When I give instructions to my children, or even to my students, they often come in the form of warnings: “Be careful not to postpone this assignment to the last minute…” “Watch out for cars on the road…” “Make sure to proofread your papers…” I don’t think I’m alone in doing this; in fact, I think that warnings and cautions make up a significant part of most of our instructions.
Warnings are found throughout the Bible as well. In several key places, both Jesus and Paul warn us using the same word. It’s a command that means to, “watch out” or “beware.”
The most notable Pauline example comes in Acts 20:28. Paul is speaking to the Ephesian elders, men whom he loved dearly and had served alongside closely. In the midst of his final words to them, he reminds them to “watch out,” or, as our translations put it, to “Pay careful attention.” In this case, they were to watch out for themselves and for the local congregation with which they had been entrusted. This warning implies that both they and the church were in need of care and attention. It was not enough to simply assume the best or to move forward on a kind of cruise control setting. For both themselves as individuals, and or the church under their care, they needed to watch.
The term Paul uses in this verse is not unique to him. In fact, it’s the same term that Jesus uses on many other occasions in the gospels. It is striking to note what Jesus commands his disciples to watch out for.
First, in Matthew 10:17, Jesus warns to his disciples about persecution and suffering at the hands of enemies. “Beware of men” [literally, “watch out”] “for they will deliver you over to courts and flog you in their synagogues.” This is a conventional warning to his disciples. They needed to prepare for the danger ahead. Matthew 6:1 contains much the same warning. The disciples were to watch out for those who appeared to be friendly, but who were really nothing more than ravenous wolves.
Second, In Matthew 16:6, 11, and in Luke 12:1, Jesus tells his disciples to watch out for influence of the Pharisees and teachers of the Law. It was not that the Pharisees presented an immediate physical danger in these cases. Rather, Jesus seems to have in mind the leavening influence that such teachers could have among his own disciples. They could infiltrate and influence those who were following Christ. It was imperative that Jesus’ followers guard against this. In Luke 20:46, Jesus commands his followers again to watch out for these same people. This time, it is not their leavening influence, as much as the prerogatives and authority they demanded. They demanded deference. Their place as teachers demanded something special. This is antithetical to the teaching of Jesus. Yet it was and is attractive, prevalent among many of those in the Christian church today. Jesus’ earliest disciples needed to watch out against it. So do we.
This brings us to the final way in which Jesus uses this emphatic command to watch out. He tells his disciples to watch out for themselves. The enemies on the outside, whether aggressive or subtle, were important to guard against. But the enemy on the inside was far more insidious.
In the first place, Jesus warned us to watch out when we are doing deeds that are righteous (Matthew 6:1). Even our good works can be opportunities for sin. Indeed, our propensity to sin runs so deep that our moments of prayer and generosity can themselves become twisted opportunities for self-glorification.
Second, Jesus reminds us that our relationships can also be a source of sin, so Jesus reminds us to watch out in the area of forgiveness: “Pay attention to yourselves. If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him” (Luke 17:3). All of us sin in relationships, but we need to watch that we either permissively wink at sin, or harbor a grudge by failing to forgive.
Finally, even the normalcy of life can be a trap. In Luke 21:34, Jesus uses this same term of warning to caution against allowing the pursuit of pleasure or the worries of life to breed indifference toward his promises for the future: “But watch yourselves lest your hearts be weighted down with dissipation and drunkenness and cares of this life, and that day come upon you suddenly like a trap.”
In all the uses of this term of warning, most of which come in Jesus’ teaching, there is a consistent theme. While it’s true that there are threats from the outside – ones which both we and the earliest disciples needed to be aware of – the greatest threats seem to come from within.
I am not alone in using the language of warning in my instructions. We all do. We recognize that here are things for which we and those under our care need to watch out. But it’s worth remembering that the most subtle and insidious threats to us spiritually may not come from outside enemies or outside influences. Our greatest threats may come from within.