1 Now on the topic of times and seasons, brothers and sisters, you have no need for anything to be written to you. 2 For you know quite well that the day of the Lord will come in the same way as a thief in the night. 3 Now when they are saying, “There is peace and security,” then sudden destruction comes on them, like labor pains on a pregnant woman, and they will surely not escape. 4 But you, brothers and sisters, are not in the darkness for the day to overtake you like a thief would. 5 For you all are sons of the light and sons of the day. We are not of the night nor of the darkness. 6 So then we must not sleep as the rest, but must stay alert and sober. 7 For those who sleep, sleep at night and those who get drunk are drunk at night. 8 But since we are of the day, we must stay sober by putting on the breastplate of faith and love and as a helmet our hope for salvation. 9 For God did not destine us for wrath but for gaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ. 10 He died for us so that whether we are alert or asleep we will come to life together with him. 11 Therefore encourage one another and build up each other, just as you are in fact doing (1 Thessalonians 5:1-11).2
Somewhat like the old adage, we could probably say, “You can please all of the people some of the time, and some of the people all of the time, but you can’t please all of the people all of the time.” As I approach the subject of the “Day of the Lord,” I have to wonder just how many people my exposition of our text in 1 Thessalonians 5 will please. The reason I say this is that I know there are many wonderful students of Scripture here and that our text has led them to different conclusions. This leads me to begin this message, which deals with the subject of biblical prophecy, with a few introductory comments.
Not everything we feel strongly about is a fundamental of the faith. The strongly-held conclusions over which godly Christians differ in matters of prophecy are seldom fundamentals of the faith. Godly Christians don’t differ over the literal, bodily return of Jesus, the horrors of eternal damnation or the blessings of eternity in the glorious presence of God. Whether the rapture comes before, during, or after the Great Tribulation is not a fundamental of the faith.
Godly Christians differ greatly over matters of biblical prophecy. Godly Christians will differ greatly regarding the interpretation of our text. A number of serious students of Scripture listening to this message today in our church will differ in their understanding of our text. The great heroes of bygone days did not all agree on matters of prophecy.
A significant number of Christians (including preachers and other serious students of Scripture that I know) have changed their minds over time and after further study.
Our differences in our understanding of prophecy should not divide us. We may strongly disagree with another over matters of prophecy, while strongly agreeing in other (more fundamental) matters of doctrine.
Expect those individuals and institutions whose distinctives pertain to matters of biblical prophecy to hold more firmly to their views and to speak on these matters with greater certainty. Our identity tends to be linked to our distinctives, and for some, their prophetic views are their distinctive. We should expect them to hold their views with greater intensity. Obviously, intensity of belief or in communication of that belief doesn’t necessarily mean one is right.3
It is important to recognize the degree to which our preferences affect our interpretations. I would far rather believe in a pre-tribulation rapture, for example, than to believe that Christians (including me) could undergo incredible persecution. We need to remember that God’s ways are not our ways,4 and that much biblical truth is contrary to our preferences. The depravity of man, the doctrine of eternal punishment, and divine sovereignty don’t align themselves with human preferences. The issue is not, “What do I want to believe is true?” but rather, “What does God’s Word declare to be true?”
It is also important to note how much current world events and conditions impact the interpretation of biblical prophecy. After “the war to end all wars (WW I),” it was much easier to think of our world getting better and better, and thus to embrace prophecy which was optimistic about the future of this earth. Such thinking has long since passed, along with the popularity of the interpretations of prophecy which it spawned. It is especially important for Americans to recognize that our experience as Christians has been much more trouble-free than the experience of most Christians, past or present.
Prophecy involves a great deal of what is “unseen.” Biblical prophecy is not written to inform Christians regarding a complete, sequential, unfolding of the future, but is often the revelation of the future that will only be understood in the light of its fulfillment. Biblical prophecy has many “blank places,” to be filled in only as God brings things to His predetermined goals and purposes. It is faith which enables God’s people to “see” (to some degree) what God has promised in the future, to see the “end” without necessarily knowing all the “means.” Prophecy is given, in part, to stretch our faith.
Christians, like all humans, are curious and fascinated with mysteries and the unknown. We are tempted to “fill in the blanks” of biblical prophecy, rather than to live with the unknown. It should be noted that the cults and false teachers seem to gravitate toward those matters which are unclear,5 or about which the Bible is most tight-lipped. We need to be serious in studying that which God has revealed, while respecting the mysteries He has chosen not to reveal (Deuteronomy 29:29).
Biblical prophecy is almost always closely linked to application. The application is usually very clear and a matter of very little debate among evangelical Christians. We would do well to focus on application, rather than on speculation regarding matters that are unclear. We should note that Paul’s emphasis in 1 Thessalonians 4:13—5:11 is on application (see also 2 Peter 3:11-13).
We all seek to “connect the dots” of biblical revelation, so that things make sense to us. Theology is a very noble effort to systematize the teaching of the Bible so that we do not cling to one truth while ignoring (or denying) another. Almost every Christian has adopted some theology in regard to eschatology (prophecy). When we come to a passage like 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11, we view it through the lens of whatever system we have embraced. Let us all be honest enough to admit that no matter what system we may hold, every prophetic system has its problems. There is no perfect (problem-free) prophetic system, while all the others are flawed (as some authors or preachers may imply). Every system has its flaws, and my guess is that once we get to heaven, we will all have to admit that our system (whichever one that might be) didn’t have it all right. That should humble us a bit about our system, and keep us from looking down on those who have chosen another system.
I’ll confess to something here that is probably already obvious: The study of biblical prophecy with the expectation of coming to some confident conclusions (regarding which system of interpretation to embrace) is not my greatest passion in my life or ministry. This is not to say that biblical prophecy is unimportant. It is important. But far too much energy has been spent trying to lay out a neat scheme of events when I believe that this is not the purpose of prophecy. Fulfilled prophecy demonstrates God’s absolute control of human history – what God says, He does; what God promises He fulfills, precisely when and as He promised. Fulfilled prophecy gives us confidence in the Scriptures and assures us that prophecies pertaining to the future will be fulfilled. Prophecy also gives us hope and produces perseverance in difficult days. Prophecy motivates us to trust and obey, and to lay up treasure in heaven, rather than on earth. But this does not require a full-blown prophetic scheme, with all the details and the sequences spelled out. We should not expect to know the exact timing of our Lord’s return. And (in my opinion) we should not spend a great deal of energy trying to refute the prophetic positions of our fellow believers. I guess what I am saying is that a good deal of our personal views and beliefs regarding the future are really convictions rather than clearly revealed truth. And we should know that convictions are not something we debate about or seek to impose on others.6
I should further confess that at this moment I am re-thinking my position on biblical prophecy. As I mentioned earlier, a number of people I know and respect have changed their position after serious study and reflection. Years ago I was teaching in Revelation 3, and I said something like this in a sermon: “The reason why many of you hold to this [a certain prophetic point of view] is probably not because it is so clearly and emphatically taught in Scripture, but because it is the view which is most comfortable to hold.” I then explained my position on that particular teaching and warned that it was possible that in time I might change my mind (which I have).
This leads me to a conviction which guides me in my preaching. I want those who hear me preach to be able to distinguish between those things which I consider fundamental to the faith and those which are not. Some preachers seem to feel as though their every statement must come across as a “thus saith the Lord.” When we read the Bible, we find that there are these kinds of teachings. For example, Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 14:
37 If anyone considers himself a prophet or spiritual person, he should acknowledge that what I write to you is the Lord’s command. 38 If someone does not recognize this, he is not recognized (1 Corinthians 14:37-38).
Earlier in this same epistle, however, Paul clearly distinguishes between his personal convictions and our Lord’s commands:
6 I say this as a concession, not as a command. 7 I wish that everyone was as I am. But each has his own gift from God, one this way, another that. 8 To the unmarried and widows I say that it is best for them to remain as I am. 9 But if they do not have self-control, let them get married. For it is better to marry than to burn with sexual desire. 10 To the married I give this command – not I, but the Lord – a wife should not divorce a husband 11 (but if she does, let her remain unmarried, or be reconciled to her husband), and a husband should not divorce his wife. 12 To the rest I say – I, not the Lord – if a brother has a wife who is not a believer and she is happy to live with him, he should not divorce her (1 Corinthians 7:6-12, emphasis mine).
I believe that the preacher should not only distinguish between his own personal convictions and God’s commands, but that he (not he or she) should give some indication of the level of certainty and importance that a certain teaching should have. In the past, I have heard highly respected men teach some subjects (like the timing of the rapture) with great confidence, as though those who teach otherwise have really missed the obvious teaching of Scripture. The problem with teaching unclear and disputed matters with great confidence is that if someone later hears this same matter taught differently (but perhaps with the same certainty), they may begin to wonder if any scriptural teaching can be held with great certainty. So, this is my long way of saying that when I teach, I try to give some indication of the degree of certainty this matter is given in Scripture. That way, if I change my mind on that matter (which I hope would happen from time to time), people are not disheartened and confused. Okay, so much for confessions and convictions. Now, on to our text.
Most everyone recognizes that the second coming of our Lord is referred to in every chapter of 1 Thessalonians. When we think back over chapters 1-4, we can see how Paul has been preparing us for what he has to say in our text in chapter 5:
9 For people everywhere report how you welcomed us and how you turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God 10 and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead, Jesus our deliverer from the coming wrath (1 Thessalonians 1:9-10, emphasis mine).
While these words contain few details about the outworking of the Second Coming, they do highlight the major elements of the second coming: coming wrath (on sinners), deliverance (of saints from God’s wrath), Jesus, Who is the means of our deliverance, resurrection (of Jesus, and thus of all men, to eternal bliss or eternal torment), our Lord’s appearance from heaven, and waiting for His return (since His coming will not be as soon as some expected it to be).
14 For you became imitators, brothers and sisters, of God’s churches in Christ Jesus that are in Judea, because you too suffered the same things from your own countrymen as they in fact did from the Jews, 15 who killed both the Lord Jesus and the prophets and persecuted us severely. They are displeasing to God and are opposed to all people, 16 because they hinder us from speaking to the Gentiles so that they may be saved. Thus they constantly fill up their measure of sins, but wrath has come upon them completely. 17 But when we were separated from you, brothers and sisters, for a short time (in presence, not in affection) we became all the more fervent in our great desire to see you in person. 18 For we wanted to come to you (I, Paul, in fact tried again and again) but Satan thwarted us. 19 For who is our hope or joy or crown to boast of before our Lord Jesus at his coming? Is it not of course you? 20 For you are our glory and joy! (1 Thessalonians 2:14-20, emphasis mine)
In chapter 2, Paul refers to the wrath of God in relation to those at Thessalonica who oppose the saints and especially the proclamation of the gospel to Gentiles. Negatively, resisting the gospel and those who proclaim it stores up wrath for oneself on the day of our Lord’s return. Positively, the coming of our Lord will be a day of great joy and rejoicing for the saints. What joy there will be when we are rewarded with seeing the fruits of our ministry in this life. People, not possessions, are part of the prize that awaits the saints.
11 Now may God our Father himself and our Lord Jesus direct our way to you. 12 And may the Lord cause you to increase and abound in love for one another and for all, just as we do for you, 13 so that your hearts are strengthened in holiness to be blameless before our God and Father at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints (1 Thessalonians 3:11-13, emphasis mine).
Christian growth is an important goal because we will stand before our God when our Lord returns for His saints. Knowing this will happen should make holiness our desire, for ourselves and for others. We should want to stand faultless and holy before Him.7
13 Now we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about those who are asleep, so that you will not grieve like the rest who have no hope. 14 For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, so also we believe that God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep as Christians. 15 For we tell you this by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will surely not go ahead of those who have fallen asleep. 16 For the Lord himself will come down from heaven with a shout of command, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trumpet of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. 17 Then we who are alive, who are left, will be suddenly caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will always be with the Lord. 18 Therefore encourage one another with these words (1 Thessalonians 4:13-18, emphasis mine).
Now we see why Paul spoke of “waiting” and of our Lord’s resurrection in 1 Thessalonians 1:10. Apparently, enough time had passed for some saints to die. That raised questions regarding the fate of those who have died before the time of our Lord’s second coming. Based upon the resurrection of our Lord, those who have died will be raised to life, and they will have an equal share in the blessings enjoyed by those who are alive at the time of Christ’s return.
These verses in chapter 4 focus on the blessings and benefits for believers, living or dead at the time of the Lord’s second coming. The comparison in 4:13-18 is between those saints who are alive at Christ’s return and those saints who have died. The comparison in 5:1-11 is between those who are true believers and those who are lost with regard to their attitudes and actions concerning the coming “Day of the Lord.”
The expression, “the Day of the Lord”8 occurs fairly often in the Bible. Let me attempt to define this expression by focusing on its more important aspects as found in the Old Testament.
1. The “Day of the Lord” is the day of God’s judgment on Israel’s enemies, vindicating and delivering Israel from foreign domination:
1 This is a message about Babylon that God revealed to Isaiah son of Amoz: 2 On a bare hill raise a signal flag, shout to them, wave your hand, so they might enter the gates of the princes! 3 I have given orders to my chosen soldiers; I have summoned the warriors through whom I will vent my anger, my boasting, arrogant ones. 4 There is a loud noise on the mountains – it sounds like a large army! There is great commotion among the kingdoms – nations are being assembled! The Lord who commands armies is mustering forces for battle. 5 They come from a distant land, from the horizon. It is the Lord with his instruments of judgment, coming to destroy the whole earth. 6 Wail, for the Lord’s day of judgment is near; it comes with all the destructive power of the sovereign judge. 7 For this reason all hands hang limp, every human heart loses its courage. 8 They panic – cramps and pain seize hold of them like those of a woman who is straining to give birth. They look at one another in astonishment; their faces are flushed red. 9 Look, the Lord’s day of judgment is coming; it is a day of cruelty and savage, raging anger, destroying the earth and annihilating its sinners. 10 Indeed the stars in the sky and their constellations no longer give out their light; the sun is darkened as soon as it rises, and the moon does not shine. 11 I will punish the world for its evil, and wicked people for their sin. I will put an end to the pride of the insolent, I will bring down the arrogance of tyrants. 12 I will make human beings more scarce than pure gold, and people more scarce than gold from Ophir. 13 So I will shake the heavens, and the earth will shake loose from its foundation, because of the fury of the Lord who commands armies, in the day he vents his raging anger (Isaiah 13:1-13, emphasis mine; see Ezekiel 30:1-5ff.).
2. The “Day of the Lord” is not just the day of God’s judgment on Israel’s enemies; it is the day of God’s judgment on all sinners, including disobedient Israel. There is special judgment pronounced against those false prophets in Israel who give false assurances of peace and safety, when the day of judgment was drawing near:
18 Woe to those who wish for the day of the Lord! Why do you want the Lord’s day of judgment to come? It will bring darkness, not light. 19 Disaster will be inescapable, as if a man ran from a lion only to meet a bear, then escaped into a house, leaned his hand against the wall, and was bitten by a poisonous snake. 20 Don’t you realize the Lord’s day of judgment will bring darkness, not light – gloomy blackness, not bright light? 21 “I absolutely despise your festivals! I get no pleasure from your religious assemblies! 22 Even if you offer me burnt and grain offerings, I will not be satisfied; I will not look with favor on your peace offerings of fattened calves. 23 Take away from me your noisy songs; I don’t want to hear the music of your stringed instruments. 24 Justice must flow like torrents of water, righteous actions like a stream that never dries up (Amos 5:18-24).
8 “‘Therefore, this is what the sovereign Lord says: Because you have spoken false words and forecast delusion, look, I am against you, declares the sovereign Lord. 9 My hand will be against the prophets who see delusion and announce lying omens. They will not be included in the council of my people, nor be written in the registry of the house of Israel, nor enter the land of Israel. Then you will know that I am the sovereign Lord. 10 “‘This is because they have led my people astray saying, “All is well,” when things are not well. When anyone builds a wall without mortar, they coat it with whitewash. 11 Tell the ones who coat it with whitewash that it will fall. When there is a deluge of rain, hailstones will fall and a violent wind will break out. 12 When the wall has collapsed, people will ask you, “Where is the whitewash you coated it with?” 13 “‘Therefore this is what the sovereign Lord says: In my rage I will make a violent wind break out. In my anger there will be a deluge of rain and hailstones in destructive fury. 14 I will break down the wall you coated with whitewash and knock it to the ground so that its foundation is exposed. When it falls you will be destroyed beneath it, and you will know that I am the Lord. 15 I will vent my rage against the wall, and against those who coated it with whitewash. Then I will say to you, “The wall is no more and those who whitewashed it are no more – 16 those prophets of Israel who would prophesy about Jerusalem and would see visions of peace for it, when there was no peace,” declares the sovereign Lord’” (Ezekiel 13:8-16).
3. The “Day of the Lord” is coming, but God promises that He will send “Elijah” before that great day comes with a message of repentance and reconciliation:
5 Look, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and terrible day of the Lord arrives. 6 He will encourage fathers and their children to return to me, so that I will not come and strike the earth with judgment” (Malachi 4:5-6).
4. The “Day of the Lord” will be a day of judgment, but Israel is warned it is coming and is urged to repent, with the assurance that those who do so will escape God’s judgment and enjoy God’s salvation:
1 Blow the trumpet in Zion; sound the alarm signal on my holy mountain! Let all the inhabitants of the land shake with fear, for the day of the Lord is about to come. Indeed, it is near! 2 It will be a day of dreadful darkness, a day of foreboding storm clouds, like blackness spread over the mountains. It is a huge and powerful army – there has never been anything like it ever before, and there will not be anything like it for many generations to come!... 12 “Yet even now,” the Lord says, “return to me with all your heart – with fasting, weeping, and mourning. Tear your hearts, not just your garments!” 13 Return to the Lord your God, for he is merciful and compassionate, slow to anger and boundless in loyal love – often relenting from calamitous punishment. 14 Who knows? Perhaps he will be compassionate and grant a reprieve, and leave blessing in his wake – a meal offering and a drink offering for you to offer to the Lord your God! . . . 18 Then the Lord became zealous for his land; he had compassion on his people. . . . 28 (3:1) After all of this I will pour out my Spirit on all kinds of people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy. Your elderly will have revelatory dreams; your young men will see prophetic visions. 29 Even on male and female servants I will pour out my Spirit in those days. 30 I will produce portents both in the sky and on the earth – blood, fire, and columns of smoke. 31 The sunlight will be turned to darkness and the moon to the color of blood, before the day of the Lord comes – that great and terrible day! 32 It will so happen that everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be delivered. For on Mount Zion and in Jerusalem there will be those who survive, just as the Lord has promised; the remnant will be those whom the Lord will call (Joel 2:1-2, 12-14, 18, 28-32).
From all these Old Testament texts, we can see that the “Day of the Lord” is a day of judgment, and a day of deliverance and salvation, depending upon one’s relationship to God. Israelites should not presume that they are the righteous, and that the “Day of the Lord” is therefore a good day for them. Rather, they should see themselves as sinners, subject to God’s wrath at the coming of Messiah. There is hope, however. The hope is for those Israelites who see themselves as sinners, deserving of God’s coming wrath, and who repent and embrace the promise of salvation which God will bring about in the coming of Messiah. Thus, the Old Testament ends with both a warning of coming judgment and the promise of salvation.
The “Day of the Lord” is a theme that is quickly taken up in the New Testament, although it is noteworthy that this exact expression is never found in the Gospels.
1. John the Baptist identified Jesus as the Promised Messiah, just as Jesus identified John as the “Elijah” who would come and prepare the way for Him as the Messiah:
26 John answered them, “I baptize with water. Among you stands one whom you do not recognize, 27 who is coming after me. I am not worthy to untie the strap of his sandal!” 28 These things happened in Bethany across the Jordan River where John was baptizing. 29 On the next day John saw Jesus coming toward him and said, “Look, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! 30 This is the one about whom I said, ‘After me comes a man who is greater than I am, because he existed before me.’ 31 I did not recognize him, but I came baptizing with water so that he could be revealed to Israel.” 32 Then John testified, “I saw the Spirit descending like a dove from heaven, and it remained on him. 33 And I did not recognize him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water said to me, ‘The one on whom you see the Spirit descending and remaining – this is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.’ 34 I have both seen and testified that this man is the Chosen One of God” (John 1:26-34, emphasis mine).
9 As they were coming down from the mountain, Jesus commanded them, “Do not tell anyone about the vision until the Son of Man is raised from the dead.” 10 The disciples asked him, “Why then do the experts in the law say that Elijah must come first?” 11 He answered, “Elijah does indeed come first and will restore all things. 12 And I tell you that Elijah has already come. Yet they did not recognize him, but did to him whatever they wanted. In the same way, the Son of Man will suffer at their hands.” 13 Then the disciples understood that he was speaking to them about John the Baptist (Matthew 17:9-13, emphasis mine).
2. The “Day of the Lord” was a day of God’s judgment on sinful (and often self-righteous) Israelites. John the Baptist clearly warned of the coming day of God’s judgment (on sinful Israelites, among others):
5 Then people from Jerusalem, as well as all Judea and all the region around the Jordan, were going out to him, 6 and he was baptizing them in the Jordan River as they confessed their sins. 7 But when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming to his baptism, he said to them, “You offspring of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? 8 Therefore produce fruit that proves your repentance, 9 and don’t think you can say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I tell you that God can raise up children for Abraham from these stones! 10 Even now the ax is laid at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire. 11 “I baptize you with water, for repentance, but the one coming after me is more powerful than I am – I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 12 His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clean out his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the storehouse, but the chaff he will burn up with inextinguishable fire” (Matthew 3:5-12, emphasis mine).
Repentance (symbolized by baptism) and faith in Jesus was the way to avoid this coming day of wrath, and to experience salvation.
3. Like John the Baptist, Jesus spoke of the coming day of God’s wrath, a day many assumed would bring them honor and salvation:
21 “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter into the kingdom of heaven – only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven. 22 On that day, many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, didn’t we prophesy in your name, and in your name cast out demons and do many powerful deeds?’ 23 Then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you. Go away from me, you lawbreakers!’” (Matthew 7:21-23, emphasis mine)
32 “Learn this parable from the fig tree: Whenever its branch becomes tender and puts out its leaves, you know that summer is near. 33 So also you, when you see all these things, know that he is near, right at the door. 34 I tell you the truth, this generation will not pass away until all these things take place. 35 Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away. 36 “But as for that day and hour no one knows it – not even the angels in heaven – except the Father alone. 37 For just like the days of Noah were, so the coming of the Son of Man will be. 38 For in those days before the flood, people were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day Noah entered the ark” (Matthew 24:32-38, emphasis mine).
4. The exact timing of the “Day of the Lord” was an obsession with the disciples, both in the Gospels,9 and early in the Book of Acts:
6 So when they had gathered together, they began to ask him, “Lord, is this the time when you are restoring the kingdom to Israel?” 7 He told them, “You are not permitted to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. 8 But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the farthest parts of the earth” (Acts 1:5-8, emphasis mine).
We would do well to note that, both in the Gospels (Matthew 24:36) and here in Acts 1, Jesus clearly indicates that the exact timing of this “day” would not be revealed to them, or to us. We may recognize the “season,” but we do not know the day. We know for certain that our Lord is coming; we don’t know when He is coming. We will see this shortly in our text as well.
5. At Pentecost,10 Peter warned of the coming judgment on the “Day of the Lord,” but also proclaimed the promise of salvation as spoken of by the prophet Joel. Israel’s sin was evident in the fact that Messiah had come to them as promised, and they rejected Him, in spite of all the divinely provided confirmations of His identity. The bad news was that the “Day of the Lord” was coming (just as Joel had foretold), and this would mean divine judgment for those who have rejected and crucified His Son. The good news, to which Joel also referred, is that in the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus, God provided for the forgiveness of one’s sins and the fulfillment of His promise of a New Covenant. Thus, in order to escape the outpouring of God’s wrath and to enter into the blessings of the New Covenant, Peter’s audience must repent of their sin and embrace Jesus Christ as God’s promised Messiah.
6. The expression, “the Day of the Lord” now begins to appear in the New Testament epistles. In 2 Thessalonians 1, it is described as a day of salvation and blessing for those who have trusted in Jesus, and a day of retribution for those who have rejected Jesus and persecuted His saints:
5 This is evidence of God’s righteous judgment, to make you worthy of the kingdom of God, for which in fact you are suffering. 6 For it is right for God to repay with affliction those who afflict you, 7 and to you who are being afflicted to give rest together with us when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with his mighty angels. 8 With flaming fire he will mete out punishment on those who do not know God and do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. 9 They will undergo the penalty of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his strength, 10 when he comes to be glorified among his saints and admired on that day among all who have believed – and you did in fact believe our testimony. 11 And in this regard we pray for you always, that our God will make you worthy of his calling and fulfill by his power your every desire for goodness and every work of faith, 12 that the name of our Lord Jesus may be glorified in you, and you in him, according to the grace of our God and the Lord Jesus Christ (2 Thessalonians 1:5-12, emphasis mine).
7. The “Day of the Lord” is also a subject taken up by false teachers, who claim, among other things, that this day has already come. It was just such teaching that necessitated Paul’s instruction in 2 Thessalonians 2:
1 Now regarding the arrival of our Lord Jesus Christ and our being gathered to be with him, we ask you, brothers and sisters, 2 not to be easily shaken from your composure or disturbed by any kind of spirit or message or letter allegedly from us, to the effect that the day of the Lord is already here (2 Thessalonians 2:1-2).
This is just what Jesus had told His disciples to look out for, since there was certain to be false and misleading teaching regarding His second coming:
3 As he was sitting on the Mount of Olives, his disciples came to him privately and said, “Tell us, when will these things happen? And what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?” 4 Jesus answered them, “Watch out that no one misleads you. 5 For many will come in my name, saying, ‘I am the Christ,’ and they will mislead many (Matthew 24:3-5).
8. The “Day of the Lord” will be the day that God’s work of salvation will be completed in His saints:
7 so that you do not lack any spiritual gift as you wait for the revelation of our Lord Jesus Christ. 8 He will also strengthen you to the end, so that you will be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ (1 Corinthians 1:7-8, emphasis mine).
6 For I am sure of this very thing, that the one who began a good work in you will perfect it until the day of Christ Jesus (Philippians 1:6, emphasis mine).
10 so that you can decide what is best, and thus be sincere and blameless for the day of Christ (Philippians 1:10, emphasis mine).
What is especially interesting to me is that church discipline was exercised on a man who was living with his father’s wife, with the goal and expectation that even if his body was destroyed, his soul would be saved in the “Day of the Lord”:
4 When you gather together in the name of our Lord Jesus, and I am with you in spirit, along with the power of our Lord Jesus, 5 turn this man over to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord (1 Corinthians 5:4-5, emphasis mine).
9. The coming “Day of the Lord” motivated Paul in his ministry to the saints, so that they would be a pure and presentable bride when our Lord returns:
1 I wish that you would be patient with me in a little foolishness, but indeed you are being patient with me! 2 For I am jealous for you with godly jealousy, because I promised you in marriage to one husband, to present you as a pure virgin to Christ (2 Corinthians 11:1-2).
11 Now may God our Father himself and our Lord Jesus direct our way to you. 12 And may the Lord cause you to increase and abound in love for one another and for all, just as we do for you, 13 so that your hearts are strengthened in holiness to be blameless before our God and Father at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints (1 Thessalonians 3:11-13).
10. The “Day of the Lord” is a time of boasting and rejoicing for the saints. It is the day when the Corinthians will boast in Paul and his associates, just as it is the day when Paul himself will boast and rejoice in the Thessalonians and the Philippians:
14 just as also you have partly understood us, that we are your source of pride just as you also are ours in the day of the Lord Jesus (2 Corinthians 1:14).
19 For who is our hope or joy or crown to boast of before our Lord Jesus at his coming? Is it not of course you? 20 For you are our glory and joy! (1 Thessalonians 2:19-20)
16 by holding on to the word of life so that on the day of Christ I will have a reason to boast that I did not run in vain nor labor in vain (Philippians 2:16).
Some have speculated as to why Paul found it necessary to address the coming “Day of the Lord” in our text. Some have suggested that Paul writes these words because the Thessalonians had asked him about the “Day of the Lord.” While the expression “Now concerning. . .” can introduce the answer to a question,11 this need not be the case. Paul could easily be moving on to another subject which the Thessalonians need to know about. It seems to me that we have a fairly clear indication of Paul’s reason for writing these words of our text (5:1-11) when we consider the context, particularly 4:13-18.
The Thessalonians faced two problems that resulted from someone’s absence (or to the delay of someone’s coming). The first was the issue of Paul’s absence. Why had Paul not returned to Thessalonica? Did he not care for and about these saints? In the early chapters of this epistle, Paul reminded the Thessalonians of the strong bond he had with them, and they with him. He explained that his absence was the result of Satan’s opposition, rather than the result of his lack of love and concern for them. He sent Timothy – the finest gift he could give – to minister to them and to learn how they were doing and then report back to him.
Now, the second problem pertaining to someone’s absence arises. Just as Paul had not returned as soon as the Thessalonians had expected (and hoped), so also Jesus has not yet returned. What is the explanation for His absence, and how are the Thessalonians to deal with His delayed return? In 4:13-18, Paul explained that the death of some saints before Christ’s return was not a problem, for when the Lord returns, He will raise them from the dead, and then they will be joined by the saints who are alive at the time of His coming, to live together in the presence of the Lord forever.
If 4:13-18 deals with the Lord’s “delay” by focusing on the fate of believers (living and dead) at the time of His return, 5:1-11 deals with the delay itself. Paul compares and contrasts the believers’ attitudes and actions related to the Second Coming with the mindset and conduct of unbelievers, before His return.
When we consider the teaching of the Bible, we can see several problems men face in relation to the Lord’s apparent “delay” in coming to the earth a second time. I believe that Paul is seeking to deal with some of these problems when he deals with the “Day of the Lord” in 1 Thessalonians 4:13—5:11. Let me briefly mention some of these problems.
1. The unsaved are not ready, and thus judgment catches them off guard (1 Thessalonians 5:2-3; Luke 17:26-30).
2. Unbelievers are not ready for the “Day of the Lord” because they have rejected God’s only provision for salvation through the saving work of Jesus Christ on the cross of Calvary. Not only are unbelievers unaware that the “Day of the Lord” is at hand, this day will come at a time when they feel safe and secure in their unbelief (see 1 Thessalonians 5:3; 2 Peter 3:1-4ff).12 In part, this is because false prophets will assure these unbelievers that they are safe and secure.
3. There is also the danger that some who are true believers may become caught up in the things of this world, and thus be caught doing other things than what our Lord has given us to do (see Luke 12:35-48).13
4. During the time of waiting for our Lord’s return – when saints suffer persecution from the enemies of our Lord – there will be many who fall victim to false teaching, or to declining love and unity (Matthew 24:4-5, 9-12; 2 Thessalonians 2:2).
5. There is the danger that some saints may be alarmed by the difficulties of the last days (Matthew 24:6).
6. As mentioned earlier, there will always be those who are obsessed with seeking to identify the precise timing of the Lord’s return, in spite of the fact that He has indicated that this cannot be known (see Matthew 24:3, 36; Acts 1:6-8).
Paul begins this text by saying that the Thessalonian saints “have no need for anything to be written to them” (5:1). We could understand Paul’s words in different ways. It could be that the Thessalonians did not need anything to be written because he had already taught them all they needed to know on this subject:
1 So when we could bear it no longer, we decided to stay on in Athens alone. 2 We sent Timothy, our brother and fellow worker for God in the gospel of Christ, to strengthen you and encourage you about your faith, 3 so that no one would be shaken by these afflictions. For you yourselves know that we are destined for this. 4 For in fact when we were with you, we were telling you in advance that we would suffer affliction, and so it has happened, as you well know (1 Thessalonians 3:1-4, emphasis mine).
I don’t think this is why there was no need for Paul to write the Thessalonians about the “Day of the Lord,” however. From the ignorance Paul sought to correct in 4:13-18, it would not seem that prophecy had been Paul’s highest priority in what he had previously taught the Thessalonians while he was with them. But when we come to verse 2 of our text, Paul tells the Thessalonians why he did not need to write anything further: there was nothing further to write, so far as the timing of that day is concerned:
1 Now on the topic of times and seasons, brothers and sisters, you have no need for anything to be written to you. 2 For you know quite well that the day of the Lord will come in the same way as a thief in the night (1 Thessalonians 5:1-2).
This is nearly the same thing that our Lord said to His disciples in Matthew 24 and Acts 1:
36 “But as for that day and hour no one knows it – not even the angels in heaven – except the Father alone” (Matthew 24:36).
6 So when they had gathered together, they began to ask him, “Lord, is this the time when you are restoring the kingdom to Israel?” 7 He told them, “You are not permitted to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. 8 But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the farthest parts of the earth” (Acts 1:6-8, emphasis mine).
All the Thessalonians needed to know about the timing of the Day of the Lord had already been revealed by our Lord, or by Paul. Paul does not seek to add anything to what our Lord has already taught regarding the timing of the “Day of the Lord.” What he does seek to do is to focus on the Christian’s perspective and practice during the time that they wait for His return. And he does this by contrasting the Christian’s response to the coming of our Lord with that of unbelievers.
Christians are certain that the “Day of the Lord” is coming, though they don’t know exactly when that will be. Non-Christians are certain that the “Day of the Lord” is not coming and that they have nothing to worry about. “Peace and security” is their slogan. Paul describes the Second Coming by the use of two different images. The first imagery is that of a thief in the night.
For you know quite well that the day of the Lord will come in the same way as a thief in the night (1 Thessalonians 5:2, emphasis mine).
The thief usually comes in the night, when he can work under cover of darkness, and when he is least likely to be discovered and caught. (One of our sister churches had to cancel its services a week ago because a thief broke into their building in the middle of the night. Other churches had been burglarized in the same way.) Jesus also spoke of His coming as a thief in the night.14 This imagery emphasizes the fact that the “Day of the Lord” is unexpected; it catches the unbeliever completely by surprise. In part, this is because they have been deceived into thinking that it would never come:
13 “That is because, from the least important to the most important of them, all of them are greedy for dishonest gain. Prophets and priests alike, all of them practice deceit. 14 They offer only superficial help for the harm my people have suffered. They say, ‘Everything will be all right!’ But everything is not all right! (Jeremiah 6:13-14)
3 Above all, understand this: In the last days blatant scoffers will come, being propelled by their own evil urges 4 and saying, “Where is his promised return? For ever since our ancestors died, all things have continued as they were from the beginning of creation” (2 Peter 3:3-4).
The second imagery employed is that of labor pains coming upon a pregnant woman.
Now when they are saying, “There is peace and security,” then sudden destruction comes on them, like labor pains on a pregnant woman, and they will surely not escape (1 Thessalonians 5:3, emphasis mine).
When Paul likens the “Day of the Lord” to labor pains coming upon a pregnant woman, he emphasizes another aspect of this day of judgment for unbelievers. A thief in the night emphasizes the fact that unbelievers don’t expect the “Day of the Lord” to come. Labor pains coming upon a pregnant woman come as no surprise to her. The moment she knows that she is pregnant, she knows that labor pains are coming. Granted, she does not know the exact time that they are coming, but she has a fairly good idea as the time of her baby’s birth draws near. What I think Paul is seeking to emphasize here is not that the Second Coming is unexpected, but that it is irreversible. Once labor sets in, there is nothing the woman can do to stop these pains. She is now irreversibly committed to the consequences of her pregnancy. As the father of six children and as the grandfather of ten (I confess, I’m bragging), I can testify to these things – but my wife and daughters can do so with even greater authority.
In my message on the early part of 1 Thessalonians 4, I sought to underscore Paul’s emphasis on sexual purity and social responsibility (hard work) as a part of the Christian’s sanctification. I would now like to suggest that most of chapter 5 deals with sanctification as it relates to the Second Coming of our Lord.
I fear that there are some Christians who tend to equate their spirituality with how much they know about the timing of the Second Coming. Rather than accept Jesus’ clear statements that we are not to know the precise time of His return, and thus to respect the silence of Scripture on such matters, some seek to “find” more than others, and then, having done so, they feel rather smug about it. (Forgive me for being so blunt, but I feel that some have fallen into this version of Christian Gnosticism, of possessing “secret” information not known by the ignorant masses.15)
While I am speaking of a minority here, there are many who would seek to “see” more in our text than I believe Paul meant to say pertaining to the sequence of events surrounding the “Day of the Lord.” What I see in our text is Paul dramatically contrasting the response of the Christian to the “Day of the Lord” with that of the unbeliever. Notice the repeated contrasts in verses 3-11.
Thief in the night
Expec His return
Feel secure, thought judgement near
Are secure when salvation comes
I believe that these very deliberate, repeated, and emphatic contrasts play a significant role in Paul’s emphasis on sanctification. Salvation is a radical transformation from “hearts of stone” to “hearts of flesh,”16 from the “kingdom of darkness to the kingdom of light,” and from “death to life.”17 Salvation makes us a whole new creation:
So then, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; what is old has passed away – look, what is new has come! (2 Corinthians 5:17)
Sanctification is likewise a dramatic transformation. It is not a spiritual “tune-up;” it is a major overhaul, from “bumper to bumper.” That is the message of Ephesians 4 and 5, as well as many other texts of Scripture.
The night has advanced toward dawn; the day is near. So then we must lay aside the works of darkness, and put on the weapons of light (Romans 13:12).
Do not become partners with those who do not believe, for what partnership is there between righteousness and lawlessness, or what fellowship does light have with darkness? (2 Corinthians 6:14)
1 Therefore, if you have been raised with Christ, keep seeking the things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. 2 Keep thinking about things above, not things on the earth, 3 for you have died and your life is hidden with Christ in God. 4 When Christ (who is your life) appears, then you too will be revealed in glory with him (Colossians 3:1-4).
What Paul is doing in our text is pointing out the dramatic differences there are between Christians and unbelievers when it comes to the “Day of the Lord.” The outcome is the difference between eternal salvation and eternal judgment, between enjoying eternity in the presence of our Lord and fellow believers (4:13-18), and facing the wrath of God, away from His presence (see 2 Thessalonians 1:9). Unbelievers do not even believe that judgment is coming, so that it comes upon them unexpectedly and irreversibly. Believers know that their Lord is coming, and thus they wait, watch, and work for His return. Unbelievers are asleep or drunk, insensitive to what is coming; believers are awake and alert. To sum it all up, unbelievers are unprepared for what is coming, while believers are ready and waiting for the Lord to come for them.
Our text is not designed to map out the timing and sequence of coming things for us; it is written to assure us that it is coming and that the process of sanctification is our preparation for the return of the Lord. The application of what Paul is saying will be spelled out more specifically in verses 12-22, but first Paul has sought to motivate the Thessalonians and us with the truths of 4:13--5:11. That is why both parts of this passage on prophecy end with “Therefore encourage one another. . .” (1 Thessalonians 4:18; 5:11).
Let me conclude this message with several points of application.
First, since the coming of the “Day of the Lord” is certain, and since we cannot know its precise timing, we must be ever watchful and waiting. We need to be aware that His “delay” is for at least two purposes. He is delaying out of grace, giving men further time to repent and believe (2 Peter 3:8-9). His delay also gives Christians more time to be purified (by sanctification) and thus to be prepared for His return (1 Thessalonians 3:11-13; 2 Corinthians 11:1-2; Ephesians 5:25-27; 2 Peter 3:11-12).
Second, when we seek to interpret and apply our text, let us seek to identify Paul’s purpose in writing it, rather than to impose our desires and expectations on it. Personally, I think Paul is clear that his purpose is not to supply additional details regarding the timing of our Lord’s return, although he is intent on stressing the implications of his words. Since our Lord’s return has not come as quickly as we may have hoped, and since we cannot know the exact time of His return, we must wait and watch patiently. We must continue in the process of sanctification, as God purifies us and prepares us for the day of His return. Let us not seek to find what is not in our text; let us seek, rather, to see what is there, and what that means for us in terms of our attitudes and actions in the light of His sure return.
Specifically, even though we may have grown (like the Thessalonians) in our faith, love, and hope, we are not to be content with the progress we have made. We are to press on and grow even more in these areas. Paul has just given us one additional motivation for seeking to grow in faith, love, and hope – these three virtues are part of our spiritual armor that protect and keep us in the difficult times we experience while waiting for Him to return.
But since we are of the day, we must stay sober by putting on the breastplate of faith and love and as a helmet our hope for salvation (1 Thessalonians 5:8).
Third, we should find our text to be a warning regarding worldliness. Paul has made it very clear in our text that unbelievers respond to the coming “Day of the Lord” in a way that is opposite to that of the Christian. Not only does Paul exhort us to be different and to behave as children of the day, Paul’s teaching here should serve as a warning to us. If we become too attached to this life and to this world, we will be inclined to think and to act as the world does regarding His return. Worldliness will desensitize us to the certain reality of the “Day of the Lord.” The things of this world will no longer be seen as the “passing pleasures of sin” (see Hebrews 11:24-26), and we will begin to pursue them, rather than to lay up treasure in heaven.
The flip side of this is that while we must guard against worldliness, we must also be diligent in maintaining our fellowship with fellow believers:
24 And let us take thought of how to spur one another on to love and good works, 25 not abandoning our own meetings, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging each other, and even more so because you see the day drawing near (Hebrews 10:24-25).
The truths that Paul has set forth in 4:13—5:11 are those which provide us with the means to encourage our fellow believers. We are not only responsible to be personally alert, watchful, and waiting; we are responsible to encourage our brothers and sisters in the Lord to do likewise.
Finally, Paul’s words should prompt us to pray for the salvation of the lost and to strive to share the good news of the gospel with those who are headed for eternal judgment. We should pray because we see here how Satan blinds the minds of unbelievers regarding the certainty of eternal judgment and the blessed offer of eternal salvation through faith in Jesus.18 Unbelievers will be caught by surprise in the “Day of the Lord” because they feel safe and secure in their unbelief. The salvation of lost sinners is not something which we can accomplish, no matter how persuasive our words. God must open the hearts of sinners to see their sin, the certainty of divine judgment, and to embrace Jesus as their Savior:
“No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him, and I will raise him up at the last day” (John 6:44).
7 “But I tell you the truth, it is to your advantage that I am going away. For if I do not go away, the Advocate will not come to you, but if I go, I will send him to you. 8 And when he comes, he will prove the world wrong concerning sin and righteousness and judgment – 9 concerning sin, because they do not believe in me; 10 concerning righteousness, because I am going to the Father and you will see me no longer; 11 and concerning judgment, because the ruler of this world has been condemned” (John 16:7-11).
When the Gentiles heard this, they began to rejoice and praise the word of the Lord, and all who had been appointed for eternal life believed (Acts 13:48).
A woman named Lydia, a dealer in purple cloth from the city of Thyatira, a God-fearing woman, listened to us. The Lord opened her heart to respond to what Paul was saying (Acts 16:14).
The only way that lost sinners will be saved is if someone takes the good news of the gospel to them (Romans 10:14-15), and if the Spirit of God opens their hearts to receive the gift of salvation (John 16:7-11). This time of waiting is not only a time to be watching, but also a time to be working, doing what God has given us to do. Many of those things will be listed in the verses which follow, but we must be intent on doing them. That is the thrust of our text as I understand it.
1 I confess; I was tempted to change the title to “Watching our Wait.”
2 Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the NET Bible. The NEW ENGLISH TRANSLATION, also known as THE NET BIBLE, is a completely new translation of the Bible, not a revision or an update of a previous English version. It was completed by more than twenty biblical scholars who worked directly from the best currently available Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek texts. The translation project originally started as an attempt to provide an electronic version of a modern translation for electronic distribution over the Internet and on CD (compact disk). Anyone anywhere in the world with an Internet connection will be able to use and print out the NET Bible without cost for personal study. In addition, anyone who wants to share the Bible with others can print unlimited copies and give them away free to others. It is available on the Internet at:
3 As we see in 1 Timothy 1:6-7.
4 See Isaiah 55:8-11.
5 See 2 Peter 3:14-16.
6 See Romans 14:1—15:4.
7 See 2 Corinthians 11:2; Ephesians 5:25-27.
8 We should be aware of the fact that there are several variations of this expression in the Bible: “the day of the Lord Jesus” (see 1 Corinthians 1:7-8), the “day of Christ” (Philippians 1:6), and simply “the day” (1 Thessalonians 5:4); “that day” (Matthew 24:36; 2 Thessalonians 1:10).
9 See, for example, Matthew 24:3.
10 See Acts 2.
11 Such is the case in 1 Corinthians 7:1.
12 This is speculation on my part, so beware. I believe that the time is coming when Christians are considered more of a threat to the world than Al Qaeda. There will be a movement in which Satan and his followers seek to exterminate all Christians – and for a while, it will look as though they are prevailing (see Revelation 6:9-10; 11:1-10; 13:5-8). I suspect that it is at this point in time that they will be feeling most “safe and secure,” and yet their doom is imminent.
13 I am obliged to point out that in Matthew 24 and 25 those who are caught off guard are described as unbelievers, and their judgment is terrifying – the judgment of hell. It may be difficult to distinguish a true believer (like the fellow in 1 Corinthians 5:5) from an unbeliever who professes to be saved. The Scriptures do not seek to comfort those who fail to be watchful for our Lord’s return.
14 Matthew 24:43.
15 For an example of this arrogance on the part of unbelieving religious leaders, see John 7:45-53.
16 See Ezekiel 11:19; 36:26; 2 Corinthians 3:3.
17 See, for example, Acts 26:18; Ephesians 2:11-22; Colossians 1:13; 1 Peter 2:9.
18 See 2 Corinthians 4:3-4; 11:1-4, 13-15.