During Jesus’ last days on earth something worthy of attention happened at the Garden of Gethsemane. Matthew 26:36 tells us that Jesus went with His disciples to a place called Gethsemane. Then He told them to sit down at a particular spot while He goes to pray. Jesus then selected three out of the disciples that went with Him to Gethsemane, to go with Him to pray. We often overlook this verse that points out that it wasn’t just Peter, John and James that went with Jesus to Gethsemane. He went with His disciples. But significantly, when He wanted to pray, when He wanted to go and watch, He took only Peter and the two sons of Zebedee (Matthew 26:37). In other words, when it came to the issue of watching and praying, Jesus knew not all His disciples could be counted on to do this. As if this wasn’t bad enough, the three He carefully chose to be with Him at His most trying time to watch and pray with Him, failed to do this. Hence in Matthew 26:40 He chided them for not being able to keep watch for one hour. What happened at Gethsemane is playing out in the church today. There are many like the larger body of disciples that went with Jesus to Gethsemane, who aren’t watching and praying. That’s a given. But then there are those like Peter, John and James, who because of their closeness to the Lord and their position in the church, people assume that even if nobody is praying, these ones are watching and praying. But guess what? Not even the Peter, John and James of our time are praying, are watching. Hmmh! Tragic!
To be watchful means to be:
• Alert – 1 Thessalonians 5: 5-6
• Observant – Proverbs 22:3
• Vigilant – 1 Peter 5:8
• Attentive – Isaiah 42:19-20
• Aware – Matthew 24:50
• Eagle –eyed – Job 39:27-29
• Sharp-eyed – Job 28:7-11
This is God’s desire for the church. For the church of God to be filled with ministers, workers, men, women, youths, even children that are watchful. In Mark 13 after Jesus had spent considerable time talking to His disciples about the signs of the end of time and how no one knows the day and hour He will return, He ends in verse 37 of that chapter by making this statement : “What I say to you, I say to EVERYONE: Watch!”. This is God’s blueprint for the church. For EVERYONE in the church, for every member irrespective of age, sex, educational qualification or social status to WATCH!
Unfortunately, very few churches are watchful, are watching. In Revelation 3:1-4, God rebuked the church in Sardis for not being watchful; for not being spiritually awake. Jesus said about this church in verse 1 that “you have a reputation of being alive”. The church in Sardis was a popular church. They had built or developed a reputation for themselves. People knew about this church; a lot of people had heard about the church. On the surface, this was a church anybody would want to belong to. What people saw on the surface was a lively, bubbling church with so many interesting and well thought out and planned activities going on in that church. But the One who doesn’t judge by mere externals, knew the true state of this so called popular church. The church was asleep, the church was not awake, the church was not alert, the church was not watching. Verse 4 makes us understand the real reason why this church was sleeping spiritually. They had soiled their clothes; they were living in sin, they had allowed sin gain a stronghold in their lives and congregation. The major thing that puts a church and Christians in a state of spiritual sleep and slumber, that weakens their resolve to watch, that makes it next to impossible to be sober, alert and vigilant is SIN. But there was a remnant. In the midst of all the compromise here and there, the church in Sardis had a remnant, a few people that hadn’t soiled their clothes and were not rebuked by their Heavenly Father to wake up. I pray that no matter the level of corruption, decadence and compromise with sin in our world today, you and I will be part of that remnant few that will not soil our clothes and will remain not just prayerful but also watchful.
Traits of a Sleeping or Spiritually Unawake and Unaware Church
One may ask that with all the prayer ministries and groups we have today, with all the night vigils, prayer meetings, conferences, seminars and programs going on a weekly if not daily basis, is it right to say that most churches are not watching and praying. To properly answer this question, what we should be on the lookout for is not activity. The mistake or error the church in Sardis fell into was that of equating popularity and activity with spirituality. The fact that a church is famous and popular does not necessarily mean the church is spiritually awake, the fact that a church’s yearly calendar is loaded with all kinds of prayer programs doesn’t necessarily mean the people in that church are watching and praying. Just like it is only when some people come to church that they remember to read their Bible, it is also only when some people come to church that they pray. In such a case, can you say such a person is a person of prayer or prayerful?
Scripture is clear about what it means to be watchful, what it means to be prayerful and it has little or nothing to do with being popular or being activity driven.
1. A sleeping Church is unaware of the devices of the devil:
“In order that Satan might not outwit us. For we are not unaware of his schemes” (2 Corinthians 2:11).
If there was one big plus the ministry of Paul had in its favour, it was that they were not ignorant of the devices of the devil.
A sleeping church doesn’t understand that Satan’s biggest scheme, what he uses to wreck havoc in the church, to hinder the growth and progress of the church is division and disunity. In Matthew 12:25, Jesus said “every kingdom divided against itself will be ruined, and every city or household divided against itself will not stand”. Of course the devil doesn’t want the church to stand. That’s why he does everything possible to create discord, strife and disharmony in the church. He loves to see us at loggerheads with one another. In a bid to get us to understand that our real problem, our real enemy is not that pastor or minister that always puts your suggestions down or that sister that never gives you food when she’s the one in charge of sharing food, Paul clearly stated in Ephesians 6:12 “for our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms”. Paul was simply saying stop fighting yourselves, stop keeping malice with one another, face the real enemy, face the forces and powers of darkness that don’t want to see us UNITED.
The devil knows that the greatness of the church lies in our being united (Genesis 11:1-9, Psalm 133, Matthew 18:19). He knows that the easiest way to outwit us is to get us to be against one another. We seem to be playing into His game because we are not spiritually alert and sensitive. We are going on with our church programs and services without paying much attention to the atmosphere of strife that exist in our Christian fellowships and gatherings. We seem to have forgotten that:
• Disagreements, fights, strife and discord amongst believers is a Satanic tactic to hinder our personal and corporate prayers.
• Squabbles and bickering amongst believers is a Satanic tactic to get our focus off our real goal; off lost souls.
• All the wrangling amongst believers makes us ineffective or bad examples of followers of Christ.
We can say we are praying but what’s the strength in that prayer when it comes from hearts that are carrying grudges and harbouring un-forgiveness (Matthew 5:24). We can’t effectively watch and pray when our hearts and our churches are not filled with the genuine love of Christ for one another. I pray that today there will be an awakening. We will see the futility in our being against one another and start to walk and live in love.
2. In a Sleeping Church there’s a general disinterest/un-seriousness towards prayer and prayer is left in the hands of just a few people.
There’s a prophetic mandate on the church. This we find in Isaiah 56:6-7. “And foreigners who bind themselves to the Lord to serve him, all who keep the Sabbath without desecrating it and who hold fast to my covenant these I will bring to my holy mountain and give them joy in my house of prayer. Their burnt offerings and sacrifices will be accepted on my altar; for my house will be called a house of prayer for all nations”.
I know for certain that some people have a special calling or ministry for intercession. I also know for certain that it is God’s will for everyone of us to be a people of prayer. For years, so many believers have denied themselves the deep and personal relationship God wants us to have with Him all because they believe that ‘I’m not really a person of prayer’ or ‘my calling isn’t prayer’. So what we see in most churches is that prayer is left in the hands of a few people who are perceived to have a calling or passion for prayer.
Those who believe they don’t fall into the category of ‘prayer warriors’ attach little importance to prayer and display a general disinterest in prayer. When prayers are going on, they do it half heartedly and with their eyes steadily on the clock counting the minutes left for the prayer session or time to be over. But this shouldn’t be the case. God never designed prayer to be a burden or chore. It is about communicating with Him; talking to your Father and Friend and everyone should love and enjoy this. Everyone should be involved in prayer. Everyone should be watching and praying. So because prayer is left in the hands of just a few people, the victories we are enjoying in the body of Christ are minimal compared to the victory we would have if all hands are on deck, if all arm themselves for prayer (Deuteronomy 30:30-31, Joshua 23:10, Leviticus 26:8). Without any doubt, our God is solidly behind us to give us massive victory if we can turn out en masse to pray.
The church has to wake up to her prophetic mandate of being a house of prayer; a place you can go to and be filled with joy because you are confident that when you lay a doctor’s report on the altar, God will hear your prayers and change that negative report. A place everyone looks forward to coming to because they know that they are going to meet with a prayer answering God who can lift up burdens and destroy yokes, who can solve problems no matter how problematic. In a house of prayer, everyone’s relationship and fellowship with God is deepened. Every believer is a person of fervent and consistent prayer. Prayer is not just reserved for some special times or special people, prayer is a lifestyle of the people.
Have you ever wondered how come in the early church when there was a need for people to be in charge of the distribution of food, Stephen and Philip who were amongst those chosen for this assignment were men mighty in power. They were not chosen to be the ones who would give their attention to prayer and the ministry of the word, yet from that seemingly mundane assignment they were given, we saw them growing and abounding in the grace and power of God (Acts 6:1-7). Unlike what we have today in our churches, in the early church whether or not you belonged to the prayer ministry, you were a person of prayer and so was filled with the power of God. You didn’t need to see the head pastor or a member of the prayer squad before you could pray and get results. You could share a burden with an usher and the usher would agree with you in prayer and that burden would be lifted. You could talk to someone in the praise team about a problem you are in and the person would pray with you and you would be released from the weight of that problem or yoke.
Let’s stop segmenting prayer. Let’s all get down on our knees. Remember, God’s admonition to watch and pray is not just for the early disciples, the prophets, pastors or intercessors. It’s for everyone and so it is our corporate duty to raise, build and encourage everyone in our church, in our congregation to be people of prayer. It’s our personal responsibility to strife to be alert, awake and a person of prayer.
3. A church is sleeping when the watchmen there are busy resting
“I have posted watchmen on your walls, O Jerusalem; they will never be silent day or night. You who call on the Lord, give yourselves no rest, and give him no rest till he establishes Jerusalem and makes her the praise of the earth” (Isaiah 62:6-7).
God has called us to serve as watchmen for Him. It’s good to have security guards guarding and watching over your house and property. But you can’t leave your destiny and the destiny of your children and family in their hands. You have to stand as a watchman for your life, family, church and nation. Just as a security guard is the first person people see when they come to a house or office and determines who is allowed into the premises, God has positioned us to be watchmen who monitor what and who comes into our lives, family, church and nation. We are not like ordinary security guards who go around with guns to protect the people and places they have been assigned to watch over. NO, we don’t use carnal weapons in this assignment (2 Corinthians 10:3-4). Rather, we use the blood of Jesus in the place of prayer to shield and secure the people and places we watch over (Exodus 12:12-13). As God’s watchmen, we have the power and authority to say NO, immorality won’t come in here, violence will not thrive here. But we can only do this when we are spiritually alert and observant to notice that something not of God is gaining access into our lives, family, church and nation. And so before it finds an avenue to come in and firmly take root, we are conscious of it and use prayer to uproot it or hinder it from sprouting up. But when we are not watchful, when we are not standing as watchmen for God, we wake up one day only to discover that our lives have been bombarded with all kinds of strange people, relationships and doctrines. Our church has become a market and a habitation or den of robbers (Matthew 21:12-13, John 2:14-16), where there’s so much ‘buying and selling’ going on in church; there’s so much focus and emphasis on worldly pursuits while godliness has been relegated to the background or completely thrown out in some cases.
Matthew 13:25 tells us that it was while men slept that the enemy came and sowed weeds. When watchmen for God are asleep, are not watching, are not praying, it is easy for the enemy to gain access and plant all kinds of evil things; to plant ungodly ideas, unhealthy relationships and perplexing afflictions.
In Isaiah 56:10, God rebuked His watchmen for lazing around and sleeping. The watchmen for God are to give Him no rest until we become the praise of the earth (Isaiah 62:6-7). We can’t afford to be sleeping. We can’t afford not to be watching, not to be at our duty post when our church, family and nation is yet to be the praise of the earth. Until personal and corporate promises and prophecies from God are fulfilled, we are to give God no rest. We are not to relent in prayer until we see their manifestation. As God’s watchmen, until we see our brethren experience and encounter God we can’t rest. You may be celebrating your child’s 10th birthday today or your 25th anniversary and this is something to be happy about. But watchmen have the understanding that until my fellow sister is also settled in her matrimonial home, I won’t give God rest until He manifests Himself in my sister’s life the same way He has shown Himself faithful in my life. Watchmen understand that until we all win, until we all succeed, conquer and make it, we can’t really say that we are victorious. One man’s victory, a personal victory and testimony is not enough for watchmen (Deuteronomy 3:20). Watchmen want to see other fellow believers become the praise of the earth and so they don’t wallow in their personal achievements and look down on everyone else who is yet to get to their own level. No! They want to see their brethren also at the top, they want to see them become who God has destined them to be, they want them to be the praise of the earth. With this critical assignment, they stay awake, they stay alert, they watch and pray. But what’s happening in our churches today? The watchmen have abandoned their duty post and the devil is having a field day.
4. A sleeping church can’t discern the times and seasons
If you are not alert you won’t understand the times. You won’t know the particular season we are in or the season God has brought you into. When you are not alert to discern and understand the times and seasons, when God wants you to withdraw and be quiet, you are busy shouting all over the place. When God wants you to cut off from a harmful relationship, you are doing everything possible to keep and maintain the relationship. When God wants you to let go off the old and embrace the new, you are still vehemently holding on to the old (Ecclesiastes 3:1-8).
1 Chronicles 12:32 tells us about the men of Issachar who had an understanding of the times and knew what Israel ought to do. You don’t have to go into astrology to understand the times. When you watch, when you are alert, attentive and observant, you will be able to discern the season and the appropriate action or step to take at that season.
Mordecai in Esther 4:12-14, had a clear understanding of the times. He knew they were in a season where God wanted to redeem the Jews and change their story. Esther was yet to come to this understanding. Hence he had to make it sink deep into her heart that her being a queen at this time with direct access to the king was strategic. She hadn’t been positioned in the palace at such a time as this just to have a hundred servants at her beck and call or to get the latest beauty treatments. She was there to be a voice for her people.
Divine opportunities pass us by when we are not watchful, when we are not alert. Wrong decisions are taken when we are not watchful, when we are not discerning. The church strays from her mission and God ordained purpose when we are not watchful, when we are not awake. The bride of Christ is not ready and prepared to meet the bridegroom when we are not watching; when we don’t understand the times and seasons.
God’s message to us today is simple and summed up in this verse and question Jesus asked His disciples at Gethsemane “Are you still sleeping and resting” (Matthew 26:45)?
PHOTO CREDIT: Hamza Bounaim on Unsplash