Of Christian Watchfulness
Adapted from a Sermon by Philip Doddridge
“And what I say to you I say to all: Stay awake.” Mark 13:37
There is something in the very sound of these words, that should grab the attention of anyone who has any sense of the dignity or the love of that sacred Person by whom they were spoken. Our Lord, at beginning of this chapter, had been giving a very remarkable prediction of the coming destruction of Jerusalem; and as this prophetic description also pointed forward to his most solemn appearance for the final judgment of the world, he takes the opportunity to seriously charge his disciples with making it their constant business to maintain such an attitude, as that they might be always ready for it.
And in case anyone should imagine this command applied only to the Apostles, who had received a unique role within his church, he tells them here that the warnings which he had just been giving applied to everyone. These things, he says, which I say to you, concerning the uncertainty of the time of your Lord’s appearing, and the need to be always prepared, I say to all, Stay awake.
I say it to all your Christian brothers and sisters, as well as to you; to all who will come to profess my religion, as well as to all who have already embraced it. So that we really see Christ our Lord addressing himself to us, and as it were demanding our greatest attention.
Let us not neglect this warning, which he has so clearly marked out as particularly applying to us. It is certain that, striking as it is, the greater part of mankind neglect it; even the greater part of those who call themselves Christians.
Immersed in the cares and pleasures of this earthly existence, they are as unconcerned with the coming of Christ, as if there was not the least reason to expect it; or they had absolutely nothing to do with it. And the vast majority of those whom we have reason to believe sincere in the Christian profession are not under the constant influence of this important expectation; they are not always in an attitude of watchfulness; but the wise, as well as the foolish virgins, often slumber and sleep; and show little zeal and little perseverance in the service of their great Master.
This is a sad thing in which we must all admit to be deeply involved ourselves, if we take even a moment to reflect on our own attitude and conduct. This is certainly then, a very useful and necessary subject for myself as well as for you. In the discussion of it we will,
I. Endeavour to open the nature of that duty, which our Lord recommends to all his followers, to Stay Awake or as it can also be translated to Watch.
II. Will propose some arguments, to encourage you to diligently carry it out. And,
III. Will offer some plain advices, which may be helpful to you in this attempt.
I. And so we begin by looking into that duty, which our blessed Redeemer so earnestly recommends to all his followers: what I say to you I say to all: Stay awake.
It clearly means a wakeful lively attitude and earnest efforts to shake off drowsiness and laziness which might otherwise be ready to oppress the mind. The context also shows, that the staying awake here spoken refers to the coming of Christ, that is, his coming in judgment, which will fix our state in the eternal world whether as believers or impenitent sinners.
And when this passage is compared with the passages in the other evangelists which are parallel to it, this watchfulness recommended as a proper preparation for the coming of our Lord, is seen to have two distinct aspects; as regarding the dangers we are surrounded with on the one hand, and respecting the business committed to our care on the other; and so it will appear to consist in caution and in diligence.
Christ pictures his disciples as servants, who are left in the house when their Lord is away on a journey, having fixed no definite time for his return. Now in this interval it is their business to keep themselves in a posture of defence, that the house may not be broken into by thieves; and to carry out their other business, which their Lord has assigned them to be carried out in his absence.
So we expressly read, It is like a man going on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his servants in charge, each with his work, and commands the doorkeeper to stay awake. Therefore stay awake…lest he come suddenly and find you asleep. And what I say to you I say to all: Stay awake. You see, that though in the parable he represents watching as the peculiar duty of the doorkeeper, who was to wait at the door, and guard the house, and working as appointed to other servants; yet he afterwards includes both under the general duty of staying awake. And it is undeniable, that this ought to be the concern of every Christian. Here therefore are a few thoughts with regard to each of these particulars duties.
1. First, the watchfulness, which is here mentioned, must certainly include a caution with regard to the dangers that surround us.
So we find in another part of Scripture that guarding against the invasion of enemies is directly mentioned with respect to the general exhortation to watching. We read in Matthew that if the master of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not have let his house be broken into.
Now if we take it in this sense, our watchfulness supposes a general awareness of danger. And it further supposes, that we are so far impressed with this awareness, as to carefully examine our circumstances; that we may discover from what areas the principal dangers arise, and to what attacks we are peculiarly exposed, according to the various conditions of life in which Providence has placed us.
And it further includes a most attentive care to avoid those dangers, when it is possible to do it; and a vigorous resolution to oppose them, in those instances where they cannot be avoided. And this last is of the utmost importance; for reflecting on our general and particular dangers is useless without it. As if a man was appointed to stand sentinel in a castle; it would be useless for him to know that the place was besieged by an attacking army, and that it was particularly liable to a very dangerous attack in such a part or entrance, if he did nothing about it; but spent the night in luxury, or in sleep. All the world would agree that, in such a case, his knowledge of danger would be a very high aggravation, rather than an excuse of his negligence.
2. In the second place, watchfulness also implies diligence and actually taking steps to carry out our proper business.
We have already seen that our Lord here pictures the Master, who was on a journey, as having assigned to his servants their proper work; (Luke 12:35) and then follows an exhortation to watching, that is, to be diligent in performing this work. Staying awake, in this sense of the command, supposes
- that we consider ourselves in the general as the servants of God, and acknowledge his authority as our great Master;
- that, taking this for granted, we set ourselves seriously to consider the nature of that service he demands;
- that we take a general survey of the Christian duty, as described and enjoined in the word of God;
- and that we carefully evaluate our particular circumstances, in reference to it;
- that we may know what we are to do, in every instance, as the particular emergency requires.
It further includes a concern to act according to our knowledge, to do our duty in its full extent; and every part of it in its proper place, which will much contribute to its beauty and effectiveness.
It supposes a concern that we may persevere in the carrying out of our duty; or in the words of the Lord, that we may endures to the end.
And also, this idea of watchfulness carries in it a concern to carry out our work with an appropriate degree of energy and eagerness; that we shake off that heaviness and idleness of spirit, which would clog the soul in its most important duties, and to do the work of God as if we did not consider it work at all; and that we endeavour to be, as the Apostle Paul expresses it, fervent in spirit, serving the Lord. (Rom 12:11)
It includes a concern to look at the disposition of the mind, as well as the external form of the action; that we may perform every duty as to the Lord; with a reverent regard to his authority, with an earnest desire of his approbation; and to enter into the spirit of this thought:
“I act before God; I act in the view of the eternal world, which, perhaps, I may be just about to enter; and, therefore, whatever my hands find to do, I will do it with all my might.”
And it should be acknowledged, that such a godly frame of mind is not always attainable by us. Some are naturally more reserved and slower to get started than others; and some whose makeup does make it easier for them to be brisk and lively, may find their spirits deadened at particular times, by very hard work, or by sickness, so that it may be impossible for them to have their usual zeal.
Yet, generally speaking, unless we sinfully resist, all believers ought to show something of liveliness: otherwise there would be no sense in that exhortation which we have already heard as parallel to our text, to not be slothful in zeal, but fervent in spirit.
Having now unfolded the nature of the duty impressed upon us in the text, we go on, in the second place
II. To hear some plain advice, which may be helpful in this attempt to fulfil this duty.
Here are some serious and important considerations with respect to, on the one hand, the dangers we are to oppose, and on the other, the business we are to carry out.
1. Following are some arguments to engage you to watchfulness and caution, with regard to the dangers which surround you.
And here I ask you to consider that you are surrounded with a variety of enemies; that, with regard to many of them, their character and their goals make them exceedingly fearsome: and that, on the other hand, you are subject to a natural blindness, which would betray you into their hands: and, therefore, requires the more earnest resistance.
i) Consider that you are surrounded with a variety of enemies.
We are not, perhaps, vividly aware of these, because many of our enemies are invisible by nature, and we are very apt to limit our attention to those things which strike our physical senses. But Scripture is ever trying to guard us against this.
And so the human, and especially the Christian life, is frequently pictured as a warfare, which plainly supposes that we have an army of enemies to encounter: and, therefore, the apostle exhorts us again and again, to take up the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand firm: (Eph 6:13) and insists upon it not only that we have some defensive weapons, but that we be completely armed. And he implies that we are to think ourselves very happy if, after all our preparation and all our watchfulness, we are even just able to stand our ground, and not be carried off by the enemy.
The whole world is pictured, in Scripture, as an enemy; and we are particularly told, that everyone who has been born of God, that is, every sincere Christian, must not only oppose it, but overcome it. (1 John 5:4) The things of the world, and the men of the world, are our enemies: some indeed intend and profess hostility, and others may do us a great deal of harm without planning it.
They may seduce our hearts from God and our duty, by their perverse and unnatural example; and so the dearest of our friends may play a hostile role. Even more, it is certain that, in the most intimate sense, our foes are those of our own household.
In addition, there are corrupt and dangerous dispositions in our hearts, which, if they are not vigorously resisted, will be exceedingly harmful: and, therefore, we are expressly required to put to death … what is earthly in us. (Col 3:5) And when the apostle describes the struggle, he chose to make use of military phrases: I see in my members, he says, another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive. (Rom 7:23)
And besides all this, the prince of devils is in set against us, and draws together his infernal legions. As the Apostle reminds us, we do not wrestle against flesh and blood only, not only with the inhabitants of this world, or the corruption of flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.; (Eph 6:12) so various and so numerous are the forces of our enemies.
ii) Also, consider how formidable some of these enemies are.
With regard to many of these enemies, their character and their abilities are exceedingly formidable. Whatever our temper or our circumstances may be, there is always something in the world which is a suitable temptation, and so suited to that turn of mind, or that condition of life, as to be peculiarly dangerous.
The degeneracy of our own hearts is formidable, as it pursues us wherever we go, as it hides itself under the most clever disguises, and as it has a power of assaulting and conquering us when we have no warning of it, and are not at all prepared to oppose it.
And with regard to the devil and his angels, we know their intellect was originally great and large, capable of the highest accomplishments, and greatest works; and their natural capacities have been improved by long experience and observation. Their spiritual and invisible nature gives them an opportunity of attacking us in our most private times, and our most unguarded moments. And their number is so great, that one or another of them may be continually hovering near us, and watching for an opportunity to do us harm; their restless and implacable malice come together to complete the terror of their character.
We may be injured by ourselves, or the world around us, without any deliberate intention. But as for the devil, he has the name of Satan from his avowed hostility, and aims not merely at our disturbance and uneasiness, but at our ruin. Animated by hatred to God, and envy to man, he would, if possible, spread a universal desolation, would upset the measures, and disappoint the plans which God has formed for the recovery and happiness of fallen man, and would drag down the whole human race into his own region of darkness and despair.
And do we not feel a secret horror at the thought, or can we allow ourselves to be careless and negligent when these murderous creatures are continually surrounding us, and lying in wait for our blood? Did we know that a man like ourselves had formed a plan against our lives, we would be careful in all our steps, and we would endeavour to keep ourselves on our guard. How much more is it necessary in the present case! and therefore it is from this consideration that the Apostle Peter most earnestly recommends this watchfulness: Be sober-minded; be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour, (1 Peter 5:8) and swallow up.
iii) Consider also that there is a natural laziness in our disposition, which, if it is not strongly opposed, will certainly be our ruin.
Many and formidable as our enemies are, we are naturally blind to our danger. We lose ourselves in soft and luxurious dreams, when we should be standing at arms, and fighting as for our lives. Like the men of Laish, (Judges 18:17) we dwell careless, quiet, and secure, and so we invite the attack of those who seek our destruction. In how many instances have we already been vanquished by them!
And if we have at any time been alarmed by some defeat, how soon have we relapsed into our former negligence; a negligence which, perhaps, continues even until this day! Now, surely, if we are naturally inclined to such a foolish and lazy disposition, it is very necessary that we shake ourselves awake, that we may be on our guard against such a variety of dangers.
2. I would now excite you to that other branch of watchfulness, which consists in a diligent discharge of that work which is assigned to us in life: and here I would recommend the following reflection.
i) Consider how great and how difficult our work is.
It is a large and extensive duty which is assigned to us. The commandments of God are exceeding broad, (Psalm 119:96) and God requires the most complete obedience. We are to cleanse ourselves from every defilement of body and spirit, bringing holiness to completion in the fear of God. (2 Cor 7:1) And if we should pretend to exempt ourselves from any particular branches of our duty, or to reserve the liberty of indulging in the most cherished corruptions, God would reject our services with disdain; for the one who fails in one point has become guilty of all of it. (James 2:10)
The gospel teaches us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age. (Titus 2:11) And how much is included in each of these expressions! How many are the duties which relate to God and our neighbours! How many those which concern ourselves, and the management of our own appetites and passions! Yet each of these is to be addressed.
So that whatever place or circumstances of life we are in, in which we are capable of any rational action at all, there is a proper business assigned to us. We are to aim at a holy disposition, complete in its branches and exalted in its degrees. For we are to love our God with all our heart, and with all our soul, and with all our mind; (Matt 22:37) and in this we are required to persevere to the very end of our lives, and to be faithful unto death, (Rev 2:10) if we want to receive the crown of life.
Judge then whether such a work as this will not require all the strength of our spirits, and whether it is not absolutely necessary that, in order to perform it, we awake out sleep, and resolutely oppose that sleepiness of soul which is always ready to creep upon us by insensible degrees.
ii) Second, consider those hinderances, which lie in the way of our performance of these duties, as a further encouragement to watchfulness and activity.
Our worldly circumstances are often a snare to us in this respect, while our minds are broken with sorrow, distracted with care, or intoxicated with pleasure; and, therefore, our Lord particularly cautions us to take heed lest our hearts be weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and cares of this life. (Luke 21:34)
Of those we interact with in life, some may, perhaps, be so notoriously bad, as to endeavour, with a fixed and deliberate intend, to pervert us from the ways of God, and hinder us in the carrying out of our duty. And it is certain, that how little soever others may intend it, it is what they very commonly do. Their conversation and their example fill our minds with thoughts and cares entirely foreign to the great concerns of life; and even sincere Christians themselves are so far from a healthy concern to stir up one another to love and good works (Heb 10:24) that very often the conversation of the best of them is an impediment rather than an assistance to us in the carrying out of our duty.
And in the midst of all this external opposition, it sadly turns out that our own hearts are averse from the work of God. Sometimes the spirit of laziness and idleness overcomes, and we are unsuited for all manner of business that requires effort and alertness; and at other times our energy is entirely misplaced, while irregular desires and sinful passions hurry us away into a contrary course: so that upon the whole, if we indulge our own natural tendencies, the consequence will be either that the work of God will be entirely neglected, and we employed in the direct service of the devil, or else the proper business of life will be but coldly pursued, with many interruptions and with little hurry.
iii) As a further engagement to diligence, let us consider that our Master's eye is continually upon us.
There is something so awakening in this thought that the Apostle takes it for granted that it would influence those who were otherwise but very bad servants. And therefore he charges them to attend to their business, not merely with eye-service, but with sincerity of heart, fearing the Lord. (Eph 6:6; Col 3:22)
But it would be happy for us if we would come to this, and persuade ourselves to be diligent while our Master is looking on, for then we should never be idle, since the eyes of the LORD are in every place, keeping watch on the evil and the good. (Prov 15:3) He has searched us and known us. He knows when we sit down and when we rise up, and discerns our thoughts from afar. (Ps 139:1,2,3)
Wherever we are, we are surrounded with his presence, and his eye is as attentively fixed upon us as if we were the only creatures that were under his inspection. And surely there is something very awakening in this thought. If we have anything of generosity in our hearts, we will desire to behave worthy the regards of such a Being, that he may behold us with an eye of approbation; and surely if we have any regard to our own interest, we will not dare to affront him despising his service. Especially, if we add yet another encouragement to diligence:
iv) That we are shortly to be brought to an account for our conduct, and that the consequences of this account will be infinitely awful.
That we are all to be brought to an account is so evident from Scripture that there is no need to spend time proving it. Nothing can be clearer on this topic than those words of the Apostle, For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive what is due for what he has done in the body, whether good or evil. (2 Cor 5:10)
Our Master is now invisible, but we will then see him revealed in the most splendid and majestic form, and appearing to settle the count with us for our actions. He will say to each of us, “I gave you these abilities and opportunities; I prolonged you in life so many years, and fixed you in such and such circumstances; and now give an account of your management. Have you done anything for my service, or have you acted in proportion to your opportunities and obligations?”
And in this way, every circumstance of life will be reviewed, and, as the wise man assures us, God will bring every deed into judgment, with every secret thing, whether good or evil. (Ecc 12:14) How awful a thought! especially when we add, that the consequences of the account will be infinitely important; everlasting praise or everlasting shame; eternal life or eternal death.
To those who are faithful and work hard, our Lord will say, Well done, good and faithful servant. You have been faithful over a little; I will set you over much. Enter into the joy of your master. (Matt 25:21) But on the contrary, the unprofitable servant will be cast ‘into the outer darkness. (Matt 25:30) If the servant who is commanded to watch says in his heart, My master is delayed, and therefore begins to beat his fellow servants and eats and drinks with drunkards, (Matt 24:48,49) it is expressly said, the Lord of that servant will come in a day when he does not expect him, and in an hour when he does not know, and will cut him in peaces, and put him with the hypocrites, with false, treacherous people, who enter into engagements that they do not intend to fulfill, and take on responsibilities which they will not faithfully perform.
This description is given by our Master himself; We may, therefore, be sure that it is accurate; and will we be lazy at the expense of losing so rich a glory, and suffering so much shame and misery?
v) Consider, lastly, that the time when we are to be brought to this account is entirely uncertain.
And this is an argument against allowing ourselves in present slowness and inconsistency from the idea that we will have time to compose ourselves and put our affairs in order, before we are called to our last account.
Sadly! setting aside everything else that could be said against this attitude, the future we count on is in its own nature entirely uncertain. We promise ourselves future years, but it is more than possible that this night our souls may be required of us. And this is an argument which our Lord urges again and again to enforce this exhortation to watchfulness, in the words that precede the text, Therefore stay awake—for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or when the rooster crows, or in the morning. (Mark 13:35) And elsewhere, Watch therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour. (Matt 25:13)
Note how our Lord particularly threatens careless people that he will come at such a time as will be most surprising to them. If you will not wake up, I will come like a thief, and you will not know at what hour I will come against you. (Rev 3:3) Now think what a dreadful thing it would be for Christ to surprise us when we are unprepared, and in what terrible confusion will our souls be if we are called to present ourselves when we are loitering in our Master's business, and have almost forgotten that we are his servants.
I would hope these arguments have made some impression upon you, and will incline you to pay attention to what we will hear under the third general heading, where I am,
III. To propose some directions for your assistance in maintaining such a constant watchfulness as appears so important and so necessary.
1. First, let us humble ourselves deeply in the presence of God on account of our former negligence.
Let us consider in how many instances we have helped our spiritual enemies, notwithstanding all the warning and all the experience which we have had of their terrible nature, and their fatal attempts;
how shamefully we have fallen into those snares which had entangled us in past times, and repeated the sins and the follies which we had most deeply repented of, and most solemnly renounced in the presence of God.
And with regard to the business of life, let us consider what we might have done in those circumstances in which Providence has placed us; and let us compare it with what we have actually accomplished; and think how many days and years of this short life have already been trifled away.
Let us enter seriously into all the aggravations of so foolish and so wicked a behaviour; for the deeper our repentance is for former neglects, the better will be the prospect of effective diligence for the time to come.
2. In the second place, let us earnestly pray that God would awaken us to a more watchful disposition.
Our Lord exhorts his disciples to join prayer to their vigilance: Watch and pray that you may not enter into temptation. (Matt 26:41) Let us remember that our strength is in God; and not dare to trust entirely to the force of those rational convictions which we must have felt if we have paid attention to what we have heard this morning with any seriousness.
Though even a child can understand these things, they may be forgotten by us, or we may remember them only to act in direct contradiction to them, by relapsing again into negligence and sin; and we will quickly fall into this if we are left to ourselves. Let us therefore beg that the Lord would be our keeper, that he would lighten our eyes, that we may not fall into a fatal and deadly sleep, nor into any slumber which may give an advantage to our spiritual enemies, and consume that time which should be spent in services honourable to God, and useful to the world.
3. In the third place, if we would be continually watchful, let us often be thinking about our actions, and examine ourselves with regard to them.
Such a review of our past mistakes would make us more careful and diligent for the time to come; at least, it would prevent our going to sleep for long periods of time. And the more often we take the time to do this, the more likely it will bear fruit.
Some time should certainly be taken every evening to reflect on the actions of the day; but the more often and regularly this can be done throughout the day, the better. No doubt, if we were to accustom ourselves to it, and it became a habit, we might be able to shake off the first symptoms of a lazy disposition; and, when we had wasted away one part of the day, we might be led to greater diligence in the other.
And, besides all other advantages, such frequent recollection would provide us with matter for more large and deliberate self examination at the end of any longer period of time, as for example, of every month or of every year.
4. In the last place, let us often be speaking with our own hearts, and with one another.
Consider the great need of Christian watchfulness. Let us preach over to ourselves those plain but important thoughts, which were laid before us this morning; and solemnly charge them upon our consciences as in the sight of God.
“Think, oh my soul!” let each one say, “Think, oh my soul! You are in a state of danger. Innumerable dangers surround you; and their goal is your everlasting destruction. You must fight your way through whole armies of them if you would ever enter into the promised inheritance; and this lazy disposition, into which you are now ready to sink, will betray you as a helpless captive to their power. Remember, oh my soul, that you have a varied and most important work; and that in every circumstance of life you are surrounded with a variety of hindrances. Your great Master looks on, and sees your conduct; and it is but a little time, and he will call you to an account for it. In a very little time, oh my soul! You must appear before his tribunal, and receive honour or disgrace, life or death, according to your faithfulness or your negligence in his work. I do not know how soon this account may be demanded: perhaps God has marked today out for the last of my mortal days; and if I waste it away, death may surprise me in my idleness and my sin, and undo me forever.”
In this way we should speak to our own souls, and on these topics we should entertain one another. Such is the caution of the apostle, exhort one another every day, as long as it is called “today,” that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin. (Hebrews 3:13)
In this way we watch over those that are in danger of falling, not with a severe and unpleasant, but with a kind and charitable, intention of awakening them out of dangerous security, and encouraging them in the battles and in the labours of the Lord.
For concerning that day or that hour, no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father… And what I say to you I say to all: Stay awake.