Epistles: Don’t Be Surprised (1 Thessalonians 5:1-11)

In almost every one of his letters, Paul refers to the return of Christ. But he rarely gives any details. His letters to the believers in Thessalonica are exceptions. Apparently they had asked for more information on this topic.

After Paul tells them that Christ will return, he discusses the timing in more detail: “About times and dates we do not need to write to you, for you know very well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night.” Jesus also referred to a thief in the night in the Olivet prophecy (Matt. 24:43). This may have been a common proverb about someone coming at an unexpected time.

“While people are saying, ‘Peace and safety,’ destruction will come on them suddenly, as labor pains on a pregnant woman, and they will not escape.” Labor pains are not totally unpredictable, but this was probably another proverb for something that could not be scheduled precisely.

What sort of “destruction” did Paul have in mind? He refers to “wrath” in verse 9, but he doesn’t give us many details about it. Paul may be referring to the turmoil or tribulation that was expected before the day of the Lord, or perhaps to the day of judgment itself, when some people will find that the world is ruled by someone they don’t like, and they will suffer the consequences of their own actions.

Paul’s purpose is not to tell us about destruction, but to encourage us that we will not experience it: “But you…are not in darkness so that this day should surprise you like a thief.” They do not know when the day will be — Paul’s point is that they won’t suffer loss, because they are always ready.

“You are all sons of the light and sons of the day. We do not belong to the night or to the darkness.” Paul is using “darkness” as a spiritual category, just as some of the Dead Sea Scrolls do. The believers are children of light, children of God, not of evil and darkness, and that should change the way they live.

“But since we belong to the day, let us be self-controlled, putting on faith and love as a breastplate, and the hope of salvation as a helmet.” Paul here uses another metaphor, perhaps adapted from Isaiah 59:17. Faith, love, and hope should cover and protect our hearts and minds.

“For God did not appoint us to suffer wrath but to receive salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ.” God does not want us to experience the unpleasant consequences of sin. He has planned something far better for us — salvation.

In this letter, written to people who were already Christians, Paul does not say much about how a person is saved. The only glimpse comes in verse 10: “He died for us so that, whether we are awake or asleep, we may live together with him.” This is where the discussion started: Whether we live until Christ returns (are awake), or if we die (are asleep), either way, the purpose and result is the same: we will live with him. That’s the salvation he obtained for us.

Paul concludes: “Therefore encourage one another and build each other up, just as in fact you are doing.” As the young church struggled to hold on to their faith in a time of persecution, they saw that everything, whether life or death, made sense only in Christ.

Things to think about

  • Am I disappointed by the idea that Christ may not return in my lifetime?
  • What will I think as I rise into the air to greet Christ?
  • Have I used these words to encourage others?
  • How does a belief in resurrection lead me to self-control?

The Greeks had a word for it: Παρουσια

The Greek word parousia comes from the preposition para, meaning “near,” and the participle ousia, which means “being.” Literally, it means “being near”; in everyday Greek it meant “presence” or “arrival.” In addition to these ordinary uses, it also “became the official term for a visit of a person of high rank, especially of kings and emperors visiting a province.”3

Paul referred to his own presence (Phil. 1:26), and the presence of the “man of sin” (2 Thess. 2:9), but when he used this word he usually meant the presence of Jesus Christ, returning visibly and in strength. As a result, Parousia has entered English as a theological term for the return of Christ.


1 Ben Witherington III, Jesus, Paul, and the End of the World (InterVarsity, 1992), 24.

2 For a more thorough analysis of this theory, see the chapter below.

3 F.W. Danker, ed., Greek-English Lexicon (University of Chicago, 2000), 781.

Author: Michael Morrison, 2008


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