Word Study #125 — “Watch!”

Here is another example of a word with multiple meanings and implications which have been distinguished poorly, if at all, in most English translations. Representing eight different Greek words, whose primary meanings range from guarding a prisoner through the simple measuring of time and ordinary sleeplessness to sobriety and diligent faithfulness, by the use of the single English term “watch” seems careless at best. “Utterly irresponsible” might be a better analysis.

Most of the words, seldom used, can be sorted rather easily. Koustodia, transliterated from the Latin custodia, a Roman military assignment, is used in the New Testament only of the guards assigned to Jesus’ crucifixion (Mt.27:65,66; 28:11).
Agrupnia, simple lack of sleep, appears only in II Cor.6:5 and 11:27, as Paul describes the trials of his life, although the verb form, agrupneo, is three times (out of 4) connected with deliberate, careful faithfulness and prayer (Mk.13:33, Lk.21:36, Eph.6:18), or, in Heb.13:17, serious responsibility for other members of the Body.
Tereo (translated only 2x “watch” (Mt.27:36,54) – vs. 57x “keep”, in the sense of careful observance – and its prefixed form, paratereo (5x) – Mt.3:2, Lk.6:7, 14:1; 20:20; Ac.9:24 – refer simply to observation: “watching” to see what was going to happen, or, in the latter case, to apprehend Paul.
This leaves three, however, that require more detailed attention.

Phulake, for example, and its related words phulax and phulasso, had quite a variety of classical uses, by far most of which, at least in the noun form, referred to a prison (35x), or to the guards – phulax – (KJV “keepers”) assigned to administer them (Ac.5:23, 12:6, 19).
But as early as the third century BC writings of Herodotus, phulake was also applied to a period of time, originally a period of guard duty. In Roman times, the night was divided into four “watches”. Earlier jurisdictions had used three or five such segments. This use is seen in Mt.14:25, 24:43; Mk.6:48, Lk.12:38.
Liddell/Scott also lists the idea of guarding with a view to protection, as in the case of the shepherds in Lk.2:8, or the more common use as a bodyguard.

The verb form, phulasso, is never traditionally rendered “watch” in its 30 New Testament appearances. It is primarily translated “keep” (21x), and refers, parallel to the most common use of tereo, to “keeping” the law, the word of God, or any people, things, or principles committed to one’s trust. It is also used of taking precautions, or admonitions to “beware” (Lk.12:25, II Tim.4:15, II Pet.3:17, I Jn.5:21), and of God’s protection of his people (II Thes.3:3, II Tim.1:12,14; Jude 24).

Nepho, originally used only in the present (continual, progressive) tense, is traditionally rendered “watch” twice, and “be sober” three times. Earlier writers used it consistently as the opposite of methuo “to be drunk”, often as total abstinence. Later, it referred to self-control of any sort, or being sober and wary. One might paraphrase, “take things/life seriously!” The sense can readily be discerned from the words with which it is paired:
I Thes.5:6 – “Let us watch (gregoreo) and be sober (nepho)” (PNT – “Let’s don’t be sleeping like the rest, but be alert and sober.”)
I Thes.5:8 – “Let us, who are of the day, be sober, clothed in a breast plate of faithfulness and love”
II Tim.4:5 – “Be sober in everything ….Fulfill your assignment!”
I Pet.1:13 – “Be sober [alert]; set your hope [confidence] completely on the grace being brought to you”
I Pet.4:7 – “Be sensible (sophronesate) and calm [sober] (nepho) for the purpose of prayer”
I Pet.5:8 – “Be careful [sober] (nephate), be watchful (gregoresate)”

Do you notice the pairing with forms of gregoreo? This brings us to the last, and most common, of the words traditionally translated “watch.”(I Pet.5:8, referenced above).
Gregoreo is simply defined, lexically, as “to be fully awake”, but its New Testament usage is much richer than that. It was traditionally translated “be awake” – I Thes.5:10, “whether we wake or sleep”, (referring to physical life or death), and “be vigilant” (I Pet.5:8, referenced above) once each, and 20x “watch.”

Of these, four (Mt.26:38, 40; Mk.14;34,37) are from scenes in the Garden where Jesus asks for companionship in his lonely prayer.
Nine are admonitions to faithful preparation for Jesus’ / a master’s arrival (Mt.24:42, 25:13; Mk.13:34,35,37; Lk.12:37, I Thes.5:6, Rv.16:15) – more on that in the next study.
Seven are combined with instructions for persistent prayer to buttress one’s own faithfulness and avoid being deceived or turned away (Mt.24:43, Mk.14:38, Lk.12:39, Ac.20:31, I Cor.16:13, Col.4:2, Rv.3:2,3).
In each of the latter two groups, the idea is much more heavily skewed toward alertness than simple physical wakefulness.

Interestingly, although the concepts are closely connected, especially in the parables quoted in Mt.24, Mk.13, and Lk.12, the actual words for “waiting” and “watching” do not appear together, except in hymns and sermons! Combining the two ideas, unfortunately, too often leads to equating them, and therefore to unwarranted passivity in the understanding of both.

While a degree of passivity may be present in many of the “waiting” passages (see previous post), “watching” is most decidedly active, not passive.
Agrupneo, phulasso, nepho, and especially gregoreo, all require deliberate effort, whether in prayer or overt action.

“Watching” is NOT a spectator sport!

Neither is it a lonely, individualistic pursuit. Notice that every one of the imperatives is plural.
May we learn to wait – and watch – together – in determined faithfulness!


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