"Son of man, I have made you a watchman for the house of Israel; therefore hear a word from My mouth, and give them warning from Me." (Ezek 3:17)
A brother who served in the military once took his troops out on a nighttime training exercise. He and the other training officer carried red markers in their pockets. In the darkness, in total silence, the soldiers were made to lie low in the grass and keep watch. As dawn came, some awoke to find bright red Xs on their foreheads. In a real battle, those who fall asleep on watch may face a much grimmer fate.
We are soldiers in a real battle, fighting in a spiritual war. "For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood," Paul wrote, "but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this age, against spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places" (Eph 6:12). Like Ezekiel, we are called to be watchmen, given the solemn duty of warning others of the dangers of sin in order to save life (Ezek 3:18-21).
People need alarms to survive. We rely on alarm clocks to avoid being late for work and warning lights in our cars to prevent us from being stranded on the road. More critical alarms, like a smoke alarm or a storm warning, help us to avert life-threatening situations. But we also need to be alerted to unseen spiritual threats. People can be unaware of the dangers of sinâ€”they might be headed for eternal death without even knowing it. God's command in Ezekiel 3 is to "speak to warn the wicked from his wicked way, to save his life" and to "warn the righteous man that the righteous should not sin," with our own souls held accountable.
Today, having received the commission from Christ, we must stand prepared to do our duty. So how do you fulfill your role as a watchman for God?
The Requirements of a Watchman
"Israel's watchmen are blind, they all lack knowledge; they are all mute dogs, they cannot bark; they lie around and dream, they love to sleep." (Isaiah 56:10)
From God's condemnation of His failed watchmen, we learn what qualities we need to possess: keen insight, plenty of knowledge, the ability to identify and sound the alarm, and, finally, spiritual consciousness.
Possessing Spiritual Sight
When the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, an American radar operator detected the planes and reported them. But the officers on duty mistook them for Allied planes on an exercise mission and dismissed any threat. As a result, the lives of 2,335 American servicemen and 68 civilians were lost. The attack and resulting devastation came as a shock. The U.S. did not think the Japanese were either capable or daring enough to take such an action, and thus suffered a humiliating and terrible defeat.
A spiritual lesson we can draw from this painful episode is that we must never underestimate our enemy, the devil. Being spiritually blind means being oblivious to looming dangers. Harm to Christians comes in many forms, but by far the most serious threat comes from the temptations of sin. Eve "saw that the tree was good for food, that it was pleasant to the eyes, and a tree desirable to make one wise" (Gen 3:6), but she failed to perceive the schemes of the serpent. As a result, the first couple, Adam and Eve, were cut off from God and driven out of the Garden of Eden. As watchmen, we need to be able to see beyond the immediate or external appearances of a situation and discern signs of spiritual danger.
The question we ought to ask ourselves is, are we spiritually blind? Even though the Pharisees were well versed in the Scriptures, regularly offered tithes, and prayed with fasting, Jesus called them blind guides (Mt 23:24). Why? Because they "neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith" (v. 23). The Pharisees practiced the letter of the law, but their hearts were far from being obedient to God. They failed to see the true will of God, to fully obey and follow His commands. This spiritual blindness causes a person to stumble, fall, and, like Eve, become easy pickings for Satan.
We may profess to be Christians and regularly attend services, read the Bible, and pray. Yet we could be blind to our own shortcomingsâ€”blind to the sins in ourselves or in people around us. Having eyes, do we not see? And having ears, do we not hear? (See Mark 8:11-18.) Let's be attentive and not turn into Pharisees who have the appearance of holiness but not the substance.
Drawing from Spiritual Knowledge
God's criticism of His watchmen ties blindness with a lack of knowledge. The way to cure spiritual blindness is to obtain knowledge and discernment from God.
Jesus set the example. After Jesus fasted for forty days and nights, Satan came to tempt Him three times. When Jesus' physical state was at its weakest, Satan enticed Him, even with words from the Scripture. Yet each time Jesus discerned the temptation and was able to resist the devil by responding with God's word.
Though Satan twisted the words of God for his purposes, Jesus said, "Man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God" (Mt 4:4). To overcome the wiles of the devil, we need to become knowledgeable in all of God's teachings. Sometimes the greatest threat to our faith is the subtle alteration or misrepresentation of God's word. In order to identify and overcome Satan's deceptions, we need to know what is true.
Growing in knowledge also involves accepting God's advice and discipline. Proverbs 1:28-31 cautions,
Then they will call on me, but I will not answer; they will seek me diligently, but they will not find me. Because they hated knowledge and did not choose the fear of the Lord, they would have none of my counsel and despised my every rebuke. Therefore they shall eat the fruit of their own way, and be filled to the full with their own fancies.
Whether we are three years old or eighty, most of us hate being told what to do. As humans, we find chastisement hard to swallow. But God disciplines us in order to teach us and help us to grow spiritually. He warns that if we do not fear Him and choose to reject His rebuke, then He will be deaf to our pleas as we suffer the consequences of our rebellion. If we despise knowledge of the Lord, then we will be filled with our own ignorant notions.
Sounding the Alarm
God describes the irresponsible watchmen as "mute dogs" that "cannot bark." Dogs have a highly developed sense of hearing. At the slightest noise, a dog will spring into action and bark, alerting his owners of any approaching strangers and scaring would-be burglars away. But if a dog cannot bark, it has lost its unique ability to warn of danger when it draws near.
Our duties as God's spiritual watchmen include warning those who are sinning to turn away from their sins. If we fail in our duty, God will hold us accountable for their fall. But if we fulfill our duty, we will receive credit in heaven:
Brethren, if anyone among you wanders from the truth, and someone turns him back, let him know that he who turns a sinner from the error of his way will save a soul from death and cover a multitude of sins. (Jas 5:19-20)
At the same time, when others alert us to our sins, we need to examine ourselves with humility. If we are in the wrong, let us confess our sins and repent to God. Otherwise we will perish in our obstinacy, as Samson did when he refused his parents' counsel to turn away from sin.
Remaining Alert at All Times
We all need to sleep in order to regain strength. Oversleeping, however, is a sure sign of laziness and submission to physical cravings, for "laziness casts one into a deep sleep" (Prov 19:5).
We are most vulnerable in the state of sleep because we're completely unconscious of what's going on around us. It doesn't matter how strong we areâ€”in sleep, even the most valiant warrior is unable to defend himself against harm, such as fire or an enemy attack.
Spiritual sleepiness makes us numb to sin. Ask yourself: when you encounter lustful images on TV or on the Internet, do you quickly switch to a different channel or site, or do you allow the sinfulness to stream inside, polluting your core? When evil thoughts spring to mind, do you shake them off or continue to dwell on them? When your friends or peers engage in unspiritual activities, do you have the guts to say no and turn away, or do you follow suit and yield to their influence?
The devil loves to attack us during our sleep. In Matthew 13:24-25, Jesus compares the kingdom of heaven to "a man who sowed good seed in his field. But while everyone was sleeping, his enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and went away. When the wheat sprouted and formed heads, then the weeds also appeared." If we submit to weakness and lapse into spiritual slumber, then the fruits of sin will be revealed in the end.
The danger of spiritual slumber can be witnessed in the tragic case of Samson, a powerful judge and prophet of God. He was a Nazirite, a devout servant of God who could not drink wine, shave his hair, or eat or touch anything unclean. God gave him superhuman strength that allowed him to single-handedly slaughter a thousand Philistines and kill a lion with his bare hands. Yet despite his might and exalted status, Samson fell into a deep spiritual sleep. He failed to remain alert through the fear of the Lord, and instead he fell asleep in the lap of a prostitute. When God left Samson, he didn't even realize it. Sadly, he paid with the loss of both eyes, and finally, his life (see Judges 16).
It doesn't matter how long we have believed in God or served Him. Even a godly person has to watch out for spiritual sleepiness. David, a man after God's own heart, failed miserably when he relaxed his vigilance. Arising late from bed one day, David saw a beautiful woman and yielded to temptation. Consequently, God condemned David to a life besieged by swords (2 Sam 12:8-10).
"Be sober, be vigilant," the apostle Peter admonishes us, "because your adversary the devil walks about like a roaring lion, seeking whom he may devour" (1 Pet 5:8). Let us be faithful watchmen who have the spiritual sight and knowledge to discern the dangers of sin and have the courage to warn others in order to save life. Let us be alert and not submit to our own weaknesses. May God preserve us and help us, for "unless the Lord watches over the city, the watchmen stand guard in vain" (Ps 127:1).