1 Thessalonians 5:1-11
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1 Thessalonians 5:1-11 Biblical Commentary
In the last half of chapter 4, Paul dealt with concerns that Thessalonian believers who died prior to Christ’s Second Coming would not be part of the resurrection. Paul reassured them, saying, “For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep in Jesus” (4:14). He went on to say, “The dead in Christ will rise first, then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds, to meet the Lord in the air. So we will be with the Lord forever” (4:16b-17).
Chapter 5 continues this discussion of Christ’s Second Coming, but from the perspective of those who will be alive at the time of Christ’s coming.
1 THESSALONIANS 5:1-3. THE DAY OF THE LORD
1 But concerning the times and the seasons, brothers, you have no need that anything be written to you. 2 For you yourselves know well that the day of the Lord comes like a thief in the night. 3 For when they are saying, “Peace and safety,” then sudden destruction will come on them, like birth pains on a pregnant woman; and they will in no way escape.
“But concerning the times (Greek: chronos) and the seasons (Greek: kairos), brothers“ (v. 1a). There are two Greek words for time—chronos and kairos. Chronos has to do with chronological time—clock time—the time by which we keep daily appointments. Kairos has to do with special time—special moments in time—the forks in the road that make all the difference—moments with the potential to determine destinies.
But when used together, as they are here, the distinction between the two words fades so that “times and seasons” expresses the intent well.
“you have no need that anything be written to you“ (v. 1b). Paul believes that the Thessalonian believers have received sufficient instruction regarding the day of the Lord that they have no need of written instruction.
But he writes anyway, because written instruction is less likely to be forgotten or misunderstood than verbal instruction. Written instruction also makes possible an exactness that is difficult to attain in verbal instruction. The more complex the instruction, the more helpful written instruction becomes.
“For you yourselves know well that the day of the Lord comes like a thief in the night“ (v. 2). The Day of the Lord will be an eschatological (end of time) event that will bring judgment to the guilty and deliverance to the faithful.
There are numerous references in the prophets to the Day of the Lord (Isaiah 13:6, 9; Jeremiah 46:10; Ezekiel 13:5; 30:3; Joel 1:15; 2:1, 11, 31; 3:14; Amos 5:18, 20; Obadiah 1:15; Zephaniah 1:7, 14; Malachi 4:5). Most of these references emphasize God’s wrath, but some also include a note of vindication.
In his second letter to the Thessalonian church, Paul will say that God will “repay affliction to those who afflict you, and (will) give relief to you” (2 Thessalonians 1:6).
“comes like a thief in the night.“ Thieves don’t signal that they are coming. They strike when least expected so no one will interfere with their thievery. They prefer the night, when darkness will cloak their comings and goings—and unwitting victims will be asleep.
The day of the Lord will be like that. It will come at an unexpected time. Thus it is important to be prepared for its coming. Once the Lord has come, people’s fates will already have been finalized. For the faithful, it will be a day of vindication, but for the unfaithful, it will be a day of judgment (Matthew 7:21-23; 11:20-24; 24:15-51; 25:1-46).
“For when they are saying, ‘Peace and safety’“ (v. 3a). The allusion here is to Yahweh’s condemnation of those who said, “Peace, peace!” when there was no peace (Jeremiah 6:14).
The people who are saying, “Peace and safety” are expressing their pleasure at living save and comfortable lives. The Pax Romana (Roman peace), imposed by the emperor’s iron hand, insures that people obey Roman law. While people might prefer to be free, the benefit of Rome’s dominance is “peace and safety.”
This verse reminds us of Jesus’ comment about the way people were living at the time of Noah. “As the days of Noah were, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. For as in those days which were before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day that Noah entered into the ship, and they didn’t know until the flood came, and took them all away, so will be the coming of the Son of Man” (Matthew 24:37-39).
“then sudden destruction will come on them, like birth pains on a pregnant woman“ (v. 3b). The analogy here isn’t perfect, because a pregnant woman usually has a good idea when her baby is due. Nevertheless, birth pains often come suddenly and unexpectedly in the middle of the night.
In developed countries today, modern medicine has allayed much of the anxiety that would have been typical of pregnancy in Paul’s day. In that day (as is still true in many places even today), women often died in childbirth. Mentioning birth pains would have reminded the Thessalonians of anxious, unpredictable times.
The point here is that the day of the Lord will Lord come quickly and unexpectedly—and that it will bring destruction to the unfaithful.
“and they will in no way escape“ (Greek: ekpheugo) (v. 3c). The Greek word ekpheugo is a combination of ek (out) and pheugo (to flee). The picture we get here is people, suddenly alarmed, seeking a way out and finding none.
But this isn’t Paul’s main point. Yes, the day of the Lord will be terrible for the unfaithful, but in the next verses, Paul will emphasize that, for these Thessalonian believers, the day of the Lord will be a day of salvation rather than judgment (v. 9).
1 THESSALONIANS 5:4-8. YOU ARE CHILDREN OF LIGHT
4 But you, brothers, aren’t in darkness, that the day should overtake you like a thief. 5You are all children of light, and children of the day. We don’t belong to the night, nor to darkness, 6so then let’s not sleep, as the rest do, but let’s watch and be sober. 7For those who sleep, sleep in the night, and those who are drunk are drunk in the night. 8But let us, since we belong to the day, be sober, putting on the breastplate of faith and love, and, for a helmet, the hope of salvation.
“But you, brothers, aren’t in darkness, that the day should overtake (Greek: katalambano) you like a thief” (v. 4). Light and darkness are used in both Old and New Testaments as metaphors for good and evil—order and chaos—security and danger—joy and sorrow—truth and untruth—life and death—salvation and condemnation (Isaiah 5:20; John 3:19-21; 2 Corinthians 4:4; Ephesians 4:17-18).
Paul’s point here is that the Thessalonian believers have nothing to fear, because they aren’t living in darkness. Nor are they engaged in dark activities, such as theft. As believers, they are committed to loving God and neighbor—and to having their actions reflect those affections. Therefore, the day of the Lord (mentioned in this verse only as “the day”) will not overtake (katalambano) them like a thief.
The Greek word katalambano is made up of kata (down) and lambano (to take). It can suggest suddenness. In this verse, then, we get the picture of the people of darkness suddenly finding themselves being taken down by the powers of darkness—a fate which they had not imagined possible and for which they are unprepared.
But these Thessalonian believers need not fear such a fate, because they are living in the light.
“You are all children of light, and children of the day. We don’t belong (Greek: eimi) to the night, nor to darkness“ (v. 5). Paul ties their security to their identity—who they are at the core of their being. They are children of light and children of the day, so they don’t belong (eimi) to the night or darkness. The word eimi has to do with being—who we are. Those who are of the light cannot also be of the darkness.
That is a powerful image, because light cannot coexist with darkness. The light of even a small candle will dispel the darkness throughout a large room. In a conflict between light and darkness, light will prevail.
The exception, of course, is if the darkness succeeds in extinguishing the light. John Sobrino, a Catholic priest living and working in San Salvador, says, “People often speak about the beautiful and spiritual victory of the martyrs in El Salvador, but don’t forget that the Church in El Salvador is systematically being destroyed.” Christians around the world are being persecuted and martyred. We need to take more seriously the persecution of Christian brothers and sisters. We need to be more vocal in their support.
We also need also to be sure not to hide our light under a basket, but to put it on a stand where it will spread light afar:
• Jesus said, “Let your light shine before men; that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 5:16).
• He also said, “Yet a little while the light is with you. Walk while you have the light, that darkness doesn’t overtake you. He who walks in the darkness doesn’t know where he is going. While you have the light, believe in the light, that you may become children of light” (John 12:35-36).
“so then let’s not sleep, as the rest do” (v. 6a). Paul is using the word sleep metaphorically here. We must sleep physically, but we must not allow ourselves to be lulled into spiritual apathy.
“The rest,” in this context, are those who are not children of light.
“but let’s watch (Greek: gregoreo) and be sober” (v. 6b). The Greek word gregoreo has more to do with staying awake than watching—although, in this instance, the two are related. Paul means that believers much live in a state of spiritual readiness—ready to meet spiritual challenges—ready to parry the tempter—ready to defend the faith.
“and be sober“ (Greek: nepho). The Greek word nepho means sober in two senses. First, it has to do with the avoidance of intoxication. Second, it has to do with the kind of behavior that we associate with sobriety—self-control, sound judgment, discretion, dependability, and studied decisions.
For scriptures that address sobriety, see Psalm 69:17; Proverbs 4:17; 20:1; Luke 21:34; Romans 13:13; 1 Corinthians 5:11; 6:10; Galatians 5:23; Ephesians 5:18.
“For those who sleep, sleep in the night, and those who are drunk are drunk in the night” (v. 7). Sleep and drunkenness are two activities associated with the night.
In this verse, Paul sets up a contrast between the behavior of night people and day people. Night people sleep—are spiritually dull or apathetic. They also get drunk and fail to maintain self-control and to exercise sound judgment.
“But let us, since we belong (Greek: eimi ) to the day, be sober“ (Greek: nepho) (v. 8a). In verse 5, Paul told the Thessalonian Christians that they didn’t belong (eimi) to the night. Now he tells them that they belong (eimi) to the day.
The word eimi is the Greek equivalent of the English “to be,” so a more literal translation would be “we aren’t of the night” (v. 5), but “we are of the day.”
“be sober“ (Greek: nepho). Paul calls these believers to the kind of behavior that is consistent with their identity—who they are. They are “of the day,” so they should be sober—should maintain self-control and exercise sound judgment.
“putting on the breastplate of faith and love, and, for a helmet, the hope of salvation” (v. 8b). Paul turns to martial metaphors here. Breastplates and helmets are defensive gear—designed to help soldiers survive blows that might otherwise prove fatal.
Paul adapts the wording of Isaiah 59:17, where Yahweh “put on righteousness as a breastplate, and a helmet of salvation on his head” (see also Ephesians 6:11-17).
This is an apt metaphor for believers, who, like soldiers, are likely to find themselves in life-threatening situations.
• Jesus warned, “Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly are ravening wolves” (Matthew 7:15).
• Peter said, “Your adversary, the devil, walks around like a roaring lion, seeing whom he may devour” (1 Peter 5:8).
• Paul warned Christians in Ephesus, “After my departure, vicious wolves will enter in among you, not sparing the flock. Men will arise from among your own selves, speaking perverse things, to draw away the disciples after them. Therefore watch!” (Acts 20:29-31a).
So Christians need a good defense. Paul says that faith, love, and the hope of salvation constitute such a defense.
1 THESSALONIANS 5:9-10. GOD APPOINTED US TO OBTAIN SALVATION
9 For God didn’t appoint us to wrath, but to the obtaining of salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, 10who died for us, that, whether we wake or sleep, we should live together with him.
“For God didn’t appoint us to wrath“ (v. 9a). In verses 4-8, Paul emphasized the identity of Christian believers as “children of light” and “children of the day.” He emphasized living in a way consistent with that identity. In verses 9-10 he emphasizes God purposes and actions. It wasn’t God’s intent that believers be subject to God’s wrath.
In both Old and New Testaments, God’s wrath is understood as the response of a righteous God to sin—his anger in the face of evil and the punishment that he devised for sinners. This wrath has eschatological (end of time) overtones. While the unfaithful might experience God’s judgment in the present, they will certainly experience it “in the day of wrath… (when God) “will pay back to everyone according to their works” (Romans 2:5-6).
“but to the obtaining of salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ“ (v. 9b). God’s intent was not that believers should experience wrath, but that we should obtain salvation “through our Lord Jesus Christ.” As Jesus said, “For God didn’t send his Son into the world to judge the world, but that the world should be saved through him” (John 3:17).
“who died for us” (v. 10a). Later, in his letter to the Roman church, Paul will say that we have been “justified freely by (God’s) grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus; whom God set forth to be an atoning sacrifice, through faith in his blood” (Romans 3:24-25a).
“that, whether we wake or sleep, we should live together with him” (v. 10b). Paul uses “wake or sleep” to hearken back to the concern that the Thessalonian believers had expressed for loved ones who had died without having experienced Christ’s Second Coming. Paul reassured them, saying, “We who are alive… will in no way precede those who have fallen asleep…. The dead in Christ will rise first, then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds, to meet the Lord in the air” (4:15-17).
1 THESSALONIANS 5:11. BUILD EACH OTHER UP
11 Therefore exhort one another, and build each other up, even as you also do.
“Therefore exhort (Greek: parakaleo) one another“ (v. 11a). The word parakaleo can mean either comfort or exhort.
This is the same counsel that Paul gave in the last chapter—after assuring these believers that they need not worry about the fate of their loved ones who had died. There he said, “Therefore comfort (parakaleo) one another with these words” (4:18).
“and build (Greek: oikodomeo) each other up“ (v. 11b). The Greek word used here, oikodomeo, is usually associated with the building trades—with the construction of a house or a tower or a barn. That sort of thing isn’t accomplished by a single action, but is a process that requires many actions—creating a design, laying a foundation, etc.
So also, believers need to engage in an ongoing process of building each other up—encouraging each other—sharing joys and sorrows—offering blessings of various kinds.
“even as you also do“ (v. 11c). Paul acknowledges that these Thessalonian believers were already encouraging each other and building each other up. He isn’t calling them to do something new, but rather to continue a process well-begun.
SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible. The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensa Old Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament. The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated.
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