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It might seem odd to lump drowsiness and drunkenness together. It’s not like they’re moral equivalents. But that’s exactly what Paul does in 1 Thessalonians 5:6, telling us “not [to] sleep, as others do, but [to] keep awake and be sober.”
Paul isn’t issuing a call for mass insomnia. Rather, he’s tapping into a common biblical metaphor of sin as sleepiness and stupor, and righteousness as wakefulness and sobriety. Throw in some imagery of light and darkness, day and night, and you’ve got a powerful imaginative appeal to be transformed by the renewing of our minds rather than conformed to this evil age (Rom. 12:1–2).
This passage is framed against the coming day of the Lord, when Jesus will bring sudden destruction on his enemies (1 Thess. 4:13–5:3). Paul’s goal here is to help us wake up and get ready for it.
What Does It Mean to Stay Awake?
Note Paul’s other metaphor: “Let us keep awake and be sober.” Though morally different, Paul lumps together sleeping and getting smashed for two reasons.
Paul’s goal here is to help us wake up and get ready for [the day of the Lord].
First, because both normally happen at night: “For those who sleep, sleep at night, and those who get drunk, are drunk at night” (1 Thess. 5:7). Second, both lower your defenses and leave you vulnerable. If someone wanted to pick your pocket with a minimal threat of danger and maximum hope of success, his safest bet would be to wait until you’re drunk or asleep, since that’s when your guard is down.
But if you’re awake and sober, you can be alert and watchful. You can be on your game mentally and spiritually. Paul wants us to keep a clear head. Prepare our minds for action. Keep a firm grip on reality. See things as they really are—not as they appear in a dream or a drunken stupor.
He’s not simply telling us to avoid toking or binge-drinking, though that’s certainly included (cf. Rom. 13:13; Eph. 5:18). Make no mistake: getting drunk or stoned is a shameful state that robs us of our reason, endangers others, and makes us sitting ducks for the Devil. We should avoid it like the plague.
But we also need to realize there are more things than pot that can cloud our minds.
Deadly Sleep of Worldliness
The world is flooded with spiritual narcotics. Satan has polluted the atmosphere with them. The air of this present evil age is filled with enough intoxicating incense to keep us stumbling around in a spiritual haze until either we die or the day of the Lord hits us like a freight train (1 Thess. 5:3)—which is, of course, exactly what Satan wants.
The world is flooded with spiritual narcotics. Satan has polluted the atmosphere with them.
The old-fashioned word for this kind of sleep is “worldliness.” It’s what the apostle John warned us about (1 John 2:15–17). It’s about taking God’s good gifts and turning them into substitute saviors. It’s about mindlessly sucking in false ideas from pop culture like “Listen to your heart,” “You do you,” and “You’re entitled to happiness.”
These are the ways Satan keeps people oblivious to spiritual reality. He wants to either fill our minds with false ideas (like those above), or (just as likely) flood our minds with trivia and nonsense to keep us from thinking deeply about anything that matters. As C. S. Lewis’s demon Screwtape put it,
Your job is to fix his attention on the [immediate] stream [of what he can see and touch and hear]. Teach him to call it “real life,” and don’t let him ask what he means by “real.” . . . From the way some of you young [tempters] talk, anyone would suppose it was our job to teach!
In other words, “Keep his mind off of serious things. Don’t let him think too hard about things he can’t see—that might wake him up!”
Waking Up for the Eternal Day
Being asleep means living life as though God didn’t exist. Waking up means realizing there’s a God to whom you’ll give an account for your life.
Being asleep means spending your time and your money as though this age were all there is. Waking up means realizing this life is a vapor, eternity is infinitely more important, and real life has barely begun (1 Tim. 6:19).
Being asleep means viewing yourself as the center of the universe. Waking up means counting God and neighbor more significant than yourself (Phil. 2:3).
Being asleep means assuming that if God does exist, he’s tolerant and will accept you as long as you’re true to yourself and do your best. Waking up means realizing God is holier than you ever dreamed, you’re worse than you ever imagined, and your best will never be good enough.
Being asleep means the day of the Lord will surprise you like a thief. Waking up means the day of the Lord will be more like a surprise party you knew was coming but weren’t sure exactly when.
Being asleep means living life as though God didn’t exist. Waking up means realizing there’s a God to whom you’ll give an account.
The evil age we inhabit is like one long night—but it’s a long night that’s passing away and will soon be replaced by an eternal day (Rev. 21:25). For God’s people, the future is bright. Even now “the true light is already shining” (1 John 2:8).
Sam Allberry likes to say that sanctification is a matter of reducing the culture shock of living in the new heavens and new earth. To tweak the metaphor, we might say it’s like reducing the blinding brightness of the age to come by gazing on Christ through faith (2 Cor. 3:18). It’s coming. He’s coming. “The night is far gone; the day is at hand” (Rom. 13:12).
It’s time to wake up.