Importance of Watchfulness
The command to watch for the Lord's return is a major theme of the New Testament. The word "watch" occurs in such a context twelve times.
35 Let your loins be girded about, and your lights burning;
36 And ye yourselves like unto men that wait for their lord, when he will return from the wedding; that when he cometh and knocketh, they may open unto him immediately.
37 Blessed are those servants, whom the lord when he cometh shall find watching: verily I say unto you, that he shall gird himself, and make them to sit down to meat, and will come forth and serve them.
38 And if he shall come in the second watch, or come in the third watch, and find them so, blessed are those servants.
39 And this know, that if the goodman of the house had known what hour the thief would come, he would have watched, and not have suffered his house to be broken through.
40 Be ye therefore ready also: for the Son of man cometh at an hour when ye think not.
There are also many texts that give the same command without actually using the word "watch."
Looking for that blessed hope, and the glorious appearing of the great God and our Saviour Jesus Christ.
The closing words of the Bible frame the prayer that should always be on our lips.
He which testifieth these things saith, Surely I come quickly. Amen. Even so, come, Lord Jesus.
To insure watchfulness, the Bible teaches that the Lord's return is imminent—that is, so far as we know, He could come at any moment.
Let your moderation be known unto all men. The Lord is at hand.
For yet a little while, and he that shall come will come, and will not tarry.
Behold, I come quickly: hold that fast which thou hast, that no man take thy crown.
Why is watching for His return important? For two reasons:
1. It keeps Christ in the center of our thoughts. There is a great danger that we will become so preoccupied with serving Christ that we will forget the One we are serving. Remember Mary and Martha.
38 Now it came to pass, as they went, that he entered into a certain village: and a certain woman named Martha received him into her house.
39 And she had a sister called Mary, which also sat at Jesus' feet, and heard his word.
40 But Martha was cumbered about much serving, and came to him, and said, Lord, dost thou not care that my sister hath left me to serve alone? bid her therefore that she help me.
41 And Jesus answered and said unto her, Martha, Martha, thou art careful and troubled about many things:
42 But one thing is needful: and Mary hath chosen that good part, which shall not be taken away from her.
Imagine having Jesus Christ as a guest in your living room and spending all your time in the kitchen. But that is exactly what we are prone to do. Although we faithfully go about our tasks as a Christian—assisting ministries in the church, witnessing to the lost, teaching our children Biblical principles—we fail to sit down at the feet of Jesus. We spend little time talking with Jesus Himself. We should be confiding in Him, earnestly seeking His counsel, treasuring His every word, and lavishing our love and praise upon Him.
One good way to keep our focus on Christ is to remember that we might see Him at any moment. Suddenly, without warning, our bodies will be changed, and in that moment of transformation we will receive the capacity to hear a trumpet that mere mortals cannot hear. From its sound of stupendous majesty, racing from sky to sky, will emerge another sound, the voice of Christ inviting us to ascend into His presence. Then we will joyfully depart from this world of corruption and meet Him face to face. The meeting we long for could be just minutes away. How important it is, then, that we keep our love for Christ warm and fresh, lest we become like the church at Ephesus.
2 I know thy works, and thy labour, and thy patience, and how thou canst not bear them which are evil: and thou hast tried them which say they are apostles, and are not, and hast found them liars:
3 And hast borne, and hast patience, and for my name's sake hast laboured, and hast not fainted.
4 Nevertheless I have somewhat against thee, because thou hast left thy first love.
5 Remember therefore from whence thou art fallen, and repent, and do the first works; or else I will come unto thee quickly, and will remove thy candlestick out of his place, except thou repent.
The Ephesians were busy doing God's work, but their labor was dry duty, empty of love. We will not neglect to love Christ if we are always looking for Him.
2. The second reason we must watch is that we must not forget how close we are to being judged. The first event after the Rapture will be the Judgment Seat of Christ. According to Paul, that prospect put terror in his heart.
10 For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ; that every one may receive the things done in his body, according to that he hath done, whether it be good or bad.
11 Knowing therefore the terror of the Lord, we persuade men; but we are made manifest unto God; and I trust also are made manifest in your consciences.
2 Corinthians 5:10-11
If God's anointed apostle to the gentiles was afraid of the accounting he must give to Christ, how should we feel? Watchfulness, if combined with recognition that Christ will judge us soon after we meet Him, will deter us from sin. Time and time again, the New Testament warns us that we will fall into sin if we forget how close we are to being judged.
Let us examine some of these warnings:
8 Be ye also patient; stablish your hearts: for the coming of the Lord draweth nigh.
9 Grudge not one against another, brethren, lest ye be condemned: behold, the judge standeth before the door.
The word "grudge" would be better translated "groan" or "grumble." James is talking about complaining, or gossip, or any use of the tongue to run down a brother. He says, Be careful. If the Lord comes while you are waging a campaign against your brother, you will go straight to judgment and be condemned. He adds that the best way to keep sweetness among ourselves is to remember that the judge stands at the door. One danger in not being watchful is that we lose a great incentive to control our tongues. We let poisonous words come out and breed conflict.
Consider another warning.
44 Therefore be ye also ready: for in such an hour as ye think not the Son of man cometh.
45 Who then is a faithful and wise servant, whom his lord hath made ruler over his household, to give them meat in due season?
46 Blessed is that servant, whom his lord when he cometh shall find so doing.
47 Verily I say unto you, That he shall make him ruler over all his goods.
48 But and if that evil servant shall say in his heart, My lord delayeth his coming;
49 And shall begin to smite his fellowservants, and to eat and drink with the drunken;
50 The lord of that servant shall come in a day when he looketh not for him, and in an hour that he is not aware of,
51 And shall cut him asunder, and appoint him his portion with the hypocrites: there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth.
Here is a warning to pastors and church leaders. Jesus says that if they neglect to be watchful—if they forget that they will soon meet Christ in judgment—they may start mistreating the flock entrusted to them. Abuse of power by church leaders has been a recurring problem in church history. Every new movement of God tends to stagnate within a generation or two. One reason is that leaders eventually arise who are more interested in career than in Christ, in enlarging their own fame and power than in enlarging the kingdom of God. Jesus calls such a man an evil servant, and the destiny He decrees for such a man is the most terrible we find in Scripture. A Christian leader who is a rank hypocrite careless of his people's needs and dedicated only to pleasing himself will be torn limb from limb and cast into hell.
See yet another warning.
34 And take heed to yourselves, lest at any time your hearts be overcharged with surfeiting, and drunkenness, and cares of this life, and so that day come upon you unawares.
35 For as a snare shall it come on all them that dwell on the face of the whole earth.
36 Watch ye therefore, and pray always, that ye may be accounted worthy to escape all these things that shall come to pass, and to stand before the Son of man.
This is an amazing text. It is as though Jesus were speaking directly to us, in our generation.
A popular view today is that this text and all the other prophecies of Jesus are referring to events during the Tribulation. I consider this view to be ultradispensational—that is, it carries dispensationalism to an unreasonable extreme. If you hold to this view because it is what you were taught, I respect your position, but I beg to differ.
Perhaps many of you have no view of prophecy whatever. The reason is that an interest in prophecy has all but disappeared from fundamentalist churches. When I was young, prophecy was a major theme of both teaching and preaching. Many people devoted summer vacations to attending Bible conferences on prophecy. They devoured books on the subject and eagerly tuned in such radio Bible teachers as M. R. DeHaan, who faithfully expounded the prophetic Scriptures. Today, prophecy has become the province of weird televangelists, who drum up enthusiasm by making sensational but unscriptural claims. But we cannot afford to neglect prophecy. We see its importance in how much of the Bible is devoted to it. Between one fourth and one third of the Bible has prophecy as its subject.
Nor can we afford to misinterpret prophecy. If you believe that Luke 21:34-36 deals with events during the Tribulation, that is your privilege. As Baptists, we believe in soul liberty. But it is evident that God regards this text as a warning of vital importance. Therefore, you would be wise to consider the arguments against your interpretation. In my series of lessons on signs of the times, I show that the ultradispensational view of Jesus' sayings does not stand up to scrutiny. The root problem is that it fails to compare Scripture with Scripture.
Before we can heed this warning in Luke 21, we must understand it. Let us approach it with some Biblical common sense. What is "that day which as a snare will come on all them that dwell on the face of the whole earth?" What are "all these things that shall come to pass?" The answer is in verses 25-28 of the same chapter.
25 And there shall be signs in the sun, and in the moon, and in the stars; and upon the earth distress of nations, with perplexity; the sea and the waves roaring;
26 Men's hearts failing them for fear, and for looking after those things which are coming on the earth: for the powers of heaven shall be shaken.
27 And then shall they see the Son of man coming in a cloud with power and great glory.
28 And when these things begin to come to pass, then look up, and lift up your heads; for your redemption draweth nigh.
Jesus is obviously talking about the final period of the earth's history, when God will pour out His wrath on the whole world. That period is known as the Tribulation. But Jesus promises that His people will not have to go through it. In verse 36, He says that we can escape "all these things"—in other words, the whole Tribulation. When can we expect to escape? The KJV says we will "escape all these things that shall come to pass." A literal translation is "escape all these things that are about to come to pass." Back in verse 28, in reference to the same deliverance, the text says it will happen "when these things begin to come to pass." In other words, our deliverance will come just when the world descends into severe judgment, at the very beginning. How will we escape? The answer should be obvious to every reader. The only way to escape worldwide calamity is to leave the world. We should be able to agree that Jesus in these verses is teaching the rapture of the church. Indeed, this is one of numerous passages undergirding the doctrine of a pretribulational rapture.
Now be patient. We have to lay the groundwork for a momentous conclusion—a life-changing conclusion, I hope, for some of you. Despite the obvious importance of this passage in Luke 21, many preachers steer away from it, because it raises hard questions. For example, Jesus clearly teaches that to participate in the Rapture, we must pass a worthiness test (vv. 34-36). The best translation sets a comma after "praying." The meaning is not that we should pray always to be found worthy, but that we should make ourselves worthy by praying always. The test of worthiness is therefore exactly this: whether we are always watching and praying rather than letting ourselves be absorbed by worldly pleasures and cares. But wait a minute. You do not have to pass a worthiness test to become a Christian. If you did, salvation would not be by faith, but by works. Thus, from the teaching that only the worthy will be taken at the Rapture, some people have drawn false conclusions. They have decided that it will be only a partial rapture, a rapture not of the whole church, but of a few saints selected for their outstanding godliness. Just the worthiest Christians will be taken, they say.
But the people holding this view have failed to study the mind of Jesus. Everywhere in His teaching, Jesus treats faith and works as inseparable. A good example is the following:
21 Not every one that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he that doeth the will of my Father which is in heaven.
22 Many will say to me in that day, Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in thy name? and in thy name have cast out devils? and in thy name done many wonderful works?
23 And then will I profess unto them, I never knew you: depart from me, ye that work iniquity.
Here, Jesus speaks as though eternal destiny depends on works, does He not? Those admitted to heaven have done the will of the Father. Those barred from heaven have practiced iniquity. But what He means is clarified by James.
20 But wilt thou know, O vain man, that faith without works is dead?
21 Was not Abraham our father justified by works, when he had offered Isaac his son upon the altar?
22 Seest thou how faith wrought with his works, and by works was faith made perfect?
23 And the scripture was fulfilled which saith, Abraham believed God, and it was imputed unto him for righteousness: and he was called the Friend of God.
24 Ye see then how that by works a man is justified, and not by faith only.
We find in this passage that true faith always produces good works. We find elsewhere in Scripture that truly good works, pleasing to God, are impossible without faith (Eph. 2:8-10). So, when Jesus calls someone a worker of iniquity, He means that he lacks not only works, but also faith, for a true man of faith is never a worker of iniquity, in the sense that iniquity controls his life. Rather, he is a man who does the Father's will.
Let us reexamine Luke 21:34-36 in the light of these principles. When Jesus says we must pass a worthiness test to participate in the Rapture, He means that this worthiness test is also a test of our salvation. At the time when He returns for the church, a saved man will be watching for Him and praying always. No real Christian will instead have a heart overcharged with surfeiting, drunkenness, and cares of this life. "Overcharged" means "weighed down." Jesus is describing someone whose heart has sunk into the world of self instead of rising into the world of eternity. Do you understand the terrible implications of our conclusion? Viewed in this way, the words of Luke 21:34-36 fall like a bombshell on the contemporary church, which is overrun by professing Christians absorbed in unspiritual lifestyles. Jesus is saying that such people are self-deceived if they think they have a place reserved at the Rapture.
A similar warning for our benefit is found in the last of the letters recorded in the opening chapters of Revelation.
14 And unto the angel of the church of the Laodiceans write; These things saith the Amen, the faithful and true witness, the beginning of the creation of God;
15 I know thy works, that thou art neither cold nor hot: I would thou wert cold or hot.
16 So then because thou art lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will spue thee out of my mouth.
17 Because thou sayest, I am rich, and increased with goods, and have need of nothing; and knowest not that thou art wretched, and miserable, and poor, and blind, and naked:
18 I counsel thee to buy of me gold tried in the fire, that thou mayest be rich; and white raiment, that thou mayest be clothed, and that the shame of thy nakedness do not appear; and anoint thine eyes with eyesalve, that thou mayest see.
19 As many as I love, I rebuke and chasten: be zealous therefore, and repent.
20 Behold, I stand at the door, and knock: if any man hear my voice, and open the door, I will come in to him, and will sup with him, and he with me.
21 To him that overcometh will I grant to sit with me in my throne, even as I also overcame, and am set down with my Father in his throne.
22 He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith unto the churches.
Many students of prophecy agree that the church of Laodicea is a picture of the church in the Last Days, just before Christ returns. Notice it is a church that is outwardly prosperous. Its people believe that they are OK with God. No doubt they believe in a Rapture. No doubt they think they will participate in it. But what is Jesus' evaluation of them? In reality, they are wretched and miserable. That is, they are still in bondage to sin.
23 But I see another law in my members, warring against the law of my mind, and bringing me into captivity to the law of sin which is in my members.
24 O wretched man that I am! who shall deliver me from the body of this death?
Although it is a believer speaking here, he is talking about man’s natural condition apart from the Holy Spirit. Such misery is the lot of every unsaved man. The Laodiceans are also poor. That is, they lack the true riches of an inheritance in heaven.
The eyes of your understanding being enlightened; that ye may know what is the hope of his calling, and what the riches of the glory of his inheritance in the saints, . . .
They are blind. That is, they walk in darkness and know not the light of Christ.
6 If we say that we have fellowship with him, and walk in darkness, we lie, and do not the truth:
7 But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship one with another, and the blood of Jesus Christ his Son cleanseth us from all sin.
1 John 1:6-7
They are naked. That is, they are not clothed with the righteousness of Christ.
And to her was granted that she should be arrayed in fine linen, clean and white: for the fine linen is the righteousness of saints.
To be wretched, miserable, poor, blind, and naked—these are terms describing unsaved people. The point is, the churches in the Last Days will be filled with unsaved people who have no clue as to their true spiritual condition.
What will happen to them? They will not escape the horrors of history's final hour. Some, as a result of going through judgment, will repent. These are the ones mentioned in verse 19 of Revelation 3. The rest will suffer the fate described in verse 16. Jesus will spew them out of His mouth, as strangers to His body, with no place in His kingdom.
Dare I assume that there are no Laodiceans in my church? Dare you assume that there are none in yours? Because we are all human, with an immense capacity for self-deception, we must all examine ourselves to see whether we are truly saved.
Examine yourselves, whether ye be in the faith; prove your own selves. Know ye not your own selves, how that Jesus Christ is in you, except ye be reprobates?
2 Corinthians 13:5
How do we know? The telltale sign that the Laodiceans were play-acting at their religion is given in Revelation 3:15-16. Their works were neither cold nor hot, but lukewarm. They were exactly the kind of Christians Jesus describes in our other passage—Luke 21:34-36. They were preoccupied with worldly affairs rather than with their relationship to Christ. Instead of praying and watching, they devoted themselves to pleasures and cares of no lasting significance.
Three Obsessions of the Self-Deceived
According to Luke 21, the lives of the self-deceived who miss the Rapture will center on three things: surfeiting, drunkenness, and cares. What is surfeiting? It is eating too much. More precisely, it is living for the sake of the belly. Has there ever been a generation who eats as much as we do? More and more, we eat out instead of at home. In recent years, the serving size and caloric content of a restaurant meal have sharply increased. At the same time, the food has become richer and more exotic. The result is that we are all getting fat. Public health officials have declared that obesity is now an epidemic. This disease is spreading even among our children. Are we as a nation surfeiting? Certainly, we are. Are we as Christians standing apart from this trend? I think not. Of course, just because we are sometimes guilty of eating too much does not mean that we will miss the Rapture. Yet overindulgence does raise doubt that we are worthy to be taken if it is a symptom of a whole way of life so focused on the things of this world that we neglect the things of God.
Another obsession of false Christians in the Last Days is drunkenness. A generation ago, Christians were strongly opposed to drinking. My mother was a member of the W.C.T.U. (the Women's Christian Temperance Union), the driving force behind Prohibition. Back in the 50s, I knew the president of this organization. She was the member of a good fundamental church. But today, the standards against drinking are crumbling away. At one time, Christians would not go to a restaurant that served alcohol. That standard has evaporated, has it not? Now, in some evangelical circles, drinking itself has become acceptable. This is an alarming trend in light of Jesus' warning to us who live in the Last Days that we should stay away from drunkenness.
The third obsession of false Christians in the Last Days is cares of this world. For further information, we may consult a parallel saying of Jesus.
37 But as the days of Noe were, so shall also the coming of the Son of man be.
38 For as in the days that were before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day that Noe entered into the ark,
39 And knew not until the flood came, and took them all away; so shall also the coming of the Son of man be.
40 Then shall two be in the field; the one shall be taken, and the other left.
41 Two women shall be grinding at the mill; the one shall be taken, and the other left.
42 Watch therefore: for ye know not what hour your Lord doth come.
This passage reinforces many of the conclusions we have already drawn. Jesus says that everyone with world-centered lives will fail to anticipate the coming judgment. Instead of escaping from it, they will be its victims. It will come upon them by surprise and swallow them up. He defines a world-centered life just as He does in Luke 21. It will be a life consumed with pleasures and cares. He refers to eating instead of surfeiting, but He intends the same meaning. He refers to drinking instead of drunkenness, but He intends the same meaning. Also, He refers to marriage and giving in marriage instead of cares of this life, but again He intends the same meaning. It may sound to you that the people marrying and giving in marriage must be having a good time, but despite the great advantages in marriage, the dominant view of Scripture is that marriage embroils us in trouble and sorrow.
28 But and if thou marry, thou hast not sinned; and if a virgin marry, she hath not sinned. Nevertheless such shall have trouble in the flesh: but I spare you.
29 But this I say, brethren, the time is short: it remaineth, that both they that have wives be as though they had none;
30 And they that weep, as though they wept not; and they that rejoice, as though they rejoiced not; and they that buy, as though they possessed not;
31 And they that use this world, as not abusing it: for the fashion of this world passeth away.
32 But I would have you without carefulness. He that is unmarried careth for the things that belong to the Lord, how he may please the Lord:
33 But he that is married careth for the things that are of the world, how he may please his wife.
1 Corinthians 7:28-33
So, it is not surprising that in the two passages where Jesus discusses the preoccupations of unsaved people on the eve of His return, He sets marriage parallel to cares of this world. He knew that in the Last Days family cares would be especially severe, because the institution of marriage would break down, making it hard for families to remain whole and happy.
There is an obvious application even to saved people. Do not let your family life become an idol, drawing your heart away from the worship and service of God. Do not let it become an obsession, robbing you of any time for fruitful ministry outside your family. Do not let it become a source of chronic disquiet and worry, chasing from your mind a wholesome meditation on "the blessed hope" of Christ's return. Remember, Scripture suggests that the worldly cares distracting us from being watchful for His return will be mainly cares of marriage and family.
Look again at the passage in Matthew 24. Notice another truth of the highest importance. You remember that when we examined the letter to Laodicea, we discovered that the number of believers taken at the Rapture will be small in relation to the total number who think they are saved. How does Jesus express the same idea in Matthew 24? He compares the time right before the Tribulation to the days of Noah. How many in Noah's day did God deem worthy to save from the Flood? How many took refuge in the ark? Only eight out of the millions or billions who may have been alive at that time. We find many other hints in Bible prophecy that the harvest of souls at the Rapture will be exceedingly small.
I tell you that he will avenge them speedily. Nevertheless when the Son of man cometh, shall he find faith on the earth?
This is a rhetorical question—a question that suggests its own answer. Jesus would not ask the question unless the presence of faith at His return is doubtful. So, there will be either none with faith or very few with faith.
Now we come to the most important question you will ever face—the most important because it is equivalent to asking whether you are saved. This is it. Are you ready for Christ to come? Are you watching for Him always? Are you praying always? Or have you turned your eyes downward to see only the things of this world? Are you living mainly for the sake of the next good meal, the next good time, the next good video? Is your mind wholly centered on family cares and other problems? Or is one theme of your thoughts the hope of soon meeting the precious person of Christ?
Think on these things, brethren. I have discharged my responsibility by preparing you for this question as well as I could, and by putting the question to you as clearly as I could. You will never ponder a more important question.
© 2007, 2012 Stanley Edgar Rickard (Ed Rickard, the author). All rights reserved.