Trying to sleep at night, I sometimes imagine what I’d do if someone broke into our house. I see myself grabbing my gun (two steps from my bed—closer I might shoot myself in the foot while asleep). Then I quietly sneak from bedroom to living room to find the bad guy. My imagination has complications: (1) in my condition it takes at least a full minute to push out of bed to get the gun; (2) I’m guessing an old bald guy leaning on a walker won’t strike the fear of God into the thief.
In 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11 Paul answers the question, When will “the Lord himself descend from heaven” (4:16, ESV)?
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 (5:1,2, ESV).
Apparently Paul had explained the “when” when he’d visited (Acts 17:1-9). No need to write it, still he does: “For you yourselves are fully aware that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night.” Question: When will the Lord Jesus come again? Answer: “the Lord will come like a thief in the night.”
Before unpacking that, let’s camp briefly on “the day of the Lord.” It was a familiar Old Testament term, which Paul uses here of Jesus’ Second Coming. Here are three representative passages from among dozens . . .
Prophesying against unfaithful Israel in the 8th century B.C. Amos warns, “Woe to you who desire the day of the LORD! Why would you have the day of the LORD? It is darkness, and not light, as if a man fled from a lion, and a bear met him, or went into the house and leaned his hand against the wall, and a serpent bit him” (Amos 5:18,19, ESV).
Calling God’s rebellious people to repentance, Joel cries, “Blow a trumpet in Zion; sound an alarm on my holy mountain! Let all the inhabitants of the land tremble, for the day of the LORD is coming; it is near, a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and thick darkness! Like blackness there is spread upon the mountains a great and powerful people; their like has never been before, nor will be again after them through the years of all generations (Joel 2:1,2, ESV). They did repent and “[t]hen the LORD became jealous for his land and had pity on his people” (Joel 2:18, ESV).
The day of the Lord would bring, not only the Lord’s wrath, but prior to it, the outpouring of his Spirit. “And it shall come to pass afterward, that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh; your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men shall see visions. Even on the male and female servants in those days I will pour out my Spirit. “And I will show wonders in the heavens and on the earth, blood and fire and columns of smoke. The sun shall be turned to darkness, and the moon to blood, before the great and awesome day of the LORD comes. And it shall come to pass that everyone who calls on the name of the LORD shall be saved. For in Mount Zion and in Jerusalem there shall be those who escape, as the LORD has said, and among the survivors shall be those whom the LORD calls” (Joel 2:28-32, ESV).
We conclude that the Old Testament “day of the Lord” would be the day when he would both execute his wrath and consummate his salvation. The New Testament writers identify Jesus Christ as the Lord of that day. He fulfills all the Old Testament “day of the Lord” prophecies. The “day of the Lord”, then, includes the rapture of believers, but also wrath on unbelievers.
Now back to Jesus the thief. Well, that’s not precise. Paul doesn’t call Jesus a thief; he explains the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night: suddenly. “My imaginary thief” won’t ring my doorbell to announce he’ll be back in 30 minutes to break in. He’ll come abruptly, without forewarning, all of a sudden.
Nothing more to explain about when. Especially since Jesus said, “No one knows about that day or hour, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father” (Mark 13:32). But Paul does picture world conditions surrounding that day . . .
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 (5:3, ESV).
The world will feel quite capable, thank you, of providing peace and security through governments and guns. How blind and arrogant the sinful mind! Even today, with the Middle East burning, the threat of new nuclear powers, and rampant violent crime in America, we slog on making political promises, ratifying treaties, arranging deals, marshaling military to find the right combination that will enable “people of good will” to create a peaceful, secure world.
But “they will not escape”. Like “labor pains come upon a pregnant woman”. “Honey, I think it’s time.” “Honey” jumps as if jabbed with a live wire. He’s shocked silly. Nor did mother-to-be expect tonight would be it. Look at them. Barely-controlled chaos. So it will be for the world when the Lord comes again.
But you are not in darkness, brothers, for that day to surprise you like a thief. For you are all children of light, children of the day. We are not of the night or of the darkness (5:4, ESV).
Believers “are not in darkness”, which here means more than ignorance. The world is morally, spiritual dark; in that dark realm unbelievers reject Jesus and his message. Jesus’ followers “are all children of light, children of the day.” Not just in their knowledge of Jesus coming, but in their faith/Spirit connection to the new eternal age that has dawned. Consequently, they are not surprised when the trumpet sounds. They belong to the one who comes calling.
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 (5:6-8, ESV).
“So then” introduces how, according to Paul, believers should respond to the message of Jesus’ coming “like a thief in the night.” Not by taking to a mountain, donning a white robe and gazing heavenward. Rather, believers shouldn’t sleep the sleep of indifference. They should be watchful and on guard, lest the world’s ways and their own sinful nature “drug” their minds. They must be controlled, clear-headed. The anti-model is the drunk staggering at the bar. The model is the sentry at the gate.
Paul doesn’t imply that we believers should become moralistic, as if refraining from the mind-dulling partying of the world will save us. Instead, he calls us believers to live practicing we are in Christ—people who belong to the “day”, who know they’re in a spiritual war. We’ve already “put on” (in military analogy) “faith and love” as a breastplate and “the hope of salvation” as a helmet.
For 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. Therefore encourage one another and build one another up, just as you are doing (1Thessalonians 5:9-11,ESV)
Ah, but such spiritually/morally “sober” living in a spiritually/morally “drunken” world means fighting and winning a war. Who among us has what it takes, especially given our track record? We are warriors critically wounded in countless battles. How can we be encouraged to fight the fight to be ready for the day of the Lord’s coming?
“For God has not destined us for wrath, but to obtain salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ.” God plans to save all who trust Jesus for their salvation. On that day, we will boast of his saving work, not our moral obedience.
Furthermore, Christ died for us. Neither our worst sins nor most embarrassing fickleness will bring us God’s wrath, rather his salvation. He died so whether we are alive (“awake”) or dead (“asleep”) when Jesus comes, we will “live with him”. That’s why he died for us.
Paul exhorts the Thessalonians to “Therefore, encourage one another and build one another up, just as you are doing.” We are not to fight the war to maintain readiness for Jesus’ coming as if on a one-man mission. We are to “encourage one another.” We are to “build up one another” in the Gospel of Jesus’ return. We are to be a team of warriors, who model for each other, how to live now in anticipation of then.
“The day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night.”
How are we doing at living ready?
Better, I hope, than I am with my gun in a shaking hand and my disabled body leaning on a walker!