God has given his people the privilege and responsibility to be watchmen for the communities and nations in which they live. The role of the spiritual watchman is outlined in Ezekiel 3:16-19 (cf 33:1-9):
“The word of the Lord came to me: “Son of man, I have made you a watchman for the house of Israel; whenever you hear a word from my mouth, you shall give them warning from me. If I say to the wicked, ‘You shall surely die,’ and you give him no warning, nor speak to warn the wicked from his wicked way, in order to save his life, that wicked man shall die in his iniquity; but his blood I will require at your hand. But if you warn the wicked, and he does not turn from his wickedness, or from his wicked way, he shall die in his iniquity; but you will have saved your life.”
God called Ezekiel to be a watchman. Ezekiel did not have any choice in the matter. The Lord said, “I have made you a watchman”. I believe this is true of every Christian. Whether we like it or not, God has made us his watchmen, his watchwomen. We can choose to obey or to disobey, but we cannot choose to be other than what God has made us. We are the High King’s watchmen.
Having commissioned Ezekiel, the Lord told him the duties he was to perform and the message he was to proclaim: you must warn them “whenever you hear a word from my mouth”. Evidently, Ezekiel received direct communications from the Lord. He knew exactly when the Lord spoke and he knew exactly what the Lord spoke (cf 1:1, 3, 28; 2:2; 3:12, 22, 24).
To be watchmen, we too must hear the Lord speak and the Bible enables us to do this. The Bible is the Word of God in written form, out-breathed by the Holy Spirit through the prophets and apostles, and “profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness” (2 Tim 3:16; cf 2 Pet 1:19-21). What God spoke to Ezekiel and the other prophets and apostles he still speaks. The word he gave to them he gives to us.
If we read the Bible diligently, the Spirit of God who inspired it will enlighten our minds to understand it (1 Cor 2:12-16). And as the Word of God becomes living and active in our hearts and minds, it will instruct us concerning what to believe and how to behave. It will speak to our personal needs and to our society’s needs. It will give us (among other things) a word from the Lord with which to warn those who are in danger.
According to Ezekiel, the message that the watchman is to give is a word of warning. The warning, in essence, is that God is not mocked (Gal 6:7). He will not tolerate sin. On the contrary, he is coming to bring judgment. The watchman must warn the wicked, “You shall surely die” (3:18).
Through Ezekiel, through the watchman, the Lord warns that those guilty of adultery, idolatry, robbery, cruelty, greed, injury, injustice, et cetera, are facing judgment; and when that judgment is pronounced it will bring death: “The soul that sins shall die” (18:4, 20).
The watchman’s message, then, is by nature a warning that God’s condemnation awaits those who disobey him. But what is its purpose? Is the watchman to tell the wicked that they “shall surely die” simply to terrify them? No, not at all! Although terror may be a function of the warning, it is not its primary purpose.
The watchman must “speak to warn the wicked from his wicked way, in order to save his life” (3:18). With God, warnings are for turnings. His warnings are deterrents, not determinations; they are cautions, not causations. Hence, the purpose of the watchman’s warning is to bring the wicked to repentance so that they might obtain deliverance.
In Ezekiel 18, the Lord asks, “Have I any pleasure in the death of the wicked … and not rather that he should turn from his way and live?” (v 23). Later in the same chapter he declares, “For I have no pleasure in the death of any one … so turn, and live” (v 32). In chapter 33, he instructs Ezekiel, “Say to them, As I live, says the Lord God, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from his way and live”. Then he pleads with the wicked directly: “turn back, turn back from your evil ways; for why will you die … ?” (v 11). It is difficult to read this plea without sensing the compassion (not to mention the frustration and distress) that motivates it. Behold what manner of love the Lord has for the wicked, that he should plead with them in this manner!
We need to remember that the Lord does not wish “that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance” (2 Pet 3:9; cf 1 Tim 2:4). For example, not the liar nor the thief nor the adulterer nor the prostitute nor the homosexual nor the abortionist—not one of these wrongdoers does God wish to be lost. The highest purpose of the watchman’s warning is to turn these people from their wickedness so that they might have life, and have it abundantly and eternally.
Faithful watchmen can sometimes find it difficult to battle continually against evil without feeling bitter towards those who glory in it. But we must guard against such bitterness. We must take care not to be like Jonah.
Jonah was troubled by this desire to see the wicked get their just deserts. He proclaimed the warning to the people of Nineveh, “‘Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!’ And the people of Nineveh believed God; they proclaimed a fast, and put on sackcloth, from the greatest of them to the least of them” (3:4-5). When God saw “how they turned from their evil way”, he repented—that is, he changed his mind and abandoned his intention to destroy them. This upset Johah and he complained, “I pray you, Lord, is not this what I said when I was yet in my country? That is why I made haste to flee to Tarshish; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and repent of evil. Therefore now, O Lord, take my life from me, I beseech you, for it is better for me to die than to live” (4:2-3). He despised the wicked so much that he would rather die than witness their redemption.
Jonah hoped that God would fulfil his warning that Nineveh was to be destroyed in forty days. But God intended that the warning itself would make the destruction unnecessary. It was for love of them that God warned the wicked, “You shall surely die”.
It is easy to label people who oppose evil and speak of judgment as “negative”, but this is not a biblical view.
The Bible is often couched in “negative” language. It often warns people against sin. It does not simply commend the good; it also condemns the bad. Of the Ten Commandments, for example, only two are expressed positively. The other eight begin with the declaration, “You shall not”. This approach is frowned on today. We want to be “positive” about everything. But God insists on being negative—and dogmatic: You shall not!
Before people can repent, they have to become aware that they need to repent. To that end, we must sometimes speak “negatively”, identifying and condemning sin for what it is.
So the watchman must sometimes warn the wicked with a message that seems wholly negative. But the purpose is primarily positive. “You shall surely die,” he warns, in the hope that the wicked might take heed, repent and live.
Both the calling of the watchman and the message he is to deliver come from God. But the delivery of the message is the watchman’s responsibility—and he is free to accept or to reject that responsibility (although, as we see in the case of Jonah, God is free to reject his rejection!).
If the watchman disobeys God’s command to warn the wicked, he is guilty of sin and will be held accountable. But worse, his disobedience may result in the damnation of the wicked. The Lord warns, “If the watchman sees the sword coming and does not blow the trumpet, so that the people are not warned, and the sword comes, and takes any one of them; that man is taken away in his iniquity, but his blood I will require at the watchman’s hand” (Ez 33:6; cf Acts 20:26-28).
While the watchman has a responsibility to warn, the wicked man has a responsibility to heed the warning. He is challenged to repent. And, like the inhabitants of Nineveh, he can repent if he so desires. But he can also choose to ignore the warning and to continue in his evil ways.
If he heeds the warning, he will live. If he ignores it, he will die. The Lord declares, “if anyone who hears the sound of the trumpet does not take warning, and the sword comes and takes him away, his blood shall be upon his own head … But if he had taken warning he would have saved his life” (Ez 33:4-5). Each human being is a moral being and is therefore both responsible for his actions and accountable to God for them. Hence, if he chooses to ignore the warning, he is responsible for his own death.
Furthermore, the wicked man has no excuse even if the watchman fails to warn. He had the choice to refrain from wickedness in the first place; and having turned to wickedness, he had the choice to turn back from it. With or without the warning, the wicked man is guilty of sin and is justly condemned. The tragedy is that had he been warned he might have repented and lived. He might have received mercy instead of justice.
We must not make light of our responsibilities as watchmen: the wicked can be lost for want of a warning. God is not dependent on us but in his wisdom he chooses to work through us. Hence, “we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us” (2 Cor 5:20).
God has entrusted “to us the message of reconciliation”. This message is that “God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them” (2 Cor 5:19). In Christ, God acted to restore a right relationship between himself and mankind. He sacrificed his Son so that our sins could be set aside. When we believe in Christ and accept by faith his work on the cross, God does not count our sins against us any more. This is the message of reconciliation with which we have been entrusted.
The gospel is the main message the Lord would have us declare to the world. It is both a word of warning and a word of hope. The Apostle John expresses the dual nature of the gospel message like this: “He who believes in the Son has eternal life; he who does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God rests upon him” (John 3:36). The Apostle Paul puts it like this: “For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom 6:23).
The gospel has a positive and a negative side. It is good news for those who believe, but bad news for those who disbelieve (cf 2 Cor 2:14-16). The Bible does not shrink from declaring both sides of the gospel message.
However, while the gospel is our first priority, it is not our only concern. We live in a world where deceit, wrongdoing and injustice are daily realities. As watchmen appointed by the Lord, we must sound an alarm against many evils, especially those evils that are accepted or approved by society at large. For example, we should warn against a range of defiling and destructive evils connected with fallen sexual desire, evils such as prostitution, pornography, adultery, pre-marital sex and homosexuality. Warning against such evils will not make us popular, but who will warn the perishing about them if not Christians?
And such warnings serve the gospel. We tend to categorize issues as either social or spiritual, and there can be value in doing this. However, it is wrong to believe that the two categories are mutually exclusive. Social issues are spiritual issues, too. Paul makes this clear when he states, “Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality … will inherit the kingdom of God” (1 Cor 6:9-10). Sexual sins (to isolate just one kind of sin for the sake of argument) have not only social but also spiritual impact. True, they spread debauchery, jealousy, resentment and disease throughout society and in this way they break down family relationships and social cohesion. But this is not the worst of it. The most dreadful consequence of sexual sin is alienation from God, which, if not reversed, excludes offenders from God’s kingdom for eternity.
Sexual immorality is a spiritual as well as a social issue. It is not an issue separate from the gospel but one that relates to it. The same is true for every social evil against which the Christian watchman must warn.
The wicked are not the only ones who can benefit from the watchman’s warning. The redeemed can, too. We need to wath out for the Church as well as the world, for evils that flourish in the general community have a way of filtering into the Christian community.
God will bring judgment on the Church if it fails to warn the world against evil practices. And one of the ways his judgment will come is by allowing the Church itself to be harmed by the very evil to which it abandoned the world. In a very real sense, when we watch and warn the godless about evil and judgment, we protect ourselves.
Mordecai pointed this out to Queen Esther when she was afraid to approach the king over the impending destruction of the Jews in Persia. He told her, “Think not that in the king’s palace you will escape any more than all the other Jews. For if you keep silence at such a time as this, relief and deliverance will rise for the Jews from another quarter, but you and your father’s house will perish. And who knows whether you have not come to the kingdom for such a time as this?” (Est 4:13-14). Essentially, Mordecai is saying, “Don’t think you’ll escape when the evil day comes. You won’t escape unscathed. There’s nowhere that’s safe, not even the king’s palace. Do something! Do what you know is right! It just may be that you are the one God has raised up to save us!” May God grant us wisdom and courage to heed the warning of Mordecai and to follow the example of Esther! For who knows whether we have not come to our nation for such a time as this?
As Christians, we are called to social action.
In Matthew 5:13, our Lord declares, “You are the salt of the earth”. What are the qualities of salt? It heals wounds.
It preserves from decay. It enhances flavour. It stimulates thirst. Whether we like it or not, we are the salt of the earth. The question is: Are we healing, preserving, seasoning and stimulating our society, or have we lost our saltiness?
In Matthew 5:14, our Lord declares, “You are the light of the world”. What are the qualities of light? It overcomes darkness. It shines brighter as the night gets darker. It reveals hidden things. It makes plain the path we must tread. Whether we like it or not, we are the light of the world. The question is: Are we shining on top of a lampstand or under a basket?
In Ezekiel 3:16, our Lord declares, “I have made you a watchman for the house of Israel”. What are the responsibilities of the watchman? He must watch vigilantly. He must detect the movements of the enemy. He must warn his fellows of approaching danger. Whether we like it or not, we are the watchmen for our nation. The question is: Are we at our posts or at our pleasures?
We are the Lord’s lookouts. We are the High King’s watchmen. We will not all look in the same direction or look after the same people. We each have our own wall to watch and our own community to warn. Let us be faithful in this.
Isaiah said of the priests of Israel, the “watchmen are blind, they are all without knowledge; they are all dumb dogs, they cannot bark; dreaming, lying down, loving to slumber” (56:10). May this never be said of Christians today. Rather, may it be said of us as it was said of Nehemiah’s workmen, “Each of the builders had his sword girded at his side while he built” (Neh 4:18). May we always have “the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God” (Eph 6:17), strapped to our sides as we strive to build the kingdom of God until the King of Glory comes.
1. The Rev Dr Allen Fleece, Principal of the ColumbiaBibleCollege, made a comment to this effect in a sermon that I heard on audio tape many years ago. Unfortunately, I cannot recall the particular message or the exact comment.
2. “There’s not a Friend like the lowly Jesus” by Johnson Oatman Jr.
Copyright © Andrew Lansdown 2003, 2013
Published by Life Ministries. Additional copies of this pamphlet are available from Life Ministries, Suite 4, 334 Wanneroo Road, Nollamara, Western Australia, 6061. Phone/fax: (08) 9344 7396Website: www.lifeministries.org.au