This passage from Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians 5:1-6 falls squarely into the realm of Jewish apocalyptic thought, as does much of Jesus’ own teaching found in the Gospels, with one profound difference: the Christians were not Jews awaiting the coming of the Messiah. The followers of Jesus were Jews who claimed that the Messiah had come, was crucified, resurrected and exalted, and would come again to put into motion the basic events common to all Jewish scenarios concerned with the end time. When the Messiah came, there would be a battle at the end of time, with suffering greater than ever before, in which evil itself would be destroyed. There would be resurrection, in which both those alive and those who had already died physically, would participate, and judgment, in which all would receive their reward or punishment. What changed for Christians was a different call of duty. As mentioned above, since Jesus had already come, his followers needed to model themselves not just according to the Law of Moses, but according to Jesus’ life and teachings.
Apocalyptic teaching, Jewish or Christian, focuses on imminence: it is coming soon. This is what Paul is driving at when he tells the Thessalonians,
Concerning times and seasons, brothers and sisters, you have no need for anything to be written to you. For you yourselves know very well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief at night. When people are saying, "Peace and security," then sudden disaster comes upon them, like labor pains upon a pregnant woman, and they will not escape. (1 Thess. 5:1-3)
This passage uses two well-known motifs of ancient apocalyptic teaching, also found in Jesus’ teaching: the apocalypse is like a thief in the night; the apocalypse is like labor pains in birth. Both seem to come suddenly and without warning, but there are differences. You do not usually expect a thief in the night, depending on your neighborhood, and Paul seems to say here that people are not prepared and ready. For Paul joins the thief in the night imagery to people saying “Peace and Security.” On the other hand, the “sudden disaster” is also linked to the pregnant woman. Still, there must be a difference, as the mother-to-be, and her family and friends, do know that the time is coming, and soon, when the fullness of time will be reached, so even if labor cannot be predicted precisely, we can expect it soon. One prepares differently for labor and delivery because there are clear signs that the end is in sight.
The two images, to my mind, also point to two different views of the end. Even if you are prepared for a thief, not blithely trusting in “Peace and Security,” no one wants a thief to come. The coming of the thief is not a time for rejoicing and who can truly predict his coming? The coming of a newborn child, though, is a time for rejoicing and although great pain accompanies labor and delivery, the result is a brand new world of love in which the pain soon dissipates and hope resonates. The thief in the night imagery points to those people who will experience the end as a loss of goods, while the pregnancy imagery points to those who will receive it as a net gain.
Due to this different understanding of the end, Paul tells us, we need not fear theft or loss. It has to do, ultimately, with arming ourselves for the battle:
But you, brothers and sisters, are not in darkness, for that day to overtake you like a thief. For all of you are children of the light and children of the day. We are not of the night or of darkness. Therefore, let us not sleep as the rest do, but let us stay alert and sober. (1 Thess. 5:4-6)
This exhortation has implications not just for the world to come, but more importantly on a day to day level how we live and do our duty right now. The text contrasts “children of the light and children of the day” with children of “the night or of darkness.” The Greek actually has “sons” (huoi), not “children,” which I note because it connects Paul's passage to language from the Dead Sea Scrolls, in particular The War Scroll, an apocalyptic battle text which speaks of the “sons of light” and their battle with the “sons of darkness” at the end of time. Thief and pregnancy imagery has given way to the battle motif of ancient apocalyptic thought.
If we are “children of the light,” Paul says, we need to be alert and awake. He implies that even now we are engaged in this end of time battle. In fact, 1 Thess. 5:8 makes it clear that the battle is being fought now:
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.
Here is how the battle is won, not just with alertness and wakefulness, but with the proper defense. That the proper armor is faith, love and hope – the three theological virtues – carries us into the heart of Jesus’ teachings and tells us that whatever scenario of the end we can imagine, however soon it may befall us individually or cosmically, there is no substitute for the weaponry which calls us to daily duty. Modern spiritual warfare must be waged as it was in the ancient world, with faith, love and hope. They hardly seem like weapons until you realize they are able to transform theft into new life.
John W. Martens
Follow me on Twitter @johnwmartens