Several places in the New Testament speak of being sober-minded (1 Peter 4:7; 5:8; Titus 2:2, 6; 1 Corinthians 15:34). In 2 Timothy 4:5, Paul exhorts Timothy to be “sober-minded, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry” (ESV). The term sober-minded literally means “free from intoxicating influences.” We speak of a person who is not drunk with alcohol or high on drugs as being “sober.” His or her mind is not under the control of a dangerous outside force.
More broadly, being sober-minded means that we do not allow ourselves to be captivated by any type of influence that would lead us away from sound judgment. The sober-minded individual is not “intoxicated,” figuratively speaking, and is therefore calm under pressure, self-controlled in all areas, and rational. Other translations of 2 Timothy 4:5 render Paul’s instruction to Timothy as “keep your head” (NIV), “keep a clear mind” (NLT), and “exercise self-control” (CSB).
One of the qualifications for an elder or church leader is that they and their wives be sober-minded (1 Timothy 3:2, 11; Titus 1:8). That is, they should live in reverential awe of their responsibility as representatives of Christ (2 Corinthians 5:20). Peter warned that “the end of all things is at hand; therefore be self-controlled and sober-minded for the sake of your prayers” (1 Peter 4:7, ESV). Those who are sober-minded will be alert to the need to pray and take the occasion to pray at opportune times.
More often than not, we see the opposite of sober-mindedness displayed in our world. Silliness, irresponsible choices, foolish experimentation with harmful substances or behaviors, and crude joking are in direct opposition to the command to be sober-minded. Ephesians 5:3–4 lists some behaviors that conflict with sober-minded living: “But among you there must not be even a hint of sexual immorality, or of any kind of impurity, or of greed, because these are improper for God’s holy people. Nor should there be obscenity, foolish talk or coarse joking, which are out of place.” Then, in case someone should think this is a list of judgmental preferences, Paul goes on to write the following: “For of this you can be sure: No immoral, impure or greedy person—such a person is an idolater—has any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God. Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of such things God’s wrath comes on those who are disobedient. Therefore do not be partners with them” (Ephesians 5:5–7).
Being sober-minded does not mean living a sour, joyless existence. In fact, sober-minded Christians are to be continually filled with the joy of the Holy Spirit (Galatians 5:22; Acts 15:32; Romans 14:17). Eliminating foolishness, frivolity, and mind-numbing silliness from our lives allows us to focus on what is real, eternal, and inspiring. Jesus’ command to His sleepy-headed disciples suggests the need for sober-mindedness: “Watch and pray so that you will not fall into temptation” (Mark 14:38).
Ephesians 5:18 commands us to avoid being filled with wine, because that leads to debauchery, but rather to be continually filled with the Holy Spirit. This verse implies that we can only be one of those, but not both. It’s an either/or proposition. If we pursue drunkenness, we cannot also pursue God. If substances control us, we cannot also be controlled by the Holy Spirit. Sober-minded people choose to abstain from practices that would lead them into sin.
In Romans 13:12–14, Paul explains the urgency behind the frequent commands to be sober-minded: “The night is nearly over; the day is almost here. So let us put aside the deeds of darkness and put on the armor of light. Let us behave decently, as in the daytime, not in carousing and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and debauchery, not in dissension and jealousy. Rather, clothe yourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ, and do not think about how to gratify the desires of the flesh.” And that is a good description of being sober-minded.