“Since You are Children of the Day, the Second Coming Should not Surprise You Like a Thief in the Night”
As dual citizens – sojourners and exiles in this world, but members of God’s holy nation – you are to be ready, living holy and godly lives, using the weapons of faith, love and hope so you may persevere until he comes. Be assured that Christ will complete the good work he has begun in you because he has already translated you “out of darkness into his marvelous light.”
Readings: Ezekiel 13:8-16; Matthew 24:36-44; 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11 (text)
February 27, 2011
Early last week, a friend told to me that he saw a striking commercial on the back of a bus in Manila. It says something like this: “May 21, 2011: The End of the World. Cry Out to God!”
A Bible teacher, well-known in Reformed circles, has been predicting for some years now that the “Rapture,” the day that Christ will return to snatch his people away from the earth, will occur less than three months away. Then on October 21, 2011, he will come again for a third and final time to destroy the world. He has been teaching that the age of the church had already ended, so all believers must leave their churches and assemble together in their homes for Bible study, prayer and fellowship.
But doesn’t this contradict the Bible’s teachings in several places that we cannot know the day nor the hour of Christ’s return? For example, in Mark 13:32, Jesus warns us, “But concerning that day or that hour, no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father” (cf Matt 24:36; Acts 1:7; Zech 14:7). To be sure, in several Old Testament events, God revealed to his people the exact day on which he will pour out his wrath on unbelievers. Noah was given seven days (Gen 7:4). Lot and his family were warned in advance of the coming destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah (Gen 19:15). And before sending the plagues to Egypt, God told Moses exactly what day and what kind of plagues he will send (Exod 9:5; 9:18; 10:4). And Jonah was given 40 days (Jon 3:4).
But clearly, the Bible tells us that the day of Christ’s return would not be revealed to anyone. Not even Jesus, nor the angels in heaven, but only the Father in heaven knows when that day would be.
Our text is similar to the preceding verses in 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18. In those verses, Paul dealt with the Thessalonians’ concern for their loved ones who had died in Christ. Would they also participate in the resurrection and the Second Coming? Paul assures them that the dead in Christ would be included. In 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11, Paul now deals with those believers who are living, assuring them that they too would participate in the day of the Lord. Why does Paul write to them concerning their fate as believers? It seems that they were either worried that they might not be ready for the day of the Lord, or were not sure if they would indeed be with Christ when he returns. They asked Paul about the “times and the seasons” when this day would happen, the same question the disciples of Jesus posed to him before he ascended into heaven, and which he answered, “It is not for you to know times or seasons that the Father has fixed by his own authority” (Acts 1:7).
Apparently, when Paul was in Thessalonica, he had taught them about the Second Coming, but not fully, since his mission was cut short when unbelieving Jews drove him away. This is why Paul tells them that they “have no need to have anything written” to them. They were “fully aware” of this future event.
So in these verses, Paul writes about this unfinished business of explaining to them in more detail the events concerning the “day of the Lord.” This phrase is commonly used by the Old Testament prophets. For example, Joel 1:15 says, “Alas for the day! For the day of the Lord is near, and as destruction from the Almighty it comes.” It is the day when the proud will be brought low (Isa 2:12). It is a day of God’s wrath when sinners will be destroyed (Ezek 7:19: Isa 13:9). It will be “a time of doom for the nations” (Ezek 30:3). Even Jesus calls it a “day of judgment” more severe than Sodom and Gomorrah’s destruction (Matt 10:15). And Paul calls it a “day of wrath” (Rom 2:5).
But for believers, it is the great day of resurrection (John 6:39) and of being gathered to Christ (Matt 24:31). It is a day of boasting (2 Cor 1:14), because Christ’s work of salvation in them will be completed (Phil 1:6), and he will make them “pure and blameless” (Phil 1:10). It is the great day of salvation, “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved” (Joel 2:32).
Such is Paul’s assurance to the Thessalonians. For unbelievers who are children of darkness and night, the Second Coming is a day of surprise and sleeping. In contrast, for believers who are children of light and day, the day of Christ means a day of great expectations and readiness.
Children of Night: Surprised and Unprepared
Throughout this text, Paul contrasts believers with unbelievers in their knowledge and attitude towards the Second Coming. Christians are well aware of the events of the Second Coming: a day of salvation for them, and a day of judgment for others. Unbelievers have some knowledge of it, but only because God has written the law in their hearts and are dimly aware of a coming day of God’s judgment against all evildoers. Because Christians believe that Jesus will return in great glory to take his people to heaven, they live as people awaiting their King’s return. On the other hand, non-Christians reject this knowledge and continue with their unrepentant, worldly lives as if there’s no tomorrow.
Remember the wicked people in Noah’s day? God had condemned mankind to destruction by a flood because “The LORD saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually” (Gen 6:5). The people of the earth had no regard for God and his commandments. Jesus describes the same uncaring attitude that he will find on earth when he returns,
For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day when Noah entered the ark, and they were unaware until the flood came and swept them all away, so will be the coming of the Son of Man (Matt 24:38-39).
People will be living their normal daily lives as if the world will continue for a thousand more years. They will be eating at the malls and drinking and making merry at videoke bars. They will be working their jobs to make as much money as they can in order to maintain their worldly pleasures. Evildoers will continue to murder, commit sexual immorality, steal, lie and covet every material possession and pleasure that they want. Politicians will continue to deceive, steal from the people, and kill their enemies. Celebrities will continue in their gross sexual immorality and filthy rich lifestyles. When Jesus returns, will he find faith in the world? For the most part, the answer is no.
Not only will unbelievers continue in their wickedness, but their leaders would proclaim, “Peace! Security! Prosperity!” During the first century A.D., the Roman caesars proclaimed a Pax Romana, a time of peace and prosperity in the empire. They printed coins which says pax Augusti (“the peace of Augustus”). They erected monuments and distributed announcements and literature to celebrate the peace and prosperity of the empire. Their politicians and writers gloried in this peace. But it is not only peace that they celebrated; they also had the word “security” in these coins, monuments and proclamations. They provided security for all the peoples of the entire Roman world. 1
The Old Testament Israelites also had leaders who assured the people of peace and security. Their false prophets shouted, “Peace, peace” when there was no peace (Jer 6:14). They greeted their people, “It shall be well with you. No disaster shall come upon you” (Jer 23:17). Ezekiel condemned these false prophets as those who whitewash weak and rundown walls to make it look strong. They proclaimed peace, prosperity and security to the people, when in reality, disaster was looming because of their idolatry and ungodliness. A Babylonian storm would soon come with a flood, hailstones, and wind, and the whitewashed wall would crumble and the nation destroyed (Ezek 13:8-16).
How tragic it is for many churches whose pastors proclaim a gospel of prosperity! They announce a false gospel of health and wealth, forgetting that Christ and the apostles preached the gospel of the cross of Christ. They proclaim only a half-gospel of God’s love and compassion, exhorting people to come to a God who would solve all their financial and health problems. They proclaim a salvation from lack of self-esteem and broken relationships, but not salvation from sin, Satan and God’s wrathful Day of Judgment.
Destruction will come upon them suddenly and unexpectedly, and they will be unprepared. Paul uses a couple of analogies for the suddenness of this great day. First, he illustrates with a pregnant woman who knows when her due date is, but she really cannot pinpoint the exact day and hour when her labor pains would start. Although she prepares for that day and hour by watching signs in her body, labor pains can come at any moment.
Second, he equates the unexpectedness of the Second Coming with a “thief in the night.” During my college days, evangelism was done in youth groups by terrorizing us with the movie “A Thief in the Night.” This movie tells of a girl who dreams that she woke up one day and her husband and millions of people in the whole world are missing. She then tries to avoid being marked with “666,” but she dies trying to escape from the forces of the Antichrist. “The Thief in the Night” has done more in propagating the erroneous“Secret Rapture” teaching than any book, speaker, or film.
But why does Paul paint a picture of the Second Coming as the coming of a thief in the night? In Scripture, a thief is always painted as one who comes unexpectedly of one who is unwelcome. Jesus exhorts his disciples to be prepared for his coming, “if the master of the house had known at what hour the thief was coming, he would not have left his house to be broken into. You also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect” (Luke 12:39-40). As well, Peter says, “the day of the Lord will come like a thief” (2 Pet 3:10).
In relation to a thief in the night, Paul adds another contrast between believers and unbelievers: light and darkness, day and night. Paul says unbelievers are children of darkness and night, using a common metaphor for the dominion of evil and rebellion against God. The day of the Lord is described as a day of darkness and gloom and no light (Amos 5:20). Jesus says that on the day of his coming, “the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light” (Matt 24:29). The day of judgment is a day of darkness for people who “have neither knowledge nor understanding, [who] walk about in darkness” (Psa 82:5).
What does walking in darkness mean? Like the wicked thief in the night, people who walk in darkness do not have Christ the light of the world (John 8:12). They grope around in the darkness, not knowing where they’re going (John 12:35). They are sons of disobedience who are under God’s wrath, performing “unfruitful works of darkness” (Eph 5:6, 11)””which include sexual immorality, impurity, covetousness, filthiness, foolish talk, and crude joking (Eph 5:3-5)””instead of the fruits of the Spirit. They have no fellowship with God (1 John 1:6). They are “darkened in their understanding” (Eph 4:18), “so that they cannot see” (Rom 11:10).
Paul further illustrates the unpreparedness of people in darkness with two analogies: sleeping and getting drunk. People sleep at night, not prepared for the coming of the thief in the night. A person with no care in his life sleep soundly at night and do not even know that a thief has broken into and plundered his house while he was sleeping. When we sleep, our eyes are closed, and we cannot see. Thus, sleeping is also a metaphor for spiritual blindness, as when God declares his judgment against Israel in Isaiah 29:10, “For the LORD has poured out upon you a spirit of deep sleep, and has closed your eyes (the prophets).” And those who go on a drinking binge with friends in street corners, in a sari-sari store, or in a night club, usually get drunk at night. These ungodly works are usually done at night.
Therefore, Paul says, like the people in the days of Noah and of Sodom and Gomorrah, rebellious people “will not escape” the day of the Lord, Judgment Day, a day of darkness and wrath. In contrast, believers–children of day and of light””are expectant people, ready for the Second Coming of Christ.
Children of the Day: Expecting and Prepared
In verse 4, Paul contrasts the godly from the ungodly, saying, “But you…” By this he says that the Thessalonian believers are not in darkness because they are children of light and children of the day. Therefore, unlike the rebellious people of the world, Christians are not to be overtaken unawares and unprepared by the coming of Christ. For believers, “the darkness is passing away and the true light is already shining” in their hearts (1 John 2:8). Paul is not saying that believers would know the day or the hour when Christ would return, but that believers would not be caught unsuspecting and unprepared by his return.
Because we know about and are assured of the Second Coming, we are like the servant who is always ready for the return of his Master. His house and his financial affairs are always in order. We are like the doorkeeper who are always awake, ready for the arrival of the owner of the house. He will not be caught napping, like many security guards in buildings and in gated communities whom we often see falling asleep, especially during the late hours of night. We are like the expectant mother, always ready for the arrival of her infant child into this world, always bracing for the onset of labor pains at any moment during the few days of her pregnancy.
For believers, the Second Coming is not a day of darkness, gloom, judgment, and gnashing of teeth. Instead, it is a day of light, when Christ comes in great glory, and believers “shall shine like the brightness of the sky above … like the stars forever and ever” (Dan 12:3). It is a day that turns our tears of mourning into dancing with joy. On that day, the Lord will tell his people, “Rejoice and exult with all your heart” (Zeph 3:14). Instead of judgment and wrath, it is a day of salvation, “It will be said on that day, ‘Behold, this is our God; we have waited for him, that he might save us. This is the Lord; we have waited for him; let us be glad and rejoice in his salvation’” (Isa 25:9). On that day, Christ will gather all his saints in heaven, and there will be a great feast, eating and drinking without getting gorged with junk food and senseless in drunken stupor with bad alcohol. It will be a great feast celebrating the consummation of the marriage of Christ to his holy bride, the Church, with the best food and wine.
How do we show that we are children of the day? We are not to sleep and not get drunk, but we are to be sober. Being sober-minded means having self-control, the opposite characteristic of those who are drunk. What do sober-minded Christians do? They are ever watchful for two things: (1) Satan’s temptations and deceptions, “Be sober-minded; be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour” (1 Pet 5:8); and (2) Christ’s return, “waiting for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ” (Tit 2:13).
Paul says that as children of light, we are always at war against the evil children of darkness, “For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against ”¦ the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Eph 6:12). Thus, our weapons of warfare are spiritual weapons, “the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation” (1 Thess 5:8). Faith, love and hope are again mentioned here as those things that give believers strength and comfort while they await the Lord’s return (cf 1 Cor 13:13; 1 Thess 1:3). The hope that sustains and strengthens them in this daily battle against temptations and sufferings is that they are not destined for wrath but for salvation (verse 9).
Thus, the Thessalonian believers as well as Christians today like you are to be motivated to live holy lives by the Second Coming. After revealing that the creation we know will be cleansed by fire when Christ returns, Peter exhorts you to live holy and godly lives, “what sort of people ought you to be in lives of holiness and godliness, waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God?” (2 Pet 3:11-12).
Dear brothers and sisters in Christ, just as Paul ended the previous chapter with an exhortation to the Thessalonian believers, “Therefore encourage one another with these words” (1 Thess 4:18), here he has a similar word, “Therefore encourage one another and build one another up, just as you are doing” (1 Thess 5:11). With what assurance does he leave his brethren who were doubting their inclusion in the glorious events of the Day of the Lord? He give this declaration, “For God has not destined us for wrath, but to obtain salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ” (verse 10).
In speaking of God’s wrath, Paul is not at all referring to what is popular today as the great tribulation period, but of the wrath he will pour out on unbelievers on the Judgment Day, as he also writes to the Roman church, “But because of your hard and impenitent heart you are storing up wrath for yourself on the day of wrath when God”™s righteous judgment will be revealed” (Rom 2:5). The Old Testament also relates God’s wrath with Judgment Day, “A day of wrath is that day, a day of distress and anguish, a day of ruin and devastation ”¦ for a full and sudden end he will make of all the inhabitants of the earth” (Zeph 1:15,18). All throughout Scripture, the wrath of God is undeniably connected with the coming end of the world (e.g., Psa 110:5; Prov 11:4; Rev 6:15-17, 14:9).
However, Paul was not telling them that they will not suffer in this world. In fact, one of the reasons why he writes to them is to encourage them in their afflictions and sufferings at the hands of unbelievers. In contrast to his assurance that they were not destined for wrath, he tells them earlier that they were destined for sufferings, “For you yourselves know that we are destined for this. For when we were with you, we kept telling you beforehand that we were to suffer affliction …” (1 Thess 3:3-4)
The day of the Second Coming of Christ is not to be cause for speculation. Contrary to predictions of well-known authors or teachers, no one will ever know when that day would come. Instead, you are commanded to be expectant and ready for the Second Coming. If he tarries and we die before he comes, it should not make a difference in the way we live. You are to be watchful for his return so you are not surprised by the return of Christ. As dual citizens””sojourners and exiles in this world, but members of God’s holy nation””you are to be ready, living holy and godly lives, using the weapons of faith, love and hope so you may persevere until he comes. Be assured that Christ will complete the good work he has begun in you because he has already translated you “out of darkness into his marvelous light” (1 Pet 2:9).
- G. K. Beale and D. A. Carson, Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2007), 881. ⇧