Watchfulness: The Forgotten Command

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This post has been adapted from my latest book, Well Done: A Strategy for Life Stewardship. Available now from CLC Publishers.

For it is just like a man about to go on a journey.

Matthew 25:14

I have a three-year-old son, and like so many boys, he loves trucks. But he especially loves garbage trucks. That means trash day is his favorite day of the week. His room overlooks the street where the trash bins sit. So, every Tuesday morning, he eagerly stares out his window, watching and waiting for the garbage truck to arrive. He loves seeing those massive hydraulic arms lift our weeks’ worth of refuse high in the air and dump it into the back of the truck. Nothing makes him happier.

But since he is a three-year-old boy, he also doesn’t have the longest attention span in the world. Though he begins his watch with the best intentions, my son often grows bored and abandons his sentinel post at the window to play with toys or to look at a book. And on more than one occasion these distractions have caused him to miss seeing the garbage truck. By the time he hears the roar of the engine and runs to the window, it’s too late. They’ve dumped the trash and are moving on. I hate seeing how disappointed he is when this happens. How awful to have a lack of watchfulness make you miss the thing you were most eager to see.

The Call Watchfulness

When Jesus was coming to the end of His teaching ministry, before His crucifixion and subsequent resurrection, He delivered what has come to be known as the Olivet Discourse. It’s been given this name because He gave it “as He was sitting on the Mount of Olives” (Matt. 24:3). Jesus delivered this discourse in response to a question from His disciples, “Tell us, when will these things be, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?” (24:3). Jesus’ extended answer to this question is recorded in Matthew 24:1–25:46.

Jesus’ Olivet Discourse was filled with final warnings, prophecies about what was to come, and encouragements to the disciples before His departure. In this discourse, Jesus told His disciples about the destruction of the temple (24:1–2), the signs of the end of the age (24:3–14), the coming tribulation with its false christs and false prophets (24:15–28), His return (24:29–31), and the need for vigilance (24:32–51). No wonder this section of Scripture has often also been termed “The Eschatological Discourse,” for it focuses on things that are to come.

Jesus told us about the things to come not to busy us with speculation but to call us to watchfulness.

A lot is packed into chapters 24 and 25, but Jesus had one message He wanted the disciples to take away from all of it. And you can boil that takeaway down to just one word: watchfulness. Again and again, Jesus warned the disciples, “Be on the alert, for you do not know which day your Lord is coming,” and “You also must be ready; for the Son of Man is coming at an hour when you do not think He will” (Matt. 24:42, 44). Jesus pictured His return, and the subsequent judgment, like the suddenness of the flood in Noah’s day (24:37, 39), or like the surprise of a thief breaking in at night (24:43). If the homeowners had known the thief was coming, they would have prepared.

The Olivet Discourse, then, is all about watchfulness.

The big takeaway for us is that we know Jesus is returning, but we don’t know when. So, we must always be ready. But what does readiness look like? And how should we conduct our lives as we await His return? It’s been 2,000 years since Christ uttered these words, and we are still waiting.

But are we still watching?

Isn’t it understandable if the watchman’s vigilance wanes in the late hours of the night watch? This is the attitude Jesus was warning the disciples against. He wanted them to be ready. And the stakes for this watchfulness are much higher than merely missing seeing the garbage man.

The Watchfulness Parables

To really drive this point home, Jesus told two parables that emphasized the importance of readiness for His return. In both stories there were consequences for those who were not ready and reward for those who were prepared. And like all parables, these are descriptions of what “the kingdom of heaven will be comparable to” (25:1).

The Parable of the Ten Virgins

First, in the parable of the ten virgins, Jesus told of a wedding and the ten virgins who were prepared to meet the bridegroom when he arrived. Half of them were characterized as wise for having planned ahead. They had enough oil for their lamps in case the bridegroom was delayed. The other half were called foolish for not having made such provision.

Then, when the bridegroom suddenly arrived, the wise women went to celebrate the wedding feast while the foolish ones were still out looking to buy more oil (25:10). Their lack of watchfulness left them shut out of the wedding feast (25:11-12). And again, the point Jesus emphasizes to the disciples is, “Be on the alert then, for you do not the day nor the hour” (25:13).

This is the point: We do not know when Jesus will return, so we must live every day ready for it. We must be watchful for the King’s return.

The Parable of the Talents

The second parable Jesus told on the Mount of Olives was what has become known as the parable of the talents. This is not merely a story about being wise with your money, giving to charity, or kneeling to pray after a touchdown. Stewardship is about living faithfully in every aspect of life in eager expectation of Jesus’ return.

Strap yourself into the disciples’ sandals. They were sitting on the hill unaware of what would happen in the coming days. Very soon Jesus would be led away to be crucified, rise from the dead, and ascend into heaven. And then they would embark on a mission of proclamation that would turn the world upside-down.

No doubt in the days after those earth-shaking events the disciples reflected on all that Jesus had said in this discourse, now more fully understanding what He meant. Their Master who had been with them, led them, and taught them, was now gone. But He promised that He would return in the glory of the fullness of His kingdom to rule and reign on earth. It was now their responsibility to watch and wait—to take responsibility for what Christ had begun and now entrusted to them.

They were stewards called to be watchful. And as disciples of Jesus Christ, so are we. The parable of the talents shows us what watchfulness should look like in our own lives.

What Will We Do While the Master Is Away?

The parable began like the parable of the ten virgins—a description of what the kingdom of heaven would be like (Matt. 25:1). “For it is just like a man about to go on a journey” (25:14). The man, as we will see, was the master of a large estate. And in Luke’s telling of a similar parable, He said the purpose of the man’s journey was “to receive a kingdom for himself then return” (Luke 19:12).

The master in the story clearly represented Jesus who was going away but would return. That means these parables were not only relevant to the disciples in Jesus’ day, but are also directly applicable to Christians living in this age.

Christ has ascended and we don’t know how long He will be gone. We are living in the in-between. But we eagerly await His promised return. The question for us now is this: What will we, His servants, do while the Master is away? How will we conduct ourselves? How seriously will we take the responsibility He has entrusted to us?

Many believers love to study and debate topics of eschatology and Jesus’s return, and these discussions can be fruitful. But we must be not miss the reason the Bible reveals so much to us about eschatology. Jesus told us about the things to come not to busy us with speculation but to call us to watchfulness.

If you are a follower of Jesus Christ, you are one of the servants in the parable of the talents. You’ve been entrusted with something that does not belong to you and charged to be watchful as you await Christ’s return.

This is why productivity matters for Christians. We are eagerly awaiting our Master’s return. But watchfulness is not a passive waiting. We’ve been given work to do. And I don’t know about you, but I mean to do that work well.

July 18th, 2023

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