A Commentary by John Stott

1 Thessalonians 5:1-11.   2). The problem of judgment.

Two distinct problems have always fascinated (and often perplexed) human minds, not least Christian minds, and continue to do so. The first relates to what happens after death. Where are our loved ones, and shall we see them again? The second relates to what will happen at the end of the world. Is there going to be a day of reckoning, and if so how can we prepare for it? The first is the problem of bereavement, and concerns others who have died. The second is the problem of judgment, and concerns us as well.

It is evident that the Thessalonians in their ‘faint-heartedness’ were apprehensive on both counts. They were worried about their friends who had died, and whether they would suffer any disadvantages at the Parousia; and they were worried about themselves, and whether they were ready to stand before Christ at his coming. Both are modern anxieties too.

So the apostle Paul, being the realistic and caring pastor that he was, addressed himself to both fears and relieved them by the application of appropriate truths. In 4:13-18, as we have seen, his topic was bereavement and the Christian dead. Now in 5:1-11 it is judgment and the Christian living.

The problem was straightforward. During his visit Paul had evidently taught the Thessalonians about *the day of the Lord* (2). He had no doubt explained from the Old Testament that it would be a day of judgment. Amos, the first of the great eighth-century BC prophets, had made that plain. ‘Woe to you who long for the day of the Lord!’ he had fulminated. ‘Why do you long for the day of the Lord? That day will be darkness, not light…pitch-dark, without a ray of brightness’ (Am.5:18-20; cf.Is.13:6). Joel had called it ‘the great and terrible day of the Lord’ (Joel 2:31; cf.1:15; Mal.4:5). How, then, can we sinners get ready for it?

The Thessalonians were proposing their solution to the problem, and wanted Paul’s help; but Paul rejected their solution as false, and proposed the true solution in its place. He begins his reference to their solution with ‘Now, brothers’ (1) and his exposition of his solution with ‘But you, brothers’ (4).

a). The wrong solution: knowing the date (5:1-3).

The Thessalonians were asking Paul *about times (chronoi*) and dates (*Kairoi*), as the apostles had asked Jesus before them (Mk.13:4; Acts 1:6). Usually *chronos* mean a period of time and *kairos* a point of time, a crisis or opportunity. But it does not seem that Paul is making this distinction here. Why, however, were the Thessalonians asking their question? Not, it seems, out of idle curiosity, but rather for a very practical reason: they wanted to make suitable preparations for the day of judgment. They thought they could most easily get ready for Christ’s coming in judgment if they could know when he would arrive. It was naive, to be sure, but perfectly understandable.

Paul responds, however, that the solution to their problem does not lie in knowing the date. To begin with, nobody knew or could know it. Jesus had said that he did not even know it himself, and that only the Father knew it (Mk.13:32). And later he told the apostles, ‘It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by his own authority.’ (Acts 1:7). In consequence if this universal ignorance of the date, Jesus said, ‘the Son of Man will come at an hour when you do not expect him.’ (Mt. 24:44). The Thessalonians knew this too, because Paul had already told them so. That is why he said, *we do not need to write to you* (1). It would be pointless to do so, *for you know very well* (2) that the day will come unexpectedly. It is as if Paul wrote: ‘You know that nobody knows the date, and that therefore you cannot know it either.’

Paul now uses two metaphors to illustrate how the Lord will come. First, *the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night* (2). Jesus had used the same analogy (Mt.24:43), and it also occurs elsewhere in the New Testament (E.g. 2 Pet.3:10; Rev.3:3; 16:15). The trouble with burglars is that they do not tell us when they are coming. They make no advance announcement of their arrival. It is not their habit to send a warning postcard. The same unexpectedness will characterize the day of the Lord. Secondly, *While people are saying, ‘Peace and safety’ (that is, they imagine they are entirely secure), destruction will come on them suddenly, as labour pains on a pregnant woman, and they will not escape* (3).

Here, then, are two affirmations about judgment, each enforced by a vivid simile. First, the day of the Lord will come like a thief (2). Secondly, destruction will come like labour pains. Both illustrations teach that Christ’s coming will be sudden. Suddenly, in the middle of the night, a burglar breaks in.  Suddenly, in the pregnancy of an expectant mother, labour begins. At the same time, there is an obvious difference between them. For although both are sudden, the burglar is unexpected, whereas labour (once pregnancy has begun) is expected. So, putting the two metaphors together, we may say that Christ’s coming will be (1) sudden and unexpected (like a burglar in the night), and (2) sudden and unavoidable (like labour at the end of pregnancy). In the first case there will be no warning, and in the second no escape.

The Thessalonians’ hope that they will solve their problem by finding out the date of the Parousia has been disappointed, therefore. What alternative solution is there? If Christ is going to come suddenly, unexpectedly and unavoidably, how can we get ready? Paul tells us.

Tomorrow: 1 Thessalonians 5:4-8.  b). The right solution: staying alert.
The John Stott Bible Study is taken from The Message of 1 Thessalonians. The Bible Speaks Today John Stott. Used by permission of Inter-Varsity Press UK, Nottingham. All rights reserved.