At the end of the fourth chapter of his letter to the Thessalonians Paul addresses the issue of what happens to people after we die. Now, at the beginning of his fifth chapter, he addresses the issue of the fate of those who are still alive at when Christ returns.
Apparently during his visit to Thessalonica Paul taught its Christians about what he calls in verse 2 “the day of the Lord.” He probably explained that that day would be one of judgment. So the Thessalonian Christians seemed to wonder how naturally sinful people can prepare for such a dreadful day.
Apparently, however, they also tried to solve that problem by trying to calculate what Paul calls the “times and dates” of Christ’s return (1). We sense the Thessalonians made these calculations because they assumed they could best prepare for Christ’s coming by knowing when exactly he’ll arrive. After all, we generally like to know in advance when guests are arriving so that we can adequately prepare for their visit.
Paul, however, insists that knowing Christ’s return’s date in advance is not the best way to prepare for it. To begin with, no one can know its date. Jesus said that even he didn’t know the date of his own return. In fact, Paul can go on in verse 2 to compare “the day of the Lord” to the arrival of “a thief in the night.”
While various parts of Scripture seem to hint at the time of Jesus’ return, Paul insists that God won’t give advance notice as to when exactly Christ is coming back. So in verse 3 he can add, “When people are saying, ‘Peace and safety,’ destruction will come on them suddenly, as labor pains on a pregnant woman.”
In fact, while he compares Christ’s return’s suddenness to the onset of labor pains, it may turn out to be even more sudden than labor pains for modern pregnant women. They, after all, have things like due dates. Yet the analogy still has some validity today. After all, labor pains still sometimes start suddenly when we least expect them.
So if Jesus’ followers can’t prepare for his return by knowing its exact date, how can we prepare for it? Quite simply, we prepare for Christ’s return by remaining what Paul calls in verse 6 “alert and self-controlled.”
Think back to Paul’s analogy of a break-in. Burglars surprise people because they generally come at night. We can’t see them coming and are usually sound asleep. So people are generally unprepared for a burglar’s nocturnal visit.
That’s why Paul says that Christ’s return may be like the visit of a friend . . . or the break-in of a burglar. He will come in the middle of the night for people who live in spiritual darkness. For them it will be like a thief’s break-in because they’ve done nothing to prepare for it.
Yet Christ’s return will be a daytime one for Christians. We are, after all, what Paul calls in verse 5 children of “the light” and of “the day.” By God’s Spirit, God has shone God’s light in our hearts, graciously alerting us to, among other things, the imminence of Christ’s return. So readiness for that return depends on whether we’ve live in spiritual darkness or in spiritual light.
Perhaps a colleague’s analogy will help. When the sun sets, you turn off your lights, close your curtains and go to bed. You sleep well because you know that your favorite cousin is coming for a visit on the following day.
Because you’re tired, however, you oversleep. So you’re not aware that the sun has risen because you’re still asleep and your curtains remain closed. One member of your family, however, wakes at sunrise. She gets up and opens her curtains to let the sun stream in. Through her window she sees your cousin walk to the front door. That member of your family is ready to welcome him because she’s awake, alert and in the light.
Of course, proper spiritual alertness is more than mental. Our spiritual alertness for Christ’s return reveals itself, Paul goes on to write in verse 8, in the way we live. Those who are alert for Christ’s return act, talk and think the way Jesus did, as though Christ were going to return in the next thirty seconds. Yet we aren’t just Christ-like because we realize that the world may end tomorrow. Christians also realize that we may not have a tomorrow to surrender our lives to Christ.
However, God’s adopted children aren’t just alert and self-controlled in anticipation of Christ’s imminent return. We also properly “dress” ourselves for that return. In verse 8 Paul goes on to challenge Christians to put “on faith and love as a breastplate, and the hope of salvation as a helmet.”
Those who know Christ may return at any time also know that Satan will attack us until the very moment Christ comes back. The evil one especially attacks Jesus’ followers by trying to convince us that Christ’s return should terrify us because we deserve God’s eternal condemnation.
To ward off that attack, Paul challenges his readers to cultivate the virtues of faith, love and hope. Those gifts nourish humble confidence in us because they remind us that our eternal fate is not up to us, but to God whose grace we’ve received with our faith.
That hope that we nourish, however, isn’t tentative like, for instance, our hope that we’ll develop a vaccine for COVID-19 before Christmas. We know that God will give us what we hope for because it’s based, as Paul goes on to write in verses 9-10, on God’s gracious work in Christ.
The heart of the hope those who anticipate Christ’s imminent return cultivate is that God, as Paul writes in verse 9, “did not appoint us to suffer wrath.” God hasn’t chosen to let God’s adopted sons and daughters endure the hellacious condemnation our sins deserve. Instead. Christians’ sure hope is that God has graciously chosen to give us what Paul calls in verse 9 “salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ.”
What’s more, Paul writes in verse 10, Christ “died for us so that . . . we may live together with him.” He died that his followers might live in constant fellowship with him, both now but even more fully in the new creation’s glory.
Yet even for those whom God has prepared for Christ’s return by giving us salvation and life, the world can be a tough place. We, for example, continue to deal with the twin horrors of a global pandemic and racial inequality. Americans also live under the dark cloud of deep political turmoil and division.
What’s more, we must often cope with the deaths of those we love. Jesus’ followers wonder about the well-being of those whom we love who will survive our death. Some of us also worry about the eternal fate of those we love.
In verse 11 Paul challenges the often-beleaguered Church and Christians to be a community of mutual “encouragement.” Brothers and sisters in Christ help each other prepare for Christ’s return by lovingly building up each other. That aid may range from simple smiles and hugs to more sacrificial patient listening, sympathy and friendship.
However, when we think of what he means by “encouragement,” we especially remember Paul’s advice in chapter 4:18 about “these words.” Paul’s treatment for the Thessalonians’ anxiety in the face of pain was largely theological.
So the source of our encouragement isn’t just our knowledge that Christ is coming back soon. For some of us, after all, that’s somewhat worrying rather than encouraging. Our comfort arises from the fact that the Christ who is coming back is the same Christ who died and rose for us.
In I Thessalonians 4:14 Paul assures us that “Jesus died and rose again and . . . that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him.” And in chapter 5:10 he adds that Christ “died for us so that whether we are awake or asleep, we may live together with him.”
This is a difficult time for all who live under the clouds of a pandemic and racial injustice. We fear for the well-being of those we love as well as ourselves. We mourn with those who are sick and grieve. We worry about health care workers, first responders and those whose work is deemed necessary.
This sows seeds of worry and fear in the people we know and love, as well as many people around us. We need the encouragement about which Paul writes twice in the space of only about 12 verses.
The apostle insists that we don’t have to be afraid for those we love or ourselves. Nor must we worry about our fellow Christians. After all, death or Christ’s return, whichever comes first, leads Jesus’ followers into eternal fellowship with the Lord. We don’t have to be afraid of anything because the King who will soon come for us is also the One who lived, died and rose again for us.
When William Willimon was a young pastor, an uncle of a congregation member died suddenly. Though this man was not a member of his church, Willimon and his wife drove to a little Baptist church for the funeral.
After ushers wheeled the casket into the church, the pastor began to preach. With arms flailing, he thundered, “It’s too late for Joe! He might have wanted to do this or that in his life, but it’s too late for him now! He’s dead … He might have wanted to straighten out his life, but he can’t now. It’s finished!”
Yet the minister wasn’t finished: “But it ain’t too late for you! People drop dead every day, so why wait?! Too late for Joe but not for you! Make your life count, wake up and come to Jesus now!”
Willimon calls it the worst thing he’d ever heard. “Can you imagine a preacher doing that to a mourning family?’” he asked his wife in the car on their way home. “I’ve never heard anything so manipulative, cheap, and inappropriate! I would never preach a sermon like that.”
His wife agreed: it was tacky, calloused, and manipulative. “And of course,” she added, “the worst part is that everything he said was true.”
That pastor’s “encouragement” (12) may not have been the kind of encouragement we want. But it may just be the kind of encouragement we need.
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Sermon Commentary for Sunday, November 15, 2020
I Thessalonians 5:1-11 Commentary