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Like a Thief in the Night -- a study of 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11

What will Jesus find you doing when He returns?


Bible Study Ideas and Commentary for 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11

As Paul encouraged his readers what would happen to deceased Christians when Christ returns, now he does so about living Christians. Christians will not experience the wrath of the Second Coming but the salvation. But that's no excuse to live like the people of darkness around us; rather, we should be shining Christ's light everywhere.

For God did not appoint us to wrath, but to obtain salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ (5:9)


Getting Started: Things to Think About

The Rise of the Anti-Hero

A long time ago, stories were written with protagonists and antagonists, heroes and villains. An then we started having "anti-heroes", someone Masterclass calls "ambiguous protagonists" (good intentions but a questionable moral code). (Incidentally, Masterclass identifies three kinds of anti-heroes: (1) the pragmatic rebel, (2) the unscrupulous hero, and (3) the hero by any means necessary.) Here's my definition: an antihero is a character who is clearly not a traditional hero, but we feel like we're supposed to root for them.


There's no confusion as to where anti-heroes came from. Your classic hero is defined by traits like bravery, selflessness, strength, intelligence, and empathy. Right -- how many of those people do we know? As one article from 2011 said, "In a world filled with war, recession and cynicism, straight-up heroes feel fake as a three-dollar bill." Enter the anti-hero, someone with internal conflict, flaws, and their own moral compass. (Of course, anti-heroes have been around for a long time -- from Macbeth to Sam Spade to James Bond. And every Clint Eastwood character.)

That article from 2011 focused on then-popular shows like Mad Men and Breaking Bad and The Sopranos. It was making this point: "Even though kids are taught by their parents that it's not right to hit, television says it's OK to bite, hit, or kick if you're the good guy. This can lead to confusion when kids try to understand the difference between right and wrong."


That got me thinking about two things, and this is where this topic idea comes from:

  1. Is it just me, or are there a BUNCH of anti-heroes on tv today?

  2. Are writers using new tricks to try to get us to root for these anti-heroes?

If this topic at all interests you, you can frame it like this: who are some antiheroes in tv/movies today, and in what way (or why) do you find yourself rooting for them?


Mostly, I'm wondering about that 2011 quote -- but I'm not just worried about moral confusions with kids; I'm wondering if it's led to moral confusion in adults. Have you ever thought about an anti-hero's morally wrong action with "yeah, I can get behind that"? If so, then that's a red flag we need to wave to ourselves.


My kids are grown, and I'm happy to note that they catch on to this "moral ambiguity" for what it is -- a problem. And that's because we've talked about actions and motives for just about every show we've ever watched as a family.


Here's my connection to this week's passage. Paul says,

We do not belong to the night or the darkness. So then, let us not sleep, like the rest, but let us stay awake and be self-controlled.

Some of 2022's anti-heroes -- Batman and Moon Knight -- literally do their thing at night, and the producers use darkness as a storytelling device. It couldn't be more clear that their anti-hero behavior is exactly the sort of thing Paul is warning us against. Has our culture lulled us into celebrating anti-heroes? Or are we still able to analyze the entertainment we consume critically and from a Christian perspective?


--Or--

Do You Have a Home Security System?

Y'all know that I love to use media and entertainment as illustrations and talking points, but not all of you are that interested in the latest movie. So maybe this topic will work:


How many of you have a home security device or subscribe to a home security company?


If you have a lock on your door, then you had better raise your hand. When I first went to seminary, one of my friends worked for ADT, which I thought was a dot-com fad company. Nope. They've been around forever, forming their first residential security network in 1874 (it stands for American District Telegraph; I love history). And now, there are lots of companies and even more security system components.

If you are unfamiliar with home security, this article explains a lot:

And it doesn't seem to be selling anything. It explains the components -- entryway sensors, motion sensors, security cameras, doorbell cameras, home automation, floodlights, panic buttons, glass-break sensors, smart smoke detectors, water leak detectors (!), and even more. It talks about how the systems work, how monitoring companies work, and goes into pros and cons of just about everything. Fort Knox, at your home address!


If you have such a system, are you glad? How do you use it? Describe a time it has "been worth it" to you.


In this week's passage, Paul is going to talk about the "thief in the night". Here's what Jesus had to say about him:

But know this: If the homeowner had known what time the thief was coming, he would have stayed alert and not let his house be broken into. (Matt 24:43)

If we go through any effort to protect our earthly belongings (and we certainly should!), do we put the same effort into "guarding our souls"? This week, we will learn how we can guard our souls.

 

This Week's Big Idea: Parables of Christ's Return

I warned you that I would do this 😎. One of the most amazing passages in the Bible is the Olivet Discourse (Matthew 24/25). We studied this a few years ago:

The main lesson I drew was that yes, there is coming a day when Jesus returns, but rather than argue about when it will happen or how we will know, we should be solely worried about what Jesus will find us doing when He returns.


One of Jesus' main purposes for saying what He did about His return was to insist that no one would know when He would return, and anything who claimed to be able to predict it was wrong. His reason for doing so was to create a sense of urgency, just like with the verse I quoted above. My favorite summary of the ethos of this passage is “We are to prepare as if Jesus is coming back in 1000 years but live as if He is coming back tomorrow.”


Jesus told four parables after His mind-blowing description of the end of the world. The faithful and wicked servants (24:45-51), the wise and foolish virgins (25:1-13), the wise and foolish servants (25:14-30), and the sheep and the goats (25:31-46). You know the parables, but did you realize that Jesus told all of them to help us understand His return?


I encourage you to read those parables (they don't take long) and ask yourself this question: "How do these four parables fit together? How do they help explain one another?"


[seriously, go do that]


[I'll wait]


I'll just focus on one part of what these parables are about. Let's see if you agree with me

  • The Faithful and Wicked Servants: the master came back unexpectedly; the emphasis is on the servants’ behavior when the master returns

  • The Wise and Foolish Virgins: the bridegroom was late in his coming; the emphasis is on how prepared the virgins were for the bridegroom’s lateness

  • The Wise and Foolish Servants: the master came back right on time after a very long time; the emphasis is on what happened while he was gone

  • The Sheep and the Goats: not about length of time at all but the sort of behavior that will be rewarded and punished when Jesus returns.

Did you see the same thing that I did? The Master might come back early. He might come back late. That's not important. What's important is if you will be ready when He returns. The Master cares what you did while He was gone, and He cares what you are in the process of doing when He returns.


What Paul says in this week's passage lines up so well with Jesus' parables; it makes me think that the disciples shared this with Paul when Paul was with them in Jerusalem. If that's the case, it would imply that the disciples realized just how important these parables were.

 

Where We Are in 1 Thessalonians

We took last week "off" to study a resurrection passage, but I hope you all appreciated how Jesus' resurrection is so very foundational to everything Paul says!


We are in the Q&A part of Paul's letter. Remember this outline:

  1. Thanksgiving for Thessalonian's Faith (1:1-10)

  2. Defense of Paul's Ministry and Absence (2:1-3:13)

  3. Summary of Teachings under Question (4:1-5:22)

    1. Guidelines for Sexual Conduct (4:1-12)

    2. Guidelines for Understanding Christ's Return (4:13-5:11) **

    3. Guidelines for Life and Worship (5:12-22)

  4. Closing (5:23-28)

We can further break down the section we're in like this:

  1. What will happen to deceased believers at Christ's return (4:13-18)

  2. What will happen to living believers at Christ's return (5:1-11)

For reasons we will address in a moment, this "last day" topic was apparently talked about a lot when Paul was in Thessalonica, and yet they still had questions about it. Because their culture said something very different about death, they understandably were confused about what would happen to their deceased Christian friends -- if they would miss out on Christ's return? We talked about that two weeks ago -- "do you really think that death can stop God?".


But Paul seemed to pick up on a separate confusion they had, perhaps also driven by some false beliefs in their culture:

If Jesus is coming back soon, then what does it matter how I live? Isn't it all going to burn? --or--
If Jesus is coming back soon, then isn't that good? Doesn't that mean peace and safety for everyone?

(Note: this is different from the faulty conclusion Paul attacked in Romans 6, where some Christians had decided that if God was going to forgive them anyway, then who cared how they lived?)


In this week's passage, Paul corrects those wrong beliefs and offers a memorable (and concise) summary of Christian living.

 

Special Note to First Baptist Church Members

The Sunday that we study this passage together, David will be preaching on the doctrine of "Last Things". There will be major overlap between what we discuss in Bible study and what we hear in the worship service. For example, the music will include "How Great Thou Art" and "It Is Well" (look up their final verses). David will be using the Baptist Faith and Message 2000 as a framework, and I include that text at the end so you can see how it all fits together.

 

Part 1: Warning Issued (1 Thessalonians 5:1-3)

About the times and the seasons: Brothers and sisters, you do not need anything to be written to you. 2 For you yourselves know very well that the day of the Lord will come just like a thief in the night. 3 When they say, “Peace and security,” then sudden destruction will come upon them, like labor pains on a pregnant woman, and they will not escape.

Paul's "very well" leads us to believe that they had talked about this before. Multiple times. (And they shouldn't have to ask.)


The opening phrase points us back to something Jesus said to His disciples about this very topic (Acts 1):

4 While he was with them, he commanded them not to leave Jerusalem, but to wait for the Father’s promise. “Which,” he said, “you have heard me speak about; 5 for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit in a few days.” 6 So when they had come together, they asked him, “Lord, are you restoring the kingdom to Israel at this time?” 7 He said to them, “It is not for you to know times or periods [same phrase] that the Father has set by his own authority. 8 But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come on you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”

I find this Acts 1 passage very cool in the context of 1 Thessalonians. What confusion did the disciples have? That the conditions indicated that Jesus was returning very, very soon. What correction did Jesus have? Don't worry about the "when" -- you just worry about obeying Me and being My witnesses.


So, very similar to what the Thessalonians were worrying about.


Now -- what did Paul say about Jesus' return? Only that it would come like a thief in the night.

We need to talk about this phrase. Because it is so catchy (admit it, you think it's a cool phrase), it was used as a title for a 1972 Christian film about a Pretribulation Rapture. (What I didn't know is that there was a whole series, including three films that weren't produced. And the fourth film has mutant humans roaming a post-nuclear wasteland(!!)!) And consequently, while I was in seminary, I heard countless students associate the phrase "thief in the night" with a secret rapture of the church.


But we need to consider if it's a good thing to be taken by a thief. I give you all of the relevant New Testament references to thieves below, but here I just want to focus on one: Revelation 3:3 --

Remember, then, what you have received and heard; keep it, and repent. If you are not alert, I will come like a thief, and you have no idea at what hour I will come upon you.

Take a moment to read Revelation 3:1-6, then answer this question: to what group of people did Jesus say He would come like a thief?


But really, Paul makes this connotation clear already by saying (in verse 3) that this day would be a day of "sudden destruction". Note that Paul is talking about "the day of the Lord". This is a specific day in the Bible. In the Old Testament (see Isaiah 13:6, Joel 2:1, Joel 2:31, Amos 5:18, Zeph 1:7, etc.) it refers to "the day of the Lord's judgment" and "the day of the Lord's wrath". In the New Testament, this day is associated with the day of final judgment, the Second Coming of Christ (see 1 Cor 5:5, 2 Pet 3:10).


Why would Paul (and Jesus, and Peter, and the prophets) associate the day of the Lord with destruction, or a thief stealing one's valuables?


We've said this before, and we can't say it enough: Christ's return is fantastic for Christians, but it's catastrophic for non-Christians.


So let's go back to the Jesus quote from above:

But know this: If the homeowner had known what time the thief was coming, he would have stayed alert and not let his house be broken into. (Matt 24:43)

If you knew a thief was coming to your home tonight, what would you do to prepare?


And then let's raise the stakes -- if you knew this was an unstoppable master thief, what would you do?


Hopefully, the consensus is that you would do whatever you could to protect that which was most valuable to you. And here's where Jesus is going with this illustration: what is more valuable than your soul? While I think Jesus chose the "thief" image because thieves are subtle, sudden, and sneaky, the truth that when Jesus comes back, He will "take" everything because He is unstoppable. Perhaps this will help us all understand Jesus' warning:

Don’t fear those who kill the body but are not able to kill the soul; rather, fear him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell. (Matt 10:28)

Even Satan, the great "thief", can do nothing to your soul. But when Jesus comes for His enemies on the Day of the Lord, they will report for judgment, and no one can escape.


But this reference to "peace and security" is also important. Peace and security were taught by the Romans (have you heard of the Pax Romana?). "You can depend on Rome to keep you safe. All you have to do is be a good citizen." That sounds a lot like messages I hear in our culture today. "I'm okay, you're okay. Or at least, you're okay if you believe I'm okay."


People can say that all they want. They'll be saying it when Jesus comes to condemn His enemies to hell.


(By the way -- when Paul mentioned "labor pains", he was emphasizing their inevitability. If a pregnancy comes to term, there will be labor pains. I probably would have chosen a different illustration if God had asked me to write this letter, but God didn't ask me to write this letter. You know.)


Your discussion is an easy transition: why does our culture hate the idea of Christ returning in judgment, and what do they say to get people not to believe it or talk about it?

 

Aside: Thief in the Night

There are only 13 passages in the New Testament that mention a thief. 3 are about actual thieves, 2 duplicate other passages, and 2 are in this week's passage. Here are the other 6; pay close attention to the Revelation passages.

  1. Matthew 24:43 -- But know this: If the homeowner had known what time the thief was coming, he would have stayed alert and not let his house be broken into. (cf. Luke 12:39)

  2. Luke 12:33 -- Sell your possessions and give to the poor. Make money-bags for yourselves that won’t grow old, an inexhaustible treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys.

  3. John 10:10 -- A thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I have come so that they may have life and have it in abundance. (cf. John 10:1)

  4. 2 Peter 3:10 -- But the day of the Lord will come like a thief; on that day the heavens will pass away with a loud noise, the elements will burn and be dissolved, and the earth and the works on it will be disclosed.

  5. Revelation 3:3 -- Remember, then, what you have received and heard; keep it, and repent. If you are not alert, I will come like a thief, and you have no idea at what hour I will come upon you.

  6. Revelation 16:15 -- “Look, I am coming like a thief. Blessed is the one who is alert and remains clothed so that he may not go around naked and people see his shame.”

It's not good to be "taken" by the thief in these Day of the Lord passages!

 

Part 2: Alertness Required (1 Thessalonians 5:4-8)

4 But you, brothers and sisters, are not in the dark, for this day to surprise you like a thief. 5 For you are all children of light and children of the day. We do not belong to the night or the darkness. 6 So then, let us not sleep, like the rest, but let us stay awake and be self-controlled. 7 For those who sleep, sleep at night, and those who get drunk, get drunk at night. 8 But since we belong to the day, let us be self-controlled and put on the armor of faith and love, and a helmet of the hope of salvation.

This is a great "but you". For non-believers, the day of the Lord is "the end of the line". There is no escape, no second chance, no plan B. But for believers, the day of the Lord is the day of final salvation.


This should make you think of the first few lessons we had, in which we described all of the reasons Paul gave for believing the Thessalonians were Christians.

Because Paul believed his audience was saved, he could write of the day of the Lord in positive terms. But just like Jesus redirected the disciples from wondering about His return to caring more about their behavior, Paul does the same thing here. He immediately (and jarringly) shifts gears.


This passage lends itself to an easy compare/contrast chart. Draw a line for two columns; put "believers" on one side and "non-believers" on the other. What words does Paul associate with both? (For starters, put "light" on one side and "darkness" on the other.) That's really Paul's point for talking about this topic!


People who walk in darkness are more frightened of thieves because it's much easier for a thief to steal in darkness than in light. Send people in your group to look up various passages about darkness and light (there is a concordance at the back of most Bibles). One passage we just spent a lot of time with (Jesus at Gethsemane) does a brilliant job of juxtaposing darkness and light, sleeping and wakefulness (ex. Luke 22:39-53); perhaps you could focus on that to reinforce our Holy Week readings.


Christians should act like it's noon, not midnight. (This makes me think of Peter's retort: "For these people are not drunk, as you suppose, since it’s only nine in the morning." Acts 2:15) Paul pulls out drunkenness as an example, and we don't need to spent any time thinking about other sins committed in darkness because that's not Paul's point.


Rather, Paul is making the positive conclusion -- let's act like people who belong to the day. Just like Paul singles out drunkenness for nighttime behavior, he singles out self-control from daytime behavior. Why do you think Paul focused on self-control? Might that approach be helpful to you?


The point is that our culture wants us to behave like everyone else, and then no one has to feel guilty about their behavior, right? But Paul identifies that attitude for what it is: wishful thinking that will not help anyone on the day of judgment.


Paul also talks about the armor of God. We studied this *checks notes* yikes, almost three years ago. If you want to learn more about spiritual warfare, check out this post:

The long and short is this: taking the time to "put on the armor of God" is the kind of disciplined, self-controlled daytime behavior that Paul wants all Christians to practice. Above, I asked what you were willing to do to "guard your soul". The first thing is to put your soul in the hand of God through salvation. The second thing is to protect your soul daily from the attacks of Satan using the tools God has given you, namely the armor of God. I'm really short on space this week, so think about what you know of the armor of God (use those links if you need to) and answer this question: how does putting on the armor of God reflect the self-control Paul is focused on?


[Note: Paul is very intentional with his "faith, hope, and love" triad here.]

 

Aside: Salt and Light

It's worth spending a little time on the light imagery. At the very least, read the "salt and light" passage in Matthew 5:13-16. Jesus is the Light of the World, but now we are to shine His light everywhere we go and chase back the darkness. Yes, light makes it difficult for wicked people to hide their misdeeds in the dark, but it also makes things safer -- illuminating pitfalls and dangers.

 

Part 3: Future Defined (1 Thessalonians 5:9-11)

9 For God did not appoint us to wrath, but to obtain salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, 10 who died for us, so that whether we are awake or asleep, we may live together with him. 11 Therefore encourage one another and build each other up as you are already doing.

These verses brilliantly tie back to 4:13-18. There, we encouraged one another with the fact that even our deceased loved ones will be together with the Lord when He returns.


Here, we need encouragement too, eh? We just heard that the Day of the Lord will be a day of destruction that no one can escape. Oh no! But wait -- Christians will not suffer that wrath; rather, Christians will enjoy the salvation that Jesus promised to His followers.


If we are alive or dead, we don't have to be afraid of Christ's return. Instead, we can celebrate it in assurance of hope!


And another brilliant combination of topics, Paul tells us that Christ died for us so that we can live with Him. Do you have anything more encouraging that you can tell your Christian friends?


Paul does have an edge to this encouragement that we should notice -- there's an element of accountability. We aren't "just encouraging one another" -- we are "encouraging one another to be self-controlled". When we see one another behaving as those people of the night, we are supposed to help one another stop. Note that we can't lose our salvation by our behavior (particularly when Jesus comes), but what do we want Jesus to find us doing when He returns?


Here's how Paul explained this elsewhere:

11 For no one can lay any foundation other than what has been laid down. That foundation is Jesus Christ. 12 If anyone builds on the foundation with gold, silver, costly stones, wood, hay, or straw, 13 each one’s work will become obvious. For the day will disclose it, because it will be revealed by fire; the fire will test the quality of each one’s work. 14 If anyone’s work that he has built survives, he will receive a reward. 15 If anyone’s work is burned up, he will experience loss, but he himself will be saved—but only as through fire ("as one who escapes through the flames"). (1 Cor 3)

As Christians, we should want to hear "well done good and faithful servant" when we stand before God. But salvation is not by works, so our works do not "improve" our salvation. But this is the subtle warning Paul gives: if you don't care how God views your life, that's a red flag that the Holy Spirit is not convicting you.


For those Christians who have already died, there's no need for Paul to offer that kind of challenge -- they have run their race. But for those of us who are alive, we absolutely need to hear this challenge and encouragement. This life is fleeting; let's make the most of it.


We have one more lesson in this letter, and it's packed with handy rules for living, so this is our time to dwell on the encouragement Paul has talked about.


Are you encouraged that Jesus is coming back? Are you worried about your loved ones you aren't sure are Christian? Are you nervous about death? Are you afraid that your life has been a disappointment? Heavy questions, right?


Let me encourage you in this way -- if you're still breathing, there's something you can do about all of that.

 

Closing Thoughts: The Baptist Faith & Message 2000

I mentioned above that David will be preaching on the doctrine of "Last Things" from the BFM2000.

God, in His own time and in His own way, will bring the world to its appropriate end. According to His promise, Jesus Christ will return personally and visibly in glory to the earth; the dead will be raised; and Christ will judge all men in righteousness. The unrighteous will be consigned to Hell, the place of everlasting punishment. The righteous in their resurrected and glorified bodies will receive their reward and will dwell forever in Heaven with the Lord.

To their credit, the authors of the statement tried to stick to a simplest, clearest reading of Scripture possible. (You will not be surprised to find 1/2 Thessalonians well represented on their list of Scriptural supports.) If you want to spend some time discussing how this statement is based on the passages we have been studying, then do so! But just remember that David will be sharing that in our morning service 😊.

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