Romans 13:11–12a—Do not sleep in worldly pleasure; stay alert in hope.
12a The night is far gone; the day is at hand.
Each day brings us closer to the return of Jesus Christ as Victor and Ruler of the age to come. If I expect him to return tomorrow, it will certainly affect the way I think and act today. This is the frame of mind Paul wants us to have. Paul wrote this nearly 2000 years ago, so we are that much closer now to the Savior’s return. We ought to be ever more vigilant to remain in fellowship with him:
Paul’s intent becomes clear as we explore the meaning of these words and metaphors.
“The time.” Instead of the word for regular chronological time (chronos), Paul uses kairos, signifying a special period of time. The Bible refers to this special time as the last days—the period during which Christ may return at any moment. Paul wrote in Philippians 3 of the enemies of the cross of Christ who have their minds set on earthly things. In contrast, we who believe in Christ align our mental outlook with the age to come. “But our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ” (3:20).
We live in hope. “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 1:12–13). John says this hope in Christ has the power to purify us (1 John 3:3). Hope in Christ actually transforms our moral character.
“The hour.” This expression is more specific than kairos in that it denotes the timing of a special event in God’s redemptive plan. Jesus spoke variously of “the hour” of his betrayal, arrest, crucifixion, and return (John 7:30, for example).
“Wake from sleep.” In this context “sleep” signifies a moral condition of worldliness and fleshly indulgence. Years before writing Romans Paul developed the same imagery in 1 Thessalonians:
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, having put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation. (5:5–8)
For believers, night (our former way of life) has given way to the urgency of the day: “it is already the hour for you to awaken from sleep” (NASB). The Lord’s people are to be spiritually aware and productively engaged in the day’s work. This imagery suited Paul’s audience, because people in the Near East needed to rise early to get their work done before the midday heat. Douglas Moo says, “Only slackards would keep to their beds after the first glow of daylight.... Paul wants no slackards among his readers.”
Just to be clear, “sleep” in these passages stands for evildoing and “night” for any time, day or night, evil is done. Paul is not saying Christians shouldn’t work night shifts! Normally believers will use the night for regular sleep and the day for work and ministry. Normally unbelievers who want to get drunk and engage in immorality will do these “night” things at night, as we will see in the verses ahead.
Moo thinks Paul also likely intends a reference to “the day of the Lord,” which denotes the return of Christ in glory and our final redemption.
“Salvation is nearer.” Paul here speaks of salvation in its future phase. The Bible describes salvation as a process that has a past, present, and future. As Bob Utley writes, “Christianity begins with a decision (instantaneous justification and sanctification), but must result in a godly lifestyle (progressive sanctification) and ends in Christlikeness (glorification).” Acceptance of God’s offer of grace in Christ is not the end, but the beginning of this process (Romans 10:9–13). It ends amazingly well: we get new bodies!