A Commentary by John Stott
1 Thessalonians 5:4-8. b). The right solution: staying alert.
The apostle explains that there is no need for us to be alarmed by the prospect of the Lord’s coming, because there is no need for it to take us by surprise. ‘Surprise’ is the key word in Paul’s argument. There are two reasons why people are taken by surprise when a burglar breaks in. The first is that he comes unexpectedly during the night, and the second is that the householder is asleep. We can do nothing about the first reason, but we can about the second. Similarly, Christ’s coming is definitely going to be unexpected. The solution to our problem lies not in knowing when he will come, but in staying awake and alert. For then, even if his Parousia is totally unexpected, we will be ready for him and not taken by surprise. *But you, brothers, are not in darkness so that this day should surprise you like a thief* (4).
Let me enlarge on Paul’s argument about day and night, light and darkness. Burglars take people by surprise because they come at night. To begin with, it is dark, so that we do not see them coming. In addition, most people are fast asleep. Or if they are awake, they are probably out at a party and may even be drunk. *For those who are asleep, sleep at night, and those who get drunk, get drunk at night* (7, Cf. Job 24:13-17). So darkness, sleep and drunkenness are three reasons why people are unprepared for a night visit by a burglar. If only he would oblige us by coming in the daytime! Then we would be ready for him. It would be light, and we could see him. We would ourselves be wide awake, and we would be alert and sober.
Just so with the coming of Christ. Will he come in the darkness or in the light? Spiritually speaking, will he come at night-time or at day-time? The answer to this vital question is ‘Both; it depends who we are’. In the case of unbelievers, he will come in the night because they belong to the night and live in darkness. *But you, brothers, are not in darkness…(4). You are all sons of the light and sons of the day. We do not belong to the night or to the darkness* (5).
This truth needs further elaboration. The bible divides history into two ages or ‘aeons’. From the Old Testament perspective they are called ‘the present age’ (which was evil) and ‘the age to come’ (which would be the time of the Messiah). Moreover, the two ages were sometimes portrayed in terms of night and the day. The present age was like a long dark night, but when the Messiah came, the sun would rise, the day would break, and the world would be flooded with light (Cf.Lk.1:78-79).
The Bible also teaches that Jesus Christ is that long-awaited Messiah, and that therefore the new age began when he came. He was the dawn of the new era. He ushered in the day. He proclaimed the break-in of the kingdom of God (Mk.1:14-15). At the same time, the old age has not yet come to an end. As John put it, ‘the darkness is passing and the true light is already shining’ (1 Jn.2:8). So, for the time being, the two ages overlap. Unbelievers belong to the old age, and are still in the darkness. But those who belong to Jesus Christ have been transferred into the new age, into the light. Already in Christ we have ‘tasted…the powers of the coming age’ (Heb.6:5). Already, God has brought us ‘out of darkness into his wonderful light’ (1 Pet.2:9), Only when Christ comes in glory will the present overlap the end. The transition period will be over. The old age will finally vanish, and those who belong to it will be destroyed. The new age will be consummated, and those who belong to it will be fully and finally redeemed.
So then (and this is the point which we have been working up to), whether we are ready for Christ’s coming or not depends on which age we belong to, on whether we are still in the darkness or already belong to the light. It is only if we are in the light that we will not be taken by surprise.
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 still 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 till asleep and still in the darkness.
So the question which Paul’s teaching presses upon us is this: to which age do we belong, the old or the new? Do we belong to the night or to the day? Are we asleep or awake? Are our curtains still drawn, or has the light of Jesus Christ shone in upon us? Verses 4 to 8 became quite clear, once we have grasped the biblical teaching on the two ages – the old age of darkness and the new age of light. For the imagery of day and night, light and darkness, is continued throughout.
Moreover, Paul begins with an affirmation as to who we are, and continues with an exhortation as to what we should be. Indeed, he repeats this pattern for emphasis. First, he declares: *But you…are not in darkness* (4), because *you are all sons of the light and sons of the day* (5a). In consequence (associating himself with them), *we do not belong to the night or to the darkness* (5b). *So then*, because of who we are, *let us not be like others* (literally, ‘the rest of humankind’, as in 4:13), *who are asleep, but let us be alert and self-controlled* (6). In other words, if we belong to the day (the new day which dawned with Christ), our behaviour must be daytime behaviour. Let’s not sleep or even yawn our way through life, or live in our pyjamas. Let’s stay awake and alert. For then we shall be ready when Christ comes and we will not be taken by surprise.
The second time Paul affirms who we are and urges us to live appropriately, he goes beyond watchfulness and self-control to the need for us to be properly armed for the Christian warfare: *But since we belong to the day, let us be self-controlled, putting on faith and love as a breastplate, and the hope of salvation as a helmet* (8). Several times in his letters Paul likens Christians to soldiers and refers to our necessary armour and equipment (E.g. Rom.13:12; 2 Cor.6:7; 10:4; Eph.6:10-18). At the same time, he feels free to vary the symbolism. For example, in Ephesians 6 the breastplate is ‘righteousness’ and the helmet ‘salvation’, whereas here the breastplate and helmet together represent the triad of graces we considered in 1:3, namely ‘faith, love and hope.
Tomorrow: 1 Thessalonians 5:9-10. c). Foundations for Christian hope: God’s appointment and Christ’s death.
The John Stott Bible Study is taken from The Message of 1 & 2 Thessalonians. The Bible Speaks Today John Stott. Used by permission of Inter-Varsity Press UK, Nottingham. All rights reserved.