Be Watchful

Photo by jewad alnabi on Unsplash

There is a war taking place right now, and I’m not principally taking about in Ukraine, though that is certainly one manifestation of it. There is a deeper, a more primal war happening. A war of cosmic proportions. A war for something more valuable than land, than money, than power, than honor. It’s a war for the souls of men and women.

And this war is vicious. It has casualties. It has painful collateral damage that can last for generations. This war is ubiquitous; you can’t escape it. Every person born is drafted into this war from the earliest of age, and even the most elderly are still battling. This war transcends national and geopolitical boundaries, and it even transcends time.

Paul speaks frequently of this battle, sometimes using military-type, wartime language. Sometimes he describes the war in other terms: like an athletic competition, or apocalyptic language of an unveiling of a new age. Whatever the metaphor, the principle remains, that there are dark forces, led by Satan that seek to undue and condemn the church in every age, that seek to make us trip and stumble, to not finish our race well, to make us tarnish the name of Christ before we exit this life.

Add into that, the remaining sinfulness present in our hearts, and we find ourselves in a dangerous position. Enemy forces outside of us tempting us to stumble, and sinful desires within trying to sabotage us to from the inside. The dangers are real. And so is the necessity of vigilance. Of being on guard. Of being watchful.

But we do not remain watchful over our souls as though the fate of the battle rests on us. We’ve already been united to the conquering Christ, and it is in Him, in communion with Him, that we will also be victors.

That’s what we will see tonight. Let’s begin by reading our text. 1 Corinthians 10:1-14.

For I do not want you to be unaware, brothers,[a] that our fathers were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea, and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, and all ate the same spiritual food,and all drank the same spiritual drink. For they drank from the spiritual Rock that followed them, and the Rock was Christ. Nevertheless, with most of them God was not pleased, for they were overthrown[b] in the wilderness.

Now these things took place as examples for us, that we might not desire evil as they did. Do not be idolaters as some of them were; as it is written, “The people sat down to eat and drink and rose up to play.” We must not indulge in sexual immorality as some of them did, and twenty-three thousand fell in a single day. We must not put Christ[c] to the test, as some of them did and were destroyed by serpents, 10 nor grumble, as some of them did and were destroyed by the Destroyer. 11 Now these things happened to them as an example, but they were written down for our instruction, on whom the end of the ages has come. 12 Therefore let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall. 13 No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it. Therefore, my beloved, flee from idolatry.

By way of review, we have been slowly making our way through this entire letter, and recently, slowing down to examine the front half of this chapter in some detail. And I’ve said previously that this front half of the chapter can be divided into three sections, which we can remember with three Es:

In verses 1-5 we looked at the Old Testament Experiences. These were Experiences from the Old Testament that Paul used as illustrations of theological truth. Experiences like the Exodus, the cloud and the pillar of fire, drinking water from the rock, which was a picture of the Christ to come.

Then in verse 6-11 we see the Examples. Paul uses the stories of the Hebrew Fathers as Old Testament Examples of sin to avoid. We’ve already looked at sinful desire and idolatry, if you’ll remember, when we looked at the tragic story of Aaron and the Hebrews making a golden calf and then worshipping it. These were examples of sins that we must avoid, even today.

And later, in 1 Cor 10:12-14, we will see the final E: Exhortations to flee from sin and endure in righteousness.

We stopped last week after verse 10, so let’s pickup with verse 11: Now these things happened to them as an example, but they were written down for our instruction, on whom the end of the ages has come.

These things happened as an example. What things? As we have previously discussed, the stories from our Hebrew fathers: the exodus, the pillar of fire and the cloud, the provision of manna and quail in the wilderness, the provision of life-sustaining water from the rock. The fiery serpents of judgment and the provision of the bronze serpent for their healing. All of these things, indeed I would say all of the old testament, happened and were preserved in written form, in part, that we might SEE, and that we might KNOW.

First, written down that we might SEE. The word for example in verse 11, is a theologically significant word that you have heard from this pulpit before: it is from the word TUPOS, or type. These examples, then, are significant in that they reveal not merely isolated episodes or disjointed occurrences. Rather, the history of the Old Testament teaches us patterns. It teaches us the way that the world works, or more importantly, the way that God works in the world.

These stories illustrate for us the nature of sin and temptation. The nature of cause and effect. The nature of sowing and reaping. The nature of righteousness and judgement. And, most importantly, the nature of God.

But we’re not merely meant to SEE these patterns. We’re also meant to KNOW. These things were written down as an example FOR OUR INSTRUCTION. We could even translate it: written down for our WARNING or FOR OUR ADMONITION.

We’re not meant to read these stories like we read our favorite fiction or watch our favorite movies. They were not written down for our entertainment. Nor were they simply written down for our encouragement, or to make us more moral people. They were written down that we might recognize the pattern, see how the world works, and then by faith change our actions accordingly. We’re not meant to hear these stories and then remain unmoved. You shouldn’t hear of these stories and say, “well that’s nice. I’m glad I’m not like them.”

No, in fact, that’s kind of the opposite of the point. We read these stories and we should say, “I’m no different than them. And if there is any difference in me, it’s only because God has wrought that difference through his Holy Spirit within me, NOT because I am innately and fundamentally better or different than my Hebrew fathers.” That’s what we need to recognize in these examples.

I’m just like them. I’m no better than them. I may have more education and more technology and more earthly comforts, but none of that has fundamentally changed me for the better. Even with all these earthly blessings, I still desire evil and wickedness like they did. I still grumble about God’s provision for me. I still am ungrateful with the things God has given to me.

And what makes all this even worse, is the fact that we DO have something that should help us, something that they didn’t have. We have the completed scriptures. The Hebrew fathers didn’t have the old testament to learn from. They didn’t have the bible like we do.

So, what does that mean for us? It means that we have even greater spiritual privileges than our Hebrew fathers, like the completed bible and fullness of the Holy Spirit, and YET WE STILL SIN LIKE THEM. We, of all generations, have no excuse. If we neglect so great of privileges, we have no one to blame but ourselves.

We sit with our full bibles, under faithful preaching and teaching, with heads full of knowledge, and still indulge in the same kinds sins as our fathers. We have no excuse. We have their examples, we have their stories, we have God’s revelation, we have sound teaching, we have sound teachers and pastors, and yet we still choose foolishness.

And yet, and this is crucial, the bible doesn’t just leave us there. The examples of the old testament teach us more than the mere foolishness of men. It also shows us God’s pattern of dealing with His people.

We see in the story of Israel that God is immensely patient.

That God is slow to anger.

That God is abounding in steadfast love.

That God delights not in the death of the wicked, but wishes that all men would repent and believe.

We see that God is faithful to his promises.

And it does our souls much good to reflect on these examples of God’s character, and to use them for our instruction. And that instruction will inevitably lead us to the cross, where we see all of God’s character on fullest display. We are the ones on whom the end of the ages has come. We’ve seen the dawning of the kingdom of God in Jesus Christ and his work.

It is as the cross that we see God’s longsuffering patience. It is on Calvary that we see the depth of divine love. It is at Golgotha that we hear of the power of Christ’s mercy. And it is in the empty tomb that we find the token of Divine affection.

These things were written down for your instruction, so let your mind linger on all of them. Let your heart be moved by remembering how God has worked in the history of Israel, and how God has worked on the cross so that you might be forgiven. Even though we so often choose foolishness, God chose you anyway.

Christ was given the rod and treated like a fool, that we might be forgiven of our foolishness. Christ was forsaken so that we might be embraced. Christ was put in the grave so that we might not be trapped by it. And all of this demonstrates the love that Christ has for his bride, the church.

If you haven’t embraced Christ as your Lord, then hear of the depth of his love, and trust in him. His is the fullness of God, the exact imprint of God’s nature, scripture says, and the only way to the father is through faith in the Son. Believe in him, that you might be forgiven and restored in your relationship with God.

And may all of us be instructed by these written lessons, and let the depth of Christ’s affection for us keep us from temptation. In fact, that’s where Paul goes next.

Temptation is the problem. It was the problem for the Corinthians, and its the problem for every age of the church. And that’s why Paul moves to a powerful exhortation in verse 12. Look at verse 12 and see our first exhortation to heed. A first exhortation to heed. Verse 12:

12 Therefore let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall.

Therefore, Paul says, in light of all the instruction that God has given in the Old Testament, in light of all the connections that Paul has made to illustrate these principles, take heed. The imperative verb used here is related to looking, to sight. He’s saying “Heads up! Beware! Be Careful! Watch out!”

Constant watching is commended. Vigilance in the Christian life is a crucial element of a thriving faith, and it is one of the areas that you don’t hear about too much these days. In previous generations, you’d hear about the spiritual discipline of watchfulness: that is, the spiritual practice of being watchful over your soul; of being vigilant and alert.

It was a spiritual practice alongside other ones we know, like bible reading, prayer, meditation, fasting, and watchfulness. In fact, there is a wonderful book that came out in 2018 by Brian Hedges called Watchfulness, I highly recommend it.[1]I’ve learned much from it, and commend it to you. Or, for a more robust survey of the topic, like John Owen’s work On Temptation, or William Gurnall’s Christian in Complete Armor.[2]

A posture of Watchfulness in a Christian is a careful watching of our hearts and our actions, so as to assure they are pleasing and acceptable to God.[3] To be watchful is to be vigilant in the tending of our heart and our actions, lest we stumble, which is exactly what Paul warns about: take heed lest we fall.

But Why is such watchfulness necessary? I’d like to spend the balance of our time examining this spiritual discipline and making some applications. I have 5 reasons why watchfulness is so crucial for a vibrant faith.[4]

A first reason why watchfulness is necessary: because of the Danger of Hard Heartedness. The danger of hard heartedness.

Biblically speaking, the heart is the core of our identity. Proverbs says it is the source of all that we are; from it flow the springs of life. Which means that if the heart is tender, we will be tender. But if the heart is hard, so will we be.

And hard heartedness is a threat for any believer. That’s why the author of Hebrews warns against it in chapter 3: “”12 Take care, brothers, lest there be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away from the living God. 13 But exhort one another every day, as long as it is called “today,” that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin.”

I understand that this passage is about more than individual watchfulness; It encourages mutual, corporate watchfulness. And yet, such an exhortation implies and assumes individual watchfulness. In fact, the author uses the same word as Paul in 1 Corinthians 10:12: beware. Be careful. Heads up. Watch out.

The point is this: without vigilance, our heart can be deceived, and once it remains deceived, it will inevitably become hardened. And once hardened, we being to drift away from Christ. And drifting, given enough time, leads to impenetrable hearts, hearts that are “calcified by sin.”[5]

There is a terrifying moment in John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, where Pilgrim meets a man hopelessly locked in an iron cage. Pilgrim then asks the man how he got into such a condition, and the sad man responds that he stopped being watchful. He says, “I laid the reins upon the neck of my lusts; I sinned against the light of the Word, and the goodness of God; I have grieved the Spirit, and He is gone; I tempted the devil, and he is come to me; I have provoked God to anger, and he has left me; I have so hardened my heart, that I cannot repent.”[6]

Terrifying indeed to think that a heart can become so hardened that it cannot even repent. One kind of sin makes the heart so calloused that it cannot perceive another sin. It ceases to be a tender heart, keenly aware of sin. Dulled to the sense of unrighteousness. We’re blind to our own failings.

One vital reason we must remain watchful over our souls, is the threat of becoming thus hard hearted.

Second. A second reason why watchfulness is so crucial for the health of our souls: the Danger of Temptation. The danger of temptation.

Think of the words of Jesus to the disciples in Gethsemane: “Watch and pray that you may not enter into temptation.” Watch and pray, that you might not enter temptation. Watchfulness is necessary to battle temptation. And such watchfulness assumes several things.

First, it assumes a clear sense of the danger of sin. A watchful soul knows that every single sin is costly. There are no free sins.

Isn’t it true that we so often play with sin because we forget how costly it is? We’re like a dog returning to its own vomit, to use the image from Proverbs. We run back to the thing that made us sick to begin with. We forget the pain it cost. We forget the heartache we felt. We run back to the arms of the sin that made us sick. All because we forget the clear danger of sin.

But we don’t merely need to remember the costliness of sin. To remain watchful we also need to remember our own helplessness. Our own helplessness. We don’t have the innate power to keep ourselves from temptation, which is one of the reasons why Christ taught us to pray to God asking that he’d keep us from temptation. If we didn’t need His help avoiding temptation, then we’d have no reason to pray and ask for deliverance from it!

A healthy dose of humility, producing within us a keen awareness of our helplessness, is vital. But don’t merely stop there, because we need to remember also that God is both gracious and compassionate. He is willing and eager to help. Remembering both our helplessness, AND God’s willingness to help, helps us to remain watchful in the midst of temptation.

So, thus far we need to remain watchful because of the danger of hard heartedness and the danger of temptation. A third reason why watchfulness is necessary for a thriving faith: the Danger of our Adversary. The danger of our adversary.

Many believers, especially in the States today, underestimate the danger of the devil. We may be terrified by things on the movie screen, or by villains in a story, but then be nonchalant about the Evil one.

But that’s not the disposition exhorted in the New Testament. Peter says this: “Be sober-minded; be watchful. [there’s that word again, for] Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour.”

We have a powerful, relentless enemy, “whose single objective is to plant a victory flag in the soil of your vanquished faith. He wants to devour you, consume you, and destroy you.”[7]

In Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians, he makes an interesting statement. He says, “we are not ignorant of his devices.” (2 Cor 2:11). That is, we’re not unaware of how Satan operates. Of his tactics. And so the question your you is this: are you ignorant? Are you aware of his methods, his subtlety, his cunning, his insinuations?

Satan is not creative in his tactics, because he doesn’t have to be. The same old lies have worked since the garden: question God’s word, question God’s character, and entice with sin. That’s the bait on the end of the same old hook.

Sometimes these tactics are so subtle we don’t even notice where they came from. There is another scene from Pilgrim’s Progress, which is instructive to us. Christian passes through the valley of the shadow of death, and came to the mouth of a burning pit. And it says that in that moment, “that one of the wicked ones got behind him, and stept up softly to him, and whisperingly suggested many grievous blasphemies to him, which he thought had proceeded from his own mind.”[8]

Sometimes the fiery darts from Satan hit with a bang. But sometimes they land so softy that we don’t even notice them, and if we are not watchful, we can become consumed before we know it. We must remain watchful because of the Danger of our Adversary, who prowls around like a lion, trying to devour us.

Fourth. A fourth reason why we must remain watchful in our faith: the Danger of Spiritual Decay. The danger of spiritual decay.

Decay, by nature, sets in slowly. Just like you don’t get a cavity overnight, and wood doesn’t rot overnight, and metal doesn’t rust overnight, so too does spiritual decay not happen immediately. Decay is slow, gradual, imperceptible in the moment.

That reminds me of the words of Jesus to the church in Sardis, from Revelation chapter 3. Jesus said to that church: “‘I know your works. You have the reputation of being alive, but you are dead. Wake up [there’s that word again], and strengthen what remains and is about to die, for I have not found your works complete in the sight of my God. Remember, then, what you received and heard. Keep it, and repent. 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.”

Their condition was clear to Jesus: they had a reputation of vitality, of being alive, but they were in fact dead. They had a good name, they had a reputation for doing the right stuff. They appeared to be strong and healthy. But inside they were dead.

How many churches today are the same? Busy doing stuff, but dead to the core. Many churches I fear. And how many Christians are the same? Busy on the outside, but on the inside, just like the Pharisees, full of dead man’s bones.

They had the veneer of spirituality, without the reality. They had the appearance of godliness but denied its power (2 Timothy 3:5).

We see the antidote to their spiritual malaise in a series of imperatives in verses 2-3: “Be watchful,” “Strengthen the things which remain,” “remember,” “hold fast,” “repent.” The cure for spiritual decay, in other words, is repentance, watchfulness, and renewed obedience.[9]

Spiritual decay is dangerous because it is the road to apostasy. It’s usually a slow slide into unbelief. It’s like what CS Lewis described in his Screwtape Letters when he said that the “safest road to hell is the gentle slope, soft underfoot, without sudden turnings, without milestones, without signposts[10].”

What does this spiritual decay look like? There are many possible symptoms, but two of the more common are simply going through the motions and harboring secret sin. Going through the motions and harboring secret sin.

Going through the motions is simply outward obedience without the heart’s engagement. Reading the bible without every applying it to your life. Singing hymns without ever thinking about Jesus. Saying prayers with your heart far from God.

And harboring secret sin is to remain in a deliberate cycle of sin, to willfully remain in disobedience, despite the clear warnings of conscience, the holy spirit, and the word of God. And doing all of that, while acting like everything is fine.

These bad fruits, and others, must be avoided, and to aid in the prevention of such miserable conditions we must remain watchful. The cure for such conditions is repentance and faith in Jesus, but we should all strive to prevent the very occasion for such repentance. Rather, we should strive to remain watchful against spiritual decay, and never let it take root in the first place.

Fifth. A fifth and final reason why we must remain watchful over our souls is this: The Sweetness of Jesus. The sweetness of Jesus. The previous reasons were more negative, this one comes from the other direction. We must remain watchful to prevent succumbing to all the dangers that surround us. But we also need to be watchful lest we lose something precious to us. That is, we must remain watchful lest we sacrifice the sweet fellowship that we have with Jesus Christ.

Or to say it another way, we must let the sweetness of communion with Jesus be the fuel that keeps us vigilant. Our hearts are hungry and restless in this fallen world. They are voids that seek to be filled. And if we don’t fill them with communion with God, then our hearts will hunt for satisfaction in worldly things. Thus, there is nothing that produces a consistency, a vibrancy, and a steadiness in the Christian life, than a believer who consistently fills his heart with the sweetness of Christ.[11]

And notice the difference in motivations. Some people can be really motivated to avoid sin so that THEY REMAIN RIGHTEOUS. That’s a very different motivation from someone who avoids sin in order to enjoy Christ. The heart that is full of him, saturated with love for Jesus, finds little room for sinful desire. The sweetness of Jesus and communion with him slowly changes our tastes to where the things of this world grow strangely dim, and no longer satisfy.

Do you know of the sweetness that I am describing? Can you say that Jesus is precious to you? I hope you can. I hope that your heart is so trained to the taste of communion with Christ that nothing in this world can satisfy your heart.

And if you don’t know that sweetness, if you have no idea what I’m talking about, then I want you to hear why Christ is sweet.

Christ is sweet because he became nothing for me. Even though he deserved glory, he drank the cup of wrath that was reserved for me. Even though he deserved praise and honor, he instead became a man of sorrows acquainted with much grief.

Even though he was the spotless lamb, he was treated as my scapegoat and sacrificed in my place, so that I might be set free. And even though I am still careless and distracted, Christ remained watchful, to the point of shedding blood in prayer for me in the garden, and even now, remains watchful over me, such that no one can snatch me from his hand.

That’s why Christ is sweet, because even though I deserved bitterness, he gives me satisfaction, and all because he loved me, even when I was unlovely.

This Christ stands ready to satisfy your heart as well. If your soul is thirsty, if you heart has been hard, if your failings are many, and if temptations have overcome you, then come back to Jesus, the one who died for failed sinners. He delights in forgiving his loved ones. He is moved to satisfy parched souls. He ever lives to make intercession for us. That is why he is sweet.

Trust in this Christ and his provision.


[1] Brian Hedges, Watchfulness, Reformation Heritage Books (Grand Rapids, MI), 2018.

[2] John Owen, On Temptation, in his works, 6:123.

[3] Similar to Rogers’ definition in: Richard Rogers, Holy Helps for a Godly Life (Grand Rapids, MI: Reformation Heritage Books, 2018), 41; cf.: Brian G. Hedges, Watchfulness: Recovering a Lost Spiritual Discipline (Grand Rapids, MI: Reformation Heritage Books, 2018), 12, 20, 27.

[4] These 5 points are Expanded from: Hedges, Watchfulness, chapter 2.

[5] Hedges, 45.

[6] John Bunyan, Pilgrim’s Progress (Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth Trust, 2017), 33.

[7] Hedges, Watchfulness, 54.

[8] Bunyan, The Pilgrim’s Progress, 69–70.

[9] Hedges, Watchfulness, 59.

[10] C. S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters, Reprint edition (HarperOne, 2009), 72; cited in: Hedges, Watchfulness, 59.

[11] Similar to a John Flavel quote, Saint Indeed, Works, 5:506. Cf. Hedges, 61.


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