A Thief in the Night
Scripture: 1 Thessalonians 5:1–10
1 Now concerning the times and the seasons, brothers, you have no need to have anything written to you. 2 For you yourselves are fully aware that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night. 3 While people are saying, “There is peace and security,” then sudden destruction will come upon them as labor pains come upon a pregnant woman, and they will not escape. 4 But you are not in darkness, brothers, for that day to surprise you like a thief. 5 For you are all children of light, children of the day. We are not of the night or of the darkness. 6 So then let us not sleep, as others do, but let us keep awake and be sober. 7 For those who sleep, sleep at night, and those who get drunk, are drunk at night. 8 But since we belong to the day, let us be sober, having put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation. 9 For God has not destined us for wrath, but to obtain salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, 10 who died for us so that whether we are awake or asleep we might live with him.
Friday, July 24, 2020. It was 4:15 a.m. I had been up for 15 minutes when our doorbell rang. I waited for a few long seconds, trying to decide what I should do. Then it rang again. I slowly walked to the door, trying not to make a sound. The doorbell rang a third time. I looked out the door hole but couldn’t see anything. I never seem to be able to see anything out of a door hole.
A few seconds later, the doorbell on the south side of my house rang. Somebody was trying to get my attention. I walked more quickly to that door, and my heart rate was getting quicker, too. When I got to the door, I could see through the closed blinds that someone was still standing there. I called out, “Who is it?” I waited for an answer.
In our passage this morning, the Apostle Paul reminds us that the day of the Lord’s return will be “like a thief in the night” (v. 2). It will be a surprise, like the sound of your doorbell ringing at 4:00 in the morning. And although this is the moment the Christian is waiting for, this is not a day to be taken lightly. It is a sobering, dare I say scary, event. Like a thief in the night.
The Second Coming of Jesus is not just a moment we should look forward to; it is also the hope around which our entire lives should be oriented. Let us consider this morning the importance of Christ’s return, the terror of it, and how we can be prepared for when he comes.
The Importance of Christ’s Return
First, let’s remember the importance of Christ’s return, how significant this event is to Christian faith and doctrine.
Second Coming Ambition
We learned last week that the ultimate goal for the Christian is not what is today popularly called “heaven,” but rather resurrection. It is not “going to heaven” which should most captivate our imagination, but “heaven” coming to earth that is the great hope of the gospel and the crowning moment of all that Christianity promises. When the Lord Jesus returns, “the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will always be with the Lord” (1 Thess 4:16-17).
So it is the Second Coming of Jesus that holds the great goal and promise of Christianity. And to experience that event is what ought to be our greatest ambition. It is what we ought to live for! Like an athlete aiming for the championship, the Christian is aiming for the Second Coming of Jesus. Paul wrote in Philippians 3, that every day of his life was about knowing Jesus and his power in suffering and death so “that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead” (Phil 3:10-11).
The resurrection of the dead happens at the Second Coming, and it is what we ought to most look forward to and hope for. The Second Coming is also when Christ will restore his kingdom on earth just as it is in heaven. So if we are to “seek first the kingdom of God” (Matt 6:33), then we should always be seeking the Lord’s return.
The Second Coming is not only resurrection day for all who are united to Christ, not only the full establishment of the kingdom of God on earth, it is also what the Bible calls “the end of the age” (Matt 24:3). A sixteenth-century English translation of the Bible (Douay-Rheims) renders it “the consummation of all things.” Could there be a more spectacular day than this, when all of human history is done according to the sovereign decree of God?
When Will It Be?
For any special day that we are waiting for, the normal question to ask is, “When?” or “How long?” That’s what we find the Thessalonian Christians have asked Paul. They want to know if there is anything else he can say about when it is all going to happen. What are “the times and the seasons” which will help us decipher the moment in which our Lord will return?
Now Jesus himself made it plain that no one knows the day or the hour of his return (Matt 24:36). Before he ascended into heaven, he told his disciples, “It is not for you to know times or seasons that the Father has fixed by his own authority” (Acts 1:7). But it is natural that followers of Jesus would ask such a question. The Bible even tells us that the martyrs in heaven cry out with a loud voice, “O Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long before you will judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth?” (Rev 6:10).
It sure helps to have some idea, when you are in a moment of waiting, how much longer you will have to wait. Our computers show us what percent remains in the download or the update. That helps. It is maddening to sit in the lobby of your doctor’s office and not know if it will be your turn in 2 minutes or if you’ll be waiting for 20 more. When we are on a journey with our kids, they will undoubtedly ask (several times over!), “Are we there yet? How much longer?” Waiting is hard, especially when you don’t know how much longer you have to wait.
Prepare for the Day
But there is no answer to “when” it will all take place. Paul reminds the Thessalonians that they are “fully aware that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night” (v. 2). In other words, you can’t know when. God does not want us to know when. But just because we must remain ignorant about the “when” of the Second Coming, does not mean we are to be careless about that day.
Paul’s answer demonstrates that he had taught on this subject during his brief stay in Thessalonica. He did not need to tell these believers anything new. They had been made “fully aware” of this Christian doctrine. And this fact alone demonstrates that some basic knowledge about the Second Coming of Christ is foundational and fundamental to the gospel story. Something is off when Christians do not look toward the Second Coming as their great hope. “The appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ” is, Paul tells Titus, “our blessed hope” (Titus 2:13). Something is also off when a Christian’s understanding of the Second Coming is built on hyped up speculation rather than on what the Word of God actually says.
Let us not fall into the same trap. We cannot know when it will come, but it will come, and we must be prepared for it when it does.
The Terror of Christ’s Return
You see, if the Lord Jesus will return “like a thief in the night,” then his return is not only going to be a surprise; it will also be a terror. While for the Christian the Second Coming is a great hope, the Bible says that the return of Jesus will be a great horror to countless others. We must be ready!
The Day of the Lord
You’ll notice that the Second Coming is here called “the day of the Lord.” The title comes from the Old Testament where it basically refers to the time when God would “avenge himself on his foes” (Jer 46:10). Thus, the Second Coming of Christ, while a day of celebration for the people of God, is equally a day of dread for those who are God’s enemies. The prophet Joel said, “Alas for the day! For the day of the LORD is near, and as destruction from the Almighty it comes” (Joel 1:15).
But no one can know when that day will come. That’s agonizing for the Christian who is so looking forward to that day. But far worse will it be for the non-Christian, who is not anticipating the day, is not preparing for the day.
It may not be popular any more to talk about judgment day, and we may still be recovering from a lot of bad theology about God’s wrath. But we will not cherish God’s grace and we will not value the salvation he has won for us if we throw away the reality of God’s righteous anger. The consummation of God’s kingdom will not be a treasure until the day of the Lord is a terror. There must be contrast in order to see the contours of God’s grace.
False Peace, False Security
The day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night, for it will come while people are saying, “There is peace and security.” That’s what makes for the terror of the thief.
We should not take these words as a clue for deciphering the moment of Christ’s return. The Bible is not here saying that when there is finally world peace or some new world order that that is when we can expect the Lord to return. At no time in history has everyone in the world said, “There is peace and security.” And we are not being told that attempts at such things are a sign of the end of the world.
But what we are told is that the day of the Lord will come at a time when many people will not expect it, when it seems like things are getting along just fine without God. Paul’s original audience lived at such a time. Under Caesar Augustus and the *pax Romana*, “peace and safety” became a common refrain in the city streets. The day of the Lord for so many will not come as a relief but as a catastrophic disaster. Like a thief in the night.
In verse 3, Paul changes the metaphor. Rather than a thief in the night, he says that when the Lord returns, “sudden destruction will come . . . as labor pains come upon a pregnant woman.” Now I’ve seen my wife go through those labor pains on four different occasions, and let me say, it doesn’t look very fun!
But in our day of advanced medicine, we don’t quite get the effect that Paul’s original audience would have had when they read this metaphor. Death at childbirth may not be so common in the United States, but in the ancient world, and in many other countries today, it is yet an all-too-common occurrence. On many an ancient tombstone the cause of death is simply said to have been “labor pains.” It is not pain, but death, a sudden and tragic death, that Paul says will be the experience on the day of Christ’s return. It will be a day of no escape.
The Preparation for Christ’s Return
Now I have no desire to be overly dramatic here. But the problem is that we have advanced medical care available to us, and we have contract-free security systems and cameras that broadcast to our smartphones, so we don’t fear labor or the thief in the night as much as they would have in the first century. It’s a problem because we can have such a sense of peace and security that we simply are not prepared for Christ’s return. So we speak of it glibly when we ought to speak of it soberly.
The Second Coming of Jesus is our blessed hope, but it is not a hope to be taken casually. The prophet Amos warned:
Woe to you who desire the day of the LORD!
Why would you have the day of the LORD?
It is darkness, and not light,
as if a man fled from a lion,
and a bear met him,
or went into the house and leaned his hand against the wall,
and a serpent bit him. (Amos 5:18-19)
So we must be ready. We must be prepared.
Children of Light
Having spoken of the dread that will surround our Lord’s return for many, Paul assures the Thessalonians in verses 4-5, “But you are not in darkness, brothers, for that day to surprise you like a thief. For you are all children of light, children of the day.” Jesus, who is called the “light of the world” (Jn 8:12), said that if we “believe in the light” we will “become sons of light” (Jn 12:36). Through faith in Jesus, we have been brought out of darkness into light. There is no need to fear the thief in the night if you are not in the night.
But notice that our Christian identity is not the end of our preparation but only the beginning. Verse 6 begins with the words, “so then,” indicating an inference from what has just been said as well as a transition to a new emphasis. Those who will be ready for the Lord’s return hold on to the truth of what has just been declared and to the implications that follow from it.
What follows is the exhortation to “not sleep” but to “keep awake,” to not “get drunk” but to “be sober” (vv. 6-7). There are “moral implications” for being a child of the light, certain expectations for how we ought to live. The “fundamental aspect of Christian ethics” is here delineated: what we are dictates how we must live. And these moral implications are not irrelevant to our preparations for the Lord’s return.
Can we hold these together? You know the deadly miscalculation of thinking you can prepare for judgment day by your morality. It is only by God’s grace, through faith in Jesus Christ, that we can be saved from his wrath. Our good deeds, our moral living, contributes nothing to our salvation.
But it is an equally deadly miscalculation to put your hope in an experience of conversion or the “sinner’s prayer” or even in your baptism or church membership while being ignorant about the sin in our lives (“asleep”) or careless about it (“drunk”). One is the particular temptation of the legalist, who sees the sins of others quite well but cannot see his own sin, while the other is the temptation of the antinomian who does not worry much about sin since, he assumes, God will forgive me anyway.
The Primary Virtues
How then are we to live so as to be prepared for the Lord’s return? In verse 8, Paul speaks of Christian sober living as being equipped for battle, “having put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation.” The emphasis here is on the primary Christian virtues of faith, love, and hope. And here is the best summary to how the Christian is empowered to live and to be ready for the Lord’s return whenever it should come: by maintaining faith in God and his gospel, showing love to one another and to all others, and hoping for our Lord’s return more than anything else.
Which of these virtues needs some attention in your life, Christian?
I do no say that to bring you guilt, but to encourage you. The image of the Christian armor, here and elsewhere (Eph 6:10-18), originates in Isaiah 59:17, where it describes the armor that God himself wears as he goes out to wage war and win the battle. The armor we wear is borrowed armor. It is the armor “of God” (Eph 6:11), God’s armor. We don’t live our lives with any uncertainty about the outcome. We stand on what God has already won for us in the gospel of Jesus Christ. We wear his armor in which he has won the decisive battle.
So we are sure to win as well, verse 9 says, “For God has not destined us for wrath, but to obtain salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ.” Whether we live until his return or experience physical death first (“whether we are awake or asleep”), the death and resurrection of Jesus guarantees that we now live with him (v. 10). We are united to him in this inseparable union (Rom 8:35).
What can separate us from the love of Christ? No tribulation or distress or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword. No thief in the night. We “are more than conquerors through him who loved us” (Rom 8:37).
 In Greek, ἄρα οὖν. See Walter Bauer, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature (BDAG), rev. and ed. Frederick William Danker, 3d ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000), 127.