The Day of the Lord, 1-11
5:1 Now on the topic of times and seasons, brothers and sisters, you have no need for anything to be written to you. 5:2 For you know quite well that the day of the Lord will come in the same way as a thief in the night. 5:3 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.
Walking in the light means acting upon what we already know. Having shown them that their fears concerning their deceased brethren were groundless, Paul now allays their concerns that they might be unprepared for Christ’s return. They thought they could best be prepared by knowing when it would happen; Paul tells them they cannot know when the great event will take place, and so they must be continually in a state of alertness and readiness.
Now – Or, ‘but’ – this passage (1 Thess 5:1-11) is continuous with 1 Thess 4:13-18. Although pre-millenialists distinguish between the day of the Lord (v2) and Christ’s coming for his saints, there are no grounds here for such a distinction. In fact, v4 shows that the day of the Lord has to do with saints also, but they should not be unprepared for it.
About times and dates – i.e., of the coming of the Lord. See Mk 13:32 Acts 1:7. We do not know, and we need not know, the time of our Lord’s return.
You know very well – hinting that the Lord himself had spoken on this subject, Mt 24:43; Lk 12:39; cf 2 Pet 3:10.
The day of the Lord is spoken of in the OT. Amos uses the term as already current, but challenges the accepted understanding that it would be a time of judgement upon the heathen, and says that Israel also would be judged. The NT uses a variety of expressions, and underscores the judgement of the individual, Rom 14:12. Although the day of the Lord means glory for believers, it means destruction for the godless, v3.
Will come like a thief in the night – the original is in the present tense, adding to the vividness. The idea is of total unexpectedness. Burglars do not announce beforehand when they plan to call on us; and the problem is compounded if we are asleep at the time.
Jordan Atkinson argues that ‘Paul compares the day of the Lord to a thief in the night in [this verse] because of the influence of Joel 2:9. While the scholarly consensus is that the thief imagery owes to Jesus’s thief imagery for his second coming in Matthew 24:42–44 or Luke 12:39–40, Joel 2:9 better fits the criteria for allusions identified in G. K. Beale’s Handbook on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament.’
Efforts to determine the date of Christ’s return are foolish. His return will be sudden and unexpected. So Christians should always be ready for this great event. ‘Suppose the Lord were to return today. How would he find you living? Are you ready to meet him? Live each day prepared to welcome Christ.’ (Life Application Bible)
See Acts 20:35
While people are saying, “Peace and safety” – This verse has something in common with Lk 21:34, not the only instance where Paul agrees with Luke where that evangelist differs from the others.
If it is vital for those who love Christ to be ready to meet him, how much more urgent is it for those who have not yet trusted him? The apostle speaks here of a deluded multitude at the time of Jesus’ return. For them, his coming will be neither expected nor welcome. Their case is hopeless, you might think. But, on the contrary, it is for their sakes that the Lord has delayed his coming. It is to give them time to believe, before it is too late. This interval between the Lord’s first coming and his return is the gospel day, the day of salvation, the time when God says to those who do not yet know him, ‘Today, while it is called today, harden not your hearts’. Some indeed scoff at this delay and mistake divine patience for divine impotence. This is addressed in 2 Pet 3:3f.
It is possible that Paul is referring to the alleged “peace and security” provided by the emperors as Benefactors of the city. Such a claim was made for Caesar Augustus in an inscription found in Asia: “Divine Providence…has now crowned our life with the best by bringing in Augustus and has filled him with noble concern for the welfare (benefaction) of all humanity and has sent him to us and to those who come after us (as a Savior) who will put an end to war and set every thing in order.” Paul writes that “when they say peace and security then comes sudden destruction on them.” The prosperity and safety that the emperors of Rome can provide are only illusory. The second coming of Christ-who comes as a thief in the night will bring tribulation and judgment and will expose all man’s deceptive claims of self-sufficiency.
They say, “Peace and safety” while all the while destruction hangs over their heads, ready to drop at any minute. This apathy, this complacency, this false notion of peace reminds us of Eze 13:10; Jer 6:14; 8:11; Mic 3:5. See also 2 Pet 3:3ff.
Destruction indicates separation from God (2 Thess 1:9) rather than annihilation. In carries ‘the thought of utter and hopeless ruin, the loss of all that gives worth to existence’ (Milligan). The word-order and tense in the original adds to the suspense and impact: suddenly comes destruction!
Labour pains of a pregnant woman – With the thief simile, v2, the emphasis was on unexpectedness; here, the stress is on inevitability. On the comparison with child-birth, see Isa 13:6-8; Jer 9:31; Mk 13:8. The simile suggests not only pain, but suddenness and inevitability: they will not escape.
5:4 But you, brothers and sisters, are not in the darkness for the day to overtake you like a thief would. 5:5 For you all are sons of the light and sons of the day. We are not of the night nor of the darkness.
Walking in the light means being ready. The Thessalonians’ problem will not be solved by finding out the date of the Lord’s return, but by being in a state of continuous readiness.
But you, brothers, are not in darkness – ‘The Day of the Lord will not “overtake them as a thief,” stealing on them suddenly and despoiling them of their treasures unawares, but it will come to them as the welcome daybreak, full of light and joy.’ (Geoffrey Wilson)
Sons of the light is, of course, idiomatic. ‘Light’ is the distinguishing characteristic of Christians.
Sons of the day may refer back to ‘the day of the Lord’.
We do not belong to the night or to the darkness – ‘Imagine that you and your family are enjoying your summer holiday. One evening the sun goes down, you draw the curtains, and everybody goes to bed. You sleep well too, because the following day you are expecting a visit from the family’s favourite Uncle Bill. But because you are tired, you oversleep. In the morning the sun rises as usual, but you know nothing about it because you are till fast asleep and the curtains are still drawn. Only one member of the family wakes early, your eldest daughter. She gets up and flings back the curtains of her room, so that the sun streams in. Suddenly, there is a loud knock on the front door, and Uncle Bill stands outside. Your daughter is ready to welcome him. She is not taken by surprise, for she is awake, alert and in the light. But the rest of you are covered with confusion because you are still asleep and still in the darkness.’ (Stott)
5:6 So then we must not sleep as the rest, but must stay alert and sober. 5:7 For those who sleep, sleep at night and those who get drunk are drunk at night. 5:8 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.
Living in the light means being alert and self-controlled. Sleep is natural to those who are ‘of the night’, and is symbolic of the insensibility and helplessness that sin produces. Cf. Eph 5:11-14. They as asleep in the sense that they do not think about spiritual things at all, or if they do, their thoughts are as vain dreams.
Believers, on the other hand, must remain ‘alert and self-controlled’ – spiritually awake and morally alert while waiting for the Lord’s coming. Cf. Mt 24:42; 25:13; Mk 13:35.
Those who get drunk – a fitting metaphor for those without Christ. Like drunken men, they live in a false paradise and enjoy a false security.
Self-controlled includes ideas of sobriety and watchfulness. The metaphor which follows develops this, since drunkenness or sleep in a soldier on duty would be a crime.
The metaphor of the Christian armour is used in Rom 13:12-13; 2 Cor 6:7; 10:4; Eph 6:13ff. (cf Isa 59:17) The details vary, suggesting that the metaphor should not be pressed too far. (In Ephesians, the breastplate is righteousness, and faith is the shield; neither hope nor love is mentioned).
Here again is the great triad of faith, hope and love (cf 1 Thess 1:3).
The hope of salvation points to the future aspect of the saving work of Christ: the anticipation of the consummation of all things is indeed a helmet, protecting us from injuries which would otherwise prove fatal.
‘When he urges them to live responsibly, and to exercise faith, love and hope, this appeal is based not so much on the need to be on top form when Jesus appears, as on the need to practise the new life which Christ through his death and resurrection has already conveyed to them. For people who already belong to the light of day, the life-style which characterises the darkness ought to be out of the question.’ (Travis, I Believe in the Second Coming of Jesus, 85)
Faith: believing that there is a God who has his eye ever upon us, and that there is an eternal world to prepare for. Love: desiring God above all earthly good. Hope: that he who began a work of grace in our hearts will bring it to completion. By exercising these three principal graces, we shall be learning how to live for God, with whom we hope to live for ever.
The Scriptures urge us time and again to look for Christ’s return, to long for it, to love it, and to be ready for it. ‘The Lord is at hand’, says Paul, Phil 4:5. Even now, the Judge is standing at the door, James 5:9. Jesus himself promises, ‘Surely I am coming quickly,’ Rev 22:20.
Being ready for Christ’s return does not mean that we should stop making plans. Luther: ‘If I knew that the Lord was returning tomorrow, I would still plant a tree today.’ Nor does it mean that we should be idle. We are called not only to watch, and wait, but also to work. Spurgeon: ‘Like the apostles, I hope our memorial will be our acts. There are good brethren in the world who are impractical. The grand doctrine of the Second Advent makes them stand with open mouths, peering into the skies, so that I am ready to say, “Ye men of Plymouth, why stand ye here gazing up into heaven?” The fat that Jesus Christ is to come again is not a reason for star-gazing, but for working in the power of the Holy Ghost.” Rom 13:11f – ‘The hour has come for you to wake up from your slumber, because our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed. The night is nearly over; the day is almost here. So let us put aside the deeds of darkness and put on the armour of light.’
So the most important question for us all is not, Do you know when Jesus will return?’ but rather, ‘When Jesus returns, will you be ready? have you buckled on that breastplate of faith and love, and put on that helmet of hope? Hurry, there may not be much more time left.’
5:9 For God did not destine us for wrath but for gaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ. 5:10 He died for us so that whether we are alert or asleep we will come to life together with him.
Appoint – Back of our watchfulness and preparedness lies the reassurance of our divinely appointed destiny.
Suffer wrath – we face again the appalling fate of the lost (cf. 1 Thess 1:10), and are reminded of what we are saved from as well as unto. For we, too, ‘were by nature objects of wrath,’ Eph 2:3. The modern refusal to acknowledge this reality leads to a debilitated Christianity.
Receive salvation carries the force of ‘obtain’, or ‘acquire’ salvation. But this is not through our own effort, but ‘through our Lord Jesus Christ’. ‘Our salvation is planned, provided, and bestowed by God; yet we have the duty of “obtaining” it!’ (Geoffrey Wilson) This is the purpose and prize of the wakeful, soldierly activity of vv6-8.
The doctrines of substitutionary atonement, and of union with Christ, are thus present early in Paul’s written ministry, and even though in these letters he is preoccupied with other matters, he can mention then in a simple”], non-controversial way, as accepted by all. (cf 1 Cor 2:2)
‘The mention of Christ’s death for us in such a close connection with the wrath of God is too important to overlook. For it clearly implies that Christ averted that wrath from us by taking it upon himself, thus delivering us from our deserved doom.’ (cf Rom 5:9; 2 Cor 5:21; Gal 3:13) (Geoffrey Wilson)
Whether we are awake or asleep = ‘whether we live or die’. A reference back to 4:13-18, and further reassurance that whatever state we are in, we shall live with him.
5:11 Therefore encourage one another and build up each other, just as you are in fact doing.
Encourage (parakaleo) carries the meaning of strengthening, as well as consolation. In the present passage it is also closely linked with the notion of exhortation.
Build each other up links with Paul’s later teaching on believers being built into a temple of the Holy Spirit.
Final Instructions, 12-22
5:12 Now we ask you, brothers and sisters, to acknowledge those who labor among you and preside over you in the Lord and admonish you, 5:13 and to esteem them most highly in love because of their work. Be at peace among yourselves.
Respect – This word defines what the attitude of a congregation should be towards its pastors. Not unthinking, uncritical, unquestioning deference, as though they were princes or popes. But respect.
Those engaged in pastoral ministry are described in three ways in this verse:-
(a) They are those who work hard among you. The pastorate is not a Sunday-only occupation. The expression used here is often used of hard manual labour. Study, visiting, teaching, leading and praying demand considerable exertion. Cf. Col 1:29.
(b) They are those who are over you in the Lord. They are in a very real sense ‘under’ their people, as servants and ministers. Their attitude and role is marked by humility rather than authority, Mar10:42-45. But there is an important element of God-given authority also. The expression used by Paul suggests a mixture of caring and leadership, such as would be exercised by landlords, estate managers, and guardians of children. The NT also connects this kind of leadership with the role of the father in a family, 1 Tim 3:4-5,12.
(c) They are those who admonish you. The verb ‘noutheteo‘ means to warn, reprove or discipline. It is often linked with ‘teaching’, as in Col 1:28 3:16.
Live in peace with each other – ‘Yet in too many churches they are at loggerheads, which is painful to those involved, inhibiting to the church’s life and growth, and damaging to its public image.’ (Stott)
5:14 And we urge you, brothers and sisters, admonish the undisciplined, comfort the discouraged, help the weak, be patient toward all.
‘Don’t loaf around with the idle; warn them. Don’t yell at the timid and weak, encourage and help them. At times it’s difficult to distinguish between idleness and timidity. Two people may be doing nothing – one out of laziness and the other out of shyness or fear of doing something wrong. The key to ministry is sensitivity: sensing the condition of each person and offering the appropriate remedy for each situation. You can’t help effectively until you know the problem. You can’t apply the medicine until you know where the wound is.’ (Life Application Bible)
5:15 See that no one pays back evil for evil to anyone, but always pursue what is good for one another and for all.
5:16 Always rejoice,
5:17 constantly pray,
Pray continually – ‘It is not in the moving of the lips, but in the elevation of the heart to God, that the essence of prayer consists.’ (Lightfoot) we cannot always be saying our prayers, but we can our lives continually in the spirit of prayer: that is, in an attitude of dependence, conscious of God’s presence, and yielding ourselves to his will.
‘O, saith the soul, I see it is in vain to follow the means as I have done; still Satan foils me; I will even give over. Dost thou remember, soul, it is God’s appointment? Surely then thou wouldst persevere in the midst of discouragement. He that bids thee pray, bids thee pray without ceasing. He that bids thee hear, bids thee wait at the posts of wisdom. Thou wouldst reason thus, God hath set me on duty, and here I will stand, till God takes me off, and bids me leave praying.’ (Gurnall)
5:18 in everything give thanks. For this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.
This is God’s will for you – ‘This statement almost certainly belongs to all three commands which precede it.’ (Stott) This command is ‘universal in sphere, as the two before it are continuous in time.’ Christian life and worship should be characterised by unceasing and unstinting rejoicing, praying, and thanksgiving.
‘As even the most adverse circumstances must work together for the believer’s good, (Rom 8:28) there is no situation to which he should not respond by giving thanks to God. (Ac 16:25) Such gratitude is the fruit of grace and it stands in marked contrast to the thanklessness that characterises the heathen.’ (Rom 1:21) (Wilson)
‘Thanksgiving is a natural element of Christian worship (1 Cor 14:16-17) and is to characterize all of Christian life. (Col 2:7 4:2) Early Christians expressed thanks: for Christ’s healing ministry; (Lk 17:16) for Christ’s deliverance of the believer from sin; (Rom 6:17-18 7:25) for God’s indescribable gift of grace in Christ (2 Cor 9:14-15 1 Cor 15:57; compare Rom 1:21); and for the faith of fellow Christians.’ (Rom 1:8) (Holman)
5:19 Do not extinguish the Spirit.
Do not extinguish the Spirit – an appropriate metaphor, given the Pentecostal coming of the Spirit with what seemed to be tongues of fire, Acts 2:3. Timothy is urged to ‘fan into flame the gift of God’, 2 Tim 1:6.
‘The Holy Spirit is likened to fire, or symbolized by fire, in a number of places and certainly fire may illustrate very aptly some of the work of the Spirit. But conduct like that which Paul is castigating, idleness, impurity, and the like, quenches the Spirit. When a man consents to have such things in his life, then the effective power of the Spirit within him is quenched. The bright burning of the fire of the Spirit and a willingness to engage in sin are absolutely inconsistent with each other.’ (Leon Morris, Spirit of the Living God, 98)
History shows that the greatest opposition to an outpouring of the Holy Spirit often comes from within the church itself. There is a great danger from institutionalism and a fondness for decorum and ceremony, so that if anything out of the ordinary happens, it is immediately regarded with resentment.
‘Fire is quenched by pouring on water or by withdrawing fuel; so the Spirit is quenched by living in sin, which is like pouring water on a fire, or by not improving our gifts and graces, which is like withdrawing fuel from the hearth.’ (Thomas Manton)
Some would infer from Paul’s rather infrequent references to the spiritual gifts that they were less prevalent in the early church than charismatics and Pentecostalists would like to think. But this may be just an ‘accident of history’. It is at least as reasonable to say that he took the exercise of the charismata pretty much for granted, except where there were problems (as in Corinth). ‘Indeed, the problem in Thessalonica is especially telling, since apparently there was a tendency to play down the prophetic Spirit in their gatherings; but Paul would have none of that.’ (DPL)
5:20 Do not treat prophecies with contempt. 5:21 But examine all things; hold fast to what is good.
Do not treat prophecies with contempt – Prophecies are messages which proclaim the mind and will of God, Eph 3:5, and can include prediction of future events, Acts 11:28; 21:11. Their purpose was to strengthen and build up the local church, 1 Cor 14:3.
Perhaps the Thessalonian church, like that at Corinth, (1 Cor 14:1) were under-valuing the gift of prophecy. Possibly, some of the ‘idle’ members of the church, v14; cf 4:11f, had abused this gift by predicting the immediate return of Christ. This had led to a certain scepticism on the part of the church as a whole. Because of their bad experience of counterfeit utterances, they tended to discount genuine prophetic messages. Paul warns against this over-reaction, and urges that prophecy is given its proper place in edifying the church, cf 1 Cor 12:28.
This verse is closely linked to the preceding and following verses. The Spirit’s fire can be ‘put out’ by treating prophecies with contempt. On the other hand, discrimination and discernment are to be exercised in order to distinguish the genuine from the false, cf. 1 Cor 12:10; 1 Jn 4:1.
‘The reason for this disparagement of prophetical utterances can readily be surmised. Wherever God plants wheat, Satan sows his tares. Wherever God establishes a church, the devil erects a chapel. And so, too, wherever the Holy Spirit enables certain men to perform miracles of healing, the evil one distributes his “lying wonders.” And wherever the Paraclete brings a true prophet upon the scene, the deceiver presents his false prophet. The easiest – but not the wisest – reaction to this state of affairs is to despise all prophesying. Add to this fact that the fanatics, the meddlers, and the loafers at Thessalonica may not have appreciated some of the utterances of the true prophets, and it is readily understood why by some in the congregation prophetic utterances had fallen into disfavour.’ (Hendriksen)
On the connection between the Holy Spirit (v19) and prophesy, see Lk 1:67.
Note the ‘but’ (untranslated in the NIV) at the beginning of verse 21. This connects to the previous verse, so that the meaning of vv20-22 is, ‘Do not despise spiritual instruction, but test it; hold on to the good, reject everything that is bad.’
If many within the church have a tendency to reject anything unusual, and in doing so are apt to ‘quench the Spirit’s fire’, v19, others are prone to run to the opposite extreme. They are credulous, and are too ready to accept uncritically occurrences which are out of the ordinary. Hence the need to ‘test everything’ and to ‘hold on to the good.’
We are not to accept uncritically everything that claims to be a manifestation of the Holy Spirit. The magicians of Egypt were able to duplicate many of the things miracles that Moses did. Therefore, we are to ‘test the spirits to see whether they are from God,’ 1 Jn 4:1.
Remember that miraculous claims have been made by many down the centuries. No section of the church has made more such claims than the Roman Catholic church in the Middle Ages. These were not only widespread, but also very profitable.
In the 18th century John Wesley was for a while greatly impressed with the claims of the ‘French Prophets’. Then there was Edward Irving, who became the sensation of London in the 1820s, but whose story ended in sorrow. A leading associate of Irving was Robert Baxter, who claimed to receive very direct prophecies and guidance (such as that he should leave his wife and children) but who later recanted. There is no need to doubt the sincerity of such people.
We must not exclude the possibility that some phenomena are produced by evil spirits. In spiritism you have tongues-speaking and healing which seem indistinguishable from those produced by the Holy Spirit.
Other unusual manifestations may be explainable in psychological terms. Under hypnotic and trance-conditions, effects such as tongues-speaking can be replicated.
All of the means that spiritual phenomena and the fullness of the Spirit are distinct. The Spirit has been poured out in revival with a variety of manifestations – sometimes with many, sometimes with few evidences of the extraordinary gifts of the Spirit.
What are we to test? Utterances purporting to be prophecies seem to be uppermost in Paul’s mind here, cf. v20. Those which have been inscripturated come, of course, with divine authority. But others, uttered from time to time by teachers who may well be utterly sincere, need to be tested. See also 1 Cor 14:29-33.
How are we to ‘test everything’? Firstly, don’t rely on feelings. The subjective dimension is inadequate by itself. Robert Baxter would say that he had never felt so much love for God, and yet he came to see how misled he had been. Secondly, don’t base your judgement entirely on the opinion or experiences of others.
How can we test everything? We need to distinguish between principles, preferences, and prejudices.
5:22 Stay away from every form of evil.
The AV reads: ‘Abstain from all appearance of evil’. Without a doubt, the translators meant what the NIV and other modern translations say. But I have heard members of a previous generation of evangelical Christians, brought up on the AV, take it to mean: ‘Don’t do things that are really evil, or even things that appear to be evil.’ They thought thereby that they could prevent the gospel from being brought into disrepute. Now, Paul does have some teaching about abstaining from certain things which, though not evil in themselves, might seem to be evil to ‘weaker brethren’, but that it not what he is talking about here. And, in any case, some of our older brothers and sisters went even further in misapplying this text when they would, for example, allow the viewing of films (movies) at home on the TV, but not in the cinema, because the latter would be apparent to non-Christians, and constitute a ‘bad witness’.
For the overall flow of the argument in vv20-22, see comment on v21.
5:23 Now may the God of peace himself make you completely holy and may your spirit and soul and body be kept entirely blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. 5:24 He who calls you is trustworthy, and he will in fact do this.
‘The spirit, soul, and body refer not so much to the distinct parts of a person as to the entire being of a person. This expression is Paul’s way of saying that God must be involved in every aspect of our lives. It is wrong to think that we can separate our spiritual lives from everything else, obeying God only in some ethereal sense or living for him only one day each week. Christ must control all of us, not just a ‘religious’ part.’ (Life Application Bible)
‘Theologians have often discussed whether individual humans are composed of just body and soul, or of body, soul, and spirit. Yet this question has been somewhat misguided. Scripture represents people not as individuals composed of parts, but as integrated, acting units intimately interrelated with others. The biblical term “body” often denotes not simply the individual’s physical substance, but a channel through which, or a way in which, one gives oneself over to sin, (Rom 6:12) to God (Rom 12:1; 1 Cor 6:13,17,19) or to other persons. (1 Cor 6:15-16,18) Biblical words for “soul” often indicate the entire person, especially as longing or striving for life. (1 Sam 1:15; Ps 42:1-2; Pr 13:19) Biblical words for “spirit” again often denote the entire person, but this time as especially open to God.’ (Ezr 1:5; Jer 51:11; Rom 8:16) (Holman)
‘Biblical usage leads us to say that we have and are both souls and spirits, but it is a mistake to think that soul and spirit are two different things; a “trichotomous” view of man as body, soul, and spirit is incorrect. The common idea that the soul is an organ of this-worldly awareness only and that the spirit is a distinct organ of communion with God that is brought to life in regeneration is out of step with biblical teaching and word usage. Moreover, it leads to a crippling anti-intellectualism whereby spiritual insight and theological thought are separated to the impoverishing of both, theology being seen as “soulish” and unspiritual while spiritual perception is thought of as unrelated to the teaching and learning of God’s revealed truth.’ (Concise Theology)
5:25 Brothers and sisters, pray for us too.
5:26 Greet all the brothers and sisters with a holy kiss.
A holy kiss – ‘The “holy kiss” was not a sensual thing. Usually the men kissed the men, and the women kissed the women. (see Rom 16:16; 1 Cor 16:20; 1 Pet 5:14) Often when ministering on mission fields, I have had the saints greet me in this way; and I have never been offended or suspicious. J.B. Phillips in his paraphrase solves the problem by saying, “Give a handshake all around among the brotherhood.”‘ (Wiersbe)
5:27 I call on you solemnly in the Lord to have this letter read to all the brothers and sisters.
5:28 The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you.