Paul encourages the Thessalonians about the day of the Lord by reminding them that they are in the know. He doesn’t feed unhealthy speculation but reminds them with helpful pictures of their knowledge. They are of the light not of the darkness. They are of the day not of the night; awake, not asleep. They are sober, not drunk. These pictures help show the watchfulness, alertness, and wakefulness needed as they await the day of the Lord. Let’s look further at this passage with these notes from the Oxford Bible Commentary.

The Need for Wakefulness

Now concerning the times and the seasons, brothers and sisters, you do not need to have anything written to you. For you yourselves know very well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night. 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!

But you, brothers and sisters, are not in darkness, for that day to surprise you like a thief; for you are all children of light and children of the day; we are not of the night or of darkness. So, then, 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. 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.

1 Thessalonians 5:1–10

The Day of the Lord

Paul indicates that he does not need to tell them about dates and times, presumably because he has already done so. He does not want to become involved in the discussion of an end-time calendar. What they already know is that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night, that is, quite unexpectedly. The ‘day of the Lord’ shows up frequently in Israelite tradition. It was to be a time of joy for some and terror for others. Thus Isaiah had written that on ‘that day’ a great trumpet would sound and the scattered ones in Assyria and Egypt would come to worship the Lord on Jerusalem’s holy mountain (Isa 27:13).

Zephaniah, on the other hand, had presented a bleaker picture: a day that would be a day of wrath, of anguish and torment, of destruction and devastation, when the Lord would bring dire distress upon the people (Zeph 1:14–18). Paul must have imparted some of this material to his ex-idolatrous converts, no doubt painting a happy future for them and an unhappy one for sinful out-groups.

Paul illustrates his previous statement with two connected examples showing how people will not escape. It is just when people are saying ‘peace and security’ (eiréne kai asphaleia) that suddenly disaster overtakes them just as the pain of childbirth comes upon a pregnant woman. The latter example is a commonplace of domestic human experience, but the former relates to the political realities of Thessalonica. Some coins minted at Thessalonica contained slogans with the similar words ‘freedom and security.’ The ‘peace’ to which Paul refers is presumably the Pax Romana. Paul is alluding to the fragility of the comfortable relationship between the rulers of the city and Rome, which could at any time suffer a disastrous reverse.

Sons of Light and Day

Paul introduces the imagery of light and darkness to distinguish between Christ-followers, whom the day (of anger) will not ‘surprise… like a thief’, and others in Thessalonica. The Christ-followers are all sons of light and sons of day who do not belong to night or darkness; by implication, then, the others are sons of night and sons of darkness who do not belong to light or day. Such a powerful dualism presents very starkly the nature of the opposed identities of in-group and out-group, the first highly positive and the second very negative indeed. Here we have a good example of the stereotypical group-categorization characteristic of the way one group generates a favourable social identity for itself.

Awake and Sober

Paul persists with his continuing process of group differentiation in a related area of imagery by exhorting them not to sleep like the others (by implication, people of the night) but to keep awake and be sober—for those who sleep and those who get drunk do so at night. Since he and they belong to the day, he says, they should be awake and sober, thus reinforcing still further the reality of group differentiation using imagery of day and night which he began way back at v. 4. Yet now he adds a new element—they should do so having put on the breastplate of faith and love and the helmet of hope of salvation. In this latter clause he summons before his readers the triad of faith, love, and hope which he introduced in the third verse of the letter. This is really to pile identity-descriptors on identity-descriptors!

When Paul refers to putting on (endusamenoi) the breastplate of faith and love (thoraka pisteds kai agapes) and the hope of salvation for a helmet (perikephalaian elpida soterias), he is alluding to Isa 59:17. Paul has changed the phrase ‘breastplate of righteousness’ to ‘breastplate of faith and love’, while adding the word ‘hope’ to the expression ‘helmet of salvation’, which he otherwise retains.

Faith and love represent a way of describing the condition of being a Christ-follower analogous to that expressed by ‘righteousness’. However, the alteration indicates that in writing to Gentiles he has deliberately chosen to substitute the former for the latter, presumably because he found ‘righteousness’ inappropriate for such an audience. The function fulfilled by the language of holiness in relation to a Gentile audience in 1 Thessalonians is served later in relation to mixed Israelite and Gentile groups in Galatians and Romans by the discourse of righteousness.

Salvation is Deliverance from God’s Wrath

Paul’s statement that God has destined them not for anger but for obtaining salvation through their Lord Jesus Christ makes explicit for the first time the nature of the fate, the awesome wrath of God (see Zeph 1:14–18, noted above), hanging over out-groups, who are again sharply differentiated from the believers in Christ to whom salvation will be extended. The nature of that salvation is set out in 1 Thess 4:16–17, while the ambit of the anger is not.

Jesus Christ is the one who died for us so that ‘awake or asleep’ (that is, dead, as in 1 Thess 4:13–16), we will live together with him. This the first time in Paul’s correspondence that we find the important formula ‘Christ died for’ with a further word or words indicating the person(s) for whom he died (also see 1 Cor 15:3; 2 Cor 5:14–15; Rom 5:6; 5:8; 14:15). This expression always serves as a foundation for the claim that God’s salvation has become reality or at least has been inaugurated, to highlight the new state of life into which Christ-followers have been transferred. Within a social identity framework, one might add that the notion of Jesus’ death for his followers is what enables the creation of their identity and also fills it with positive evaluative and emotional dimensions.

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  1. Same way Paul was encouraging the Thessalonians is the same way I feel so encouraged amidst hustles and bustles of trying to spread the gospel of Jesus, running around on foot and a feeling of under achievement 😭😭😭😭

  2. Same way Paul was encouraging the Thessalonians is the same way I feel so encouraged amidst hustles and bustles of trying to spread the gospel of Jesus, running around on foot and a feeling of under achievement 😭😭😭😭 a feeling of inadequacy, but fully trust that God is in control

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