During the season of Advent, I am translating from Greek to English the weekday epistle readings out of the Daily Lectionary of the Book of Common Prayer.
Monday, 7 December 2020 1 Thessalonians 5:1-12
1. But brothers and sisters, you do not have a need for me to write about the times and moments.
2. For you yourselves know full well the Day of the Lord comes as a thief in the night.
3. Right when they shall say, “Peace” and “Security”, suddenly destruction then will come upon them just like birth pangs come. They shall not escape it.
4. But you are not in the dark brothers and sisters, therefore that day will not seize you like a thief.
5. For you are all children of light and children of day. We are not of the night and darkness.
6. Consequently, we should not sleep as everyone else, but we must be watchful and sober.
7. For those who sleep, sleep at night; those who get drunk, get drunk at night.
8. But we, being creatures of the day are putting on the breastplate of faith and love and the helmet of hope for salvation.
9. God did not put us here for wrath, but to acquire salvation through our Lord Messiah Jesus,
10. the one who died for us, so that together we might live with him whether we are awake or asleep.
11. Therefore, continue as you are doing, encouraging one another and edifying one by one.
The twist in verse three should get our attention. The text reminds us that when people thing all will be well, when people are saying “we have achieved peace” and “we are all secure” that is when the Lord will come. It reminds us what every good storyteller knows: right when things are going too good to be true, that is when the bottom falls out. I am fascinated by the echo of Babel (Genesis 11) here. It might be a reach, but it was right at the height of human achievement when human beings thought they had achieved peace, unification, and power that the Lord came and confounded everything.
The two images of what the day is like are also gripping. One is birth pangs. Birth pangs are severe, and when things go well, it ends in something wonderful: new life. But, the pangs themselves start relatively mild (ADMISSION HERE–AS A MAN I DON’T NOW THIS FIRST HAND, BUT I HAVE OBSERVED IT FROM VERY CLOSE QUARTERS) but then the intensity increases with each successive wave. We can expect some sense in which the end will be like that — pangs, waves of problems that ebb and flow, but each wave is successfully worse.
This gradual onset of increasing pangs seems at odds with the other visual put forth by Paul — the thief in the night. There is no preparation, no warning, and usually no awareness of the event until after the fact. How do we square these two? One solution is to think not of the entire birth pangs, but of the sudden onset of them. A woman may know her time is near, but the uncertainty of the exact moment (unless induced) still lingers over her and her family. Another solution is perhaps to view it like a thief coming in the night at the start — but then the pangs come in successive waves until it is over.
Either way, it doesn’t seem very pleasant.
For verse 8, consider the longer treatment of this theme in Ephesians 6:10ff. The exhortation here to be awake and be sober is not about abstaining from drinking, unless one is prepared to argue we should abstain from sleep as well. These are examples of when we are not alert. Spiritually, we must not fall asleep on our obligations and our community, and we must not become intoxicated with either the world or ourselves. These will cause us to not be ready when the the first contraction hits.
Questions For Application
- If you were awaken in the middle of the night to the presence of a prowler, what would your first thought be? Now, apply that to the coming of Jesus?
- When the birth pangs come, what is the greatest fear a woman has? Now, apply that to the coming of Jesus.
- How exactly are you watching? What proactive steps are you taking?