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Lesson 15: Are You Ready for That Day? (1 Thessalonians 5:1-8)

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November 6, 2016

A recent article in Reader’s Digest (“The Big One,” 12/15-01/16) warned that a major, overdue earthquake along the northwest coast of the U.S. could trigger a massive tsunami that would wipe out everything on the coast from Washington to Northern California. It would be the worst natural disaster in the history of North America! But in spite of that clear warning, I’ve not read anything about people who live in that area moving away or doing anything to prepare for such a catastrophe.

After I read that story, I asked myself, “Would I do anything about that warning if I lived in that area?” The answer is, probably not. Relocating to a different area would be a major hassle. You’d have to sell your home, get a different job, and deal with many other changes, all for an uncertain event.

But what if the predicted event was absolutely certain? Would you heed the warning? Well, as we all know, scientists can’t be absolutely certain with such predictions, so that tends to make us skeptical of such dire warnings. Most of us would probably rather take our chances than go to the hassle of fleeing from a merely predicted event.

Maybe that’s why people ignore God’s warnings about impending judgment for all sinners. The Bible repeatedly warns that God’s righteous judgment is not just highly probable, but absolutely certain. As Paul told the Athenian philosophers (Acts 17:31), God “has fixed a day in which He will judge the world in righteousness through a Man whom He has appointed, having furnished proof to all men by raising Him from the dead.” But most people shrug it off or they figure that since they’re not terrorists or rapists, they’ll be okay. But they don’t do anything to get ready for that certain day.

Paul has just dealt with the question of whether our deceased loved ones in Christ will miss out on His second coming. Paul has shown that they will actually precede those who are still living when that momentous event occurs. He wants us to be informed and comforted with regard to that future event. But now he turns to the matter of “times and epochs,” specifically the time called “the day of the Lord.” We can’t be absolutely sure about the Thessalonians’ question that Paul was responding to. Many commentators think that they were wondering about when that day would occur. Or, perhaps they were worried that they were not spiritually and morally worthy to meet the Lord on the day of His coming (Jeffrey Weima, Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament [Baker Academic], ed. by G. K. Beale and D. A. Carson, p. 881). Weima summarizes the flow of verses 1-11:

Paul responds to their anxiety by reassuring them that they need not fear the day of the Lord (5:1-3). He then provides two supporting grounds for his claim: (1) their present status as “sons of light and sons of the day” (5:4-5); (2) their past election by God to obtain salvation and eternal life (5:9-10). Sandwiched between these two grounds is an appeal to live vigilantly as those who “belong to the day” (5:6-8). The discussion concludes with an exhortation (5:11).

I will focus on four truths in verses 1-8:

1. The day of the Lord is certainly coming or God’s Word is not true.

The phrase, “the day of the Lord,” is used often in the Old Testament (e.g. Isa. 13:6; Ezek. 30:3; Joel 1:15; 2:1; Amos 5:18-20 [the earliest reference]; Mal. 4:5) and four times in the New Testament (Acts 2:20; 1 Thess. 5:2; 2 Thess. 2:1; 2 Pet. 3:10). It is also called, “that day” (Luke 21:34; 2 Thess. 1:10); “the day” (Mal. 3:2; 4:1; 1 Thess. 5:4; Rom. 13:12); “the day of God” (2 Pet. 3:12); “the day of Christ” (Phil. 1:10; 2:16); “the day of Christ Jesus” (Phil. 1:6); and, “the day of our (or, “the”) Lord Jesus” (2 Cor. 1:14; 1 Cor. 5:5; or, “the Lord Jesus Christ,” 1 Cor. 1:8). Revelation (6:17; 16:14) also refers to “the great day of their [God and the Lamb’s] wrath” and “the great day of God, the Almighty.”

The concept refers to God’s intervention in history for judgment on His enemies (including those who falsely claim to be His people; Amos 5:18-20) or for deliverance and blessing for His people (Isa. 11:10, 11; Joel 2:28-32, interpreted in Acts 2:17-21 to refer to the Day of Pentecost; Amos 9:11-12, interpreted in Acts 15:16-18 to refer to Christ). Sometimes these cataclysmic days of judgment found partial fulfillment when God wiped out Israel’s enemies and delivered His people from a military threat. But all such events pointed ahead to the culmination of God’s judgment and salvation in the first and second comings of Jesus Christ.

In 2 Thessalonians 2:1-2, Paul says that the day of the Lord is the time when Christ comes and we are gathered together to Him. It will be preceded by a widespread apostasy and the revealing of the antichrist, whom Paul calls “the man of lawlessness, the son of destruction” (2 Thess. 2:3). Thus the final day of the Lord begins with the tribulation and concludes with the second coming of Jesus Christ. Since when he was with them Paul had taught these new believers about this coming, certain day, he reminds them (v. 1) that they had no need for anything to be written to them.

Since this concept of the day of the Lord is repeated so frequently in Scripture, it will certainly happen or God’s Word is not true. Those are the only options! To conclude that because it hasn’t happened in 2,000 years, it isn’t going to happen, is to shrug off all of the many already fulfilled prophecies in the Bible. Peter anticipated scoffers doing this, though (2 Pet. 3:3-7):

Know this first of all, that in the last days mockers will come with their mocking, following after their own lusts, and saying, “Where is the promise of His coming? For ever since the fathers fell asleep, all continues just as it was from the beginning of creation.” For when they maintain this, it escapes their notice that by the word of God the heavens existed long ago and the earth was formed out of water and by water, through which the world at that time was destroyed, being flooded with water. But by His word the present heavens and earth are being reserved for fire, kept for the day of judgment and destruction of ungodly men.

So we should not doubt that the day of the Lord is coming, even though it is delayed. You either have to throw out the Bible completely or acknowledge that this day will certainly come!

2. The day of the Lord will be sudden, unexpected, and inescapable for those in spiritual darkness.

1 Thess. 5:2-3: “For you yourselves know full well that the day of the Lord will come just like a thief in the night. While they are saying, ‘Peace and safety!’ then destruction will come upon them suddenly like labor pains upon a woman with child, and they will not escape.”

Whenever the idea of God’s intervening in judgment or salvation comes up, people are curious to know, “When is it going to happen?” In Mark 13:4, the disciples asked Jesus, “Tell us, when will these things be, and what will be the sign when all these things are going to be fulfilled?” He went on to give them a number of signs, some of which were initially fulfilled in the destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70, but others which await fulfillment in the future. But even though Jesus gave a number of future signs that would signal His coming, at the end of His discourse He still emphasized the need for His followers to be alert (Mark 13:37): “What I say to you I say to all, ‘Be on the alert!’”

Again, just before the risen Lord Jesus ascended, the disciples asked (Acts 1:6), “Lord, is it at this time You are restoring the kingdom to Israel?” Jesus replied (Acts 1:7), “It is not for you to know times or epochs which the Father has fixed by His own authority.” He then went on to repeat the Great Commission. Our focus should not be on fixing dates, but on spreading the gospel to those who will face God’s certain judgment if they do not repent.

The phrase Jesus used, “times and epochs,” is the same as that which Paul uses in verse 1. When Paul had taught these new believers about the Lord’s coming, he probably had passed on to them that Jesus had used this analogy of a thief to exhort His followers to be alert and watching for His coming (Matt. 24:42-43):

“Therefore be on the alert, for you do not know which day your Lord is coming. But be sure of this, that if the head of the house had known at what time of the night the thief was coming, he would have been on the alert and would not have allowed his house to be broken into. For this reason you also must be ready; for the Son of Man is coming at an hour when you do not think He will.”

So the point of the day of the Lord coming like a thief in the night is that it will be sudden and unexpected. The analogy of the woman with labor pains may include some unexpectedness, since even though a woman knows her time is near, she never knows exactly when her labor pains will come on in earnest. But the main idea of the labor pains for the pregnant woman is that they are inescapable. In a day when many women died in childbirth, there was always a certain amount of anxiety about that inevitable process. But pregnant women knew that labor pains were the inescapable consequence of being pregnant.

When Paul says that people will be saying, “Peace and safety!” just prior to destruction coming on them, he may be referring to the prophets Jeremiah (6:14) and Ezekiel (13:10), who condemned the false prophets of their day for assuring people of peace when God had declared impending judgment. Or, he may be referring to a popular slogan of the Roman Empire, which declared peace and safety to all who were under their rule (Weima, p. 881). The picture is that people will be enjoying a time of peace and prosperity, perhaps under the initial rule of antichrist, the new world ruler. They will not feel the need to get right with God and they will laugh off the idea of impending judgment, just as Lot’s sons-in-law thought that he was joking about the doom of Sodom (Gen. 19:14).

Revelation 18 presents the same picture of worldly Babylon when the Lord returns. She will be prosperous and secure, living for pleasure without God. But suddenly, in one hour, destruction will come on her and all of her great wealth will be laid waste. “Destruction” as both Paul and John in Revelation use the term, does not refer to annihilation, but rather, as Leon Morris (The First and Second Epistles to the Thessalonians [Eerdmans], p. 153) puts it, “the loss of that life which is really life.” He points out that in 2 Thessalonians 1:9, the same word is used to describe eternal “banishment from the living presence of the Lord,” which is its meaning in our text. He concludes (p. 154), “It still needs emphasis that there are no other alternatives than life with the Lord or eternal loss. One or the other is inevitable.”

But what about for believers? How does the day of the Lord affect us?

3. The day of the Lord is an expected event for us who are children of light and day.

1 Thess. 5:4-5: “But you, brethren, are not in darkness, that the day would overtake you like a thief; for you are all sons of light and sons of day. We are not of night nor of darkness.”

When I used to believe in the pretribulation rapture, I understood these verses to mean that the day of the Lord will not overtake us as a thief because we won’t be on earth when it comes. But as I understand it now, that isn’t what Paul is saying. Rather, he says that as sons of light and sons of day, that day will not overtake us like a thief because we will be expecting it and we will be living in light of its certainty.

The darkness that Paul refers to is both spiritual and moral. In Ephesians 4:18-19, Paul refers to unbelievers who are “darkened in their understanding, excluded from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them, because of the hardness of their heart; and they, having become callous, have given themselves over to sensuality for the practice of every kind of impurity with greediness.” In Romans 1:21, Paul refers to those who knew God, but didn’t “honor Him as God or give thanks.” As a result, “their foolish heart was darkened.” As a result (Rom. 1:24-31), God gave them over in the lusts of their hearts to various degrading passions.

But when God saves us, He rescues us from Satan’s domain of darkness and transfers us to Christ’s kingdom of light (Col. 1:12-13). While exhorting us to moral purity in contrast to those in the world, Paul said (Eph. 5:7-10), “Therefore do not be partakers with them; for you were formerly darkness, but now you are Light in the Lord; walk as children of Light (for the fruit of the Light consists in all goodness and righteousness and truth), trying to learn what is pleasing to the Lord.” (See, also, John 12:35-36.)

So there is a distinct contrast between unbelievers, characterized by spiritual and moral darkness, and believers, who are children of light and day. Believers will not be surprised when the day of the Lord comes because they expect it. But, if that is so, then why does Paul go on to exhort us to be alert?

4. Since we know that the day of the Lord is coming, we should be alert and sober, putting on the armor of faith, love, and hope.

1 Thess. 5:6-8: “So then let us not sleep as others do, but let us be alert and sober. For those who sleep do their sleeping at night, and those who get drunk get drunk at night. But since we are of the day, let us be sober, having put on the breastplate of faith and love, and as a helmet, the hope of salvation.”

The certain coming of the day should motivate us to live in line with what we are in the Lord. We are sons (children) of light and of day. I take those phrases to be synonymous. This is our position in Christ. But that position requires action: Let us not sleep, but be alert and sober, putting on the breastplate of faith and love, and as a helmet, the hope of salvation.

“Others” (v. 6) refers to unbelievers, pictured here as sleeping. This means that they are living as if there will never be a judgment day. If they hear someone mention God’s impending judgment on sinners, they roll their eyes and chuckle as if the person giving the warning believes in fables from the dark ages. Verse 7 is an illustration of the principle from the natural world: people generally sleep at night and get drunk at night. Those who sleep spiritually are in spiritual darkness, either like those physically asleep or like a drunk who has no idea of dangers around him. They will be caught by surprise when the day of the Lord engulfs them.

The Bible has many scenes of sleeping people who were oblivious to physical or spiritual danger. Some were unbelievers and some were believers. Israel’s enemy general, Sisera, was fleeing from Israel’s army. He came exhausted to the tent of a woman named Jael, who invited him in. After he fell asleep in her tent, she took a tent peg and drove it through his temple, giving Israel complete victory (Judges 4:17-24). He never knew what hit him.

Later, the mighty Samson was lulled to sleep by the deceptive Delilah, who then called for the Philistine warlords to try to seize him (Judges 16). He finally succumbed to her pleas to reveal the secret of his strength, leading to his capture, blinding, and enslavement. By sleeping in Delilah’s lap, he was extremely foolish and insensitive to the danger that he was in.

The disciples could not stay awake to pray with Jesus in the garden. When His enemies came upon Him, they all fled in terror. The virgins in Jesus’ parable of His second coming all fell asleep while waiting for the bridegroom. The wise virgins had prepared themselves with sufficient oil, but the foolish ones slept without enough oil. The wise were taken into the wedding feast, but the foolish were shut out. Jesus’ application is (Matt. 25:13), “Be on the alert then, for you do not know the day nor the hour.”

That’s Paul’s application here: Don’t sleep, but be alert and sober! The verb, “having put on,” may also be translated, “putting on.” If it means, “having put on,” Paul is saying, “Be what you are. When you trusted in Christ, you put on this spiritual armor. Now, live like it!” Or, if it means, “putting on,” the idea is that the way we remain alert and sober is by putting on this spiritual armor.

Elsewhere (Eph. 6:11-20; Rom. 13:12; 2 Cor. 6:7; 10:4), Paul uses the analogy of spiritual armor, assigning different meanings to the various pieces. In the well-known Ephesians 6 text, for example, the breastplate is righteousness, whereas here it is faith and love. In both texts, the helmet is salvation, but here it is “the hope of salvation,” which points to our future deliverance when Christ returns. In both cases, Paul is drawing from Isaiah 59:17, which pictures God as a mighty warrior:

He put on righteousness like a breastplate,
And a helmet of salvation on His head;
And He put on garments of vengeance for clothing
And wrapped Himself with zeal as a mantle.

In our text, Paul says that as believers, we must put on this armor, which God Himself uses in Isaiah. Paul describes the armor with the three cardinal Christian virtues that he has already emphasized (1:3), faith, love, and hope. John Calvin (Calvin’s Commentaries [Baker], p. 289, italics his) observes, “He omits nothing of what belongs to spiritual armour, for the man that is provided with faith, love, and hope, will be found in no department unarmed.”

John MacArthur (The MacArthur New Testament Commentary, 1 & 2 Thessalonians [Moody Press], pp. 161-162) points out that these three virtues protect us against temptation from the forces of darkness. He says that faith is trust in God’s person. He always acts in accordance with His attributes. It is also trust in God’s power. Nothing is too difficult for Him. Faith is trust in God’s promises. He always keeps His word. And, faith is trust in God’s sovereign plan, as revealed in Scripture. It will happen as God’s word states.

Love probably refers both to love for God and love for others, the two great commandments. Hope looks ahead to the glorious future that God has prepared for all who believe in Jesus Christ. MacArthur concludes (p. 162), “When faith is weak, love grows cold. When love grows cold, hope is lost. When hope in God’s promise of future glory is weak, believers are vulnerable to temptation and sin.”

So in light of the coming day of the Lord, do an occasional spiritual checkup. Ask yourself: “Is my faith in Christ and His sacrifice for me solid? Do I daily trust the crucified and risen Savior (John 14:1; 20:31)? Is my love for God fresh and vital (Rev. 2:4-5)? Is my love for others fervent and growing (1 Pet. 1:22; 4:8)? Does my hope in Christ’s coming and the future glory He has promised motivate me to obey and serve Him (2 Tim. 4:8)?


I once worked at the swanky Drake Hotel in Chicago. Years before I was there, in July of 1959, Queen Elizabeth was scheduled to visit Chicago. Elaborate preparations were made for her visit. The waterfront was readied for docking her ship. Litter baskets were painted and a red carpet was ready to be rolled out for her to walk on. Many hotels were alerted to be ready. But when they contacted the Drake, the manager said, “We are making no plans for the Queen. Our rooms are always ready for royalty.”

That’s how our lives should be in light of Christ’s return. We shouldn’t have to make any special or unusual preparations. We should live each day alert and ready for the day of the Lord.

Application Questions

  1. Since there are so many different views on prophecy, how can we be certain enough about it for it to affect our daily lives?
  2. To what extent should we emphasize God’s impending judgment when we tell others about Jesus?
  3. Since Jesus taught that His coming will happen after many different signs, why does He tell us to be alert, since we don’t know the day or hour? Shouldn’t we know the general time?
  4. What are some ways that Christians are prone to “get sleepy” with regard to the Lord’s coming? How can we stay alert?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2016, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

Related Topics: Christian Life, Eschatology (Things to Come)

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