SYNOPSIS – Paul did not detail “times and seasons” for the Thessalonians – They understood fully that the Lord will come “like a thief in the night” – 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11.
Paul continued his discussion about the “coming” or parousia of Jesus in the fifth chapter of the first letter to the Thessalonians by discussing the “when” of that day – And how its arrival will impact believers and nonbelievers. Next, he stressed that Christians must live prepared always for its sudden arrival. He did not provide any details about the timing of the “Day of the Lord” – The Thessalonian believers understood well that the “day” would come just like “a thief in the night.”
In this next passage, the Apostle discussed different aspects of the same coming of Jesus described in the previous paragraph. But instead of providing information about “when” that day would come, he gave instructions on how Christians must live in anticipation of it.
Times and Seasons
(1 Thessalonians 5:1-3) – “But concerning the times and the seasons, brethren,—ye have no need that unto you anything be written; For, ye yourselves, perfectly well know—that the day of the Lord, as a thief in the night, so cometh; As soon as they begin to say—Peace! and safety! then, suddenly, upon them cometh destruction—just as the birth-throe unto her that is with child—and in nowise shall they escape.”
“Now concerning” (de…peri). This phrase marks the beginning of the next section but does not mean its subject matter is unrelated to what preceded it. Paul has just dealt with anxieties about the participation of dead Christians in the “coming” or parousia of Jesus. Here, he continues with additional but related information.
Verse 2 begins with the conjunction “for” or gar, which links the passage logically to the preceding verse. Paul has no need to write about the “times and seasons” because the Thessalonians “themselves know accurately” that the “Day of the Lord is coming like a thief in the night” – Not because they know all the signs of its approach or how to ascertain its proximity.
Paul uses the emphatic pronoun – “you yourselves.” This emphasizes his readers already know this information. Moreover, he describes their knowledge as “accurate” (akribōs). What they understand is not detailed information about the “signs of the times,” but that Jesus will come “like a thief in the night.” The point of the simile is that he will arrive unexpectedly, at a time the householder cannot know. This echoes the saying of Jesus:
(Matthew 24:42-45) – “Therefore be on the alert, for you do not know which day your Lord is coming. But be sure of this, that if the head of the house had known at what time of the night the thief was coming, he would have been on the alert and would not have allowed his house to be broken into. For this reason, you be ready too; for the Son of Man is coming at an hour when you think not” (Compare – Luke 12:39-40).
Both terms – “times” and “seasons” – are plural. Combined, they cover any possible delimitation of time. The answer to the question of “when” he will come is the same as the answer provided by Jesus – “No one knows except his Father” – (Acts 1:7-9).
The comparison stresses the unknowability of that day’s arrival. The conclusion Paul draws from this is the need for believers to be prepared always for its sudden arrival – By watching, staying awake, and donning the “breastplate of faith and love, and the helmet of the hope of salvation.”
In the preceding paragraph, Paul used the term Parousia or “arrival.” Now, he uses the term “Day of the Lord.” When Jesus gave the analogy of a thief, he applied it to the “coming of the Son of Man.” Here, the Apostle applies it to the “Day of the Lord.” This demonstrates that the “coming” of Jesus coincides with the “Day of the Lord.” He also echoes another saying of Jesus from the gospel of Luke:
(Luke 21:34-36) – “Be on guard that your hearts may not be weighted down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of life, and that day come on you unexpectedly like a trap; for it will come upon all those who dwell on the face of all the earth. But keep on the alert at all times, praying in order that you may have strength to escape all these things that are about to take place, and to stand before the Son of Man.”
In Luke, the reference to “that day” has the “Day of the Lord” in view. In the saying of Jesus, disciples were summoned to pray “to escape all these things,” while in Paul’s sentence the unprepared will “certainly not escape.” The same Greek verb is used in both verses (ekphugein).
According to Jesus, that day will come unexpectedly “like a trap.” In contrast, according to Paul, it will arrive “like birth pains.” Undoubtedly, Jesus spoke Aramaic, which has a word that can be translated either “trap” or “birth-pangs” (hebel). It is possible Luke translated rendered it “trap,” but Paul interpreted it as “birth pains.”
Paul uses a second analogy – A pregnant woman in labor to highlight a different aspect of that day. No one is surprised when a pregnant woman goes into labor and no one doubts the outcome. Labor pains point to the inevitable, in the present passage, to the inevitable destruction of the unprepared. The picture of the thief emphasizes the unexpectedness of the day. The woman in labor points to the inevitability of destruction for the unprepared.
“Birth pains” (hōdin) is another echo of a saying of Jesus. He described certain events as “the beginning of birth pains” – (hōdin – Matthew 24:8, Mark 13:8, Acts 2:24).
“Unexpected destruction” will overtake the unprepared. Meanwhile, they will proclaim “peace and security.” The phrase parallels a propaganda line of the Roman Empire – “Peace and security” – (pax et securitas). Paul may have this in mind; but more likely, he is describing a typical human attitude of complacency. This is borne out by the conjunction hotan (“whenever”) used with the present tense of legô – (“whenever they are saying”).
A man can prepare for the eventuality of a home invasion by a thief, but he cannot predict when it will occur. For the unprepared, it will be an unexpected event that results in dire consequences.
Need for Wakefulness
(1 Thessalonians 5:4-7) – “But ye, brethren, are not in darkness, that the day upon you, as upon thieves, should lay hold. For all ye are sons of light and sons of day,—we are not of night nor of darkness: Hence, then, let us not be sleeping, as the rest, but let us watch and be sober: For they that sleep, by night do sleep, and they that drink, by night do drink.”
That “Day” will not overtake the Thessalonians because they “are not in darkness.” Unlike the unrighteous, believers will not be caught off guard when the “Day of the Lord” arrives, whether its timing is known or not.
The Greek term rendered “lay hold” (katalambanô) means – “overtake, seize, forcefully grasp, overpower.” The concern is that the “day” does not overtake Christians because they are in an unprepared state. Believers avoid “destruction” by being prepared for that day’s arrival – It will bring either salvation or destruction, depending on one’s standing before God.
Paul makes several contrasts between the prepared and the unprepared. Unbelievers are in “darkness” and belong “to the night.” They are asleep and, therefore, unprepared. Believers, in contrast, are not in darkness – They are the “sons of light” and the “sons of the day.”
There is a verbal link between 1 Thessalonians 4:13 and 5:6. In the former verse,Paul expressed his desire for the Thessalonians not to be “ignorant concerning those who are asleep, that you may not grieve as do the others who have no hope.”
In the latter, he exhorts the Thessalonians to “let us not sleep as others do but let us be alert and sober.” Both passages refer to unbelievers as “the others” (hoi loipoi), and both refer to “those who are asleep.” In the former, those who “sleep” are dead Christians. In the latter, Paul commands Christians not “to sleep” as the others do. Instead, they are to “watch” always for that day.
Words of Comfort
(1 Thessalonians 5:8-11) – “But we, being of the day, let us be sober, putting on a breastplate of faith and love, and for helmet the hope of salvation. Because God did not appoint us unto anger, but unto acquiring salvation through our Lord Jesus [Christ] — Who died for us, in order that, whether we be watching or sleeping, together with him we should live. Wherefore, be consoling one another and building up each the other — even as ye are also doing.”
Next, Paul encourages the Thessalonians to “put on the breastplate of faith and love, and as a helmet, the hope of salvation.” The same triad of virtues is found in the opening passage of this letter – “Work of faith, labor of love and steadfastness of hope” – (1 Thessalonians 1:3).
Of great relevance is the theme of “hope.” For Paul and the Thessalonians, “hope” will be realized “before our God and Father” – The saints at Thessalonica will be his “hope…before our Lord Jesus at His arrival” – (1 Thessalonians 1:3, 2:19).
In the preceding paragraph,believers are not to be “without hope” because, at his “arrival,” the dead in Christ will be raised. Here, the “hope of salvation” is the “obtaining of salvation” through Jesus, thereby avoiding destruction. In either case, the “hope” is realized at the “arrival of Jesus” when believers stand before God, the dead are raised, and the “wrath” of God is executed on the disobedient.
The coming “wrath” is contrasted with the final “salvation” of Christians when Jesus arrives. Those prepared through faithful living and watchfulness will “obtain salvation through Jesus Christ,” whereas, the unprepared find themselves “appointed to wrath.”
Since the final salvation of Christians is contrasted with the fate of unbelievers, it is natural to take “wrath” as a reference to the final judgment. The appointed “wrath” for some, and the receipt of “salvation” by others, both occur at the same time.
Paul refers to Jesus “who died for us so that whether we are awake or asleep, we will live together with him.” In the previous section, he described Christians who die as “those who have fallen asleep.” Once again, he describes two different groups of believers – Those awake and Those “asleep” (dead). Both acquire salvation at the same time – Both “will live together with him” from that day forevermore.
The letter uses “sleep” metaphorically for Christians who die prior to the arrival of Jesus. When the day does come, there will be both living and (resurrected) dead Christians on the earth to greet him when he “arrives from heaven.”
The clause “together with” concludes both this and the preceding paragraph about the “arrival of Jesus from heaven” – (hama sun). Nowhere else does the letter combine the two terms – The verbal link is deliberate. Christians still alive when Jesus arrives will be caught up “together with” the dead in Christ. Likewise, whether alive (“awake”) or dead (“asleep”), on that day believers “will live together with him” thereafter. As before, the assurance of salvation is grounded in the past Death and Resurrection of Christ – (“For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again”).
Previously, Paul told the Thessalonians to “comfort one another with these words.” So, likewise here – They are to “comfort one another and build up one another.” This is another verbal link between the two paragraphs. The Greek words translated “comfort one another” in both paragraphs are identical – (parakaleite allélous).
Another verbal link is the promise that believers will be with Christ after he arrives. After the saints meet Jesus “in the air,” they will be “with the Lord evermore.” Likewise, “whether we are awake or asleep, we may live together with him.”
Both paragraphs also refer to unbelievers as “the others”. In the preceding section, the “others” are unbelievers who mourn over dead loved ones. In the current passage, “others” refers to those who are spiritually asleep and unprepared for his sudden arrival.
The verbal links between the two paragraphs demonstrate the same event is in view. The first paragraph concerns the future resurrection of dead saints when Jesus arrives. In the second, Paul describes how those events will overtake the unprepared. It is vital to remain prepared because no man knows the “times and seasons.”
Paul has answered the questions of when and how the “Day of the Lord” will come – “Like a thief in the night.” This is something the Thessalonians know already – Paul has no need to write further regarding “signs” that will mark its approach.
For the Christian, the coming of Christ is an imminent event, one for which he or she must always be prepared. It remains imminent precisely because its timing is not and cannot be known. For those anticipating the return of Jesus and living accordingly, although they remain ignorant of its date, that day will not take them by surprise – It will mean their salvation.