1 Thessalonians 5:1-11

1 Thessalonians 5:1-11

How the Gospel Enables the Church to Escape God’s Wrath

Last week we studied the amazing truth that Jesus is coming again, and when He returns, the Church will be raptured, caught up together with Him to be with Him forever.  We suggested that Paul’s teaching on this topic in 1 Thess 4 was designed to deal with a problem, namely the problem of bereavement.  Some of the Thessalonian believers had misinterpreted Paul’s teaching on the possibility of the soon return of Christ as a promise that He would come back immediately.  When He didn’t, and when some of their loved ones began to die off, they began to grieve hopelessly.  They wondered if their believing loved ones would miss out on the blessings of the Second Coming. 

Paul’s antidote to the problem of bereavement was the Gospel–the truth that Jesus died and rose again!  Not only that, he made it clear that Jesus is coming again to raise dead believers, to transform living believers into their resurrection bodies, and to rapture both together.  So why should any believer grieve hopelessly?

We mentioned that one popular view in the Church has been that the Rapture is the next event on God’s prophetic calendar, that it will be a secret event, completely unexpected, leaving billions behind wondering what happened, that it will occur before the Great Tribulation period, and that it will, therefore, be separated from the revelation of Christ, or the Second Coming proper, by seven years.  This is called the pre-tribulational Rapture view.  Other common views are the mid-tribulational, pre-wrath, and post-trib views.

I stated my personal conviction that the Rapture of the Church will occur at the same time as the Second Coming at the end of the Tribulation period, thus it will be post-tribulational, though I give some credence to the pre-wrath view, which puts the Rapture just slightly earlier.  One cannot prove the post-tribulational Rapture from 1 Thessalonians 4, but I did present some hints in that direction. The strongest evidence will have to await our study of 2 Thess 2 in a few weeks.  

But today we must wrestle with some more prophetic teaching in 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11.  Here we find several important additional truths: a sobering one for unbelievers, namely that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night; a contrasting one for believers, namely that they will not be taken by surprise;

and a glorious one, namely that the Church is not destined for wrath but for salvation.  

Please pay attention to the Word of the Lord as found in 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11:

Now concerning the times and the seasons, brothers, you have no need to have anything written to you. For you yourselves are fully aware that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night. While people are saying, “There is peace and security,” then sudden destruction will come upon them as labor pains come upon a pregnant woman, and they will not escape. But you are not in darkness, brothers, for that day to surprise you like a thief. For you are all children of light, children of the day. We are not of the night or of the darkness. So then let us not sleep, as others do, but let us keep awake and be sober. For those who sleep, sleep at night, and those who get drunk, are drunk at night. But since we belong to the day, let us be sober, having put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation. For God has not destined us for wrath, but to obtain salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us so that whether we are awake or asleep we might live with him. Therefore encourage one another and build one another up, just as you are doing.

The first thing we need to do as we come to this passage is to try to figure out why Paul wrote it.  What problem or question is he addressing here?  If in chapter 4 he was addressing the problem of bereavement, what generates his teaching in chapter 5?  John Stott believes it is the problem of judgment, and I tend to agree. 

The problem that generates Paul’s prophetic teaching here seems to be the problem of judgment.

Stott makes a strong argument for the notion that some of the Thessalonian Christians are worried about whether they will be ready to stand before Christ when“the day of the Lord,” arrives.[i]  Before we can go any further, we must ask and seek to answer several questions. 

What is “the Day of the Lord”?  During his visit to Thessalonica Paul had obviously taught them about the day of the Lord, because in verse 2 he refers to it as something they are fully aware of, at least in respect to its thief-like arrival.  He had no doubt explained from the OT that it would be a day of great judgment, a day of God’s wrath.  Amos, an 8th century prophet, had made that plain:

Woe to you who desire the day of the LORD!  Why would you have the day 

         of the LORD?….

Is not the day of the LORD darkness, and not light, and gloom with no 

         brightness in it?  (Amos 5:18)

The prophet Joel called it “the great and terrible day of the Lord.” (Joel 2:31).  

Some of the Thessalonians actually thought, mistakenly, that they were already in the day of the Lord, due to the intense persecution they were suffering.   Let’s just take a quick preview of 2 Thess 2:1-2:

Now concerning the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our being gathered together to him, we ask you, brothers, not to be quickly shaken in mind or alarmed, either by a spirit or a spoken word, or a letter seeming to be from us, to the effect that the day of the Lord has come.

Paul isn’t sure how they came up with this notion, but he wants to squelch it–they are not in the day of the Lord.  That is the day of final judgment. 

So that raises a second question:

When will it arrive?  Some of the Thessalonians had apparently come to the conclusion that the best way to prepare for the Day of the Lord, the day of judgment, is to know exactly when it’s coming.  But Paul disagrees (verse 1):  “Now concerning the times and the seasons (literally “times” and “dates”), brothers, you have no need to have anything written to you.”  Why not?  Because the date is not available, any more than it was available to the apostles who asked Jesus essentially the same question in Matthew 24, known as the Olivet Discourse. 

But while we can’t know exactly when the Day of the Lord arrives, we can know generally.  For one thing, it clearly doesn’t arrive before the Tribulation, because as we continue reading in 2 Thessalonians 2:3 Paul says, “Let no one deceive you in any way.  For that day (a reference back to the Day of the Lord in the previous verse) will not come, unless the rebellion comes first, and the man of lawlessness is revealed, the son of destruction.”  Everyone agrees that the man of lawlessness is the Antichrist.  He must already be revealed when the Day of the Lord arrives. Furthermore, the next verse goes on to describe him as taking his seat in the temple of God, which doesn’t happen until the middle of the Tribulation.[ii]  

I want to turn to Matthew 24, because I believe it has some extremely important parallels to 1 Thessalonians 4 & 5.  We preached through Matthew 24 just a little over two years ago, but allow me to summarize it this morning.  In the early paragraphs Jesus mentions a number of signs of His coming, which we presented as stages of labor for a pregnant woman (Jesus himself uses that analogy in verse 8):

Stage one: Early labor (4-8)

1.  Deception by false Messiahs

2.  Wars and rumors of war

3.  International unrest

4.  Widespread famines and earthquakes

Stage two: Transition (9-14)

1.  Persecution and martyrdom of true believers

2.  Apostasy and betrayal on a large scale

3.  Proliferation of false prophets and deceived people

4.  Exponential increase of wickedness

5.  The preaching of the Gospel in the whole world

Stage three: Heavy labor (15-25)

1.  The abomination that causes desolation in the holy place

2.  Great distress unequaled in human history

3.  Impossibility of survival if the days were not shortened

4. Satanic signs and miracles by false Messiahs and false prophets

Stage four: Delivery (26-35) This is where we read of the Second Coming and, in my view, the Rapture of the church.  

Now let’s read Matthew 24:29-31:

Immediately after the tribulation of those days the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will fall from heaven, and the powers of the heavens will be shaken. Then will appear in heaven the sign of the Son of Man, and then all the tribes of the earth will mourn, and they will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory. And he will send out his angels with a loud trumpet call, and they will gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other.  

I believe the gathering of the elect there in verse 31 is the Rapture, and it comes after the Tribulation (verse 29).  This passage seems to parallel last week’s passage, 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 in that you have the coming of Christ, the trumpet call, and the gathering of the elect.  

Now look down at verse 35 of Matthew 24 for further parallels with our text for today, 1 Thes 5:

But concerning that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father only.  For as were the days of Noah, so will be the coming of the Son of Man.  For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day when Noah entered the ark, and they were unaware until the flood came and swept them all away, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. 

Then two men will be in the field; one will be taken and one left.  Two women will be grinding at the mill; one will be taken and one left. Therefore, stay awake, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming.  But know this, that if the master of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not have let his house be broken into. Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect.   

Now I’m going to list some of the parallels between Matthew 24:35ff and 1 Thessalonians 5:  In both, the followers of Jesus are concerned about the timing of prophetic events, but Jesus diverts their attention to spiritual preparation.  In both, the return of Christ is likened to a thief in the night.  In both, unbelievers are clueless and the coming of Christ takes them by total surprise.  In both, believers are urged to stay awake and be ready.  In both, the day and the hour of the coming of Christ are unknown, even to believers, but there are signs that warn when the time is close.  In both, the believer is rescued while the unbeliever is subject to severe judgment.  

These parallels are startling and would lead one to think that they are talking about the same event.  But Matthew 24:35ff is clearly post-tribulational.  I think that argues in favor of a post-tribulational interpretation also of our passage in 1 Thessalonians 5.  

In summary, the Day of the Lord refers to the time of wrath and judgment which arrives late in the Tribulation.  And with that in mind, let’s examine the details of 1 Thessalonians 5. 

A sobering truth:  The Day of the Lord will come upon unbelievers suddenly, unexpectedly, and unavoidably. (1-3)

The Thessalonians are fully aware, or should have been, of what happens to unbelievers when the Day of the Lord arrives.  Just in case they have forgotten, however, Paul reminds them by means of two analogies.  

It will come like a thief in the night, i.e., there will be no warning.  Burglars break in suddenly, often in the middle of the night.  They never send a postcard ahead of time letting the homeowner know when the break-in will occur.   Now Jesus used this same analogy in Matt. 24:43, and it occurs as well in 2 Peter 3:10, and twice in the book of Revelation (3:3, and 16:15).  In one sense it seems strange that this analogy is used so often in Scripture, because as a matter of fact, there will be signs–as we saw so clearly in Matthew 24.  The answer must be that the warnings are completely ignored by unbelievers. 

It will also come like labor pains; i.e. there will be no escape.  Unlike the thief’s invasion, labor pains are expected.  But while the pregnant woman knows in general when labor is going to begin, she never knows the day or the hour.  But once labor pains begin, there is no escape.  

Please notice also that it’s while the unbelievers are saying, “There is peace and security,” that this sudden destruction comes upon them.  I think this fits well with what we read of the Antichrist, who apparently succeeds in getting much of the world, including the Nation of Israel, to trust him as a deliverer.  People will scoff at the warnings that he is a false savior.  But then he will turn on them and vent his wrath on them.  

Why do I say that these first 3 verses are dealing only with unbelievers?  It’s because there is a clear distinction between the people Paul is talking about here and those he speaks to starting in verse 4. He uses the 3rd person in verses 1-3 (“People are saying,” “destruction will come upon them,” “they will not escape.”) and then he switches to the 2nd person in verse 4, “But you, . . .brothers”addressing the believers in Thessalonica. 

So the Day of the Lord will come upon unbelievers like a thief in the night.  Interestingly, many pretribulationists have used the “thief in the night” as illustrative of the suddenness of the Rapture.  In fact, forty years ago Billy Graham produced a movie that some of you boomers remember, entitled A Thief in the Night.  It was a pre-trib movie communicating that believers had better be ready or the Rapture will catch them unawares.  But I think it can be demonstrated that every one of the passages that uses the thief analogy is speaking of the Second Coming at the end of the Tribulation.  We’ve already shown that in Matthew 24:43.  That also seems to be the case in 2 Peter 3:10:  “But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a roar, and the heavenly bodies will be burned up and dissolved, and the earth and the works that are done on it will be exposed.”  In Revelation 3:3 there is no clear indication of timing, but in 16:15 Jesus says, “Behold, I am coming like a thief!  Blessed is the one who stays awake.”  This is spoken at the time the bowls of wrath are poured out toward the end of the Tribulation! 

Now I suppose it’s theoretically possible that Jesus will come like a thief to rapture His church and then seven years later come like a thief again to bring judgment on an apathetic world of unbelievers, but here in 1 Thess 5:1-3 His thief-like coming, with its sudden, unexpected, and unavoidable destruction, is clearly the destiny of unbelievers, not the Church, and it is happening at the Day of the Lord, not before the Tribulation. 

Now someone is probably thinking, “But weren’t a lot of people saved through that Billy Graham movie?”  Yes, but all that tells me is that God is gracious.  Even if our theology is not perfect, He still responds to those who sincerely seek Him.

So let’s turn our attention to the contrasting truth in verses 4-8.

A contrasting truth:  Believers will not be surprised by the arrival of the Day of the Lord.   (4-8)

Look at verse 4: “But you are not in darkness, brothers, for that day to surprise you like a thief.”  He’s still talking about the Day of the Lord mentioned back in verse 2.  Now let me ask you a simple question:  If Paul were pre-trib, why wouldn’t he say, “But you, brothers, will not be around for that day to surprise you like a thief–you’ll be gone, raptured.”  But he doesn’t.  Instead he says, “But you are not in darkness, brothers, for that day to surprise you like a thief.”  

What I’m not sure of is whether he saying that no believers will be surprised or that believers in general will not be surprised.  You see, there are both affirmations and exhortations in this section.                               

Affirmations that believers are ready:  

You are not in darkness, brothers.  (4)

You are all children of light, children of the day. (5a)

We are not of the night or of the darkness.  (5b)

Exhortations for believers to be ready

So then let us not sleep. (6a)

Let us keep awake and be sober (6b)

Since we belong to the day, let us be sober (8)

The best way I know to explain this tension between affirmations and exhortations is this way:

Explanation:  Our behavior must match our position.  Our action must fit our knowledge.   It doesn’t always, you know.

Now let’s go back and consider these affirmations of the believer’s readiness.  The first is, “You are not in darkness, brothers.”  (4)  I believe this is speaking of spiritual darkness.  When Jesus came the first time, He brought spiritual light.  In John 1:4 it says, “In him was life, and the life was the light of men.  The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”  A few verses later John says of Jesus, “The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.”  Believers and unbelievers alike have had spiritual light shined on them, but due to their rejection of the light, unbelievers remain in spiritual darkness.  On the other hand, believers, indicated by the term “brothers” in 1 Thess 5:4, are not in spiritual darkness.  

The second affirmation is, “You are all children of light, children of the day.” (5a)  In his first epistle Peter tells us that Christ has “called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.” (1 Peter 2:9).   Once again the light here is spiritual light and understanding that comes through Christ.

The third is that “We are not of the night or of the darkness.”  (5b) In John 3:19 Jesus says, “This is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil.  For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed.  But whoever does what is true comes to the light.”  Each of these statements indicates that believers are in a totally different relationship to the truth than unbelievers.  Our position is one of light not darkness, day not night, truth not falsehood.

But Paul is not satisfied to just tell us what our position is; he also exhorts us to live up to that position. 

So then let us not sleep. (6a)

Let us keep awake and be sober. (6b)

Since we belong to the day, let us be sober. (8) 

All of these exhortations are essentially communicating the same thing:  If we belong to the day, our behavior must be daytime behavior.  

Did you notice that Paul suggests three reasons why people are often taken by surprise when a thief breaks in?  The first is that the thief comes unexpectedly at night, the second is that the homeowner is often asleep, and third, the homeowner may be awake but out partying, even drunk (most people get drunk at night).  We can do nothing about the first reason, but we can certainly do something about the other two.  Christ’s coming is going to be unexpected (at least in respect to its day and hour), but believers can at least be ready when the general time comes.  We don’t have to be asleep, and we don’t have to be drunk.  So the solution to the Thessalonians’ problem lies not in knowing when He will come, but in staying awake, alert, and sober. 

Then in verse 8 Paul goes beyond watchfulness to the need to be properly armed for Christian warfare:  “Since we belong to the day, let us be sober, having put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation.”    It’s as though he is saying we must not only be alert to the burglar, but we must also have appropriate defensive armor on.  A breastplate and helmet were the two most important pieces of defensive armor.  Notice they consist of that well-known triad–faith, hope, and love.  

A glorious truth:  God has not destined His Church for wrath, but for salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ.  (9-10)

This is a really important verse that is subject to widely differing interpretations.  Perhaps we can get to the meaning by asking several questions. 

What is this “wrath?” that God has not destined us for?   The pre-trib person argues that the Tribulation itself is a period of wrath; therefore, since the Church is not destined for wrath, she must be raptured before the Tribulation comes.  They point out that since the term “salvation” can be translated “deliverance,” it probably refers to the Rapture.  Thus the verse means, “we are not destined for the Tribulation but for the Rapture.”  But that view is not without problems, for the first half of the Tribulation period is not particularly a time of wrath but rather, as we have already seen, a time when people are proclaiming “peace and security.” 

The mid-trib person argues that the wrath doesn’t start until the Antichrist breaks his covenant with the Jewish people at the mid-point of the Tribulation, but then he makes the same argument as the pre-trib: since the Church is not destined for wrath, she must be raptured at the point where the wrath starts, the middle of the Tribulation. 

The pre-wrath person argues that the wrath spoken of here is God’s wrath (as opposed to the Antichrist’s wrath, or even Satan’s wrath), and since the first mention of God’s wrath in the book of Revelation is in conjunction with the sixth seal (6:17), that must be where the Rapture occurs. 

The post-tribulational view does not see “wrath” here in 1 Thessalonians 5:9 as a technical term for either the Tribulation as a whole or the last half of the Tribulation, or even the Day of the Lord, but rather a general term for God’s final judgment on sin.  The fact is that the wrath of God is spoken of often in the Scriptures in this way.  I’m going to read a number of these passages, and I want you to notice that in each case it promises wrath (judgment) for the unbeliever but eternal life for the believer. 

Romans 2:5-9:

But because of your hard and impenitent heart you are storing up wrath for yourself on the day of wrath when God’s righteous judgment will be revealed.  He will render to each one according to his works: to those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life; but for those who are self-seeking and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, there will be wrath and fury. There will be tribulation and distress for every human being who does evil.

Romans 5:9:  “Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God.” 

John 3:36:  “Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him.”  

Ephesians 2:3:  Here we are described as having once been “children of wrath, like the rest of mankind.  But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ–by grace you have been saved.”  

1 Thessalonians 1:9-10:  Here Paul commends the Thessalonian believers who “have turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God, and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead, Jesus who delivers us from the wrath to come.”3

Now we typically take the “wrath” (in every case it is the Greek word orge) in each of these passages as referring to the eternal judgment of God, and we take the “salvation” mentioned in each as referring to spiritual salvation through the blood of Christ, not deliverance through the Rapture.  Why then should we take 1 Thess 5:9 as referring to the Rapture?  I believe it is not a promise to remove the Church before the Tribulation, or before the Antichrist’s wrath of the last half of the Tribulation, or even before God’s wrath of the Day of the Lord, but to provide salvation from the eternal wrath of God through the death of Christ.4  

This leads directly to the answer to a second question:  

How do we avoid this wrath?  Well, look at the contrast within verse 9:  “For God has not destined us for wrath, but to obtain salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us.”  It seems to me that he is saying that we avoid wrath, not through the Rapture, but through the Gospel–through the death of Christ.  The believer will not have to face God’s wrath toward sin because Jesus took that wrath upon Himself.  “There is therefore now no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus.”  (Romans 8:1).  I have a third question.  

What is the end result?  Verse 10 tells us: “Whether we are awake or asleep we might live with him.”  That wonderful fact is connected directly with the death of Christ.  Whether we are still living when Jesus comes or we’ve already died, we have the hope and confidence that we will live with him because He died for us.     

The purpose of Paul’s teaching is encouragement and edification.  (11)

“Therefore, encourage one another and build one another up, just as you are doing.”   Our previous passage at the end of chapter four was for the purpose of encouragement.  This one is for encouragement and edification.  We encourage and build one another up when we help one another prepare for the future.

One person told me last week, with tongue in cheek (I think) that it’s better to be post-trib than pre-trib, because if you’re post and it turns out to be pre, it’s just a pleasant surprise.  But if you’re pre and it turns out to be post, you’re going to be in for a rude awakening.  Well, I don’t think that’s the best reason to be post-trib.  I believe it’s what the Bible actually teaches.  I am concerned that the church in America may be caught off guard big-time.  I’m not worried about the church in China or North Korea or Iraq or Egypt–those brothers and sisters know well what it means to be persecuted and even to be martyred for their faith.  They have withstood the onslaughts of Satan and emerged victorious.  We don’t know much about that.  

I’m not complaining, believe me, but there is a part of me that seriously wonders whether we are ready, or our children are ready, to demonstrate the kind of faith and fortitude and perseverance that these brothers have shown, if and when real tribulation comes our way.  Let us not sleep, as others do, but let us keep awake and be sober, since we belong to the day.  




Day of the Lord



[i].  John R. W. Stott, The Message of 1 & 2 Thessalonians, 107.

[ii].  Yet in an effort to maintain his pretrib interpretation of 1 Thess 4 & 5, Dr. Walvoord writes, “In a word, the Day of the Lord begins before the great tribulation.  When the day of grace ends with the translation (Rapture) of the church, the Day of the Lord begins at once.”  I personally don’t see any way to reconcile that with 2 Thessalonians 2:3.  

3.  2 Thess 1:6-8 doesn’t contain the word “wrath,” but there are terms which mean the same thing.

God considers it just to repay with affliction those who afflict you, and to grant relief to you who are afflicted as well as to us, when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with his mighty angels in flaming fire, inflicting vengeance on those who do not know God and on those who do not obey the Gospel of our Lord Jesus.  

This is clearly a Second Coming passage, not a pre-trib Rapture passage, yet Christians are present (“you” and “us”).  Wrath (flaming fire and vengeance) is being poured out at the same time that the church is being granted relief. 

4.  Frankly, I’d love to think the Church is promised not only spiritual salvation from the eternal wrath of God but also physical deliverance from the wrath of Antichrist by the Rapture.  But I don’t think the Bible teaches that.  And furthermore, it’s not how God normally operates.  

He delivered His people Israel through 400 years of slavery in Egypt. 

He delivered Noah through the Flood. 

He delivered Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego through the fiery furnace.

And He delivered the great men and women of faith in Hebrews 11 through great trial.