Let us be alert
1 Thessalonians 5:1-11
Sunday, 15th September 2019
In last week’s passage, Paul told the Thessalonians that there were things that he wanted them to know about Christ’s return. But in this week’s passage Paul says that there is something that they should not expect to know, and do not need to know. That is the time of Christ’s return. Often there are things which we are curious about, which we want to know, but which we don’t need to know. Sometimes it’s simply that it won’t help us to know; sometimes we aren’t even capable of understanding.
“You know very well”
(5:1-2) Paul begins with a gentle rebuke – read 5:1-2.
“Now, brothers and sisters, about times and dates we do not need to write to you, for you know very well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night.”
1 Thessalonians 5:1-2 NIVUK
What they should already know is that they can’t know the timing of Christ’s return. Paul has probably shared with them Jesus’ words as recorded for us in the Gospels – read Matthew 24:30-31,36.
“‘Then will appear the sign of the Son of Man in heaven. And then all the peoples of the earth will mourn when they see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven, with power and great glory. And he will send his angels with a loud trumpet call, and they will gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of the heavens to the other.”
Matthew 24:30-31 NIVUK
“‘But about that day or hour no-one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.”
Matthew 24:36 NIVUK
Jesus could not have been much clearer than this, or more emphatic. But it seems that some of the Thessalonians weren’t satisfied with this, and still wanted to know. Indeed, it may be that some of them claimed to know. Certainly there has been no shortage in Christian history of people who have claimed to know, or of people prepared to listen to them. But those who have listened have consistently been disappointed.
People Who Are Ignorant
(5:3) Paul now contrasts the attitude of other Thessalonians with that of the Christians of Thessalonica. Read 5:3.
“While people are saying, ‘Peace and safety’, destruction will come on them suddenly, as labour pains on a pregnant woman, and they will not escape.”
1 Thessalonians 5:3 NIVUK
Those who don’t have faith in Christ aren’t interested in his return, let alone the timing of it. They think that everything is OK, but judgment will come, either when they die or when Christ returns. Those who don’t have faith in Jesus are precisely the ones who ought to want to know when he will return.
“Not in Darkness”
(5:4-5) Paul now goes on to make it clear that it is not being “in the dark” about the timing of Christ’s return that is a problem, but living in darkness. Read 5:4-5.
“But you, brothers and sisters, are not in darkness so that this day should surprise you like a thief. You are all children of the light and children of the day. We do not belong to the night or to the darkness.”
1 Thessalonians 5:4-5 NIVUK
Christians don’t need to know when Jesus, the Light of the World, will return, because we are children of the light. Jesus will come at a time which we can’t predict, but for us it won’t be like the coming of a thief. It will be like the coming of a long-awaited friend.
“Let Us Be Awake and Sober”
(5:6-8) The assurance which Paul has just given might make some people think that there is nothing at all for them to do. But this is not so, and Paul now goes on to say what Christians do have to do. Read 5:6-8.
“So then, let us not be like others, who are asleep, but let us be awake and sober. For those who sleep, sleep at night, and those who get drunk, get drunk at night. But since we belong to the day, let us be sober, putting on faith and love as a breastplate, and the hope of salvation as a helmet.”
1 Thessalonians 5:6-8 NIVUK
Most of what Paul says in these verses simply repeats the strongest emphasis of Jesus’ own teaching. Think of the record of Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 24 and 25. Listen to what Jesus says in Matthew 24:42-44.
“‘Therefore keep watch, because you do not know on what day your Lord will come. But understand this: if the owner of the house had known at what time of night the thief was coming, he would have kept watch and would not have let his house be broken into. So you also must be ready, because the Son of Man will come at an hour when you do not expect him.”
Matthew 24:42-44 NIVUK
He then goes on to elaborate on this teaching by means of a series of parables. The first two are particularly close to Paul’s teaching in 1 Thessalonians. First he uses the illustration of a master who goes away and leaves a servant in charge of his household. He does not know when his master will return, but if he is a wise and faithful servant he does not need to know. Whenever the master returns he will find his servant being faithful and obedient, and the servant will be rewarded. Then he tells the story of the wise and foolish bridesmaids.
The wise bridesmaids have plenty of oil for their lamps, and are not caught unprepared when the bridegroom is slow to come. But the foolish bridesmaids do not have oil in reserve, so they run out before the bridegroom comes, and are shut out of the wedding banquet. Jesus says to his followers, “Therefore keep watch, because you do not know the day or the hour.” In other words, serve faithfully at all times, and then you will be prepared whenever the Lord comes. Paul adds on to Jesus’ teaching some language of his own, but language which is thoroughly in tune with what Jesus said. He says that being a faithful servant of Jesus Christ is not like being a guest at a party, who can afford to get drunk, but like being a soldier, who has to keep sober and prepare himself for battle. Hear the last part of this again – read 5:8.
“But since we belong to the day, let us be sober, putting on faith and love as a breastplate, and the hope of salvation as a helmet.”
1 Thessalonians 5:8 NIVUK
Note that Paul’s military imagery of breastplate and helmet is linked with the words emphasised at the beginning of this letter. The life of faithful service, the life that is ready for Christ’s return, is the life of faith and love and hope.
“He died for us”
(5:9-10) As Christians, we need to be reminded to take our discipleship seriously, to serve faithfully like soldiers. There is danger in being complacent. But it is also possible to go too far the other way, to lose sight of the fact that Christianity is fundamentally about God’s grace shown to us through Jesus. It is possible to forget this, and to be not merely serious but anxious. I believe that Paul was aware of this, so he balances his words of challenge in vv.6-8 with words of assurance in vv.9-10. Read 5:9-10.
“For God did not appoint us to suffer wrath but to receive salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ. He died for us so that, whether we are awake or asleep, we may live together with him.”
1 Thessalonians 5:9-10 NIVUK
We do not need to be anxious if we have put our faith in Jesus Christ. He died for us, and God has appointed those who rely on what Jesus has done to receive salvation, not to experience condemnation. Rather, we know that we will live together with Jesus, or, to return to Paul’s earlier words, “we will be with the Lord forever”. We don’t qualify to be with Jesus Christ forever by serving him well, but simply by belonging to him, and serving him at all. But if we love him, and value what he has done for us, we will want to serve him well. We will look forward not just to acceptance when Jesus returns, but to hearing him say, “Well done, my good and faithful servant.”
“Encourage One Another”
(5:11) Paul ends this passage in a very similar way to the way he ended the passage which we looked at last week. Read 4:18 then 5:11.
“Therefore encourage one another with these words.”
1 Thessalonians 4:18 NIVUK
“Therefore encourage one another and build each other up, just as in fact you are doing.”
1 Thessalonians 5:11 NIVUK
This time Paul adds building up to encouraging, although the two are closely related. We are to both encourage and strengthen one another in the Christian faith, and particularly in our Christian hope. We are to remind one another of what has been revealed to us, and we are to remind one another of what is even more valuable than what we know. We are to remind one another that the God who sent Jesus Christ to die for us also raised him from the dead, and holds the future of all those who trust in Jesus Christ securely in his hands.
Like Paul, I want to finish where I finished last Sunday. Be encouraged! God has revealed what we need to know about the future, and we can rejoice in that knowledge. And where our knowledge stops short, we can trust our faithful God. And, to return to Paul’s words in 4:18 and 5:11, let us all be encouragers!
Let us challenge one another to live lives of faithful service, sometimes by our words but always by our lives. And let us reassure those who are anxious, reminding one another that our security is found not in what we do but in what Jesus Christ has done.