Alert in the Spirit
Sunday School Lesson for October 21, 2001
1 Thessalonians 5:1-11
Be Aware (5:1-3)
The theme of the second coming of Christ continues in this section as Paul elaborates on the spiritual posture that should be assumed by believers who have hope in Christ. As with brotherly love in 4:9, this matter was a subject that the Thessalonian Christians had become knowledgeable of through the ministry of Pauló"you have no need of anything to be written to you." Specifically, they had received apostolic instruction regarding the "times and the epochs" associated with Christís return. That is, concerning time as it relates to a succession of moments ("times"), and as it relates to quality ("epochs"). Leon Morris provides this helpful explanation:
If a young man spends five minutes with his fiancée the chronological time is exactly the same as when he spends five minutes in the dentistís chair, but the quality of the two periods is different. He may well fell that the former is but a fleeting moment, and the latter not much short of eternity! With regard to the second advent, then, the ["times"] are the chronological epochs that must elapse, time considered simply with regard to its duration, while the ["epochs"] focus our attention rather on the nature of the times, on the critical events which will take place as heralding the coming of the Lord. (90).
In verse 2, Paul reminds his readers that "the day of the Lord"óthat day referred to in 4:13-18ówill come upon humanity "like a thief in the night." The concept of the "day of the Lord" was drawn from Paulís vast knowledge of the Old Testament where it is a repeated theme. According to its usage in the Hebrew Scriptures (see Amos 5:18-20; Obadiah 15; Joel 1:15; Malachi 4:5), the "day of the Lord" represented the time of divine judgment upon all of the enemies of Yahweh. It would be a day when "Yahweh would vindicate his righteous cause and execute impartial judgment" (Bruce, 109). This day of judgment and retribution, so frequently foreseen in the Old Testament, is known in the New Testament as "the day of Christ" (Phil. 1:10), "the day of Jesus Christ" (Phil. 1:6), "the day of our Lord Jesus" (2 Cor. 1:14), "the day of our Lord Jesus Christ" (1 Cor. 1:8), "the day" (Rom. 13:12), and "that day" (2 Thess. 1:10). That this day will come as a "thief in the night" is in agreement with the description given by Jesus in Matthew 24:43 and Luke 12:39. Christís Second Advent, therefore, will be both sudden and unannounced (cf. 2 Pet. 3:10; Rev. 3:3; 16:15).
Verse 3 expands on the suddenness and unexpectedness of Christís bodily return to earth. According to the apostle, it will come at a time when men are crying "Peace and safety!" That is, men and women of the world will be conducting their lives as if the cataclysmic judgment of God were only a fleeting dream. Life on earth will be proceeding along normal lines with no regard for the certainty of a day of reckoning. However, the illusion of peace and safety will be "suddenly" shattered by the "birth pangs" of a "woman with child." This image, employed by the Old Testament prophets (Is. 13:6-8; Jer. 6:22-26; Mic. 4:9), brings to light the inevitability of Godís judgment upon the world. The pulsating contractions of divine wrath, ever strengthening and intensifying, will give birth to the presence of the "One who has been appointed by God as Judge of the living and the dead" (Acts 10:42). The verse ends with the simple yet tragic announcement that those who are taken by surprise by the events of this dayódefined in 5:7 as "those who sleep"ówill "not escape" the outpouring of divine vindication.
Be Expectant (5:4-5)
Having delineated both the certainty and unexpectedness of Christís return, the apostle reminds his readers that "the day should not overtake you like a thief." While those outside the saving grace of Christóthose lost in "darkness"óare trapped in the whirlwind of divine wrath, the "sons of light" and "sons of day" will be safe and secure (note 5:9). By making use of the images of "light" and "darkness" as spiritual/moral categories, Paul draws a fundamental distinction between those who are saved and those lost in sinís depravity. Those who belong to Christ "are aware of the imminence of the day of the Lord, while the day will overtake those who are ignorant about its coming like a thief . . . since those who live in the darkness of their pagan ways also live in ignorance of the coming day of judgment" (Wanamaker, 181). Therefore, believers should have no fear that "the day should overtake [you] like a thief," since they live in the radiant light of fellowship with God (1 John 1:7). In this regard, Christians are to live both expectantly and confidently as they face the prospect of Christís Second Advent.
Be Alert and Self-Controlled (5:6-8)
As Paulís exhortation regarding the Second Advent continues, he enjoins his fellow Christians to remain "alert and sober" as they await Christís return. Both of these terms have reference to oneís moral and spiritual condition much in the same way that "light" and "darkness" are used metaphorically in 5:4-5. A "sober" Christian is one who is not sleeping morally. That is, he is alert and watchful and is busily engaged in Christian service and ministry. Morris comments that spiritual sobriety also implies the kind of "temperance, which, avoiding excesses of all kinds, leads to a balanced life" (94). On the contrary, those who are not prepared for Christís comingóthe "others" referred to in verse 6óare characterized by the deeds of "darkness." To be specific, they are spiritually and morally "drunk," and unprepared for the sudden onset of the last judgment. In contrast to such a lifestyle of unrestrained indulgence, the people of God are called to stay alertó"let us not sleep"óso that there will be no surprise or astonishment for them when the Lord returns in glory and vengeance. Charles Wanamaker provides a fitting summary of Paulís exhortation:
Those outside the community who remain in the darkness of paganism and ignorance concerning the intentions of God, as well as of moral turpitude, are like sleepers who know nothing of what goes on around them. Christians, Paul exhorts, must not behave as though they are part of the sleeping mass of those outside the faith upon whom Godís wrath will come. (184).
Verse 8 provides the positive contrast to life in the "night." Believers in Christóthose "of the day"óhave clothed themselves with the armor of God that will protect them in times of turbulence and persecution. Two components of the Christianís armor are listed:
Taken together, these instruments of defense provide the believer with all "necessary protection against the judgment to be unleashed on the Day of the Lord" (Bruce, 112).
Be Constructive (5:9-11)
Verse 9 brings the fact of divine electionófirst surfaced in 1:4óinto the picture as an incentive for behaving properly as "sons of light" in the face of the Second Advent. Knowing that God had called the Thessalonians to "salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ," there should be no fear of judgment since "God has not," therefore, "destined us for wrath." The hope of "salvation," and of safety and security on the Day of the Lord, is firmly anchored to Godís eternal purposes in Christ Jesus. He alone is the One "who died for us," and without His substitutionary sacrifice "the believerís destiny, like that of the unbeliever, would be the wrath of God" (Wanamaker, 188). With the words "whether we are awake or asleep" Paul proclaims that this destiny is unaffected by any power, including death itself. The believerís union with Christ is eternally "enduring in its effects" and provides him with the confidence to face life and dearth with joyous anticipation (Morris, 96-7). With the certainty that we will "live together with Him," the Christian presses forward to spiritual and ethical maturity while bearing positive witness to the sovereign mercy of God. Wanamaker again offers a helpful conclusion:
Because Christians have been appointed to salvation, they must behave in an appropriate manner, that is, with vigilance and self-control, as befits those who belong to the light and to the day rather than to the night and to darkness. In other words, Paul uses the notion of election to salvation . . . as a motivation to encourage proper religious and ethical conduct among his converts in the present. (189).
In light of Godís elective mercies and the divine guarantee of liberation from His wrath, Paul, in verse 11, calls upon his brethren to continue their efforts to "encourage" and "build up one another." To "encourage" implies the ministry of providing exhortation and consolation while "build up" signifies the act of supporting and strengthening others. Together, these ministries enable believers to "aid one another in inculcating and carrying out the ethical demands of the faith and in communicating the theological concepts supporting those demands" (Wanamaker, 190). Thus, while living in the confidence of Christís victorious return, each Christian is to busy himself with ministry to others, thereby avoiding the tendency to disengage from the responsibilities of discipleship. As F. F. Bruce observes,
the eschatological hope, then, is not an excuse for idling but an incentive for action, and especially for mutual aid. Every church member has a duty to help in "building up" the community, so that it may attain spiritual maturity. (115).
Questions to Promote Application and Discussion
One: What are the essential details of the return of Christ that all believers must know? How can we avoid the trap of falling into needless speculation regarding the non-essential details of His coming? Should Christian fellowship be based upon oneís interpretation of these non-essential elements? What are the pitfalls associated with the current popularity of Christian end-times novels? What are the potential benefits?
Two: How should the certainty and unexpectedness of Christís return effect the following:
Three: How might the truth of verse 9óthat we have been spared the wrath of Godóaid suffering and/or persecuted believers? In the light of recent world-events, many of which have directly affected believers, how can we say that Christians are protected from Godís wrath? For example, there were many believers killed in the attacks of September 11, 2001. How does verse 9 apply to them? What is Godís wrath, and how is it distinct from the consequences of sin?
Four: What are the practical ways in which believers may both encourage and build up one another as we expectantly await our Lordís return? How does focusing our attention and energy on others benefit our churches and our own lives? Is it possible that Paul is teaching us that the antidote to many church ills is selfless service to others?