READ : 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11
If you knew the world was going to end tomorrow, how would you react? What would you do today? If you want some help in knowing how to answer that, listen to the apostle Paul.bq).
For the past few weeks we’ve been looking at one of Paul’s letters to the church in Thessalonica: 1 Thessalonians. And in the latter chapters of this letter, the subject of Christ’s second coming looms large. The Christians there had many questions and issues surrounding the whole subject of the Lord’s return, and Paul addresses those clearly and simply by explaining what’s going to happen when Jesus comes back again.
Christians have always believed in the second coming of Christ. We’re convinced that our world, our history, the whole story of humankind, as well as the story of the Bible, will end with Christ’s personal, visible return in glory to earth. In fact, this is one of the articles of our faith. We confess in the Apostles’ Creed that Christ was born of the Virgin Mary, that he suffered, died, was buried, rose again, ascended to heaven, and sits at the right hand of God. From there he will come to judge the living and the dead.
Now in chapter 4, Paul explains the events of this great end-time coming. He tells us exactly what will happen, and he uses these events as a means or a ground for encouraging us during our life’s struggles. “Encourage one another, comfort one another with these words, with these thoughts,” he says, especially when we’re confronted by the last enemy, the enemy of death. It’s the resurrection of Christ that gives us hope and the return of Christ that secures our future.
Now we come, though, to 1 Thessalonians chapter 5, and Paul raises the great issue of: “So what? Meanwhile. Now what? What do we do; how do we live?” If we believe that the world will end with Christ’s return, what should we be doing in the meantime? How should we live as we wait for and expect this great event?
I think it’s pretty clear what we shouldn’t do. Christians have sometimes been so caught up in their excitement and enthusiasm, indeed, as the Christians were in Thessalonica, that they sort of dropped everything and went off to simply wait, to gaze up into the sky, to sit on a hillside, in effect. But Paul’s counsel to us is very clear here in 1 Thessalonians 5. Let’s listen to what he says. “Now concerning the times and the seasons, brothers and sisters, you have no need to have anything written to you. For you yourselves are fully aware that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night. 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. But you are not in darkness, brothers and sisters, for that day to surprise you like a thief.”
What is Paul suggesting here? He begins by saying, “I have no need to write you concerning the times and the seasons.” Those are two technical words that refer to time in the Greek language. The first of them is kronos, and that’s ordinary time, length of time, or extended time. Kronos was pictured by the Greeks as literally Old Father Time with the long flowing white beard and the hourglass in his hand.
The other word, though, is extremely important in the New Testament. It’s the word kairos. And kairos means just the right time, the exact season, the very moment when a thing is ripe to happen. So what Paul says first of all is that I don’t really have to tell you about how long it will be until Christ returns or the exact precise moment when that will happen. Why? Not because they knew or because they were prone to speculate about these times and seasons, but because those things were not the business of the Christians in Thessalonica. Nor are they our business either. Jesus again and again warned against trying to set the date or determine the exact time when this would happen.
Just the other day I got a letter from a man in Florida who told me in the very first sentence that he was sure that most of the people reading that letter would be alive when the Lord returned because, according to his calculations – he had worked it all out – that it had to be any day now. It may be any day now, but that is simply not our business. The times and the seasons are in God’s hand. Whether it’s tomorrow or a thousand years hence, it’s not for us to know. What is most important, though, is what Paul goes on to say. And he gives us three pieces of advice about how we should approach or wait for this great day of the Lord.
First of all, he says, we should not be surprised when it happens. He uses two metaphors or images here in these opening verses. First of all, he says in verse 2 that the day will come like a thief in the night. In other words, unlooked for, unexpected, suddenly. It’s not as though everyone’s going to be able to tell when we’re on the verge of Christ’s return. It will happen unexpectedly, no matter how much we’ve been thinking about it or preparing for it. Jesus himself used this same example: a thief breaking in without warning.
The other image Paul uses comes in verse 3. It will be like the onset of labor for an expectant mother. What he means by that is that once it starts, there will be no stopping it. It will be unescapable, and those who are caught unprepared, says Paul, will not escape.
Here’s the second point he makes to Christians: Don’t be careless or unprepared for Christ’s return. Listen as he goes on in verse 6: “So then let us not sleep, as others do, but let us keep awake and be sober. . . . 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.”
More wonderful imagery here, Paul says, as we wait for and look for Christ’s return. Let’s stay awake, let’s not fall asleep at the switch. You remember Jesus’ story about the wise and foolish maidens, some of whom were prepared with their lamps trimmed and burning while others were caught and had to go quickly and when it came time, they were too late. So stay awake. Stay sober, Paul says. Don’t be drunk. Don’t be insensible. Don’t be careless.
And finally, put on the armor of God. And the great trio reappears: faith, hope, and love. That’s how you make yourself ready for Christ’s coming. You work to put on the armor of God. You clothe yourself with faith in Christ, and you share the hope of the gospel with the world. And you give yourself to works of love. Jesus said in another passage about his return, a parable of the householder in Luke 12, “blessed is the servant whose master finds him doing when he returns.”
There’s no great secret to it, friends. If you want to be prepared when Christ returns, then be active in living the Christian life and serving your neighbor in the world today. I think that’s what Martin Luther was getting at when he made his famous remark that if he knew the world would end tomorrow, he would go out and hoe his garden today. You know, our temptation is to say, “Well, what difference does it make? What difference does anything we do? The world’s going to hell in a handbasket. We’re just waiting for Christ to return. Let’s just sit and watch and look up in the sky. Anything else would be like rearranging the deck chairs on the Titantic.”
But no, God has given us work to do. God has called us to be faithful in our day-do-day humble service. God wants us to be living out our faith and exercising love for him and love for each other. That’s how you won’t be caught unprepared when the day finally comes.
Last of all, Paul says this. Listen again in verses 9 and 10: “For God has not destined us for wrath, but to obtain salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us so that whether we are awake or asleep we might live with him.”
In other words, don’t be apprehensive, don’t be frightened, don’t be overly worried about how the world will end, or for that matter, how your life will end. Whether we’re awake or asleep, whether we live or die, we know that Christ died for us and that he now lives with us and we with him. God has chosen us for salvation. God has not destined us for wrath. It’s truly an apocalyptic vision, isn’t it? One day it will happen, and it will be apocalypse now. That day will be terrifying. It will be awesome beyond anything we can imagine. It will put in the dust any Hollywood blockbuster. But for Christians there’s no need for fear or terror or apprehension. For God has saved us. Christ has died for us. And we now live with him. So here’s the last word on the subject. Paul writes, “Therefore encourage one another and build one another up, just as you are doing.”
What a great word to end with. Keep on keeping on, he says. Okay, but what does this really mean for me as a believer? I can see how unbelievers would be caught unprepared by the return of Christ and they would not be able to escape. But what about me? What does it really mean if we get through or get past all the pictures that Paul uses, all the figures of speech? What it simply means, I think, is: Don’t wait as if somehow you can get right with God or put your life in order at the last minute. Don’t wait to do that. But be ready now, and do that by keeping short accounts with him, by confessing your sins daily, by walking faithfully with Christ each day, by giving yourself to the work that he’s called you to, both the work in the world that you have and the work of his kingdom, and by faith, hope, and love. Yes, living those things out day by day.
There’s no great secret to it. There’s no magic formula. It’s simply walking closely with Christ each day so that if it happens to be the last day, or even if just your last day, you’ll be ready to see him when he appears. Give one another whatever support and strength you have to offer and keep your head up. Keep looking forward because the king will come when morning dawns.