Can Christians Know the Timing of Christ’s Second Coming? (1 Thessalonians 5)

This article is part of the Tough Passages series.

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1Now concerning the times and the seasons, brothers, you have no need to have anything written to you. <sup2For you yourselves are fully aware that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night. 3While 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. 4But you are not in darkness, brothers, for that day to surprise you like a thief. 5For you are all children of light, children of the day. We are not of the night or of the darkness. 6 So then let us not sleep, as others do, but let us keep awake and be sober. 7For those who sleep, sleep at night, and those who get drunk, are drunk at night. 8But 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. 9For God has not destined us for wrath, but to obtain salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, 10who died for us so that whether we are awake or asleep we might live with him. 11Therefore encourage one another and build one another up, just as you are doing.
—1 Thessalonians 5:1–11

Not for Us to Know

Many wish to know when Jesus will return to establish his kingdom fully. The disciples asked this very question (Matt. 24:3; Mark 13:4; Luke 21:7). In Jesus’ reply, known as the Olivet Discourse, he affirms that, though signs will presage his return, the actual timing of his second coming is not for us to know (Matt. 24:36–44; Mark 13:32–37). Instead, believers should wait patiently and always be prepared for his appearance (e.g., Matt. 24:45–25:13; Luke 12:39–46). In 1 Thessalonians 5, Paul also answers questions about the timing of Jesus’ return, and he carefully models his response on Jesus’ teaching. It may be that a letter had arrived from Thessalonica or that Timothy had brought back news, thus signaling the Thessalonians’ desire for more instruction on the timing of Jesus’ second coming.

Concerning “the times and the seasons,” a similar expression occurs in Acts 1:7, where Jesus responds to the disciples’ question about the timing of the restoration of the kingdom of God: “It is not for you to know times or seasons that the Father has fixed by his own authority.” Referring again to the church as “brothers,” Paul reminds the church concerning instruction they had already received when Paul and his team were with them in Thessalonica. Rhetorically, Paul underscores that they “have no need to have anything written to you.”

ESV Expository Commentary

With contributions from a team of pastors and scholars, this commentary through 9 of Paul’s letters helps students of the Bible to understand how each epistle fits in with the storyline of Scripture and applies today.

Paul stresses again that they already know the answer to this question, employing the intensified pronoun “you yourselves” and stating that they are already “fully” (Gk. akribōs, “accurately”) aware of the proper reply.

Admittedly, this reply is perhaps disappointing to some: the timing of Jesus’ return will be a surprise. Jesus compared his return to a “thief,” who comes in the night at a time at which no one expects him (Matt. 24:43; Luke 12:39). In this verse, Paul references Jesus’ own eschatological teaching, as he did earlier (cf. comments on 1 Thess. 1:10; 4:15; 4:16; 5:1). Jesus’ “thief” aphorism was clearly well known in the apostolic tradition (cf. 2 Pet. 3:10; Rev. 3:3; 16:15). Throughout the NT, this thief saying appears in the context of warning and exhortation. The thief causes injury to the household; therefore, those unprepared for the Lord’s return will suffer loss and destruction. This provides a helpful transition to the thought of 1 Thessalonians 5:3–8.

Paul draws on OT vocabulary for the “day of the Lord” (e.g., Isa. 13:6, 9; Jer. 46:10; Ezek. 30:3; Joel 2:31; 3:14; Amos 5:18–20; Zeph. 1:7–18; Mal. 4:5) to depict the day on which the Lord Jesus will appear to bring final judgment on his enemies and vindication for his people (1 Cor. 1:8; 5:5; 2 Cor. 1:14; 2 Thess. 2:2; also 2 Pet. 3:10).

Don’t Be Caught Unaware

Since Christ’s return will come as a surprise, Paul warns that those who are not following Christ are in danger of being caught unaware. People may become so acclimatized to the status quo that they forget that Jesus will return to judge the living and the dead (cf. also 2 Pet. 3:4).

Paul pictures someone who observes, “There is peace and security,” and thus assumes the signs for Jesus’ return and final judgment are still far off. Such a person fails to be prepared for Christ’s appearance. Indeed, it may be at just such a moment that “sudden destruction” brings the final judgment. Following an OT metaphor for destruction (Isa. 26:17; Jer. 4:31; 6:24; Mic. 4:9–10; on the “day of the Lord,” see esp. Isa. 13:8), Paul draws analogies to the labor pains of pregnancy, which can be agonizing and sudden. Labor pains also appear in various other eschatological metaphors from Jesus and Paul (Matt. 24:8; Mark 13:8; John 16:21; Rom. 8:22). Here the emphasis, as in the OT, remains merely on the pain itself, without reference to the joy of the birth. No one will be able to flee from the sudden judgment Christ brings (cf. Rom. 2:3).

In contrast to the people mentioned in 1 Thessalonians 5:3, the Thessalonian believers “are not in darkness” since they are followers of Jesus, seeking to walk according to his teaching. They already know to be prepared for Jesus’ return. The contrast makes it likely that Paul was speaking in 1 Thessalonians 5:3 about those who do not know Christ. Both “darkness” and “night” in these verses refer to those who have not yet experienced the illumination of the gospel’s shining in their souls. In contrast, the “children of the light/day” are those who now see clearly enough to follow Jesus.

This darkness/light metaphor provides Paul with multiple applications, especially in combination with Jesus’ thief metaphor. Since thieves steal primarily at night (1 Thess. 5:2), those who are children of the day/light will not be surprised by the thief. Their lives lived in faith, hope, and love (1 Thess. 5:8) show that they have obtained salvation in Christ (1 Thess. 5:9) as they live out their sanctification by walking in his light-filled ways. In contrast, those who remain in spiritual darkness will be surprised with sudden destruction at Christ’s return (1 Thess. 5:3).

In verse 5 Paul and his colleagues shift subtly from talking about “you” to speaking about “us.” They include themselves alongside the Thessalonian believers as children of light, increasing the sense of fellowship with one another.

Paul now introduces two additional related metaphors. When he says, “Let us not sleep,” he certainly does not mean it literally. Sleep connotes a passive, callous disregard for the need to be prepared. Drunkenness further suggests such irresponsibility. Paul elsewhere commends physical sobriety and avoidance of drunkenness (Gal. 5:21; Eph. 5:18; 1 Tim. 3:3; Titus 1:7), but here the reference is metaphorical (cf. 1 Cor. 15:34). In context, sleep and drunkenness make one illprepared to encounter the surprise of a “thief” during the night.

Connecting these metaphors to the preceding discussion (1 Thess. 5:4–5) of darkness and light, Paul observes that those who sleep and those who get drunk both inhabit the space of night and darkness. In contrast, the children of light will be found awake and sober and thus prepared for Christ’s return (cf. John 12:35–36; Eph. 5:8–14). Thus the directives to “keep awake” and “be sober” refer to being watchful and ready for Christ’s appearing.

Some have understood the wakefulness of the children of light here to relate to cognition, implying that such “children” have studied the Scriptures and thus know the signs well enough to predict Christ’s return. However, these images do not work in that way. The ongoing sobriety and wakefulness of the children of light has to do with how they conduct themselves as those living in the day. And, in 1 Thessalonians 5:8, Paul will indicate specifically what such sobriety involves: faith, love, and hope.

The children of light will be found awake and sober and thus prepared for Christ’s return.

How to Prepare

This verse further explains what Paul’s images in 1 Thessalonians 5:4–8 have been pointing toward. What does it look like to be prepared for Christ’s return? Preparedness means to conduct our lives in faith, love, and hope in Christ. Note that Paul had previously mentioned this triad of faith, hope, and love (1 Thess. 1:3; cf. 1 Cor. 13:13; Gal. 5:5–6; Col. 1:4–5).

Paul adopts the image of God’s heavenly armor from Isaiah 59:17 (in Isaiah, it is the Lord God who wears such armor). In another well-known passage (Eph. 6:14–17), Paul expands on the “armor of God,” applying it there, as here, to the armor that God furnishes to equip his saints. Some interpreters (especially of the Ephesians text) tend to wax eloquent on why each concept (such as faith or hope) is matched with a particular piece of Roman military equipment. However, we should be more constrained in our discussions of this imagery, since Paul varies the labels for each piece of equipment in 1 Thessalonians and Ephesians. Thus the “breastplate” is “righteousness” in Ephesians 6:14 (following Isa. 59:17), whereas in 1 Thessalonians 5:8 the “breastplate” refers to both “faith and love.” The broader imagery is Paul’s main point: faith, love, and hope are likened to armor that protects believers and prepares them for spiritual battle.

Salvation and Redemption

Paul mentions the “hope of salvation” in 1 Thessalonians 5:8. 1 Thessalonians 5:9–10 proceed to discuss how God’s gracious salvation and redemption in Christ delivers such hope to believers, assuring us that our destiny will not be God’s wrath and eternal destruction but rather eternal salvation. While believers are in some sense “saved” in the present, in this particular context “salvation” is juxtaposed with future wrath and judgment, and thus Paul looks forward here to the final salvation of Christ’s people in the resurrection.

Such salvation is obtained (cf. 2 Thess. 2:14) only through the work of Jesus, who is declared both the eternal “Lord” and “Christ.” In a brief summary of the gospel (1 Thess. 5:10), Paul reminds the church that Jesus’ death was “for us,” signifying that his death made atonement for our sins. Moreover, Jesus’ resurrection provides the hope that someday we shall live with him—our resurrection lives having been made possible through our union with the risen Christ (cf., e.g., 1 Cor. 15:20–28).

Paul’s mention of “whether we are awake or asleep” affords at least two possible interpretations. It could draw on the concept of sleep/wakefulness found in the immediate context (1 Thess. 5:6–7), but then verse 10 would be at odds with Paul’s caution that those who sleep are in darkness and thus in peril of destruction (1 Thess. 5:3–7). Rather, “whether we are awake or asleep” likely refers back to Paul’s discussion at the beginning of his eschatological teaching (1 Thess. 4:13–18), where “asleep” refers to the dead in Christ and thus “awake” would then indicate those believers who are presently alive. Concerning Jesus’ followers, both the dead in Christ and the currently living believers await our final resurrection and eternal life with Christ.

As at the conclusion of the preceding section (1 Thess. 4:18), here Paul again invites the Thessalonians to mutual encouragement based on the gospel truths found in Paul’s teaching. Alongside “encourage one another,” Paul adds “build one another up,” which is a further idiom for encouraging and strengthening others (cf. Acts 20:32; 1 Cor. 14:4). The importance of Christian community is here assumed, for if we (both individually and collectively) are to be built up in Christ, we need one another for mutual encouragement. In this verse and throughout the epistle, Paul affirms that the Thessalonians are already following Christ (“just as you are doing”; cf. comments on 1 Thess. 1:6–10; 3:6–7; 4:1); that in itself was one way Paul “encouraged” and “built up” the churches: he commended them for what they were doing well.

This article is adapted from ESV Expository Commentary: Ephesians–Philemon: Volume 11 edited by Iain M. Duguid, James M. Hamilton Jr., and Jay Sklar.

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