1 Now concerning the times and the seasons, brothers, you have no need to have anything written to you. 2 For you yourselves are fully aware that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night. 3 While people are saying, “There is peace and security,” then sudden destruction will come upon them as labor pains come upon a pregnant woman, and they will not escape. 4 But you are not in darkness, brothers, for that day to surprise you like a thief. 5 For you are all children of light, children of the day. We are not of the night or of the darkness. 6 So then let us not sleep, as others do, but let us keep awake and be sober. 7 For those who sleep, sleep at night, and those who get drunk, are drunk at night. 8 But since we belong to the day, let us be sober, having put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation. 9 For God has not destined us for wrath, but to obtain salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, 10 who died for us so that whether we are awake or asleep we might live with him. 11 Therefore encourage one another and build one another up, just as you are doing. – 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11 ESV
As chapter five opens, Paul shifts his focus from the Rapture, the end-times event when the church is “caught up” to meet the Lord in the air, to the “day of the Lord.” Though closely related and timed to happen in sequence, these are two separate events, and Paul treats them as such. The Rapture of the church will usher in the Tribulation, a literal seven-year period of intense judgment from God upon the earth. With the church removed, He will turn His attention to the lost who will make up the entire population of the planet, including His original chosen people, the nation of Israel. Prophetically, the “day of the Lord” begins with the Tribulation, includes Christ’s Second Coming at the end of the seven years, and concludes with the Millennium, the 1,000-year reign of Christ on earth.
Having encouraged the Thessalonians regarding the fate of their deceased brothers and sisters in Christ, Paul begins to address the living rather than the dead. He wants them to have a well-developed understanding of the sequence of events that will make up the end times. He has already addressed the Rapture, and with that reality firmly fixed in their minds, the Thessalonians have nothing to fear regarding the day of the Lord. Yes, it “will come like a thief in the night” (1 Thessalonians 5:2 ESV), unexpectedly and surprisingly.
Jesus also warned His disciples about the sudden and unexpected nature of this end-times event.
“But watch yourselves lest your hearts be weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and cares of this life, and that day come upon you suddenly like a trap. For it will come upon all who dwell on the face of the whole earth. But stay awake at all times, praying that you may have strength to escape all these things that are going to take place, and to stand before the Son of Man.” – Luke 21:34-36 ESV
Jesus was not suggesting that His disciples would live to see that day. Obviously, none of them did. He was also not teaching that believers would experience the day of the Lord. But notice that He does suggest that they pray for “strength to escape all these things” so that they might “stand before the Son of Man” (Luke 21:36 ESV). Jesus was encouraging His disciples and all true believers to live their lives with a sense of soberness and alertness, eagerly anticipating His return for them. He assures them that those who remain in Him will “escape all these things that are going to take place.”
But Paul describes a drastically different fate for all those who are alive when the day of the Lord begins: “sudden destruction will come upon them as labor pains come upon a pregnant woman, and they will not escape” (1 Thessalonians 5:3 ESV). Living with a false sense of peace and security, they will be caught completely by surprise at the sudden and unexpected nature of God’s judgment. And the prophets provide sobering details regarding the extent of the wrath God will pour out on sinful mankind in those days.
For see, the day of the Lord is coming—
the terrible day of his fury and fierce anger.
The land will be made desolate,
and all the sinners destroyed with it.
The heavens will be black above them;
the stars will give no light.
The sun will be dark when it rises,
and the moon will provide no light.
“I, the Lord, will punish the world for its evil
and the wicked for their sin.
I will crush the arrogance of the proud
and humble the pride of the mighty.” – Isaiah 13:0-11 NLT
“That terrible day of the Lord is near.
Swiftly it comes—
a day of bitter tears,
a day when even strong men will cry out.
It will be a day when the Lord’s anger is poured out—
a day of terrible distress and anguish,
a day of ruin and desolation,
a day of darkness and gloom,
a day of clouds and blackness,
a day of trumpet calls and battle cries.” – Zephaniah 1:14-16 NLT
Even Jesus described the devastating nature of God’s judgment.
“For then there will be great tribulation, such as has not been from the beginning of the world until now, no, and never will be.” – Matthew 24:21 ESV
But Paul is informing the Thessalonians that they have no reason to fear those dark days. Not because they will die long before the events take place but because, as followers of Christ, they will be protected and preserved from judgment.
For God has not destined us for wrath, but to obtain salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ… – 1 Thessalonians 5:9 ESV
The period of the Tribulation is intended as a divine judgment against sinful mankind. With the church removed at the Rapture, the remaining population of the earth will be made up solely of unbelievers. And as Jesus indicated, the divine judgment that God will bring upon them will be like nothing anyone has ever seen before. The book of Revelation outlines the nature of these catastrophic judgments.
…hail and fire mixed with blood were thrown down on the earth. One-third of the earth was set on fire, one-third of the trees were burned, and all the green grass was burned. – Revelation 8:7 NLT
…a great mountain of fire was thrown into the sea. One-third of the water in the sea became blood, one-third of all things living in the sea died, and one-third of all the ships on the sea were destroyed. – Revelation 8:8-9 NLT
…a great star fell from the sky, burning like a torch. It fell on one-third of the rivers and on the springs of water. The name of the star was Bitterness. It made one-third of the water bitter, and many people died from drinking the bitter water. – Revelation 8:10-11 NLT
…and one-third of the sun was struck, and one-third of the moon, and one-third of the stars, and they became dark. And one-third of the day was dark, and also one-third of the night. – Revelation 8:12-13 NLT
In the chronicle of his divinely inspired vision, John goes on to describe days marked by darkness, disease, intense suffering, unprecedented meteorological events, devastating natural disasters, and demonic activity. John leaves no doubt as to the intensity of these judgments and their impact on the inhabitants of the world.
In those days people will seek death but will not find it. They will long to die, but death will flee from them! – Revelation 9:6 NLT
They will be days of darkness, literally and figuratively. But Paul reminds his readers:
But you are not in darkness, brothers, for that day to surprise you like a thief. For you are all children of light, children of the day. We are not of the night or of the darkness. – 1 Thessalonians 5:4-5 ESV
The judgments of the Tribulation are not for Christ-followers. They are reserved for all those who have rejected God’s offer of salvation through faith alone in Christ alone. And yet, God in His mercy will make His offer of salvation available to those living during the Tribulation. John describes 144,000 Jews who will come to faith in Christ and become witnesses during the days of the Tribulation (Revelation 7:1-8). And, as a result of their evangelistic efforts, many will turn to Christ, even in the midst of all the pain and suffering. John describes seeing “a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, ‘Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!’” (Revelation 7:9-10 ESV). And when he inquires who these people are, he is told, “These are the ones coming out of the great tribulation. They have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb” (Revelation 7:14 ESV).
Even while pouring out His wrath on rebellious mankind, God will extend mercy to those who accept His gracious offer of salvation.
But for believers this side of the Rapture, there is no need to fear the coming wrath of God. But at the same time, Paul warns that we are not to live with a sense of misplaced confidence. He warns the Thessalonians, “let us not sleep, as others do, but let us keep awake and be sober” (1 Thessalonians 5:6 ESV). They were to live with a sense of keen awareness and sober-minded seriousness regarding their new life in Christ. Paul reminds them, “you are all children of light, children of the day. We are not of the night or of the darkness” (1 Thessalonians 5:5 ESV).
This is the same message Paul gave to the church in Colossae.
For he has rescued us from the kingdom of darkness and transferred us into the Kingdom of his dear Son, who purchased our freedom and forgave our sins. – Colossians 1:13-14 NLT
And the Ephesian believers were not left out.
Carefully determine what pleases the Lord. Take no part in the worthless deeds of evil and darkness; instead, expose them. It is shameful even to talk about the things that ungodly people do in secret. But their evil intentions will be exposed when the light shines on them, for the light makes everything visible. This is why it is said,
“Awake, O sleeper, rise up from the dead, and Christ will give you light.” – Ephesians 5:10-14 NLT
As children of light and those who have been transferred into the Kingdom of Christ and, as a result, “we belong to the day, let us be sober, having put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation” (1 Thessalonians 5:8 ESV). We have the resources necessary for living godly lives. And we have the assurance of our future glorification. We have no reason to fear death or to worry about ever having to face God’s judgment.
Christ died for us so that, whether we are dead or alive when he returns, we can live with him forever. So encourage each other and build each other up, just as you are already doing. – 1 Thessalonians 5:10-11 NLT
New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.