By Peter Amsterdam
March 28, 2023
At the end of 1 Thessalonians 4, Paul spoke of the dead in Christ who will be raised first, and the living who will be caught up into the air with them to meet the Lord and to always be with Him. He instructed the Thessalonian believers to encourage one another with these words.1 In 1 Thessalonians 5, Paul responds to the Thessalonian believers’ third question: When would the day of the Lord arrive?
Now concerning the times and the seasons, brothers, you have no need to have anything written to you. For you yourselves are fully aware that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night.2
Paul started this section of his letter with the phrase “now concerning,” which indicates that he is responding to another of the Thessalonians’ questions, which they probably asked through a letter they sent to Paul via Timothy. He used the same phrase earlier, now concerning brotherly love.3 Throughout Paul’s letters, he uses this phrase to introduce a new topic.4
It’s not surprising that Paul addressed the question of the timing of the day of the Lord. Throughout Jewish literature as well as in Scripture, there was much focus on this topic. In the book of Daniel the question is asked: How long shall it be till the end of these wonders?5 On the Mount of Olives, Jesus’ disciples came to him privately, saying, “Tell us, when will these things be, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the close of the age?”6 In the book of Acts, They asked him, “Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?” He said to them, “It is not for you to know times or seasons that the Father has fixed by his own authority.”7 Within the Gospels, Jesus made it clear that only His Father knew the time of the day of the Lord. Concerning that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father only.8
Paul didn’t feel that he needed to write the Thessalonian believers about the timing of the Lord’s coming. They already knew that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night. Throughout this letter, Paul refers to what the Thessalonians knew. You know what kind of men we proved to be among you.9 For you yourselves know, brothers, that our coming to you was not in vain.10 We never came with words of flattery, as you know, nor with a pretext for greed.11 You yourselves know that we are destined for this.12 For you know what instructions we gave you through the Lord Jesus.13 Because of their knowledge and faith, Paul knew that he didn’t have to repeat his teaching about the day of the Lord.
Within Scripture, the day of the Lord often refers to when the Lord comes to judge the people of the earth and pours out His wrath because of sin.14 However, for the people of God, the day of the Lord will be a day of salvation.15 In the letters of Paul, this event is known as “the day of the Lord Jesus,”16 when He comes to execute divine judgment.
I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.17
It is my prayer that your love may abound more and more, with knowledge and all discernment, so that you may approve what is excellent, and so be pure and blameless for the day of Christ.18
Since it was not possible for the believers to know when this day would come, they were called to be ready at all times. (This applies to all Christians—past, present, and future.) The day of the Lord will come suddenly at an unexpected moment, like when a thief breaks into a home in the middle of the night. Know this, that if the master of the house had known at what hour the thief was coming, he would not have left his house to be broken into. You also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect.19 Paul didn’t say there would be no signs before the end, but he wanted to emphasize that it is impossible to know the exact time of Christ’s return. Therefore, he wanted them to always be prepared.
While people are saying, “There is peace and security,” then sudden destruction will come upon them as labor pains come upon a pregnant woman, and they will not escape.20
Having stated that the Lord will come like a thief in the night, and that His coming will be unexpected, Paul went on to explain that unbelievers would not be able to find refuge from the judgment to come. The Thessalonian people had benefited from the peace that the Romans had brought to the land. The Roman Emperor, Augustus, was referred to as “the son of god.” The absence of war and a well-governed society under Roman rule brought prosperity to the people. The Thessalonians enjoyed peace and security.
However, Paul stated that in a time of prosperity and political tranquility, destruction would suddenly come. Jesus had taught that the final judgment would come suddenly.
Watch yourselves lest your hearts be weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and cares of this life, and that day come upon you suddenly like a trap. For it will come upon all who dwell on the face of the whole earth.21
Paul doesn’t specify the nature of the destruction, but he likens the final judgment to the labor pains which suddenly come upon a pregnant woman. The time of judgment will come at an unexpected moment. When that day comes, they will not escape any more than a pregnant woman in labor can avoid labor when it’s time for her to give birth to a child. Paul made the point that there is no way that unbelievers can flee from the destruction which is coming, and once it comes, there is no way to flee.
But you are not in darkness, brothers, for that day to surprise you like a thief.22
Paul contrasts the Thessalonian believers with the unbelievers in the city. The believers in the Thessalonian church are prepared for the day of the Lord; it will not surprise them, as they are not in darkness. However, for the nonbelievers, the day of the Lord will be unanticipated, and it will come like a thief who enters one’s home to steal at an unexpected time. Paul isn’t saying that the church will know when that day will come, rather he’s making the point that Christians are prepared for the final event and therefore they are not in darkness.
The association between living in the light as opposed to the darkness is found throughout the Old Testament as well.
The path of the righteous is like the light of dawn, which shines brighter and brighter until full day. The way of the wicked is like deep darkness; they do not know over what they stumble.23
O house of Jacob, come, let us walk in the light of the LORD.24
Woe to those who call evil good and good evil, who put darkness for light and light for darkness.25
The New Testament authors describe salvation as passing from darkness to light.
For at one time you were darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Walk as children of light.26
He has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son.27
You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.28
The Thessalonian believers (as well as Christians in general) don’t see the day of the Lord as some sort of disastrous event. They are prepared because they are believers, they live a moral life; and so they can look forward to that day because they are not in darkness but in the light of the Lord.
You are all children of light, children of the day. We are not of the night or of the darkness.29
In this verse, Paul gives the reason why he is confident in saying that the Thessalonian believers are “not of darkness,” as he wrote in verse 4. He was writing to all the Thessalonian church when calling them “children of light,” both male and female. (Several Bibles use the phrase sons of light instead of children. One author explains: The expression translated as “sons of” would have embraced both the men and women of the congregation and should therefore be rendered “children of.”)30
Those who are “children of light” are those who have been saved from darkness and now belong to the realm of “light.” The apostle Peter wrote:
You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.31
Being children of light and children of the day means that we are not of the night or of the darkness. At this point the apostle Paul switches from speaking about what they, the Thessalonians, do, to what we, the Christians, do.
So then let us not sleep, as others do, but let us keep awake and be sober.32
They became “children of light” and “children of the day” because of their salvation, and they are now called to act in accordance with what they have become. They should be alert and self-controlled. They should not sleep, rather they should be attentive. One author states: the Christians’ conduct should be distinct from that of “the others,” the unbelievers whose lives are marked by the “sleep” of moral indifference and sin.33
Rather than being “asleep” in sin, Paul tells the Thessalonian believers to be awake and sober. Other translations say be alert and self-controlled (NIV) and stay alert and be clearheaded (NLT). The call is to be alert and vigilant both spiritually and morally. Believers are to exercise moral self-control.
Those who sleep, sleep at night, and those who get drunk, are drunk at night.34
Paul speaks of activities which people generally do at night—sleep and get drunk. While some people work at night, generally that’s when people sleep. It’s also more likely that if someone is going to get drunk, they don’t do so in the middle of the day, but rather wait until evening. The night generally had a negative association in ancient times. The drunkenness Paul speaks of refers to a moral state, which isn’t limited to the abuse of alcohol. It is the opposite of the sobriety described in the previous verse: let us keep awake and be sober. The point Paul was making to the Thessalonians was that those who sleep and those who get drunk will not be ready for the day of the Lord.
Because of their condition, the day of the Lord would come upon them like a thief in the night.35
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.36
Paul contrasted those who “sleep” and those who “get drunk” with believers. He has already made it clear that he and his companions, as well as the Thessalonian believers, belong to the day and as such they should be self-controlled and morally “sober.” Along with being sober and ready for the day of the Lord, they must also be armed with Christian virtues—faith, love, and hope. Paul used Isaiah 59:17 as the source of this teaching.
He put on righteousness as a breastplate, and a helmet of salvation on his head; he put on garments of vengeance for clothing, and wrapped himself in zeal as a cloak.37
Paul made some changes to the Old Testament text so that it referred to Christians, those who have put on the breastplate and helmet. In the book of Ephesians, Paul also uses much of this same military imagery.38
God has not destined us for wrath, but to obtain salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us so that whether we are awake or asleep we might live with him.39
Thus far, Paul has focused on the differences between Christians and the unbelievers in the time before the Lord’s return. Now Paul moves on to the destiny of the two groups. One group will suffer wrath, while the other will be saved from it. He explains that upon the Lord’s return, Christians will obtain salvation. They don’t receive salvation through any merit on their part, rather it is because of God’s love and grace through Jesus’ sacrificial death and resurrection.
This is the only place in First or Second Thessalonians where the purpose of Jesus’ death is explained. Jesus died for us. This points to His substitutionary death for our sins. His death brought salvation for those who believed, whether we are awake or asleep, meaning whether living or dead. It’s interesting that in verse 6, Paul also speaks about sleep and keeping awake, but there he is writing about being “morally” awake or alert. This verse (5:10) is the only place in the New Testament where “to be awake” is a way to say “to be alive.”
This final salvation is described in verse 10 as living together with our Lord Jesus Christ. This declaration of hope has to do with the resurrection of the dead followed by that of the living, so that together they can live with Jesus.
Therefore encourage one another and build one another up, just as you are doing.40
Paul called on the Thessalonian believers to use this teaching for edification and comfort. They had been concerned about the day of the Lord, which was linked to their question about the dead in Christ. He tells them to encourage and comfort one another and remind each other that God has brought them, both those living and those who had already passed on, to salvation. They are also to build each other up, to help one another grow and progress in their faith. As the Thessalonian church was already doing much of what Paul was telling them, He encouraged them to continue as they had been. This point brings an end to his responses to their questions.
(To be continued.)
Unless otherwise indicated, all scriptures are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
1 1 Thessalonians 4:18.
2 1 Thessalonians 5:1–2.
3 1 Thessalonians 4:9.
4 1 Corinthians 7:1, 25; 8:1; 12:1; 16:1, 12.
5 Daniel 12:6.
6 Matthew 24:3.
7 Acts 1:6–7.
8 Matthew 24:36. See also Mark 13:32.
9 1 Thessalonians 1:4–5.
10 1 Thessalonians 2:1.
11 1 Thessalonians 2:5.
12 1 Thessalonians 3:3.
13 1 Thessalonians 4:2.
14 Jeremiah 46:10; Ezekiel 30:3; Joel 1:15, 2:1, 3:14; Amos 5:18, 20; Zephaniah 1:14; Acts 2:20; 2 Peter 3:10.
15 Joel 3:18; Obadiah 1:8–21; Zechariah 14:1–21.
16 1 Corinthians 1:8; 2 Corinthians 1:14.
17 Philippians 1:6.
18 Philippians 1:9–10.
19 Luke 12:39–40.
20 1 Thessalonians 5:3.
21 Luke 21:34–35.
22 1 Thessalonians 5:4.
23 Proverbs 4:18–19.
24 Isaiah 2:5.
25 Isaiah 5:20.
26 Ephesians 5:8.
27 Colossians 1:13.
28 1 Peter 2:9.
29 1 Thessalonians 5:5.
30 Gene L. Green, The Letters to the Thessalonians (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2002), 236.
31 1 Peter 2:9.
32 1 Thessalonians 5:6.
33 Green, The Letters to the Thessalonians, 238.
34 1 Thessalonians 5:7.
35 1 Thessalonians 5:2.
36 1 Thessalonians 5:8.
37 Isaiah 59:17.
38 Ephesians 6:13–17.
39 1 Thessalonians 5:9–10.
40 1 Thessalonians 5:11.