1 Thessalonians 5:1-11
A Call to Be Alert

 Copyright 2009 (c) American Journal of Biblical Theology 
www.biblicaltheology.com     Scripture quotes from KJV

John 10:10.  The thief cometh not, but for to steal, and to kill, and to destroy: I am come that they might have life, and that they might have it more abundantly.

At the time of this writing, it has been over seven years since the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon that took place on a date that will be remembered for a long time, September 11, 2001.  Much of the shock that was experienced by the nation and the world has lessened, and much of the mourning has ebbed.  Time has and will heal many of the tragic wounds that were inflicted on that infamous day.  However, there are some subtle changes that have taken place in America in the last years.  Some have stated that is as if America lost its innocence.  People who paid little attention to their vulnerability to attack are much more aware of the possibilities of terrorism striking near their own homes and work places.  Following this seminal event, postal mail attacks were perpetrated against some of the nation's media centers using envelopes containing anthrax spores.  As a result, the government, postal workers, and the nation's citizens are now maintaining a higher level of alertness.  Passengers on commercial carriers such as airways and busses are paying closer attention to suspicious passengers and are quickly responding to defend themselves against possible violence.  

The nation has also responded firmly in an attempt to lessen the terrorist threat by moving its military into action, calling up many of the reserves who have left their families to travel to foreign lands where they will be called upon to risk their lives as they participate in missions carried out against the sources of terrorism.  

A sleeping nation is suddenly wide awake.  What caused the nation to suddenly become so alert to the dangers that were heretofore quite present, but largely ignored?  Why did we feel safe prior to September 11, 2001, and now suddenly feel in danger?  The answer is simple:  ignorance of the truth of our vulnerability to attack left us in a state of blissful apathy.  In a similar way, though we have become more alert to the dangers of this world, almost all people are still ignorant of the true source of the danger, and the ultimate circumstances that will arise from that ignorance.  

Eph. 6:12.  For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places.

The true terrorist in this battle is he who is referred to as the prince of this world, the power of the air, satan.  Though people have become alert to the threat to their physical lives, they are still largely ignorant of the threat to their eternal life that that same enemy is holding over them.  The power that Satan has in this world will suddenly end at a date and time that is appointed by God when Jesus will return to gather together those who have been faithful to Him, both the living and the dead.  This Bible study is of Paul's first letter to the Thessalonians, a church that he, Silas, and Timothy planted on Paul's second missionary journey.  Paul had taught the church the truth of Jesus' return, and the members were waiting expectantly.  However, as time passed, members of the fellowship passed away, and the members were concerned about their state when Jesus would return.  In chapter four, Paul addresses their concerns by assuring them that the dead in Christ would rise first when Jesus returned, and would not miss out on the blessing.  As chapter four was written to address the state of faithful Christians who had died, chapter five was written to address the state of those faithful Christians who are still alive, still awaiting Jesus' return.  Just as the people of America today are in a heightened sense of alert because of their knowledge of the certainty of the return of terrorist activity, Christians should be in a similar state of alert because of their knowledge of the certainty of the return of Jesus.

1 Thess. 5:1.  But of the times and the seasons, brethren, ye have no need that I write unto you.

Again, Paul is writing about the second coming of Jesus Christ.  Paul had already addressed this subject when he was in Thessalonica, and here Paul is reminding them that he had done so.  By "times and seasons", Paul seems to be referring to the calendar date and time of the second coming, kronoi, and the events that would characterize that day, kairoi.  Most likely, there is little significance to be drawn from the duplet of words, in that it is most likely an idiom similar to the one that is translated in the King James version of the Bible.  Paul had already talked to them of the possible imminence of Jesus' return, and the events that would happen on that day.

1 Thess. 5:2.  For yourselves know perfectly that the day of the Lord so cometh as a thief in the night. 

The "thief in the night" is a common biblical metaphor that is used to describe the coming of the day of the Lord. 

2 Peter 3:10.  But the day of the Lord will come as a thief in the night;

The Day of the Lord is described frequently by the Old Testament prophets as a day of judgment[1] when God would pour out his wrath upon the unrighteous.  When will that day take place?  When Jesus spoke of the Day of the Lord, he stated that only the Father knows when that event will take place,[2] and even He did not yet know.  Many self-appointed prophets have tried to predict the day and we have seen their predictions come and go.  Usually such claims are made in an effort to inspire the sleeping church into action, to act with expectation of Jesus' return and respond accordingly.  Christians should have no need for someone to remind them of the imminence of Christ's return.  Just as Paul taught people to expect Jesus at any time, we should do the same.  However, we have been lulled into a false sense of safety by looking back at the number of years that have passed since Jesus illuminated the prophesies with the announcement of His death, resurrection, and second coming.  

The scripture records no less than three separate instances when Jesus referred to his return using the thief in the night metaphor.  With such frequent use, it would be instructive for us to understand what is being communicated in this phrase.

Matt. 24:42-43.  Watch therefore: for ye know not what hour your Lord doth come. 43But know this, that if the goodman of the house had known in what watch the thief would come, he would have watched, and would not have suffered his house to be broken up.  44Therefore be ye also ready: for in such an hour as ye think not the Son of man cometh.

The metaphor refers not to the state of the thief, but the state of the one being visited.  What are most people doing in the middle of the night when the thief comes?  They are sleeping.  They are not in any way aware of the imminent danger that the presence of the thief creates.  They sleep peacefully and awake with shock when the realization of the visit takes place.  Likewise, Jesus warns us in his own words to be alert for his return.  It is easy to be lulled into a state of self-security when we can look back at almost 2000 years since Jesus made the promise thinking that "surely Jesus will not come back in my lifetime."  Nowhere in scripture are we presented with such an opinion.  We are clearly instructed by Jesus and by the apostles to be ready for Jesus return as though it is imminent.  How can we do this?  What should we do to be ready?

Rev. 3:3.  Remember, therefore, what you have received and heard; obey it, and repent. But if you do not wake up, I will come like a thief, and you will not know at what time I will come to you.

The first thing that people must do is repent from their natural bent to sin and turn to Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord.  Many times, for as many reasons, people will put off a decision for Christ.  They might think that they have to clean up their lives before they will be good enough for God.  Nothing is further from the truth.  There is nothing we can do to "clean up."  God accepts us where we are when we come to Him in faith.  God is then in a position to help us clean up those areas of our lives that are keeping us from fellowship with Him.  To refrain from a decision for Christ leaves one unready for His return.  Again, His return will be a surprise, and those who have not repented and turn to Him will be forever lost.

Rev. 16:15.  "Behold, I come like a thief! Blessed is he who stays awake and keeps his clothes with him, so that he may not go naked and be shamefully exposed."

What does "keeps his clothes with him" refer to?  John, in his Revelation often refers to the righteousness of the faithful as a white robe.  Those who are faithful to God through Jesus Christ take on His righteousness, giving them the power to be called "Sons of God."  In this way the faithful are clothed and will not be put to shame when the judgment takes place.  This verse can also instruct the faithful to live lives that are characterized by obedience to God.  Jesus and the apostles also teach that faithfulness to Jesus is shown by obedience to Him.  Where will you be when Jesus comes back?  If you live an unrighteous lifestyle, will Jesus find you there?  If there are unconfessed sins in your life, will they still be vexing you when He returns?  

1 Thess. 5:3.  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. 

The world is awaiting for the second coming of Christ like a pregnant woman waits for her child to be born.  An excellent parallel might be that of a young woman who is in denial of her early pregnancy.  She can deny her pregnancy only for so long.  I have heard instances of women who are so heavy that they went all the way to the point of childbirth and kept their condition a secret from others, and through denial possibly even from themselves.  However, at some point the undeniable pains of transition, the point when the child is to be born, will present themselves, and the child will be born.  In the same way, the lost world is in denial of the judgment that is to come.  Just like the surety of the termination of the pregnancy by birth, this age will come to an end with Jesus' second coming.  Those who are in denial do not see the turmoil and danger that the day of the Lord will bring.  Instead they reject Jesus' promise as they have rejected Him, and think of themselves in peace and safety.  This denial of God's judgment is one of the most difficult hurdles for the lost person to jump.  As long as one never has to come to terms with the consequences of the sin in their lives, they can live with their false sense of peace and safety.  If they end their lives, or if Jesus returns while they are in this state, Satan has won that soul.   The destruction that awaits Satan also awaits all who have been lulled to sleep by his lies.

1 Thess. 5:4.  But ye, brethren, are not in darkness, that that day should overtake you as a thief. 

There is no reason for one who has turned their life over to Jesus to be surprised when Jesus returns.  The teaching of His return is one of the basic points of the Christian faith and confession.  Apparently, since Paul was writing this to the church in Thessalonica, some of the members may have been living as though they were in darkness, possibly living in disobedience, or more likely living in fear of Jesus' return.  In either case, Paul reminds them that they are not to live as if they were living in darkness,[3] because they are not in the darkness.

1 Thess. 5:5.  Ye are all the children of light, and the children of the day: we are not of the night, nor of darkness.  

Those who are in Christ are "sons of the light" and "sons of the day."  The grammatical form here is similar that used to describe people in their day such as Judas:  son of perdition, Barnabas: son of encouragement, etc.  When the "son of" prefix is added to a noun, it is meant to appoint the attributes of that noun upon the person so named.  Those who are faithful are sons of the light.  As God's righteousness is often described as light when compared with the unrighteous darkness of the evil one, the "son of light" is characterized by that same righteousness.  Nobody can have fellowship with God and continue to walk in darkness.[4]  As children of the day, we are characterized by the light of day.  People should be able to see God's righteousness in us.  We should not be characterized by the same attitudes and actions as those who are living in darkness because that is not our home any longer.  

1 Thess. 5:6.  Therefore let us not sleep, as do others; but let us watch and be sober. 

As children of the light, and children of the day, how are we to live with the knowledge of Jesus' imminent return?  We should not ignore Jesus' promise as people of the world do.  All too commonly, Christians do that very thing.  They live lives that are evidently ignorant of Jesus' promise.  Paul gives two clear instructions on how to prepare for Jesus' return.  First, we are to watch.  What does this mean?  When one is on watch, one is continually prepared, continually vigilant.  We see vigilance in our American society today in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks.  People are more prepared, and they are far more vigilant as they observe and respond to suspicious events.  Likewise we are to be on watch. 

Second, we are to be sober.  Though also used to refer to the instance of a state of drunkenness due to alcohol, this word refers more to the sobriety of self-control.  When one is drunk, one is not entirely in control, but is influenced by the incapacitating power of the alcohol.  Sobriety is a matter of establishing and maintaining control over one's own life.  We are to be submissive to the control of the Holy Spirit in our lives, and the Holy Spirit provides that self control as a fruit of His working in our lives.  It is easy for us to ignore that still-small voice and drown it out with our own self-indulgences, not only in alcohol or drugs, but in other activities that overwhelm God's influence in our lives including pride, self-will, laziness, or any other sinful attitude or action.  As children of the light we are to be alert to Jesus' return, and we are not to place ourselves under the control of any power other than the Holy Spirit.

1 Thess. 5:7-8.  For they that sleep, sleep in the night; and they that be drunken are drunken in the night. 8But 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. 

Paul points out an important difference between those who are children of the light, and those who are children of the darkness, and by so doing points out that we are not to live as those who are in darkness.  Those who have rejected Jesus are asleep (peacefully unaware of the imminence of Jesus' return), and are drunk (under the influence of forces and powers other than that of the Holy Spirit.)  It is not appropriate that those who are faithful to God be either unaware  of God's plan or under the influence of this world.  Instead, Christians are, again, to be self-controlled.  Furthermore, Paul uses the metaphor of the Roman soldier's uniform[5] to describe the protecting power of our faith in God, and the agape love that such faith empowers.  The breastplate protects the vital organs from frontal attack.  When satan would attack us, it is our faith in God and our love for Him that will render that attack powerless.  Furthermore, the helmet that protects the soldier's head represents salvation.  Without salvation, one is lost and has no hope of survival against satan's ultimate attack, the successful campaign of keeping an individual in apostasy[6] until the end of their days.  The helmet of salvation forever protects the faithful against such an attack.

1 Thess. 5:9-10.  For God hath not appointed us to wrath, but to obtain salvation by our Lord Jesus Christ, 10Who died for us, that, whether we wake or sleep, we should live together with him.

Another reason to live as children of the light is the surety of our salvation.  God has not appointed the children of light to suffer the wrath that is to come.  That is reserved for those who rejected God.  Jesus died, taking upon Himself the punishment for our sins, placing upon us His righteousness so that when we come before judgment we will live eternally in fellowship with God.  The "wake or sleep" referred to here returns to the words used in Chapter four that referred to faithful people who were alive (wake) or those faithful that had died and will die (sleep) before Jesus returns.  The Thessalonian Christians needed assurance that those who were faithful to Jesus would receive the fruit of their reward even if they had passed away.    

1 Thess. 5:11.  Wherefore comfort yourselves together, and edify one another, even as also ye do.

As Paul had done at the end of chapter four when he had been discussing the state of those who had passed away and taken with them a spirit-filled life, he again reminds his reader to be encouraged by these words.  As we consider the promise of Jesus' return we should encourage one another and help one another to be watchful and to live a life that is worthy of His return.  We would not Jesus to return to find us with our backs turned to Him.  We should live lives that are ever increasing in spiritual and personal integrity so that we will be found faithful at Jesus' return.  Paul notes that the Thessalonian Christians are already encouraging and lifting up one another as they struggle to live in obedience in a world that persecutes the effort, and simply encourages them to continue.  

In the same manner we who are engaged in this study are already, simply by our involvement with other Christians, encouraging one another.  You encourage the members of your church by your attendance and your faithfulness to the programs and activities of that body.  In this time when our country is in a state of watchful alertness, we can use this event as a platform to remind ourselves to maintain the same watchful alertness concerning Jesus' promise to return, and to share that promise with the lost.  When Jesus comes back, all of those lost people who we know and love will be lost forever.  Let us not let satan win this victory, but use every opportunity to share God's love with them so that if Jesus returns quickly, they will not be forever separated from God.


[1]  Isaiah 2:12, Amos 5:18, Joel 2:31, Mal. 4:5.

[2] Matthew 24:36.

[3] Romans 13:12.

[4] 1 John 1:5-6.

[5] See also Ephesians, Chapter 6.

[6] Rejecting God.