We know that every chapter of 1 Thessalonians refers to the Second Coming, the longest sections being in Chapters 4 and 5.
Chapter 4 reminds us that Christ will soon return ‘with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God’ (v.16) calling people from their graves. First, the dead in Christ will rise, then Christians alive at the time will be transformed. All will enter eternal bliss. We should encourage each other with these words.
Chapter 5:1-11 continues to speak of Christ’s return.
Wikipedia has a page of failed predictions of the Second Coming including Ronald Weinland and Jack Van Impe. Weinland set the date at 29 September 2011. When his prediction failed he tried 27 May 2012 then 18 May 2013. Convicted of tax evasion in 2012 he went to prison. Van Impe has predicted many dates. He no longer claims to know the exact date, which is good to hear in light of 5:2: ‘the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night.’
Paul gets across the suddenness and unpredictability of Christ’s return using pictures. He expected Christ’s return in his own lifetime but always bore in mind that it may be later and that the date was unpredictable.
The point of the thief is not that he is wicked or causes problems but that he is unexpected. Thieves do not put cards through the letterboxes of proposed victims with dates of planned visits. No, you have no idea when he will come. Similarly, we do not know when Christ will return. He is definitely coming, the day gets nearer every day but we cannot know when.
Paul also says that while people claim there is ‘“Peace and safety,” destruction will come on them suddenly, as labour pains on a pregnant woman, and they will not escape’ (v.3). The gestation period for a baby is about nine months. The actual period cannot be timed to the moment so exactly when labour pains will begin is unknown. Wise people make plans to be sure they will get to hospital in good time once contractions start. So with Christ again. We know he will return, we know the countdown gets lower every day but we cannot be sure when the end will come so we need always to be ready.
No surprise for Christians
Having laid down that general rule Paul says (vv.4-5) the Christian Thessalonians are not in darkness so that this day should surprise them like a thief. They are all children of the light and children of the day. Christians do not belong to the night or darkness. If you are always ready for the thief, he cannot get in. If you are always ready for labour pains, you will get to hospital in good time. We live today in the time of darkness but soon the day of light will dawn. As children of the light or day not belonging to the night or darkness we are potentially ready for Christ to return when he will. Having repented from sin and trusted in Christ we say, ‘Let him come when he will’.
Paul makes his application in verses 6-8. He says we must not be sleepy but alert and self-controlled. ‘Those who sleep, sleep at night, and those who get drunk, get drunk at night. But since we belong to the day, let us be sober, putting on faith and love as a breastplate, and the hope of salvation as a helmet.’
Taking up the night and day picture he applies it saying that as children of the day, those who belong to the coming day, we ought not to be asleep (spiritually) as others are or indulging in sins like drunkenness but alert and self-controlled. With this call to be alert and self-controlled he uses another illustration, picturing faith, love and hope as armour.
Romans 13:12 is similar: ‘The night is nearly over; the day is almost here. So let us put aside the deeds of darkness and put on the armour of light.’ In 1 Thessalonians he develops the idea a little (and Ephesians 6 even more).
Two practical applications then.
Be alert and self-controlled. Somehow we need to develop a mindset that is ready, watchful, prepared for Jesus’ return whenever it may happen. We must be self-controlled or sober. Paul contrasts it with drunkenness. Drunks cannot control themselves, saying and doing things they should not. As believers we need to be awake and sober minded – calm, level-headed, wise. We know Christ is coming again so we can have a right perspective on life. We must live in the light of that day always.
Have faith, love and hope. Verse 8 speaks of all three. Faith first. Be full of faith in Christ, believing he will return, as you go into the battle that is this life. Love must be there – love to God, who we will one day see in the person of Christ and love for people too. Hope in God too, longing for Christ’s return.
Continuing his argument, Paul says, by way of urging us to alertness, self-control, faith, etc., that God has not appointed us ‘to suffer wrath but to receive salvation through… Christ’, who he says ‘died for us so that, whether we are awake or asleep, we may live together with him’ (vv.9-10).
Not our future – suffering wrath – that is what we deserve because of our sins. That is the future for all who do not trust in Christ. We will not suffer wrath however, not now nor when Christ comes again.
Our future – receiving salvation. The Christian can say he has been saved in the past (though he may not know when), that he is being saved in the present and he will be saved in the future when Christ returns. As Paul says, ‘God did not appoint us to suffer wrath but to receive salvation.’ When Christ returns, we will receive salvation, rescue or deliverance.
How this happens – ‘through our Lord Jesus Christ’. He has died so that dead or alive ‘we may live together with him’. Through Jesus Christ God’s wrath is removed and salvation is received. Paul ties together Christ’s death and return. It is because he died in our place that when he returns he does not need to show us wrath but mercy and grace because he himself has absorbed the wrath of God at Calvary. This is true whether we die and are raised by him or are alive when he returns and are transformed. This is why believers can face Christ’s return with magnanimity. We know that then, because of Christ’s death, all will be well.
Be an encourager
Finally, in verse 11 Paul calls on us to ‘encourage… and build each other up’, which is what the Thessalonians were doing. Back in 4:18 he spoke of encouraging one another with these words. Now, more generally, he calls for them to encourage and edify each other. They are doing it but he wants no slacking. Hopefully we are doing it too but it is good to be reminded of the need.