Keeping Awake to the Return of Christ

In Pilgrim’s Progress, John Bunyan describes Christian and Hopeful crossing the “Enchanted Ground” on their way to the Celestial City:

I saw then in my dream, that they went till they came into a certain country, whose air naturally tended to make one drowsy, if he came a stranger into it. And here Hopeful began to be very dull and heavy of sleep; wherefore he said unto Christian, “I do now begin to grow so drowsy, that I can scarcely hold up mine eyes; let us lie down here and take one nap.”
Christian: “By no means,” said the other; “lest sleeping, we never awake more.”
Hopeful: Why, my brother, sleep is sweet to the labouring man; we may be refreshed if we take a nap.
Christian: Do you not remember that one of the shepherds bade us beware of the Enchanted Ground? He meant by that, that we should beware of sleeping; wherefore let us not sleep as do others, but let us watch and be sober.

Bunyan drew from Paul’s teaching in 1 Thessalonians 5, where the apostle describes those who deny the return of Christ as “those who are asleep.” To all appearances, they are alert, empowered, in control, busily pursuing fulfilling lives in this world. Yet they are unaware of the most important truths in the universe. And when Christ appears, “sudden destruction will come upon them as labor pains come upon a pregnant woman, and they will not escape (1 Thess 5:3).” Christians, on the other hand, “are not of the night or of the darkness (1 Thess 5:4).” By grace, we have been awakened by the gospel to the glory of Jesus Christ. We eagerly await the appearing of the one “who delivers us from the wrath to come (1 Thess 1:10).”
Still, says Paul, Heaven-bound believers grow dull to this glorious reality as we pass through this life. We can become so taken with the present world and all that it promises, we forget about the world to come. Practically speaking, we can live without any more regard for Christ’s return than our slumbering neighbors. So Paul calls us to wide-awake lives: “So then let us not sleep, as others do, but let us keep awake and be sober. (1 Thess 5:6–7).”
But how do we remain alert to the second coming when we daily breathe in the air of the Enchanted Ground? I think Paul would endorse Christian’s method:

“Now,” then said Christian, “to prevent drowsiness in this place, let us fall into good discourse.”
Hopeful: “With all my heart,” said the other.
Christian: Where shall we begin?
Christian: Where God began with us.

As the pilgrims spoke with one another about how God had led them thus far, their spiritual senses were revived. Their hearts beat faster at the thought of seeing the King. And their feet moved swiftly over the Enchanted Ground. If we would live wide-awake to the coming of Christ, we will need this robust spiritual fellowship, too. “Therefore encourage one another and build one another up, just as you are doing (1 Thess 5:11).”

Eric Smith is the pastor of Sharon Baptist Church in Savannah, Tennessee. He and his wife, Candace, have three children: Coleman, Crockett, and Clarabelle. Eric is currently a Ph.D. candidate at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky.