Green Tree Bible Study 6: Watching for the Lord’s Return (1 Thessalonians 5:1-11)

By Dr. Robert E. Picirilli

These eleven verses continue with the theme of the last six verses in the previous chapter. A large part of this theme is the Second Coming. But the intent has transformed somewhat. Previously, Paul’s point has been to encourage and reassure those whose loved ones had already died. Here the point is that all Christians should be carefully watching for Jesus’ return.

We can summarize Paul’s approach to this subject with three closely related truths:

1)  We cannot know the time of Christ’s coming (vv. 1-3). Verse 2 explains verse 1. There was no need to write about times (periods of times) and seasons (points in time, occasions) because they already knew that the day of the Lord Jesus would come like “a thief in the night.” That is, Jesus will come unannounced, without warning. No doubt Paul knew, and had passed on to his converts at Thessalonica, the teaching of Jesus Himself on this point in Matthew 24:42-44. (Peter also knew and used the same comparison in II Peter 3:10.)

“Sudden”is the key word in verse 3. In that time many will think themselves quite secure. But destruction will suddenlycome upon them and leaves them with no escape. This refers, no doubt, to the false security of the wicked who really do not believe in Christ’s return or in final judgment. Like an expectant mother, they have had plenty of warning, plenty of reason to know the inevitability of the expected arrival. However, the wicked will have totally disregarded such things and been caught off guard.

Beware of those who set dates for Jesus’ coming. Beware even more of the attitude of indifference. His coming is unknown, but it is sure. Be prepared.

2)  We can be ready whenever He comes (vv. 4-8). Yes, the time is uncertain. However, we can certainly be ready. Note verse 4. Compare it to verse 2. He will come like a thief in the night. But His coming need not be so to us. Actually, there are two possible ways one might avoid being caught unprepared by a thief. One might possibly learn the thief’s plans (do policemen really get “tip-offs” from “stool pigeons” or is that just on TV?). They can then be waiting and ready when he arrives. Or, one might set a round-the-clock watch. That way he can be assured of never being caught off guard.

Surely, this second way is what Paul means. If we are always watching and ready, we will not be taken by surprise when He comes. That seems the clear emphasis of verses 6-8. This passage shows the two attitudes in contrast. On the one hand, there are those who are characterized as asleep in the darkness of night. These are the spiritually lost who are blind and indifferent. On the other hand, there are those who are the ever-watchful children of light and day. These are Christians who have been aroused from spiritual stupor and ignorance. They have been enlightened and informed. They are therefore alert. That is why they need not be caught off guard by the unannounced return of Jesus Christ.

How might we be fully ready when He comes? Verse 8 answers the question: in soberness, armed with faith, love, and hope.

  • Soberness – Here it refers to more than abstinence from alcoholic drink. (Although that kind of abstinence is important.) It is talking about spiritual sobriety. Spiritual sobriety is serious-mindedness, self-control, and clear-headed alertness to spiritual dangers.
  • Faith – Confidence and trust in God.
  • Love – A bond commitment both to God and to others.
  • Hope – Here it refers to the confident expectation of final salvation that sustains us. Christian graces like these characteristics equip us for the Christian warfare and the unexpected.

3)  We have assurance and encouragement while we wait (vv. 9-11). We do not have to have an uncertainty of heart that matches the uncertainty of the times. We know that Jesus may soon come. We are also well aware that He may delay. Meanwhile, things may go smoothly. Or they may not. Indeed, loved ones may die. Trials may come. There may be wars and rumors of wars. We ourselves may “sleep.”

But we know what is expected of us. We know that we need His salvation to escape His wrath (v. 9). We know that only through such salvation work can we live together with Him forever (v. 10). Come what may, then, we rest assured in His purpose and are not perturbed.

Yes, Jesus may delay His coming, as suggested in places like Matthew 24:48 or 25:5. And during that delay we may encounter difficult, threatening times. Such a time will test our faithfulness.

Some people proclaim a desire for Jesus came right away. But they are not equally many Christians are not ready for a delay. We can and ought to be prepared for both possibilities.

We may wake or we may sleep, but Jesus will come and God’s promised salvation will then be ours. Let us encourage our own hearts, and one another, with this truth.