As we work through this next portion of Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians, we want to continue to hold the various elements of “the last things” loosely, and in the palm of our hand. After we have all the pieces on the workbench before us (e.g. after 2 Thess. 2), we will then seek to look at how they all relate to one another. For the moment, to help keep things clear in our minds, I am going to begin referring to the end of all things as the Final Coming, and not the Second Coming. This is to budget for the fact that Christ “comes” whenever He comes in judgment, as He did with Jerusalem in 70 A.D.
At the same time, we should work through all of this in real humility, remembering that Augustine, one of the greatest minds in the history of the church, once said of 2 Thess. 2: “I frankly confess I do not know what he means.”
“But of the times and the seasons, brethren, ye have no need that I write unto you. For yourselves know perfectly that the day of the Lord so cometh as a thief in the night. For when they shall say, Peace and safety; then sudden destruction cometh upon them, as travail upon a woman with child; and they shall not escape. But ye, brethren, are not in darkness, that that day should overtake you as a thief. Ye are all the children of light, and the children of the day: we are not of the night, nor of darkness. Therefore let us not sleep, as do others; but let us watch and be sober. For they that sleep sleep in the night; and they that be drunken are drunken in the night. But let us, who are of the day, be sober, putting on the breastplate of faith and love; and for an helmet, the hope of salvation. For God hath not appointed us to wrath, but to obtain salvation by our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us, that, whether we wake or sleep, we should live together with him. Wherefore comfort yourselves together, and edify one another, even as also ye do” (1 Thess. 5:1–11).
Summary of the Text
Paul had not had the opportunity to teach the Thessalonians everything he had wanted to, but he had already covered this. You know the “times and seasons,” he said (v. 1). The day of the Lord would be sudden and unexpected, like a thief in the night (v. 2). Be aware that throughout Scripture, the phrase “the day of the Lord” is commonly used for any number of historical judgments. The day of the Lord is not necessarily the Final Coming. When they are expecting peace and safety, they will suddenly give birth to “sudden destruction” (v. 3). But their complacency was a moral darkness, not an intellectual one (v. 4). The believers in Thessalonica were children of the day, children of light, which would prevent the day from overtaking them like a thief (vv. 4-5). So his exhortation is that they remain awake and sober (v. 6). Sleep and drunkenness belong to the night, not to the day (v. 7). Those who are of the day should be sober, putting on the helmet of the hope of salvation, and the breastplate of faith and love (v. 8). The reason for this preventative behavior is that God has not appointed them to wrath (as He did the others), but rather to obtain salvation through Christ (v. 9). Christ died for those believers who were already dead, and for those who remained alive, so that all would be enabled to live through Him (v. 10). These were to be words of comfort and edification, which Paul assumed the Thessalonians would continue in (v. 11).
The Somewhat Obvious
Paul obviously has the Thessalonians of the first century living in a state of high alert. They are to be awake, and with their armor on. If they could read these words of his to them, and not be looking out the window at what might be happening in their day, then it would the result of them not paying close attention. That tone of urgency is very clear in this passage. Just as I have argued that the presence of the general resurrection is an indication we are talking about the Final Coming, so also the presence of an “any minute now” vibe is an indication that we are talking the events that run up to the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. In the two letters of Thessalonians, we have both elements weaving in and out with each other.
And looking ahead to 2 Thess. 2:6-7, we see something similar, in that Paul tells the Thessalonians that “he that restrains” is currently restraining, and that is why the man of lawlessness has not yet appeared.
A Basic Take
As the first century Christians were navigating their way through a very dark pagan century, they were warned by Paul against some very real perils in their day. Formal emperor worship had begun under Augustus, and Thessalonica had a temple to the emperor. And in 41 A.D. Caligula had ordered a statue of himself to be set up in the Temple at Jerusalem, which was only forestalled because Caligula was murdered. To give you a sense of the atmosphere of the times, in the forecourt of one of his homes, Nero had a bronze statue of himself built, a statue that was 120 feet tall—that’s like a twelve-story building.
There were certain signs that indicated the pending destruction of Jerusalem (the day of the Lord), and that destruction was something that had to occur before there could be a Final Coming. That Final Coming was in Paul’s view, but it was like a very high and distant mountain range behind the mountain range that they were about to cross.
The Jewish War would “fill up” the sins of Israel (Matt. 23:32). That time would begin the “times of the Gentiles,” a period of time that would eventually be completed. I take that completion as being marked by the conversion of Jews, an event that has not yet happened (Rom. 11:15). This means that we are still living in the times of the Gentiles.
Remaining On High Alert
Once the judgment begins, that is no time to begin to prepare. The judgment might be temporal and historical (a day of the Lord), or it might be the Final Coming. And the “final things” can overtake any of us at any time, as had already happened with some of the Thessalonians. In any case, the daylight is coming, and so Paul’s charge to us is to act as though the day has already come. We are not to be ethically groggy for whatever reason. You don’t want to be among those who were appointed to wrath—because that appointment will be kept. Rather, we should yearn to be among those who will “obtain salvation by our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us.”
And this is what brings us back to the everlasting center—Christ, our Lord. Because He was not overcome by the night, it becomes possible for all those who have trusted in Him to follow Him and to do the same.