After encouraging his readers by reminding them of the living hope they have in Christ (1 Peter 1:3-12), Peter issues some instructions on how they should live in light of their true spiritual identity (1:13-2:3). The first order of business? Get rid of distractions and focus on the bigger spiritual picture of God’s plan.
The way Peter phrases it, his readers are to “sober up” spiritually:
“Therefore, preparing your minds for action, and being sober-minded, set your hope fully on the grace that will be brought to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ.” — 1 Peter 1:13 (ESV)
When my wife and I discussed this passage with the young adults we lead, we spent some time thinking about why Peter uses the phrase, “being sober-minded.” It’s an image that carries a lot of meaning, but as my wife pointed out, it’s easy to just glance over it and miss the power of the metaphor.
Peter’s words imply that our default tendency as human beings is to be “spiritually drunk.” Why else does he tell us to sober up?
“Be Alert, Be Vigilant”
Throughout the New Testament, the imagery of being sober-minded refers to being spiritually alert and ready for Christ’s return. In Matthew 24:45-51, Jesus tells a story about a servant whose master goes on a trip and leaves him in charge of the estate while he’s gone. After the master’s return is long delayed, the servant begins to party and get drunk and mistreat the other members of the house. This goes on until one day the master returns unexpectedly and punishes that servant for his drunken disobedience.
The point Jesus stresses with the story is that his servants (Christians) are always to be living in readiness for his return, being about his business and not living for their own selfish pleasures. The apostle Paul likewise uses this metaphor of spiritual sobriety, in 1 Thessalonians 5:6-8, where he writes, “So then let us not sleep, as others do, but let us keep awake and be sober. For those who sleep, sleep at night, and those who get drunk, are drunk at night. But since we belong to the day, let us be sober…” (see also Luke 21:34-36; 2 Timothy 4:5).
The opposite of this spiritual sobriety would be for someone to be “drunk” in the world’s ways and the desires of their flesh. Spiritually-drunk people stay lost in the mire of laziness and ignore God’s commands. They are ruled by their own unrestrained impulses rather than by God. (Literal drunkenness is also prohibited in Scripture, in Ephesians 5:18, because it can be destructive and is at odds with living under the influence of the Holy Spirit.)
Peter talks about being alert and sober-minded, being vigilant, several more times throughout his letter (4:7; 5:8). Remember, he was originally writing to Christians who were being persecuted for their faith. As they were going about their daily lives surrounded by potential enemies, like sheep among wolves, Peter reminds them of their need to “keep their wits about them,” as it were.
But his words apply to all of us, persecuted or not. We need to be alert to the spiritual intoxicants all around us — especially (in the case of most Westerners like myself) the idols and materialistic distractions that we may think are harmless but could actually be slowly pulling our loyalty away from Christ.
There are a great many things people like to get spiritually drunk on — things like entertainment, money, success and accomplishment, the approval of others, or anger and outrage. For myself, even the pursuit of theological study can become an intoxicating end in itself, rather than the means to serving God!
We also must be careful with how many of our choices are driven by physical appetites or substances. As Edmund Clowney states in his 1 Peter commentary, “Drunken stupor is the refuge of those who have no hope.” Getting lost in substances like drugs and alcohol, or finding escape through physical pleasures or fantasies – these are the desperate efforts of people who aren’t placing their hopes in Christ.
Peter calls each of his readers to “Set your hope completely on the grace to be brought to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ.” In other words, focus on what’s ahead, not just on the here-and-now. Don’t set your hopes on things the world hopes in — whether career, money, political candidates, marriage, substance, escape, or even simply on yourself. There will come a day when we all will stand before the Lord. And if our loyalty is in him, then it is ultimately his grace that should motivate us to spiritual sobriety. His love should be the driving influence in all our thoughts and actions.
And those of us who are walking in spiritual sobriety must also patiently help those who are struggling to do so. We are called to “bear one another’s burdens” (Galatians 6:2), knowing that we each have our own weaknesses.
In what areas of your life do you need to “sober up”? Are there things that occupy your thinking more than they should, compared to focusing on matters of God’s kingdom?