Sermon Commentary for Sunday, November 19, 2023
1 Thessalonians 5:1-11 Commentary
In the northern hemisphere the days are becoming noticeably shorter. If the Lord tarries, where I live, for example, there will be nearly 13 minutes less daylight on this coming Sunday than there were just last Sunday. That contributes to the sense that this is a dark time of the year.
That darkness, however, helps make this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson’s talk about darkness feel especially appropriate. At the end of 1 Thessalonians 4 Paul enlightens his readers about what will happen to Christians who have died when Christ comes again. However, at chapter 5’s beginning he shines light on the fate of those who are alive at Christ’s second coming. He, after all, doesn’t want Thessalonica’s Christians to be “in the dark” about Christ’s return.
Of course, Paul essentially begins 1 Thessalonians 5 by admitting that Christians are “in the dark” about one crucial aspect of Christ’s second coming. In verses 1 and 2 he notes that he doesn’t have to write the church about “the times and “seasons” of “the day of the Lord [hemera Kyriou]*.”
The apostle, in fact, can’t write about that “day” of Christ’s return. After all, Christ will, according to verse 2, come again “like a thief in the night [klepte en nykti].” Paul insists that just as home invaders don’t send out a “save the date” notice to the owners of the property they plan to burgle, so Jesus won’t mail a heads-up notice even to his friends about his return.
Paul goes on to insist that people will be so “in the dark” about the date of Christ’s second coming that it will happen as suddenly as “labor pains [odin] strike a “pregnant woman” (13). In fact, we might say that Christ’s return will be even more sudden than modern expectant parents’ labor pains. Citizens of the 21st century, after all, have things like due dates.
However, if Jesus’ friends are “in the dark” about the date of Christ’s second coming, we’re not in the dark about how to prepare for it. Paul insists that God’s dearly beloved people are children “of the light and … of the day” (5). We don’t, according to verse 6, “belong to the night or the darkness.”
Spiritual darkness doesn’t characterize the lives of Jesus’ followers. Instead, as children of the light and the day, the Spirit fills Christians’ lives with what Paul calls in verse 6, “alertness” [gregoromen] and “self-control” [nephomen].” We are, as The Message paraphrases the apostle, not spiritually sleepy, but “alert” to Christ’s return. Jesus’ friends aren’t spiritually “drunk” (7), but “clearheaded” about his second coming.
A colleague’s analogy is helpful. Not long after the sun goes down, you turn off your lights, close your curtains and go to bed. You sleep well in part because you know that one of your favorite relatives is coming to visit you 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. You’re “in the dark” about the sunrise.
One member of your family, however, awakens at sunrise. She gets up and opens her curtains to let the sun stream in. Through her window she sees your cousin walk to your front door. That member of your family is ready to welcome your guest because she’s awake, alert and in the light.
A similar spiritual alertness directly affects God’s dearly beloved people’s daily activities. Paul, in fact, returns to the theme of “self-control” (cf. v.6). “Let us be nephomen,” he says again in verse 8. Jesus’ followers aren’t just clearheaded about the possibility that he may return at any time. We’re also clearheaded about the kind of lifestyle that’s consistent with the expectation of Jesus’ imminent return.
Paul tells members of Thessalonica that the lives of Christians whom the Spirit has enlightened about Christ’s return are characterized by vigilance. Since the apostle knows that Christ could return at any time, he summons his readers to live in ways that remain alert to its possibility. God’s adopted sons and daughters don’t assume that we have an unlimited amount of time to surrender our lives to God’s gracious and loving care.
So we, writes Paul in verse 8, “put on [endysamenoi] the breastplate of faith [thoraka pisteos] and love [agapes].” He goes on to summon Jesus’ friends to put on “the hope of salvation [elpida soterias] as a helmet [perikephalaian].” The apostle’s use of such defensive military imagery suggests that he believes that those who are clearheaded about Christ’s return’s imminence must be prepared to be attacked.
The apostle, however, doesn’t explicitly identify the attacker. At least some Christians assume that Christians’ assailant is Satan. The Scriptures, after all, insist that the evil one will not stop assaulting Jesus’ friends until the very moment that Christ returns.
Paul, however, may also be at least alluding to Christians’ faithful, loving and hopeful defense against spiritual carelessness. He may be calling us to let the Spirit arm us with faith, love and hope because he understands that we naturally assume that Christ will wait to come again until after we die at ripe old age.
Yet Paul may also at least hint at a defense against yet another assault on Jesus’ followers. After all, in verse 9 he insists that “God did not appoint [etheto] us to suffer wrath [orgen].” Perhaps the apostle is hinting that Christians can arm ourselves with faith and love as a defense against an attack by our terror that God will condemn us to eternal punishment when Christ returns.
God, after all, as The Message paraphrases verse 9, “didn’t set us up for angry rejection.” God, instead, graciously destined God’s dearly beloved people “to receive [peripoiesen] salvation [soterias] through our Lord Jesus Christ.” We cling to the faith and hope with which God graces us that God will rescue us from all threatens us when Christ returns. Those gifts, after all, nourish in Jesus’ followers a humble confidence that our eternal fate lies not in our sinful hands or in the evil one’s destructive hands, but in Christ’s nail-scarred hands.
Christ, after all, let the Romans pound nails into his hands so that, whether we are “awake [gregoromen] or sleep [katheudomen], we may live together [zesomen hama] with him” (10) at Christ’s second coming. Christ, insists Paul, died for us so that when he returns, whether we’re dead or alive, he’ll graciously usher us into eternity with him in the glory of the new earth and heaven. In fact, by repeating the verb gregoromen here, the apostle may even be suggesting that whether or not God’s people are clearheaded about Christ’s return, Christ will come again to make his eternal home with us.
However, even for those whom the Spirit has made clearheaded about Christ’s return and preparations for it, the world can be a dangerous place. Wars rage in Europe, the Middle East and Africa. Hunger and poverty wreak havoc across the world. Climate change menaces God’s creation and creatures.
What’s more, we must often cope with the deaths of those we love. Jesus’ followers sometimes wonder about the spiritual 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.
Perhaps that’s one reason why in verse 11 Paul summons Christians to continue to be and form communities of mutual encouragement. “Encourage [parakaleite] one another and build each other up [oikodomeite heis ton hena],” the apostle writes there.
The Message’s paraphrase of verse 11 provides a perhaps especially timely ending for this commentary: “Speak encouraging words to one another. Build up hope so that you’ll be together in this, no one left out, no one left behind.”
*I have here and elsewhere bracketed the Greek words for the English words the NIV translation uses.
In his book, Under the Wings of God (Brazos Press, 2023), Neal Plantinga recounts a story about the Connecticut House of Representatives. Its session in May, 1779 began on a day that was so sunny that the delegates didn’t need artificial light to illuminate their work. However, in the middle of that day, clouds covered the sun and dimmed its light. Some legislators assumed this signaled Christ’s return. They insisted that the legislature adjourn so that they might pray and prepare for Jesus’ second coming.
But the Speaker of the House had a very different idea. He was a Christian who rose to the occasion with what Plantinga calls “good logic and good faith.” He admitted that the darkness upset all of the delegates and made some of them fearful. But, the Speaker added, “the Day of the Lord is either approaching or it is not. If it is not, there is no cause for adjournment. And if the Lord is returning, I, for one, choose to be found doing my duty. I therefore ask that candles be brought.”
The Speaker was “alert and self-controlled” (6b) about Jesus’ second coming.
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