The study of 1 Thessalonians offered here is in the form of a traditional commentary, although secondary scholarship is engaged more intermittently than would be the case in a commentary published in a regular print series. This is the eighth entry in the online commentary on 1 Thessalonians. In the first entry I began by looking at introductory matters, comprised of comments on the nature of a Greco-Roman letter and the background of Paul’s activity in Thessalonica, which we know primarily from Acts of the Apostles and partially from Paul’s letters. In the second entry, I gave a basic overview of the content found in the whole letter and then discussed the very short salutation. In the third entry, I discussed the Thanksgiving for the letter. In the fourth post, I started to discuss the Body of the Letter, particularly the parental affection Paul, Silvanus and Timothy have for the church in Thessalonica, which was continued in the fifth post in the series. The sixth entry in the online commentary examined the love Paul, Silvanus and Timothy have for the community, which is expressed to some degree as anxiety for the Thessalonian Christians they had to leave behind when they were forced to leave the city. In the seventh blog post, I examined Paul and his co-workers’ exhortations to the Thessalonians to behave ethically in sexual matters, though we have had no previous information that there have been sexual indiscretions in the community. In the eighth entry, I began to study Paul’s teaching for the Thessalonians regarding the coming of the Lord and how those who have died will still participate in the resurrection. In this, the ninth blog post, we will look at the second part of the teaching on the coming of the Lord, that is, when will it take place? Please do follow the links above to see my definition of a Greco-Roman letter, how I have divided this letter in particular and to catch up on the previous entries in general.
4. Paul’s First Letter to the Thessalonians:
c) Body of the Letter: Theological teaching: The Coming of the Lord part 2 (5:1-11):
1 Now concerning the times and the seasons, brothers and sisters, you do not need to have anything written to you. 2 For you yourselves know very well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night. 3 When they say, "There is peace and security," then sudden destruction will come upon them, as labor pains come upon a pregnant woman, and there will be no escape! 4 But you, beloved, are not in darkness, for that day to surprise you like a thief; 5 for you are all children of light and children of the day; we are not of the night or of darkness. 6 So then let us not fall asleep as others do, but let us keep awake and be sober; 7 for those who sleep sleep at night, and those who are drunk get drunk at night. 8 But since we belong to the day, let us be sober, and put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation. 9 For God has destined us not for wrath but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, 10 who died for us, so that whether we are awake or asleep we may live with him. 11 Therefore encourage one another and build up each other, as indeed you are doing. (NRSV)
After teaching that the dead are not separated from new life in the kingdom of God at the resurrection, Paul, Silvanus and Timothy turn to a straightforward question: when will all this take place? It seems clear that the Thessalonians themselves have asked about this since they write to them “concerning the times and the seasons,” but also saying that “you do not need to have anything written to you” (5:1). This shows that the Thessalonians have had oral teaching on this matter, but the fact that Paul and the others go on to teach about the time of the end belies the claim that the Thessalonians “do not need to have anything written.” They have been taught, but they need more!
Again, the oral tradition is referenced in 5:2, when they write that “you yourselves know very well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night,” which points to the earlier teaching, since the adverb translated as “very well” (akribôs) could also be translated as “precisely” or “exactly.” Still the continuing teaching does indicate that this was a point of contention or confusion in the Thessalonian church. The image of the “thief in the night” is a common one in Christian teaching (Matt 24:43-44; Lk 12:39-40; 2 Peter 3:10) and the image evokes the unknown and sudden coming of the day of the Lord, which cannot be determined in advance.
Paul and his co-workers continue with this image and the mysterious nature of Jesus’ coming, for “when they say, ‘There is peace and security,’ then sudden destruction will come upon them, as labor pains come upon a pregnant woman, and there will be no escape!” (5:3). The pregnancy motif with respect to the coming of the day of the Lord is used in other Jewish apocalyptic literature (see 4 Ezra 6:43f) and in Christian literature, such as the Gospel of John 6:21. In the passage in John, the labor creates pain, but this pain dissipates with the coming of new birth and the joy that life entails. It is a powerful picture, encompassing a sense of the sudden, impending birth of a new world - whose exact time no one knows though it is imminent - with the knowledge that the pain of birth will gave way to joy. While Paul, Silvanus and Timothy do not draw out the implications of the labor pains, it is not a stretch to see this whole picture nascent in the image of the pregnant woman.
The negative picture of the thief in the night, however, is modified by the fact that those who are prepared for the coming of the Lord, those who “are not in darkness,” will not be surprised by the thief (5:4). The Christians of Thessalonica are not in darkness for they “are all children of light and children of the day; we are not of the night or of darkness” (5:5). This phrase, “children of the light,” also used in the Qumran, or Dead Sea Scroll, documents (see 1QS 1:9-10) indicates a category difference in those who expect and await the coming of the Lord. The preparation is not exactly calendrical – no one knows when the day will come – but moral. Proper preparation for the coming end is in some sense mundane and normal, for it is found in how one lives life day to day.
The military imagery, also associated with apocalyptic scenarios, has to do with alertness and attentiveness not with actual battle. This is only partially true, actually, for the spiritual battle is considered a genuine battle. Paul and his co-workers exhort the Thessalonians to be vigilant: “let us not fall asleep as others do, but let us keep awake and be sober; for those who sleep sleep at night, and those who are drunk get drunk at night. But since we belong to the day, let us be sober, and put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation” (5:6-8). Once again, the three theological virtues, faith, hope and love, appear as the basis of the Christian life, asthey did in chapter one. To prepare for the end of time simply means that one lives the Christian life.
Paul, Silvanus and Timothy wrap up their teaching with encouragement for the church. They comfort them by stating that all of these questions about who will be saved and when they will be saved find their answer in God’s love, “for God has destined us not for wrath but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us, so that whether we are awake or asleep we may live with him. Therefore encourage one another and build up each other, as indeed you are doing” (5:9-11). As they wrote earlier in the letter, the Thessalonians are on track in building each other up and in encouraging each other. Preparing for the end means that one continues to live a life of daily virtue. The cosmic end has more to do with faith, hope and love than epic apocalyptic battles.
Next entry, Paul, Silvanus and Timothy begin to give practical exhortation to the church.
John W. Martens
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