In our day, "watch" has lost much of its original power. Is there anything more passive than watching television? We live in a spectator nation. We watch movies, news, the markets, and sporting events. Watching has become an activity that puts us on the sidelines and not on the field of battle, an idea foreign to the original meaning of the word. At the time of the King James translators, "watch" emphasized the carefulness, attention, and vigilance in the way a soldier kept alert for any sign of enemy movement.
A concept that has more meaning to us today can be found in the word "overcome." This word implies that we watch ourselves to spot our problems, do battle with them, and conquer them. "Overcome" better communicates the battle we have joined (Romans 12:21; I John 5:4-5; Revelation 21:7).
If we watch ourselves spiritually, we are not just watching our human nature, but doing battle with it. We are not just watching the world and its influences as they bombard us, but fighting against them. We are not just watching Satan's devices as they toy with us, but defending ourselves against them. In other words, "watch" as originally intended covers the entire process of overcoming that is our calling. We are to be identifying the problems, engaging them, and putting them to flight (Revelation 3:2; 16:15; I Corinthians 16:13; I Thessalonians 5:6-8).
Therefore, "overcome," more clearly than "watch," communicates to someone living today what Luke 21:36 says we should be doing as we near the end of the age. The premier end-time book, Revelation, repeatedly emphasizes that overcoming is "job one" for us (Revelation 2:7, 11, 17, 26; 3:5, 12, 21; 12:11; 21:7).
Luke 21:36 suggests that those who alertly overcome and pray always are those that may be counted worthy to escape and stand before Christ in God's Kingdom. In verse 36, Christ ties together all He has said throughout the chapter. If we do not neglect the spiritual (verses 34-35), and instead watch and pray always, we can "escape all these things" (verses 7-33) and enter God's Kingdom.
Luke 21 is a chapter about the end time, and in verse 36, we have spiritual instruction directly from Jesus to anyone living during that time. He is telling us how to escape the final effects of the turmoil that is ahead and to enter God's Kingdom. This, therefore, becomes an extremely powerful verse in helping us to understand exactly what we should be concentrating on at this time. It is a roadmap to safety and salvation.
What if someone told us where to find two tickets, which if purchased by us, would grant us escape from the end-time tumult and entrance into God's Kingdom? What price would we pay? Two such "tickets" exist, and we have the wherewithal to purchase them. Luke 21:36 shows us the two tickets. One is the "watch/overcome" ticket and the other is the "pray always" ticket. If we choose to be lackadaisical about overcoming or prayer, are missing either ticket, or have only a partial ticket, we will likely be required to "buy" those same two tickets at a very dear price in the Tribulation.
The Bible states quite a few "formulas" for producing certain things. We need to understand that none of these formulas stands on its own. They fit into a whole that includes other factors supplied from other instruction found elsewhere in Scripture. However, there are formulas, and then, there are formulas. Those that Jesus gives tend to be "trunk of the tree" formulas. They must be our base, and then we can stack other instruction on them.
These "trunk of the tree" formulas not only form a foundation that supports everything else, but they also give direction and boundaries for what and how we can add to them. Once a builder lays a foundation for a small, three-bedroom house, it automatically limits what he can and cannot construct on it. Consequently, we cannot build a beautiful spiritual temple on the wrong foundation. Luke 21:36 is an integral part of the right foundation for those of us living at the end.
As we have seen, in Luke 21:36, Christ reveals that the roles of watching—or paying careful attention to overcoming—and praying always are vital to our Christian lives at this time.
Praying Always (Part One)
In Luke 21:36, our Savior provides us with the two "tickets" we need—watching (careful, vigilant attention to overcoming our nature) and praying always—to be accounted worthy to escape the troubles at the close of this age and to enter the Kingdom of God. These two activities are pillars that support the foundation on which our Christian lives rest during these end times.
How important are these two pillars? Exactly what is Christ instructing us to do as we encounter the end of an age?
In Luke 21:36, when Christ says, "Watch," He is calling for us to scrutinize our lives in order to change them. We are not just to note the problems we see but to overcome them. How important is it to overcome? If God mentioning something twice establishes it (Genesis 41:32), how significant is a subject when He mentions it fifteen times? Not fifteen times throughout the whole Bible but in just one book! And not in just any book, but a book of special significance to us, one about the end time—Revelation!
In this end-time message, Christ says seven times, "I know your works" (Revelation 2:2, 9, 13, 19; 3:1, 8, 15). What are works? They are simply the results of our efforts in overcoming, both the failures and successes. Jesus is saying, "I know the level of your overcoming." Then, for each church—whether era, group, or attitude—He comments on that effort. Overcoming is highlighted another seven times (Revelation 2:7, 11, 17, 26; 3:5, 12, 21), as Christ ends each of His critiques with a promise that begins, "To him who overcomes. . . ." As an exclamation point, Christ warns us seven times, a number signifying completeness, to heed what He says to all these churches (Revelation 2:7, 11, 17, 29; 3:6, 13, 22).
Finally, in Revelation 21:7, Christ addresses overcoming a fifteenth time. He makes a promise to those who successfully overcome: "He who overcomes shall inherit all things, and I will be his God and he shall be My son."
Revelation shows us that "Job One" for a Christian is overcoming, especially for someone living at the end time. This is the message in Luke 21:36 also: We have to overcome to be with Him in God's Kingdom. Salvation itself hinges on our cooperation with Him in overcoming (Matthew 25:30).
The Parable of the Ten Virgins (Matthew 25:1-13) demonstrates the importance of overcoming. The difference between the wise and foolish virgins is their supplies of oil. While water represents the power of God's Holy Spirit to cleanse, oil represents its power to work, to do good. Thus, the difference between the virgins is their good works ("I know your works"), how much they overcame their selfish human natures by acting in love toward God and man.
Both groups had oil, but the foolish virgins did not have enough for the unexpectedly long delay (Luke 21:34-35). When the cry went out, their lamps were still burning but sputtering and about to go out. They were not prepared for the long haul. They had not continued to overcome. They were not enduring to the end. Their oil—their good works, their overcoming—proved insufficient for the task. In this one point, they failed, and what a foolish failure it was!
Emphasizing the importance of Luke 21:36 and watching, Christ makes a specific promise to those living at the end who are watching, that is, successfully overcoming: "Blessed are those servants whom the master, when he comes, will find watching. Assuredly, I say to you that he will gird himself and have them sit down to eat, and will come and serve them" (Luke 12:37).
Conversely, considering the implications of John 17:3, Jesus gives a chilling judgment to the virgins who fail to overcome: "I do not know you" (Matthew 25:12).
Praying Always (Part Two)
Coupled with watching and overcoming, the next subject that Jesus addresses in Luke 21:36 is prayer. To grasp just how important prayer is, notice the example of Daniel, one of the three most righteous men in the Bible, according to Ezekiel 14:14. Part of his story is in Daniel 6:7, 10:
All the governors of the kingdom, the administrators and satraps, the counselors and advisors, have consulted together to establish a royal statute and to make a firm decree, that whoever petitions any god or man for thirty days, except you, O king, shall be cast into the den of lions. . . . Now when Daniel knew that the writing was signed, he went home. And in his upper room, with his windows open toward Jerusalem, he knelt down on his knees three times that day, and prayed and gave thanks before his God, as was his custom since early days.
Daniel believed that prayer was so essential that he chose to risk his life to lions rather than lose contact with God for even a part of a day. We could say that he feared the Lion of Judah more than any physical lion. To him, prayer was a life-and-death issue. Is it to us? How many excuses would we have made to avoid those lions? What excuses do we make today to justify a lack of prayer?
Is anything more serious than a life-and-death issue? Because of the Bible's obviously high regard for Daniel, it is reasonable to assume that his attitude about prayer played a significant part in deserving the label of "righteous." Prayer, for us, becomes a spiritual life-and-death question, not just a physical one as Daniel faced.
Praying Always (Part Two)
While prayer is important, notice that in Luke 21:36, Jesus does not use just the word "pray" but the phrase "pray always." Why is this significant?
As we begin to answer this question, it is good to know that the word "always" is a translation of three Greek words. A literal translation of those three words, en pantí kairoó, would be "in all times," and many Bible translations have chosen to use similar wording, such as "at all times." Other versions may use "all the time," while some use words like "constant" and "constantly." Weymouth's New Testament goes so far as to read, "every moment."
Christ is speaking, not just about prayer, but also about the frequency of our prayers. How often are we in contact with God throughout our day? Do we give Him some time in the morning or evening, but the rest of the day He is in none, or very few, of our thoughts? Doing so places us in very dangerous company (Psalm 10:4).
Laodiceans have lukewarm relationships with God, thus Christ has to say to them in Revelation 3:20: "Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears My voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and dine with him, and he with Me." He calls for them to rekindle the relationship. Making the first move, He suggests what friends who have a close relationship do—they share a meal. What happens at a meal with friends? Conversation, which is what prayer is. Humans, whether with people or with God, build their relationships the same way: They talk to each other—a lot.
We can see why Christ tells those living at the end, when Laodiceanism reigns, that we have to overcome and pray always. Generally, the relationship between God and the Christian is weak and must be rebuilt, requiring considerable conversation, prayer, at all times of the day.
If we observed a marriage in which the husband and wife only mumbled to each other a little in the morning and/or a little at night, we would conclude that that relationship was in trouble. Our God who sees all knows the same thing when He experiences it.
How does a Christian "pray always"? In one of Herbert W. Armstrong's radio broadcasts on the book of Hebrews, he says, paraphrased, "You need to be in contact with God every hour!" I Thessalonians 5:17 instructs, "Pray without ceasing." Hebrews 13:15 urges us to offer prayer to God "continually." God's purpose for us requires a great deal of contact with Him.
Praying Always (Part Two)
The "praying always" that Jesus commands in Luke 21:36 affects every part of our Christian lives. It is the tool that God gives us to be in constant contact with Him so that we can truly bring every thought into captivity, under the control of God (II Corinthians 10:5). We are encouraged to make bold use of this tool for our every need (Hebrews 4:16). We need to explore some of the important implications that striving to pray always—praying at all times—has on this life to which God has called us.
In Luke 21:36, Christ also commands us to "watch." The underlying Greek word stresses the need to be alert or on guard. This fits with a major requirement of Christian life, that we examine ourselves. We are to be alert to those things about ourselves that will disqualify us from entering God's Kingdom so that we can change them.
Self-examination is such an important spiritual activity that God includes it as a major part of one of His seven festivals, the Feast of Unleavened Bread. II Corinthians 13:5 exhorts, "Examine yourselves as to whether you are in the faith. Test yourselves. Do you not know yourselves, that Jesus Christ is in you?—unless indeed you are disqualified." Our ongoing efforts to submit to God's laws and standards are evidence that Christ and His faith are in us (James 2:18).
God always gives us choices (Deuteronomy 30:19). Consider the example of Jonah. He could have done exactly what God asked of him, but instead, he rebelled, having to suffer an intense trial to bring him to obedience to God's will. Notice, however, that God's purpose never changed. The only variable was how much pain and suffering Jonah chose to experience before he submitted to God's purpose. Initially, he chose rebellion and trials over submission to God.
Praying Always (Part Five)
It is frequently interpreted to mean that we should be closely watching current events so we know how close we are to Christ's return. The common paraphrase of this command is "watch world news, so that as you begin to see prophecy unfold, you can escape the horrors of the Tribulation."
This interpretation has led to a cottage industry of sorts within the church. A tremendous amount of effort is put into commenting on world events and tying them into biblical prophecy. The underlying assumption is that God wants us to have our finger on the pulse of the news, and this knowledge—combined with prayer—will make us worthy to escape all those prophesied things. But does this assumption agree with Scripture?
In fact, the Greek word translated "watch" has nothing to do with looking at events or keeping world news under close observation. Even without examining the underlying Greek, we can tell from the context that Jesus has something else in mind. Verse 36 begins, "Watch therefore," signaling that it concludes or summarizes previous material. We cannot understand verse 36 until we know what preceded it.
Verses 34-35 provide the context for Jesus' command to "watch":
But take heed to yourselves, lest your hearts be weighed down with carousing, drunkenness, and cares of this life, and that Day come on you unexpectedly. For it will come as a snare on all those who dwell on the face of the whole earth.
Clearly, Jesus' message is not an admonition to watch world events so that we will know when He will return. Instead, His instruction is to watch ourselves, which is what "take heed to yourselves" suggests. He is talking about being vigilant about our own spiritual state, as well as being circumspect and spiritually awake as we go through life. The danger is that, if we do not "watch" ourselves—that is, continually take stock of our condition and responsibilities—self-indulgence and material concerns will distract us, and we will find ourselves spiritually unprepared when the end comes.
Luke 21:36, then, is not an injunction to be glued to CNN, FOX, the Drudge Report, or any other news source. In fact, a subtle danger exists in being too caught up in current events, as it can distract us from the more vital spiritual preparation. The upshot is that the Day will come, and we do not know when.
Watching events unfold is not what makes us "worthy to escape," but our cooperation with God as He forms His character image in us does. Thus, in addition to prayer, we have to be vigilant in our covenant with Him. We have to "take heed" to ourselves constantly, examining our walk and how we are seeking and imitating God.
The Greek word translated "watch," at its most basic, means "to be sleepless," implying continuous and wakeful concern, such as being on watch when a loved one is ill. It means to be intent or to exercise constant vigilance over something, as a shepherd watches over his sheep or a leader watches over his charges (Hebrews 13:17). Watching signifies a state of being untouched by any influence that may cloud the mind; one "watching" guards against drowsiness or confusion. Hand-in-hand with "pray always," it denotes being alert for spiritual dangers and beguilements. Obviously, this state will not transpire from following—or even deeply analyzing—current events.
David C. Grabbe
'As a Thief in the Night'
He is not saying we should always pray, "Father, save me!" That would be self-centered. He says, "Develop this beautiful relationship with God that I've made possible for you. Remain in contact with Him."
Our prayers need to take on the quality of communication that is the ideal when a man and a woman date toward marriage. On the first date, they may not know much about each another, but with further contact their knowledge of each other grows. In talking back and forth, the relationship develops. They discover common interests. They find each other attractive and fascinating. As events progress, they work to improve the relationship so that they can eventually marry, continuing the relationship with greater intimacy, pleasure, and productivity. God desires this kind of relationship with His people.
Jesus Christ warns that the same factor that ruins a marriage - if one or the other begins to find another more attractive - can ruin this relationship with God. In these perilous times, divorce claims roughly 50 percent of marriages. An institution that God intends to be very beautiful is destroyed because a love of a beautiful relationship is not paired with a love of righteousness. The world has successfully squeezed the couple into its mold. Though it may have begun beautifully, the relationship has a horrible ending.
God intends prayer to be communication with Him to develop a beautiful relationship begun through the acceptance of Christ's sacrifice. As a product of keeping the relationship alive, we show our commitment by keeping our appointments with Him, upholding the vow we made at baptism, keeping His commandments, showing we are trustworthy by overcoming our sins.
While we work on this relationship, we are watching! We are on guard. We are alert, like a soldier on guard duty, making sure that what we hold to be beautiful is not destroyed. Imagine what would happen if a guard, while pacing at his post, was attracted by something to one side. If he goes over to inspect it, the enemy attacks! Babylon employs exactly the same strategy. And sadly, the duped guard exactly depicts a Laodicean, who gets distracted by desirable things. The rudiments of the cause of this distraction are illustrated in Luke 21. A Laodicean is lulled into a spiritual complacency and apathy by the attractiveness of the world. That is Christ's warning - stay alert, be on guard, and pray!
John W. Ritenbaugh
The World, the Church and Laodiceanism
According to Strong's Concordance, agrupneo, the Greek word translated as watch in verse 36 means "to be sleepless, i.e. keep awake." Frequently, when the Bible mentions being asleep or tells us to wake up, it refers to our spiritual state (Matthew 25:5; Romans 13:11; I Thessalonians 5:6-8). Instead of "watch," some Bible versions use words such as, "don't go to sleep at the switch" (The Message), "be always on the watch" (NIV), "be ready all the time" (New Century Version), "keep awake" (Amplified Bible), "keep on the alert" (NASB), "stay awake" (ESV), "keep a constant watch" (Living Bible), and "beware of slumbering" (The New Testament in Modern Speech). This is a call to the spiritual, not the physical.
Just over two decades ago, an elderly man named Herbert Armstrong cried out, "Wake up!" and he was not talking about any other waking up than a spiritual one. Because we did not heed his warning then, the church has experienced twenty years of apostasy and scattering. If we do not wake up eventually, God has a three-and-a-half-year plan guaranteed to get our attention.
In our former association, we obeyed the instructions in Luke 21:7-33 to watch world events, but we did not closely follow Christ's commands in Luke 21:34-36 to guard our spiritual condition, hence the scattering. Interestingly, the condition of the church at that time mirrors how Luke 21:36 was generally applied—physical rather than spiritual.
It is always a good practice to allow the Bible to interpret itself rather than adding extra-biblical interpretations (II Peter 1:20). Because the Bible uses sleep and waking from sleep as spiritual metaphors, why would we want to add another meaning to the "watch" of Luke 21:36? That would be walking on shaky ground (Deuteronomy 4:2; 12:32), and we want to avoid repeating past error.
To emphasize that "watch" in Luke 21:36 is all about the spiritual and not about the physical, notice how agrupneo is used in its only other appearances in the New Testament:
Mark 13:33: "Take heed, watch and pray; for you do not know when the time is." (This verse parallels Luke 21:36.)
Ephesians 6:18: ". . . praying always with all prayer and supplication in the Spirit, being watchful to this end with all perseverance and supplication for all the saints." (The context of this verse is putting on the whole armor of God—definitely a spiritual exercise.)
Hebrews 13:17: Obey those who rule over you, and be submissive, for they watch out for your souls, as those who must give account. Let them do so with joy and not with grief, for that would be unprofitable for you. (The ministry's first priority is the spiritual health of called-out Christians.)
These facts lead to the conclusion that "watch" in Luke 21:36 has little, or perhaps even nothing, to do with watching world events. A careful reading shows that the "watch" of Luke 21:36 is only minimally directing us to watch world events. Overemphasizing that meaning of this verse has overshadowed its real message, perhaps the most important survival instructions Jesus gives to Christians living at the end.
Praying Always (Part One)
This chapter gives us an overview of the hair-raising, terrifying events leading to Christ's return. Despite all the evidence that will be available for us to witness and thus motivate us, He feels it is necessary to warn us to be alert.
It seems almost redundant. Why should we of all people need to be warned? Well, the general answer is because the Laodicean has trouble keeping his attention, his mind, focused. His mind is all over the place. At least in terms of spiritual things, the Laodicean, has a short attention span. He can go at it for spurts—maybe on the Sabbath for a couple of hours—but what happens during the week? Has his love of beauty—the beauty that this world is fully capable of producing to distract the senses—kept him occupied? Is he drawn to those things? If he is, what relationship will be abused? The answer to that is very clear: his relationship with God.
When we consider Revelation 3:14-18 carefully, we see that this is the problem. The Laodicean has compromised with his life in the use of his time. It is not that he is sinning all the time, but that he is not paying attention to the Bridegroom!
Ladies, how would you feel if the man you are to marry pays attention to everything but you? What would happen to the relationship? That is the problem with the Laodicean: His mind is drifting to take in all kinds of things except the One that he is going to marry—until the Sabbath comes along. He will appear in church, and everything looks fairly good, but all during the week he has been paying attention to everything except Christ.
Prayer becomes ineffective. He does not allow God to communicate with him through Bible study in the way that he should. There is very little meditation. He is not doing a great deal of thinking about the One to whom he is betrothed. We can begin to see that his love of beauty is taking him in the wrong direction, and the abuse falls on the relationship that he most needs to build and to protect.
John W. Ritenbaugh
"Surfeiting" (KJV) or "carousing" (NKJV) means indulging in one's appetites excessively. It could be food or drink or many other things. This world, especially in its advertizing, is pushing the overuse of our appetites all the time. We cannot turn on the television without them pushing automobiles, foods, toys, jewelry, drugs, insurance, appliances, travel, housewares, clothing, tools, movies, and other television programs. Advertizers are constantly and repetitiously urging us, "Do this." "Try this." "Use your time this way." We can feel pressured, "under the gun," stressed from resisting their products, their way of life, and their attitudes.
This is the issue in the book of Hebrews. The people to whom the book was written had not given into immorality, but the author knew that sooner or later the stress of resisting would get to them. Because of the constant pressure to conform to this world, they were becoming apathetic, and apathetic people are in a kind of stupor, blind to the reality of their spiritual condition. And what is the end result? Jesus said what happens is that we forget when we are living—and the day comes upon us unawares.
The thrust of Jesus' exhortation is that we should be continually expecting His return; it should always be a major part of our focus. The exhortations in Hebrews are for us to return our focus to the return of Jesus Christ and prepare ourselves for what is coming in that troubled time. We should not be allowing this world to hammer away at our minds and attitudes—taking up our lives, our time, with things that should not be our concern.
Do we need some of the things that the world hits us with? Yes, we have to live. However, we need to have enough spiritual understanding not to let them wear away at us until they become a major part of our lives. Thus, Jesus is warning us not to allow ourselves to become secure and self-satisfied with this life and the good things that it furnishes—but to jolt ourselves spirituallty awake!
John W. Ritenbaugh
Hebrews: A Message for Today
Other Forerunner Commentary entries containing Luke 21:36: