at a U.S. Department of Defense news briefing on February 12, 2002, about the lack of evidence linking the government of Iraq with the supply of weapons of mass destruction to terrorist groups.

Rumsfeld stated: “Reports that say that something hasn’t happened are always interesting to me, because as we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say, we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns — the ones we don’t know we don't know. And if one looks throughout the history of our country and other free countries, it is the latter category that tends to be the difficult one.”

Rumsfeld’s statement brought much fame and public attention to the concepts of known knowns, known unknowns and unknown unknowns. But national security and intelligence professionals have long used an analysis technique referred to as the Johari window. The idea of unknown unknowns was created in 1955 by two American psychologists, Joseph Luft (1916–2014) and Harrington Ingham (1916–1995), in their development of the Johari window. They used it as a technique to help people better understand their relationship with themselves as well as with others.

—Suggested by Rev. Ron Harris, Aurora UMC, Aurora, Nebraska.

The concept of being on a “need-to-know basis” comes into play when sharing personal information with our congregations. But the possibility of being blindsided is always very real, especially during “Joys and Concerns.” Who knows what information might be blurted out of the mouths of well-meaning people concerning the medical details of others?

Sometimes less is more.

—Suggested by Rev. David Randall, United Methodist Churches, Ainsworth and Johnstown, Nebraska.

From Wikipedia: The Battle of Normandy in 1944 is an example of a need-to-know restriction. Though thousands of military personnel were involved in planning the invasion, only a small number of them knew the entire scope of the operation; the rest were only informed of data needed to complete a small part of the plan. The same is true of the Trinity project, the first test of a nuclear weapon in 1945.

Frank Warren started his blog in 2004 as a temporary community art project. He invited people to mail in postcards that had one of their secrets written on it. The rules were that the secret needed to be anonymous, and something you had never shared with anyone else. Still going strong today, PostSecret generates thousands of postcards, many of them decorated by their senders. Warren reads them all and picks 10 to 20 to post on his blog every Sunday. He has published several books that are compilations of postcards. Secrets cover the emotional spectrum from humor to heartache:

  • In high school I was so desperate for a boyfriend I dated a guy who went to Star Wars Conventions — and he dumped me.
  • Even vegetarians think of meat from time to time. I know I do.
  • I suffer from an eating disorder and I fear my mother’s suffering.
  • My insomnia is going to get me fired.
  • I can’t stand my stepmother.
  • I had an affair. We stopped before we got caught. I miss her today.

—Alyce M. McKenzie, “The secrets we keep: Reflections on John 4:1-30,” March 27, 2011. Retrieved June 6, 2018.

We all have our secrets: thoughts, memories, feelings that we keep to ourselves. Often we think, “If people knew what I feel or think, they would not love me.” These carefully kept secrets can do us much harm. They can make us feel guilty or ashamed and may lead us to self-rejection, depression and even suicidal thoughts and actions.

One of the most important things we can do with our secrets is to share them in a safe place, with people we trust. When we have a good way to bring our secrets into the light and can look at them with others, we will quickly discover that we are not alone with our secrets and that our trusting friends will love us more deeply and more intimately than before. Bringing our secrets into the light creates community and inner healing. As a result of sharing secrets, not only will others love us better but we will love ourselves more fully.

—Henri J.M. Nouwen, Bread for the Journey: A Daybook of Wisdom and Faith (Zondervan, 2006), entry for February 24.

Children's Sermon

“What are some things Jesus wanted us to know?” Possible answers: Jesus wanted us to know how to love one another, how to give generously, how to share with others, how to be nice to people and how to be kind. Anything else? Of all these things Jesus wanted us to know, which is the most important? Truth is, they are all important! The next question is: “How do we learn to do these things?” Ask the children how they learned to share or to be kind. Maybe their mothers made them share? Were they forced to be kind? Sometimes, when we do something good, it becomes easier to do it again. “What is the hardest thing to do?” Maybe it is to share toys, or to be kind to someone we don’t know or don’t like. The point is that Jesus wants us to know how to do these things. Sometimes, it is not easy to follow Jesus. Jesus never said it would be easy, but Jesus did say he would be with us always. That is a good thing to remember when we are trying to do as he asked.