1 Thessalonians 5:1-11126
Main Idea: God's message about future events must influence how we live in our present circumstances.
- God's Judgment Is Declared (5:1-3).
- A solemn warning (5:1-2)
- An indifferent response (5:3a)
- A sobering result (5:3b)
- God's People Respond (5:4-8).
- They walk in the light (5:4-5).
- They live with purpose (5:6-8).
- They live their lives soberly.
- They take their faith seriously.
- God's Deliverance Comes (5:9-11).
- They are delivered from wrath (5:9a).
- They are delivered from sin (5:9b-10).
- They are delivered from discouragement (5:11).
Most people are notoriously lazy. Because of an inclination to slothfulness, you must build accountability through a variety of means and methods. For example, many of us have scales in our bathrooms because we recognize that the only true way to be accountable for our weekly eating habits is to have an objective means for measuring our caloric intake. Teachers also recognize the value of accountability. Fully aware of the human tendency to choose play over study, teachers keep their students motivated by administering quizzes and tests. While most students would gladly welcome a test-free world, they admit that tests serve as proper motivation for them to study and learn. Indeed, the promise of a coming evaluation always serves as the best means for a present motivation.
A number of years ago, the Hollywood movie The Truman Show hit the big screen. It featured a man named Truman Burbank whose life, unknown to him, was a manufactured reality television show. The show was broadcast daily to millions of viewers. Everywhere Truman went 127and everything he did were available for the world to see. While most of us would grimace at the thought of being subjected to such scrutiny, we would do well to remember that our lives are being broadcast to an even greater audience. We are confronted with this reality in Revelation.
Then I saw a great white throne and One seated on it. Earth and heaven fled from His presence, and no place was found for them. I also saw the dead, the great and the small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Another book was opened, which is the book of life, and the dead were judged according to their works by what was written in the books.
Then the sea gave up its dead, and Death and Hades gave up their dead; all were judged according to their works. Death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death, the lake of fire. And anyone not found written in the book of life was thrown into the lake of fire. (Rev 20:11-15)
This passage draws attention to two different sets of books—the book (singular) and the books (plural). The subject matter contained within each of these proves to be significant by providing the basis for either your salvation or your damnation. John's point could not be clearer: In God's "books" one can find a complete record of all human sin, including every wicked deed, every impure thought, and every evil intention. Nothing we do escapes the attention of an omniscient God. At the final judgment, the content of the books will provide the evidence necessary for a just verdict of judgment. To be acquitted, your name must be found in "the book of life." And the only way that your name can be inscribed in that book is by trusting in Christ alone for salvation (Isa 43:25; 2 Cor 5:19; Eph 2:1-5). However, those whose names are not written in the book of life will be judged according to what is recorded in their "books."
We are foolish if we think that God is not keeping a detailed record of our lives. Concerning this, the writer of Hebrews issues a stern warning: "No creature is hidden from Him, but all things are naked and exposed to the eyes of Him to whom we must give an account" (Heb 4:13). But as foolish as it is to think that God does not see our actions, it is even more foolish to think that He will not hold us accountable for them. While there may be a momentary delay in the balancing of God's books, that delay will not last forever. Luke says that God has "set a day 128when He is going to judge the world in righteousness by the Man He has appointed" (Acts 17:31; emphasis added).
While human beings may choose to ignore the reality of judgment, they can do little to delay it or even to soften its severity. The only way to survive God's judgment is to avoid it altogether, and the only way to avoid it is by the deliverance that only Jesus can bring. Paul says, "For God did not appoint us to wrath, but to obtain salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ" (5:9). The good news is that God's wrath can be avoided.
During Paul's brief stay in Thessalonica, he taught the church about a coming day of judgment. Yet, despite his teaching, the Thessalonians were still puzzled about many of the details. They had three basic questions: What happens to Christians who die prior to the Lord's return? Was it possible that they had somehow missed the Lord's return and were now living in the Day of the Lord? What would be the signs indicating that the end of the age had come? He answered the first question in 4:13-18 by informing them that they would see their dead loved ones again. Paul addresses their other two questions both in this text and in 2 Thessalonians.
Paul begins chapter 5 by making a notable transition in subject matter. To make this transition, he uses the Greek phrase translated "about" or "concerning." In his writings, Paul often uses this phrase to indicate a shift from one subject to another (e.g., 1 Cor 7:1, 25; 8:1; 12:1; 16:1, 12). Here, he uses the phrase to transition in his discussion from the rapture (4:13-18) to the Day of the Lord (5:1-11). Paul does not combine the two discussions. Had he done so, we might conclude that the rapture is somehow to be included in the events surrounding the Day of the Lord. However, rather than tying these events together, he appears to separate them purposely into two distinct events. This separation, of course, raises the question of the timing of the rapture: Will it occur before, after, or in the middle of the Day of the Lord? Although the text does not give conclusive evidence, which would merit dogmatism in how we answer, the context appears to indicate that Jesus will remove His church prior to the Day of the Lord. Here are four reasons for such a conclusion:
- As noted, Paul chooses to address the rapture and the Day of the Lord separately. It is not coincidental that the rapture discussion precedes the Day of the Lord discussion. The natural reading of the text implies that the Day of the Lord would follow the rapture of the church.
- 129One cannot read both texts without seeing Paul's emphasis on imminence—that Jesus could return at any moment. Imminence suggests that the next event on God's timetable for history is Christ's return. However, if the Day of the Lord precedes His return then imminence is watered down because one could simply count the remaining days of tribulation until Christ finally returns. Paige Patterson's insight concerning imminence is significant. He suggests that placing Christ's return after the Day of Lord not only eliminates the possibility of the imminent return of Christ, but also has the unfortunate result of rendering Jesus mistaken when He said that no one knew the time of Christ's return (Patterson, Revelation, 43).
- Paul's point in both 4:13-18 and 5:1-11 is to encourage the Thessalonians. What could be more encouraging for a discouraged church than to know that they are not appointed to wrath (5:9)? To be sure, this includes deliverance from the wrath of eternal damnation, but given the context, Paul more likely has in mind the wrath of the Day of the Lord. Jesus offered a very similar word of encouragement to the church at Philadelphia when He said, "Because you have kept My command to endure, I will also keep you from the hour of testing that is going to come over the whole earth to test those who live on the earth" (Rev 3:10).
- In 1 Thessalonians 5:4-11 Paul paints a sharp contrast between those who walk in the day and those who walk in the dark. Those who walk in darkness will face sudden destruction, inescapable judgment, and wrath. Paul's purpose is to remind the Thessalonians that because of their standing in Christ, they have a different destiny than an unbelieving world. Paul seems to be telling them, "You do not need to worry about these things; God has different plans for you." To be sure, His different plans culminate in a heavenly home, but given the context, Paul apparently is also reassuring them that God would deliver them from having to experience any wrath associated with the Day of the Lord.
One final observation is necessary before a closer look at the passage. Admittedly, much debate exists concerning these matters. Where one lands on his timing of the rapture is not a test of fellowship. For every argument in favor of placing the rapture before the 130Day of the Lord, there are arguments against it. One truth is not up for debate, however: Jesus is coming again. The church must live in eager expectation of this event. Trials and tribulations will be a part of your journey while you wait expectantly for Him (Rom 8:17; Phil 1:29; 1 Pet 4:12-19). But since you and I live with the hope of salvation, we agree with Paul: "I know the One I have believed in and am persuaded that He is able to guard what has been entrusted to me until that day" (2 Tim 1:12).
As we turn our attention to the text, remember that Paul had just informed the Thessalonians that Christ could come at any moment. This obviously triggered a question similar to that of the disciples who asked Jesus, "Tell us, when will these things happen? And what is the sign of Your coming and of the end of the age?" (Matt 24:3). In addition to their curiosity about signs and seasons, the Thessalonians had a more significant question about the Day of the Lord: Would they have to experience the terrible events associate with that day? To address their questions, Paul has three objectives in mind as he pens 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11: to remind them of the swiftness of God's judgment (5:1-3), to exhort them to live faithfully (5:4-8), and to encourage them to remain confident in God's deliverance (5:9-11).
God's Judgment Is Declared
1 Thessalonians 5:1-3
A few years ago while out for an evening on the town, my wife and I set out to find an ATM to get some cash. Determined to save a few bucks in associated ATM charges, I was on a mission to find one associated with my bank. With every new street came the hope and expectation of the great discovery, but ultimately my efforts proved fruitless. Frustrated and prepared to concede defeat, I glanced heavenward only to see some very large, brightly illuminated letters attached to the top of a skyscraper. To my surprise, it was the name of my bank. I not only found my bank; I found the world headquarters of my bank! For one hour I was circling the streets of the city in search of something that was right in front of me the whole time. All I had to do was look up to see it.
In a sense, the same is true when it comes to knowing God. God gives every human being sufficient information to know that He exists. If you would only "look up," you would see Him. As David declared in Ps 19:1-6, creation is a living testimony to the existence of God. Because 131God has made Himself known, human beings are accountable for how they respond to Him. Paul states this truth plainly when he writes,
For God's wrath is revealed from heaven against all godlessness and unrighteousness of people who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth, since what can be known about God is evident among them, because God has shown it to them. For His invisible attributes, that is, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen since the creation of the world, being understood through what He has made. As a result, people are without excuse. (Rom 1:18-20)
God has given sufficient notice that judgment day is coming. Some look up and see it, and others choose to ignore it, but no one outside of Jesus Christ will escape the dreadful consequences of that day.
A Solemn Warning (1 Thess 5:1-2)
The text begins with an implied question: When is Jesus coming again? On the surface it sounds like a fair question. After all, if the Thessalonians could know the "times and the seasons," they could prepare for Christ's coming. Paul reminded them that they already had enough information to be fully prepared: "You do not need anything to be written to you," he replies. "For you yourselves know ..." (5:1-2). There is a bit of irony here. They were ignoring the information they already had to ask for information they did not need. Dates and times were not what they needed. Instead, they needed to remember that the Lord's coming was imminent. John MacArthur makes this point:
Being spiritually prepared for the return of Christ does not involve date setting, clock watching, or sign seeking. God has chosen not to reveal the specific time of end-time events so that all believers will live in constant anticipation of them. (Macarthur, 1 and 2 Thessalonians, 143)
The Thessalonians had the information; what they needed was preparation.
Before we come down too hard on the Thessalonians for their unhealthy curiosity about dates and times, we would do well to recall how often we are guilty of having the same inquisitiveness. For example, I wonder how many Christians spend their lives studying the what of Christianity but never get down to living out the why of Christianity. Other Christians zealously search for God's will but carelessly leave their 132Bibles unopened. If we ignore the little responsibilities that God gives us now, what makes us think that He will give us bigger opportunities later (Luke 16:10)? Paul challenges the Thessalonians to live in the light of the information that God provided. His statement "you yourselves know" is quite similar to what we saw in chapter 4 where He told them that they needed no further instruction about how to love each other (4:9). There comes a point when you have all the information that you need. The real issue then becomes what you do with that information.
Paul was convinced that his prior teaching on the Lord's coming was sufficient. Dates and times were not part of God's revelation (Matt 24:36; Acts 1:7). There are at least two practical reasons for this. First, knowing that His coming was hundreds or thousands of years in the future would only stifle their urgency and passion. As we have seen, a spirit of indifference had already settled over some in the church (4:11-12). The last thing this church needed was more deadbeat Christians. Second, if they had advance knowledge that His coming was soon, it could lead them to make rash decisions or even cause widespread panic. God never intended for you to know when Christ is coming—He always intended for you to know that Christ is coming. The Bible does not give dates and times; it gives a promise: Christ is coming. An indifferent church lacks motivation and a panicked church lacks peace. However, an expectant church is filled with passion. That is exactly the means by which God designed the church to pursue its mission—with passion and expectancy.
While the Thessalonians did not need to have a knowledge of the times and seasons, they did need to have an understanding of the Day of the Lord. Doubtless Paul had taught them that the Day of the Lord represented a future time of God's judgment. Listen to how Amos describes this day:
Woe to you who long for the Day of the Lord! What will the Day of the Lord be for you? It will be darkness and not light.
It will be like a man who flees from a lion only to have a bear confront him. He goes home and rests his hand against the wall only to have a snake bite him.
Won't the Day of the Lord be darkness rather than light, even gloom without any brightness in it? (Amos 5:18-20)
Paul had provided the Thessalonians with enough knowledge to know that the Day of the Lord would bring God's severest judgment on the 133ungodly. For a church that was already suffering intense persecution, the thought of experiencing anything worse than their current trials obviously brought great concern. Therefore, one of Paul's primary objectives is to reassure them that God would deliver them from any coming judgment.
Paul describes the Day of the Lord as a "thief" (5:2). The coming of a thief is never a joyful, announced event. No thief ever informs a victim of his intentions before the crime. The Day of the Lord is going to surprise some people. Yet when Paul speaks of those who will be surprised, he does not have in mind the Thessalonians. Their response will be much different. "But you, brothers, are not in the dark," Paul writes, "for this day to overtake you like a thief" (5:4). God does not keep His people in the dark about future events. This of course does not mean that they will know every detail, but the Christian knows that both Jesus and judgment are coming. Thus Paul seeks to reassure the Thessalonians about what they know and to encourage them to faithfulness in light of Christ's coming. As Gordon Fee suggests, Paul's admonition about the Day of the Lord is not intended to threaten the Thessalonians, but to encourage them to live obediently "in the face of their present hardships ... [and] to reassure them about their own future" (Fee, First and Second Letters, 190).
An Indifferent Response (1 Thess 5:3a)
The shift from "you" to "they" in verses 2 and 3 is noteworthy. An unbelieving world responds to God with a frank indifference. God's solemn warnings of judgment are often met by the world's yawn. This response is vividly portrayed by the words "peace and security." Oblivious to God's imminent judgment, and thinking that life is just fine, the world goes about its business. However, Paul says that the Day of the Lord will overtake them "like a thief in the night" (v. 2). Before they have time to figure out what's happening, they will be swept away by "sudden destruction."
Indifference toward God is always deadly. Jesus repeatedly warned of the dangers of indifference. For example, He warned of the dangers of choosing the wrong pathway to follow:
Enter through the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the road is broad that leads to destruction, and there are many who go through it. How narrow is the gate and difficult the road that leads to life, and few find it. (Matt 7:13-14)
134Jesus also warned of the danger of indifference when choosing a foundation on which to build:
But everyone who hears these words of Mine and doesn't act on them will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand. The rain fell, the rivers rose, the winds blew and pounded that house, and it collapsed. And its collapse was great! (Matt 7:26-27)
Indifference toward God, however, is no less deadly than willful rejection of God. Either way the consequences are the same (5:3b). Turning your back on a problem does not make it go away. Cries of "peace and security" are powerless to change your circumstances. If a windswept forest fire is raging toward the front of your home, sipping lemonade on the back porch won't make the fire go away. In the same way, living your life with good intentions may be a noble pursuit, but if you are travelling on the wrong pathway or building on the wrong foundation, you are only moments away from devastating consequences.
A Sobering Result (1 Thess 5:3b)
Just as there is a contrast between those who heed God's warnings and those who ignore them, there is also a contrast between what people think the future holds and what will actually take place. Paul moves from an unbeliever's reassuring shouts of "peace and security" to his or her surprising shock when "sudden destruction" comes. Such a turn of events should not be surprising. That is what thieves do. Without warning, they interrupt your peace and take away your security. The thief/pregnancy imagery illustrates the inescapability of divine judgment for those who have rejected Christ. As Stott puts it, "The thief gives you no warning, and labor pains give you no escape" (Stott, Gospel and the End, 109). Thus when the Day of the Lord begins, it will move unalterably to its inescapable end.
God's People Respond
1 Thessalonians 5:4-8
In chapter 5 Paul uses vivid vocabulary to contrast the destiny of those who honor God with those who choose to ignore Him. Note how he describes the future judgment of those who ignore God: surprise, destruction, darkness, pain, and no escape. Now contrast those concepts with how Paul describes the future destiny of those who honor 135God: light, salvation, and alive with Christ. The differences are striking. Paul singles out these differences to make a very important point: the Thessalonians had no need to fear future judgment. Why? Because when they embraced Christ, He transformed them from children of wrath to children of God (Eph 2:3-6). As Paul told the Colossians, the Father "rescued [them] from the domain of darkness and transferred [them] into the kingdom of the Son He loves" (Col 1:13). Hence, their future inheritance would not be the darkness of wrath; their future inheritance would be a kingdom of light.
Remember, they feared being subjected to the judgments of the Day of the Lord. Paul showed them that the judgments of that day are reserved only for those who walk in darkness (5:4). By contrast, the Thessalonians have been transferred into a new kingdom. They are "sons of light and sons of the day." They therefore have nothing to fear. God's sanctifying work was empowering them to live confidently in the present and to look hopefully at the future.
Christians should never be caught off guard by future events because they recognize that God is moving human history toward a final consummation. Knowing that this consummation is soon—albeit not knowing when—provides incentive and motivation to make the most of every day. In other words, Christians live with the end in mind. Paul reveals two ways that they can do this: they walk in the light, and they live with expectancy.
They Walk in the Light (1 Thess 5:4-5)
Paul's discussion about future events can be confusing unless we keep the context in view. As we have discovered, the Thessalonians were confused about their present circumstances and their future fate. They were suffering greatly on account of their new faith (2:14). Yet they believed that Jesus would return to deliver them from any such suffering (1:10). The delay of His return coupled with the intensity of their suffering led them to conclude that they were now in the midst of the Day of the Lord.
To address their confusion, Paul does not choose to unfold all of the specifics that will mark this terrible time in human history (we might wish he had!). Instead, he focuses on helping them to live confidently in light of these coming events. As verse 4 begins, the conjunction but marks a significant contrast between those who are ignorant of future events and those who are expecting them. These contrasts were briefly136examined in the previous section (5:3-4). To bring them comfort, Paul reminds the Thessalonians that the light of God's promises is shining on their future. They did not need to spend time in fear of being caught suddenly by the Day of the Lord. God had placed their future destiny in plain sight. Paul writes, "But you, brothers, are not in the dark, for this day to overtake you like a thief" (5:4). Again, what is worth repeating is that God never intended for Christians to live with uncertainty about the future.
Pause and let this truth sink in. When we stop worrying about tomorrow, we are truly liberated to live for today. Let me help you to see this truth by way of a practical illustration. Think for a moment about a time when you were unable to watch the big game on TV. Although you may have missed it live, you were still able to record the game so that you could watch it later. Desiring not to know the score until you have watched the game, you attempt to avoid all TVs, radios, computers, and smart phones. With remote in hand (to fast-forward through commercials), you settle into your favorite chair to view the action. However, as you turn on your TV, you somehow forgot that it was tuned to ESPN, and before you could switch it, the final score of the big game scrolls across the bottom of your screen. Your evening is ruined ... or is it? The good news is that you now know that your team won the game. The bad news is that the anticipation and thrill of watching the game is gone. But if you are a true sports fan, you will most likely still enjoy watching the game, but you will now watch it with a different attitude and perspective. In fact, it might even be a little more enjoyable to watch. When your team suffers a setback, you will recognize that it is only temporary. When your team falls behind, you won't become discouraged because you know the final outcome. In a real sense, when the future is not in doubt the present is much more enjoyable.
The Thessalonians' present discouragement was the result of their future uncertainties. But God did not intend for them to stumble around in the darkness of uncertainty. No matter how difficult their present circumstances might become, they could face them with the promise of a secure future. The Day of the Lord was not going to overtake them like a thief. God had opened their eyes to see how it was going to happen. They could now face their future with hope, their present with purpose, and their past without regret. All of this was possible because they were walking in the light of Christ. Light always has a way of changing our perspective (Ps 119:105; John 1:4-5; 9:5).
They Live with Purpose (1 Thess 5:6-8)137
Being a Christian means something. It's one thing to say that you walk in the light, but it's another thing to prove that you walk in the light. Thus Paul reminds the Thessalonians that a Christian's new nature will be reflected by a Christian's new conduct. One of the most transforming days in a believer's life is when he moves past the why of salvation and begins to grasp the what of salvation. The Thessalonians were in danger of allowing their end times confusion to distract them from their present day living. And they clearly did not need more distractions. Their city was full of them. As I have mentioned, sexual immorality was right outside the window. Every day a thousand different things were competing for their attention. To borrow the words of singer Rich Mullins, the "stuff of earth" was competing for their allegiance ("If I Stand," 1988). Paul was challenging them to be true to their first love. He was imploring them to let their lifestyle reflect their loyalty to Christ. To challenge them in their loyalty to Christ, Paul makes a transition from their standing ("sons of light" and "sons of the day") to their living ("stay awake and be serious"). God expects them to live a sober life and to practice a serious faith.
They live their lives soberly. When it comes to following God's instruction, Christians do not "sleep" like the rest of the world (5:6). Sleep carries with it the connotation of a blissful ignorance. Some people live their lives with the mantra, "If the pressures of life become too difficult, a good nap will make them disappear." Of course, you know by experience that your problems never sleep. Paul employs the metaphor of sleep to describe how an unbelieving world views God. While God sounds the sirens of judgment, the world takes a nap. But as we have discovered, sleep is powerless to delay the Day of the Lord or to lessen its severity. While an unbelieving world slumbers, "sudden destruction" will come like a thief in the night (5:2-3). Jesus describes it this way:
As the days of Noah were, so the coming of the Son of Man will be. For in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day Noah boarded the ark. They didn't know until the flood came and swept them all away. So this is the way the coming of the Son of Man will be. (Matt 24:37-39)
Jonah learned the dangers of sleeping while God was talking. He surmised that if he slept long enough God would take His message to 138someone else (Jonah 1:5). He found out that God has a way of waking you up when He wants to get your attention. Turning your back on a problem will not make that problem go away. Jesus taught His disciples not to turn their backs to the reality of His return. They were to be living in a constant state of readiness. He said,
Therefore be alert, since you don't know when the master of the house is coming—whether in the evening or at midnight or at the crowing of the rooster or early in the morning. Otherwise, he might come suddenly and find you sleeping. And what I say to you, I say to everyone: Be alert! (Mark 13:35-37)
Watchfulness, however, involves more than merely waiting for what is coming. Watchfulness means doing something while we wait. Paul instructs the Thessalonians to be "serious" (5:6). The idea here is to live a self-controlled life. It relates directly to their behavior (1 Pet 4:7). Again note with care how the imminence of Christ's coming should affect our behavior. Paul makes this point plain in his exhortation to the Romans:
Knowing the time, it is already the hour for you to wake up from sleep, for now our salvation is nearer than when we first believed. The night is nearly over, and the daylight is near, so let us discard the deeds of darkness and put on the armor of light. Let us walk with decency, as in the daylight: not in carousing and drunkenness; not in sexual impurity and promiscuity; not in quarreling and jealousy. But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no plans to satisfy the fleshly desires. (Rom 13:11-14)
God has not intended for His people to sleep their lives away. He has called them to be sober. Even if Jesus delays His coming, the motivation to live faithfully still exists.
They take their faith seriously. Those who fail to take their Christianity seriously need to carefully consider Paul's instruction in this passage. The imagery portrayed by his use of darkness and light is telling. Christians are radically different from non-Christians. "Since we belong to the day," Paul argues, "we must be serious and put the armor of faith and love on our chests, and put on a helmet of the hope of salvation" (5:8). To paraphrase: "If we say that we are Christians, then let's get serious about it!" Commenting on this verse, Calvin describes how seriously Christians must view their faith:
139 Casting off the cares of the world, which burden us because of their weight, and throwing off base lusts, let us rise up to heaven with freedom and alacrity. It is spiritual sobriety when we use this world so sparingly and temperately that we are not entangled in its allurements. (Calvin, 1 and 2 Thessalonians, 53)
Just as the soldier avoids the affairs of civilian life, so also the Christian avoids the allurements of the world (2 Tim 2:4). The way that some Christians mess around with worldly allurements makes us wonder how seriously they take their faith.
In verse 8 Paul suggests that the Christian faith is a battle. By employing the imagery of a soldier's armor, he challenges the Christian to prepare for this battle. A soldier who recognizes the dangers of the battlefield would never venture into combat without being prepared. In the same way, believers who take their faith seriously understand the importance of spiritual preparation. The picture that Paul paints here is similar to the one he used to describe the nature of a Christian's warfare in Ephesians 6:10-18. The fact that he instructs the Thessalonians to "put on" this armor indicates that such an act requires discipline.
Concerning the purpose of this armor, Paul identifies two areas of great vulnerability for the Christian: the heart and the head. The Christian virtues of faith, love, and hope are the three defenses available to the believer. Faith and love form the breastplate that protects the heart, and hope is the helmet that protects the head (5:8). Faith reflects confidence. Love declares loyalty. Hope provides security. This triumvirate of Christian virtues forms the essence of Christianity. Believe what God says by faith; do what God requires out of love; and trust what God promises because of hope. Paul therefore encourages the Thessalonians to guard their hearts and their heads by remembering their relationship with Christ.
Peter gave a struggling group of believers a similar reminder when he wrote, "Honor the Messiah as Lord in your hearts. Always be ready to give a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you" (1 Pet 3:15). A settled heart will always produce a steadfast hope. When we believe God by faith and respond to Him out of love, the natural outcome is a life filled with hope. For the Christian, hope is not wishful thinking; it is a steadfast conviction that God will always keep His word. If we believe God enough to obey what He commands, then we will also believe Him enough to never lose hope. Considering the Thessalonians' confusion, Paul was telling them to look past the trials 140of the present and see the hope of the future. This, however, would be impossible if they did not "put on" the armor of faith, love, and hope. Usually the first things to go when we get discouraged are the very things that you need to keep you from getting discouraged in the first place. If we want to live in hope, then we must take our faith seriously.
God's Deliverance Comes
1 Thessalonians 5:9-11
If you have ever had the unfortunate experience of being pulled over by a policeman then you know the full range of emotions that sweep over you when you see the blue lights in your rearview mirror. Surprise, frustration, and guilt might be a few words to describe these emotions. Of course, you probably could add a few more of your own. Now think about the different emotions that you experienced when the policeman told you that he was not going to give you a ticket. Can you say, "RELIEF"? Maybe you actually deserved the ticket, and maybe you did not, but the response that you received from the policeman was not what you were expecting.
Paul has been addressing some very difficult issues in this section of Thessalonians. As already noted, end times passages like this often create more questions than they answer. However, amid the complexities of this text are some very plain and sobering truths. One of these truths is that God will pour out His righteous judgment on those who walk in darkness. This judgment will come surprisingly, swiftly, and inescapably (5:2-4). This somber warning troubled the Thessalonians. Their initial concerns about the Day of the Lord were what prompted Paul to write this in the first place. Now after hearing how terrible this day would be, they had to be wondering if they would be able to endure it. The warning lights were flashing and judgment day was coming. Against this backdrop, Paul's words in verse 9 must have brought them great relief: "For God did not appoint us to wrath, but to obtain salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ." With a few strokes of his pen he gave them reassuring words of comfort, hope, and peace.
They Are Delivered From Wrath (1 Thess 5:9a)
The "wrath" Paul describes in verse 9 could be a wrath of tribulation associated with the Day of the Lord, or it could be a wrath of condemnation associated with hell and final judgment. Either way, we must conclude 141 that this is indeed good news. Having said that, the context seems to favor that Paul has in mind the wrath associated with the Day of the Lord (5:1-3). The Thessalonians clearly knew that Christ had pardoned their sin, purchased their redemption, and delivered them from death (1:4-5). Their present struggles do not appear to be related to questions about their eternal destiny. As the letter reveals, their present struggles were related to questions about future events, namely, the destiny of their dead friends and the coming Day of the Lord. Paul's purpose was to give them enough knowledge of future events to bring them comfort and encouragement (4:18; 5:11). Clearly those who walk in darkness will experience the sudden and inescapable wrath of God (5:3; Rom 1:18). Conversely, those who walk in light will "obtain salvation." He reassures them that they have a different destiny than that of an unbelieving world. They were "appointed" for salvation through Christ.
Before moving on, consider the implications of verse 9 as they relate to Paul's discussion about Christ's return in 4:13-18. Although there is far from universal agreement concerning how to interpret these texts, for us to consider how the two passages fit together is important. Generally speaking, there are two ways to view this: (1) 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 refers to the rapture of the church prior to the Day of the Lord; (2) 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 speaks of the rapture of the church followingthe Day of the Lord. Although some of these issues have already been introduced, let's briefly reconsider each as they relate to Paul's statement about God's wrath.
(1) Deliverance from wrath points to the rapture of the church. Those who maintain this view conclude that since the church will be raptured prior to the unfurling of God's wrath (4:13-18), Christians will miss the Day of the Lord. For them, Paul's statement that "God did not appoint us to wrath" is directed toward the Thessalonians' concerns about the Day of the Lord. His message to them is that their fears are unfounded because Christ will come for them beforethis day occurs. This view seems to fit Paul's theme of encouragement (4:18; 5:11). It also appears to be very similar to Jesus' promise to keep His church "from the hour of testing that is going to come over the whole world" (Rev 3:10). This does not mean that no Christians will experience the Day of the Lord. Clearly, there will be those who will begin to follow the Lord during this time (Rev 6:11; 7:2-4; 13:7-8; 14:13). However, the purpose of Paul's statement in verse 9 is to show the Thessalonians that God's special plans for His people do not include the Day of the Lord.
142(2) The church will experience the Day of the Lord. Those who believe that the church will go through the Day of the Lord view 4:13-18 differently. For them, Christ will come for His church following the Day of the Lord. They argue that deliverance from wrath in verse 9 does not speak of the rapture but of the work of Christ in salvation. Since Paul clearly mentions both salvation and wrath together, the logical reading of the text would point to God's deliverance from His ultimate wrath—hell. Additionally, the biblical record clearly shows how God supernaturally protects His people in the midst of trials (e.g., the plagues in Egypt). So God is more than capable of caring for His people during the outpouring of His wrath during the Day of the Lord.
To be sure, not everyone agrees on these issues. Oh, that Paul were more specific in his instruction! However, the main tenets of his teaching are unambiguous. On these tenets there is consistency: Jesus is coming again; the Day of the Lord will bring God's judgment and vindicate God's people; and Jesus delivers His children from wrath. The church should be encouraged by these promises.
They Are Delivered From Sin (1 Thess 5:9b-10)
Verses 9b-10 would be encouraging if they were read alone, but when you consider these verses in the context of the entire passage, they take on a more profound sense of meaning. Leon Morris provides an important insight that will help you to see this passage in its proper light:
One of the things that gave salvation so full a meaning to New Testament Christians was that they were sure of the wrath of God, and knew that Christ had rescued them from a terrible fate. In modern days men are often prone to take Christianity lightly because they have emptied the wrath of its content. To remove the wrath of God from the scene is to rob life of a good deal of its serious purpose. (Morris, Epistles of Paul, 95-96)
You will never fully appreciate what Christ has done for you until you first grasp why He had to die. Paul says that Jesus "died for us" (5:10; emphasis added). He became your substitute and died in your place. He did this so that you could obtain salvation (5:9b). Apart from His death "for us," we stand guilty before God as "children under wrath" (Eph 2:3). Jesus' death delivers us from what we rightly deserve—judgment. Morris' statement is so true. Until you recognize how hopelessly 143doomed you are apart from Christ, you will never fully appreciate how miraculous the cross of Christ really is.
Bringing this back to the Thessalonians, we can now see how profoundly encouraging Paul's words would be. He gives them the hope they were looking for. "Whether we are awake or sleep," he writes, "we will live together with Him" (5:10). This single statement answers their troubling questions. He is saying to them in the clearest way possible, "If you die [sleep], you will be with Jesus. And if you are alive [awake] when He comes, you will be with Jesus." Everyone who belongs to Him will one day be with Him. Jesus Himself gave His followers this promise:
My sheep hear My voice, I know them, and they follow Me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish—ever! No one will snatch them out of My hand. My Father, who has given them to Me, is greater than all. No one is able to snatch them out of the Father's hand. (John 10:27-29)
They Are Delivered From Discouragement (1 Thess 5:11)
Paul adds his exclamation point to the end of this passage with the statement, "Therefore encourage one another and build each other up as you are already doing" (5:11). If these words sound familiar, they are. Paul used the same words at the end of chapter 4. In both texts Paul begins by addressing the Thessalonians' confusion about future events and ends with a strong note of exhortation (4:18; 5:11). Again, Paul gives them truth in order to bring them from confusion to confidence. A strong dose of God's Word is always the appropriate remedy for a confused and troubled heart.
How unfortunate it is that passages like this often create more confusion than they provide encouragement. It's easy to get caught up in debates about signs and seasons. However, the true test of whether we get it is not that we gathered all the facts but ultimately whether or not we get the point. And the point of this passage from beginning to end is that our only hope is Jesus.
Let's conclude by considering three practical ways that a passage like this can translate from the page of Scripture to the heart of a Christian.
God has called the church to comfort and not to conflict. Like the Thessalonians, we need to wake up, to sober up, and to look up. We 144have work to do and a Savior to please. It's time to lay aside petty disputes and silly disagreements. You and I cannot possibly be building one another up if we are constantly tearing one another down.
We have a limited opportunity to make a maximum impact. If we truly believe that Jesus' coming is imminent, then we will desire to make every moment count. The time to do something significant for God is now. Allow Him to show you what your task is, and don't delay when He reveals it to you. We were created for far more than most people realize. May God plant in you an insatiable desire to find out what your calling is, and may you not rest until you find it.
God provides the security, but you must take the risks. If you have any question about your future as a Christian then you need to listen again to Paul's statement: "For God did not appoint us to wrath, but to obtain salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us, so that whether we are awake or asleep, we will live together with Him" (5:9-10). How is that for maximum security? Life is too short to play it safe. Mark Batterson gets it right when he asserts,
Faith is the willingness to look foolish. Noah looked foolish building a boat in the middle of a desert. The Israelite army looked foolish marching around Jericho blowing trumpets. A shepherd boy named David looked foolish charging a giant with a slingshot. The Magi looked foolish tracking a star to Timbuktu. Peter looked foolish getting out of a boat in the middle of the Sea of Galilee. And Jesus looked foolish wearing a crown of thorns. But the results speak for themselves. Noah was saved from the flood; the walls came tumbling down; David defeated Goliath; the Magi discovered the Messiah; Peter walked on water; and Jesus was crowned King of kings. (Batterson, Circle Maker, 64-65)
With God, risk taking is not a foolish leap into the unknown, it is a bold step into a life of total dependence on Him.
Reflect and Discuss
- How are the questions and concerns that prompted Paul to write this passage for the Thessalonians similar to questions Christians have today?
- What are the promise and threat implied by the "Day of the Lord"?
- 145Why doesn't Paul go into details about the "times and the seasons"? How do you think knowing the exact hour of Jesus' return would affect people?
- How does Paul contrast the fates of believers and unbelievers in this passage?
- Explain how a firm hope in the future will enable you to live confidently today.
- How does the hope of Christ's coming encourage Christians to live soberly and seriously?
- How would you explain to a child that faith, love, and hope are like armor that protects her head and heart?
- What does Paul mean by the statement, "God did not appoint us to wrath"? What are some ways in which Christians have viewed this statement?
- What is the connection between 4:13-18 and 5:1-11?
- What is the ultimate point of this passage? How does this message speak to the church today?