Belonging to the Daylight -- Lectionary Reflection for Pentecost 24A (1 Thessalonians 5)
1 Thessalonians 5:1-11 New Revised Standard Version
5 Now concerning the times and the seasons, brothers and sisters, you do not need to have anything written to you. 2 For you yourselves know very well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night. 3 When they say, “There is peace and security,” then sudden destruction will come upon them, as labor pains come upon a pregnant woman, and there will be no escape! 4 But you, beloved, are not in darkness, for that day to surprise you like a thief; 5 for you are all children of light and children of the day; we are not of the night or of darkness. 6 So then let us not fall asleep as others do, but let us keep awake and be sober; 7 for those who sleep sleep at night, and those who are drunk get drunk at night. 8 But since we belong to the day, let us be sober, and put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation. 9 For God has destined us not for wrath but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, 10 who died for us, so that whether we are awake or asleep we may live with him. 11 Therefore encourage one another and build up each other, as indeed you are doing.
The Day of the Lord, when Christ returns (Parousia), for his people (1 Thess.4:13-18), will come without warning, just like a thief in the night. The analogy Paul uses here of the thief coming in the night is well-known in certain circles that insist that we are living in the last days. The reference has apocalyptic elements, which were developed for full effect in a movie by that title made back in the 1970s with the title A Thief in the Night that proved rather popular (strangely enough, I don’t remember seeing it).
Paul uses this image of a thief coming in the night because it catches one’s eye. We understand the implications. If you know when the thief is going to strike, you will be ready. Of course, thieves don’t give warnings. They don’t call ahead to tell us the time and location they intend to make their entry. They also don’t generally come during the day (bank robbers are not in view here), because they could easily be seen. At night, they can wear dark clothing and skulk about in the shadows. When they find a weak spot, they can get in and out without anyone knowing the difference (unless you have a very effective security system that wasn’t available in the first century). At least that’s how it works in the movies! The image, therefore, underscores the unexpected nature of Jesus’ return.
What we read here is a continuation of the message Paul delivered in 1Thessalonians 4:13-18. In that reading, Paul gives us a few details about what the moment of Christ’s return would look like. On that day, Jesus will return in the clouds and the dead in Christ will rise first, after which the believers who are alive will join them for the grand procession. Paul offered that message as a word of encouragement to a community worried about those who had died before the Day of the Lord. While Jesus might come as a thief in the night, without warning, Paul wants the Thessalonian believers to be ready when that moment comes.
One must be ready for the sudden appearance of Jesus, like in the thief in the night, but believers should live in the light as children of the day and not the night. The assumption here is that evil takes place under the cover of darkness when things go bump in the night. Keep in mind that the action in most horror movies under the cover of darkness. There is a clear dualism at work here, with light and darkness, day and night, contrasted. Thus, daylight is when we are awake, but we sleep at night. Here, we’re not supposed to sleep. The night is also the time when people get drunk. Believers, on the other hand, are supposed to be sober, not drunk.
What Paul is doing here is reinforcing the apocalyptic message he had earlier delivered. He has offered them a word of encouragement concerning the dead in Christ (they will rise first). However, Paul is concerned that in the interim, they might grow complacent. If this happens then they could easily fall back into old Gentile habits (living in the night). That concern is revealed in Paul’s reference to those who speak of “peace and security,” a watchword of the Empire, which placed those words on some of its coins. This may be the message of the Empire, but Paul warns against taking it to heart because to do so leads to destruction. Paul uses the metaphor here of a pregnant woman whose labor pains come without warning. When they begin, there is no going back. The same is true of the coming of the Lord. So, don’t get complacent. Be ready!
All of this is rooted in Jewish apocalyptic though, which offers a dualism of light and darkness, earthly realm versus the heavenly realm. As George Parsenios notes, “the hostility between the two realms is most obvious in Paul’s use of the imagery of armor in verse 8. This armor, though, is also the basis of the Thessalonians escape from judgment because the helmet that arms them is the ‘hope of salvation.’” [Feasting on the Word, p. 305]. The reference to armor is similar, but not as developed as that found in Ephesians 6:10-17. It should be noted that this armor is not something we choose, but is something received. In any case, Paul is preparing them for spiritual warfare that includes salvation that is received through Christ who died for us. As we hear this message of spiritual warfare, it’s worth noting that, as Ron Allen and Clark Williamson write: “Given the fervor for supporting national wars that sometimes uncritically sweeps through Christian communities, it is worth noting that the breastplate and helmet are to protect the wearer and are not instruments of killing” [Preaching the Letters without Dismissing the Law, p. 101].
While the Day of the Lord will come, according to Paul, the Thessalonians, if they keep alert and stay in relationship with Jesus, they will receive the gift of salvation. They will not be subject to God’s wrath, God’s judgment. It is good to remember as Allen and Williamson remind us, this apocalyptic message isn’t a “pie in the sky” sentiment. For Apocalyptic theologians, like Paul, the Day of the Lord was understood to be the means by which “God would set things right for people who had been denied blessing in the present evil age—for example, the poor, the enslaved, those who suffered injustice and violence” [Preaching the Letters, p. 101]. We might not embrace a full apocalyptic vision, but we must recognize the need for God to set things right, lest we not take seriously the realities of our age. For those of us who have universalist tendencies, we need to be careful that we don’t deny the possibility of God’s judgment. To do so might lead to the belief that there are no ultimate consequences of our actions.
Even as the previous reading from chapter 4 concluded with a call to encourage one another with this message, so does this portion. Paul wants them to encourage one another and build each other up with this message that believers are not destined for wrath but for salvation in Christ who died for us. With that, we can know that whether awake or asleep we will ultimately live with him, for as we learned in chapter 4, Jesus will gather us up. The challenge here, especially for Christians living in the United States, we must be careful not to receive this message in an escapist or divisive manner. These early Christians were in a much different position than are we. We need to remember that.