Watchfulness suggests a preparedness in order to avoid being taken unaware by an enemy (Psalm 127). It involves fighting carelessness to reach a desired goal (Prov 8:34; see Neh 4:9; 7:3). In the New Testament three basic emphases are found: (1) be prepared for the Lord's return; (2) be on guard against temptation; and (3) struggle in prayer.
The Lord's Return. In the Synoptic Gospels Jesus exhorts the disciples to be prepared for the coming of the Son of Man (Mark 13:33-37). He employs a variety of parables and illustrations to paint word portraits of watchfulness (see Matt 24:32-51). The disciples are even to abstain from sleep because the coming of the Son of Man will be unexpected, like a thief in the night.
Watchfulness characterizes the attitudes of the disciples who await with hope the return of Jesus. Vigilant watchfulness demands alertness and detachment from earthly pleasures and activities (see Luke 21:34-36). The parable of the ten virgins emphasizes the imminence of the parousia (Matt 25:1-13).
The Pauline epistles echo a similar theme. Paul's eschatological anticipations reflect the vigilance of the Gospels (see 1 Thess 5:1-7). Believers must resist evil so as not to be taken by surprise at the Lord's coming. Watchfulness implies sobriety, an avoidance of worldly excesses associated with darkness. Beyond that believers must wake from their sleep to prepare for the consummation of their salvation (Rom 13:11-14).
The Apocalypse urges the church at Sardis to faithful watchfulness (Rev 3:1) so it will be able to participate in the Lord's triumphal procession.
Guard against Temptation. Vigilant watchfulness for the Lord's return enables the disciples to battle temptation. The Synoptic Gospels picture Jesus' struggle in Gethsemane as an adumbration of the Church's struggle at the end of time. Jesus serves as a model of how to stand against temptation (Matt 4:1-11). The petition in the Lord's Prayer to be able to stand against temptation points not only toward the eschatological future, but to the daily enablement needed by believers (Matt 6:9-13).
Both Paul and Peter issue the command to be watchful, to stand against the evil one (see Eph 6:10-17; 1 Peter 5:8). The church must watch unless savage wolves, influenced by the evil one, overtake the community and lead it astray.
Watch and Pray. The picture of Jesus' stand against the devil's temptation is all the more powerful because of the disciples' failure to do the same. They fail to hear and obey their master's warning to watch and pray so as not to fall into temptation (Matt 26:41).
Paul urges the church to pray with unfailing perseverance. The actions of watchfulness and prayer are indissolubly united. Prayer is an act of vigilance and vigilance a consequence of prayer (Eph 6:18-19). Vigilant watchfulness is a manifestation of genuine spiritual life. It keeps the church faithful in avoiding being lulled into false security.
David S. Dockery
See also Second Coming of Christ; Temptation, Test