Exploring the Scripture
Jesus told his disciples that he would rise from the dead. He fulfilled that promise on the third day. Before his ascension, he told them he would come again. Thus, they lived each day in expectation of his return. They walked the streets looking into the faces of strangers, hoping it would be Jesus. But as years went by, they began to question and doubt. When would he return and usher in the “kin-dom” he had proclaimed?
Paul’s teaching on the Second Coming of Christ and the end times continues in our text for today. Jesus said the end time would come unexpectedly, “like a thief in the night” (Matthew 24:43-44; Luke 12:39-40). The symbolism carries multiple layers of meaning. Night and darkness hid acts done in secret, that which was evil, acts that are out of control. The coming of Christ would be unexpected and create difficulties, just when people felt comfortable and safe. Paul employed the well-known symbol of a pregnant woman to highlight the sudden reversal of fortune that would occur. All appears well and secure when labor pains strike forcefully, without stopping, moving inevitably toward birth. It cannot be stopped. So it will be with the Second Coming.
Verse 4, however, offers comfort. The Thessalonians are not in the dark, for they are “children of the light and children of the day.” Forewarned and faithful to Christ, they are prepared. God can light up the night with Christ’s brilliance at any moment. Therefore, they must remain awake, alert, and prepared for whatever will come.
Note that Paul did not promise an easy existence. There will still be battles, but they are protected in that struggle with the breastplate of faith and love and the helmet of hope. The NRSV translation encourages the reader to adopt this armor. Other translations read that such armor is already a part of their daily equipage. It is Godly armor, worn by God (Isaiah 59:17) and granted to humans as a gracious gift.
God has planned for their salvation, not for wrath and judgment. Christ’s death “for us” is how that salvation is provided. Paul didn’t elaborate on the specific manner in which Jesus’ death and resurrection save us. It can be interpreted to mean Jesus died in our place. It could mean that death and resurrection show the way God acts in the world for all of us. It could mean that Jesus represented us to God and God to us to see the best there is in both human and divine natures. Regardless of the interpretation, Paul stressed that we are “destined for salvation, not wrath.” Salvation (and judgment) are in God’s hands, not ours.
Because the timing of Jesus’s return is unknown, and salvation is entirely in God’s hands, the Thessalonians can stop worrying about these issues. God is sovereign and in control. “Awake or asleep, we will live with him” is the perfect antidote to anxiety. In the face of that assurance, the role of believers is to comfort one another and “build up one another.” The message is to move beyond that over which they have no power and authority. Focus instead on their behavior, their relationships, their response to difficulties, and the community’s building up.
Project Zion Podcast
Co-hosts Karin Peter and Blake Smith consider how this week's scripture connects to our lives today.
- Early Christians expected Christ’s return during their lifetimes, but they grew impatient with the delay as years went by.
- Paul assured the faithful that Christ would return as he promised, but it was fruitless to identify a timeline for the event. It would be sudden, unpredictable, and unstoppable.
- Followers of Christ must remain awake, alert, and faithful, regardless of life’s circumstances.
- God is responsible for life, death, judgment, and salvation. Humans are to comfort one another and build a loving community.
Questions to Consider
- How important to you is the timing of Christ’s return and the end times? How does it become relevant in our present circumstances?
- What does it mean to “keep awake and be sober” as a follower of Jesus Christ? How does this relate to our Mission Prayer?
- When have you found yourself “playing God” by judging the worth of another? When have you found yourself choosing to comfort and build up someone instead of judging?
- What is the salvation for which God has “destined us”? How do you interpret it in modern-day language and symbols?