So, do you remember? In Paul’s prayer at the end of chapter 3, he said that he prayed to God for the Thessalonians that their love for each other and for everyone will increase and overflow; and that God would strengthen their hearts so that they will be blameless and holy in the presence of our God and Father, when the Lord Jesus comes again. So, he prayed about their love for one another; he prayed for their holiness; he prayed about the coming of the Lord.
And then, in chapter 4, he took each of those three things and expanded on them. So, in verses 1 to 8 he wrote about being holy, especially in terms of avoiding all forms of sexual immorality. Then, in verses 9 to 12, he wrote about loving one another, especially in terms of leading a quiet life and minding their own business and working hard for a living. And then in verses 13 to 18 he wrote to them about the coming of the Lord, especially in terms of what would happen to believers who died before the coming of the Lord. Would they be disadvantaged in some way compared to believers who are alive when the Lord comes again? Would they miss out on some of the glory and the blessings and privileges because they died before his coming? It seems that some of the members of the church in Thessalonica were worried about this. And so, Paul wrote to re-assure them and to comfort them by making clear that believers who died before Christ’s coming will not be disadvantaged in any way; and they will not miss out in any way. When the Lord comes again, those believers who died will come with him, said Paul, because when he comes, and before anything else happens, but first of all, those believers who died will be raised from the dead. And once they’ve been raised, then both groups — believers who died but who have been raised and believers who are alive at his coming — will be caught up together to meet the Lord in the air. Together, and at the same time, they will meet the Lord.
And so, says Paul at the end of verse 17, we — believers who died but who have been raised and believers who are alive at his coming — will always be with the Lord. And that’s the most important thing, isn’t it? We love the Lord; and we want to be in his presence. And so, we come to church, because this is where he has promised to meet with his people; and to speak to us through his word and through the sacraments. This is where he ministers to us and builds us up in our faith. But soon the service ends; and we have to leave; and go back out into the world, where there are so many things which take up our time and attention. But the day is coming when the Lord will come to earth again. And when he comes, all who have believed in him in this life will be brought into his presence to be with him for ever and for ever in glory. And we’ll never have to leave.
Therefore, encourage one another, comfort one another, with these words. That’s how Paul ended chapter 4. Encourage and comfort one another with these words about the coming of the Lord Jesus. Believers who die before the Lord’s coming will not miss out on any of the blessings and privileges to come, because when the Lord comes, believers who have died and believers who are still alive will together and at the same time meet the Lord and be with him forever in glory.
So, Paul wrote these things to encourage and comfort his readers. And today’s passage was written with the same purpose in mind. Look at the end of today’s passage. Paul says in verse 11 of chapter 5:
Therefore encourage one another [or comfort one another] and build each other up.
He once again wants his readers — including us — to be encouraged and comforted by what he has to say to us about the coming of the Lord.
And so, let’s turn to this passage now, which can be divided into five parts; and which contains at least three contrasts. First, in verses 1 to 3 Paul makes clear that no one knows when the Lord will come again. Second, in verses 4 and 5 he draws a contrast between those who are in the dark about the coming of the Lord and those who are not in the dark about the coming of the Lord. Third, in verses 6 to 8 he draws a contrast between those who are in a spiritual drunken stupor and those who are awake and alert and ready for the coming of the Lord. Fourth, in verses 9 and 10 he draws a contrast between those who will suffer wrath and those who will receive salvation when Christ comes again. And fifth, in verse 11, we have the conclusion.
Verses 1 to 3
So, let’s turn to verses 1 to 3 where Paul makes clear that no one knows when the Lord will come again.
And Paul begins to verse 1 by saying to his readers in Thessalonica that he doesn’t need to write to them about times and dates. Well, he means that he doesn’t need to write to them about the time or the date of the Lord’s coming.
But why does he not need to write to them about the time and date of the Lord’s coming? Is it because he’s already told them when it will happen? Did Paul have access to God’s diary so that he was able to tell the Thessalonians when it will happen? Yvonne shares her diary with me, so that I can see when she’s working and when she’s not; and if there are other things which are coming up which I need to know about. So, did God share his diary with Paul and the Thessalonians?
Well no. The reason Paul didn’t need to write to them about times and dates is because he’s already made clear to them that no one knows what the time or date of the Lord’s coming will be. Look what he says in verse 2:
for you know very well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night.
They know it very well, because he’s already made it clear to them. Presumably, when he was with them in Thessalonica, preaching the gospel to them, this is one of the things he taught them. And he refers to the coming of the Lord as ‘the day of the Lord’. That’s a term we often find the in Old Testament, particularly in the prophets, who spoke about the coming day of the Lord, when God himself would come to deliver his people from their troubles and to punish his enemies for their wickedness. And so, it makes sense for Paul to make use of this Old Testament term to refer to the coming of the Lord Jesus, because, when he comes, he will bring his people in to enjoy everlasting life; and he will punish his enemies for their wickedness.
But the day of the Lord — the day when Christ comes again to save his people and to punish his enemies — will come like a thief in the night. Well, the Lord Jesus used the same image in Matthew 24 and Luke 12 to refer to his coming. The Apostle Peter also used it in his second letter; and we find it in the book of Revelation as well where the Lord says that he will come like a thief. And the point of the image is to convey to us the unpredictability of the Lord’s coming. A thief doesn’t warn you when he’s coming. He doesn’t send you a card in the post; he doesn’t send you a text message to tell you to expect him next Wednesday. No, he comes without warning. And since the thief comes without warning, you can’t predict when it will happen. In the same way, we can’t predict when the Lord will come again. The time and the date of his coming is unknown to us. It will happen without warning.
Of course, that hasn’t prevented many foolish Christians from trying to predict when it will be. Down through the years, people have made many, many, many predictions about when the Lord will come again. But don’t believe them. Don’t listen to them. The person who says he knows when the Lord will come again is mistaken; and you should not be taken in by what that person says, because the Bible makes clear that the Lord will come like a thief in the night and his coming cannot be predicted.
And Paul underlines the unpredictability of it, by telling us in verse 3 that the coming destruction on those who don’t believe will come suddenly. Do you see that in verse 3? Some people will be saying ‘Peace and safety’. Some people will be saying that everything is fine; and there’s nothing to worry about. In fact, it’s likely that Paul is referring here to a slogan that was used at that time in the Roman Empire. The Romans liked to think that they brought peace and security to the world; and historians have discovered memorials where peace and security are put together as two blessings which the Romans enjoyed. So, perhaps in Thessalonica, people boasted about the peace and safety which they could enjoy because of Rome. But, says Paul, when everyone around us is thinking that everything is fine and there’s nothing to worry about, and everything will continue the way it’s always been, when everyone around us is thinking that way, then suddenly, suddenly, destruction will come on them, because the Lord will come to judge the living and the dead.
The coming judgment will be like labour pains on a pregnant woman, says Paul. Now, a woman who is pregnant knows that eventually her labour pains will begin. So, experiencing them is not unexpected. However, exactly when they will start is not known to her or to anyone else. Furthermore, there’s an inevitability to her labour pains: a pregnant woman knows that eventually she will have labour pains. It can’t be avoided. And the coming of the Lord is inevitable. He will certainly come; and there’s no way to avoid it. So, says Paul at the end of verse 3, they will not escape. Those who will face God’s wrath because of their wickedness will not escape it.
And, of course, in our own day, an unbelieving world is not expecting Christ to come again; and they don’t believe in the coming judgment. Now, people might worry about the future of this planet and what can be done to save the environment and to prolong the world. They think about that; but they don’t believe in the coming of Christ to judge the living and the dead. And so, although lots of things have changed since Paul wrote this letter to the Thessalonians, and the world today is very different from the world in Paul’s day, nevertheless people have not changed; and those who belong to the unbelieving world are not expecting Christ to come again to judge and to condemn them. But he will come, says Paul, like a thief in the night, when people don’t expect it.
Verses 4 and 5
However, Paul then draws a contrast between those who are in the dark about the Lord’s coming and those who are not. And this contrast is signalled by the words ‘But you, brothers’ in verse 4:
But you, brothers, are not in darkness….
So, there are some who are in darkness. They’re in the dark about these things. But you, Christians brothers and sisters, are in a different position. You’re in a different position, because you’re not in darkness so that the coming of the Lord will surprise you like a thief. You’re not in darkness. Instead you’re sons of the light and sons of the day.
Now, if you’re a woman, you might wonder why Paul refers to sons only. Why sons of the light and not sons and daughters of the light? Why not children of the light? Well, Paul is employing a common Jewish expression which was used when the speaker wanted to say that here’s a group of people who are closely associated or connected with something else. These people share in this other thing or they belong to it. So, by saying that we’re sons of the light and sons of the day, Paul is saying to the believers in Thessalonica — and to us — that we are closely associated with and share in and belong to the light and the day.
Now, when Paul refers to darkness and to light and to day, he’s using these words metaphorically or figuratively, not literally. So, darkness conveys the idea of ignorance, doesn’t it? When we say that someone is in the dark about something, we mean they don’t know what’s happening. Well, we’re all in the dark about when the Lord will come again; no one knows the time or date of his coming. However, believers have this advantage over unbelievers: while we don’t know when he will come, we nevertheless know that he is coming. We don’t know when he will come; but we know and believe that he is coming. And that makes all the difference, doesn’t it? The Lord hasn’t left us in the dark, but he’s come to us and he’s enlightened us and revealed to us the truth that Christ the Lord is coming again to judge the living and the dead. Instead of keeping us in the dark about what will happen in the future, he’s brought us into the light so that we know clearly that Christ is coming.
So, there’s this contrast in the world. There are those who are in the dark about the coming of Christ; and his coming will be for them like the coming of a thief, because they aren’t expecting it; and his coming will mean their destruction. But then, there are believers who are not in the dark about the coming of the Christ, because the Lord has enabled us to know and to believe that he’s coming; and so, we won’t be surprised when he comes again.
Verses 6 to 8
Well, Paul continues to write about this contrast, but he changes the imagery in verses 6 to 8. This time it’s a contrast between those who are in a spiritual stupor and those who are wide awake and alert.
So, in verse 6 he refers to those who are asleep. Then, in verse 7 he refers to those who sleep at night and who get drunk at night. And, again, he’s speaking metaphorically or figuratively, and not literally. So, think of the image of man who is fast asleep in the night, sleeping off his drunkenness. Nothing will wake him, and he’s oblivious to everything going on around him. He, of course, is not ready for the thief, if the thief should come that night. And that’s an image of the person who doesn’t believe in the Saviour; and he’s not at all ready for the coming of the Lord to judge him.
Well, that kind of person is contrasted with the person who is wide awake and alert and self-controlled. The word translated ‘self-controlled’ at the end of verse 6 actually means ‘sober-minded’. And so, instead of being in a spiritual drunken stupor, so that we’re not ready for the coming of the Lord, Paul’s readers should be wide awake and sober and ready for the coming of the Lord. In fact, they should be like a soldier, who is alert and sober and ready for anything. And the soldier is ready for anything, because he’s got his armour on. A soldier who is still in bed, isn’t ready for anything, except sleep. But the soldier who is up and has his armour on is ready for anything. And that’s the way we’re to be, Paul says to his readers. But the breastplate we’re to wear — so that we’re ready for the coming of the Lord — is made of faith and love. And the helmet we’re to wear — so that we’re ready for the coming of the Lord — is hope. Faith. Love. And hope. With these three virtues, we’re ready for the coming of the Lord, because through faith in Christ, our sins have been forgiven and we needn’t fear the coming judgment, because there’s no condemnation for those who are united with Christ through faith. And the way we love our fellow believers and the people around us is one of the marks — or the telltale signs — that reassure us that we belong to Christ. We’re able to love others, because he’s at work in our lives to renew us in his image; and that’s a sign that we belong to him. And those who believe and who belong to Christ are filled with hope, because true believers know that when Christ comes again, it will not be to punish them for their sins, but it will be to complete their salvation by bringing them in to enjoy everlasting life in the presence of God in glory. Whoever possesses faith and love and hope is ready for the coming of the Lord Jesus.
Verses 9 and 10
So, there’s this contrast in the world. There are those who are in the dark about the coming of Christ; and his coming will be for them like the coming of a thief, because they aren’t expecting it; and his coming will mean their destruction. They’re like those who are in a drunken stupor, who are not ready for anything.
But then, there are believers who are not in the dark about the coming of the Christ, because the Lord has enabled them to know and to believe that he’s coming; and so, believers won’t be surprised when he comes again. They’re like a soldier who is awake and dressed in his armour. And so, they’re awake and alert and they possess faith and love and hope. And so, they’re ready for the coming of the Lord.
But then there’s another contrast in verses 9 and 10, isn’t there? Paul says to his readers:
For God did not appoint us to suffer wrath, but to receive salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ.
So, what’s the contrast this time? It’s between those who will suffer wrath when Christ comes again; and those who have been appointed to receive salvation when Christ comes again. When the Lord comes again, in glory and with great power, it will be to judge and to condemn and to punish all those who did not believe in him in this life. And so, they will suffer the wrath of God for their wickedness and for all the ways they disobeyed the Lord. By contrast, when the Lord comes again, in glory and with great power, it will be to pardon all those who believed in him in this life.
Now, they too disobeyed the Lord; they too fell short of doing his will; they too acted wickedly in this life. However, since they trusted in Christ, they will be pardoned for their sins, so that they will be saved from the coming wrath of God.
And, of course, the salvation they receive is through the Lord Jesus Christ, because he’s the one who died ‘for us’, says Paul. So, when he died on the cross, he took the blame ‘for us’. When he died on the cross, he suffered the wrath of God ‘for us’. When he died on the cross, he was punished ‘for us’. He was our substitute; and he died in our place so that all who believe in him may have eternal life.
And notice too that Paul uses the word ‘appoint’ in verse 9:
For God did not appoint us to suffer wrath, but to receive salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ.
He didn’t appoint us to suffer wrath, but he appointed us to receive salvation. The word ‘appoint’ here means destine or arrange or resolve. In other words, our eternal salvation is guaranteed by the plans and purposes of God, who took the initiative in our salvation and arranged to save us. Long before we knew anything about him, he knew us; and he set his love upon us; and he chose to save us by his Son who was willing to give up his life for us.
And the end result is that whether we are awake or asleep — and Paul is now referring to believers who are alive when Christ comes again and believers who are dead when Christ comes again — whether we’re awake or asleep when Christ comes again, we may live together with him. That’s the end result: eternal life in the presence of the Lord Jesus Christ, when he comes again.
And so, encourage and comfort one another and build each other up, says Paul. These things have been written for our comfort and edification.
But in what sense are these things an encouragement and comfort for us? The first thing to say is that they’re not an encouragement or comfort to the person who does not believe. And if there’s anyone here this evening and you have not yet trusted in Christ for salvation, this passage is a warning for you to awaken you from your spiritual slumber so that you will turn to God for mercy. The ship that is headed for the rocks must take heed to the warning blast and turn around, so that it is not destroyed. And you need to take heed to the warning blast that Christ is coming again; that he’s coming to judge the world; that unless you repent and believe you cannot be saved, but will be condemned forever for your unbelief and rebellion. And so, wake up from your slumber. Confess your sins to God in prayer. Ask him to forgive you for the sake of Christ who died for sinners. And ask him to change your life, so that your life will be marked from this night on by faith and by love and by hope.
But this passage is an encouragement and comfort for all who believe, because it takes away all uncertainty. When we don’t know the outcome of something, we’re anxious about it, aren’t we? Before the results of the scan are known, we’re anxious and imagine the worst. The student is anxious before she receives her grades. When we have to have that difficult conversation with someone, we’re anxious because we don’t know how he will react. When we’re uncertain about the outcome of something, we’re anxious and afraid. But believers needn’t be anxious about the future, because the Lord has revealed in his word what the future will be; and how he will come again one day. If he had not revealed these things, then we might have grounds for being anxious. But we know what the future holds, because the Lord has revealed these things in his word; and he’s enabled us to receive and to believe these things. And we know that the coming of the Lord will mean salvation for his people, for all those who trusted in him, because he died for us and for our salvation, in order to bring us to God. And so, when the Lord comes again, he’ll come to bring us at last to our eternal home.
Think of Noah, when destruction was coming on the earth in his day. But he didn’t need to fear the coming of the rain and the coming of the mighty flood on the earth. He didn’t need to fear it, because the Lord revealed to him what was coming; and what he needed to do to be ready for it. And after the flood came, what happened to Noah? Well, he came into a kind of new world, didn’t he? One that had been washed and renewed.
The Lord has revealed to us what is coming; and he’s revealed to us what we need to do to be ready for it: how we need to repent and believe in his Son to escape the coming wrath of God. And after the Lord comes, all who have believed in him will come into a new world, won’t we? We’ll come into the new heaven and earth, where we’ll enjoy perfect peace and rest with Christ our Saviour; and we’ll live with him forever.