Like a Thief in the Night

1 Thessalonians 5:1-11

Billy Graham says it. Pope John Paul II says it. Even some Orthodox Jewish rabbis have been saying it. They all agree that the coming of the Messiah is very near. Now why would a Protestant evangelist, the leader of the Roman Catholic Church, and Jewish rabbis agree on anything? Because so many Bible prophecies are being fulfilled in this generation.

Two thousand years ago Jesus gave his followers the following specific signs of his return in Matthew 24:3-7:

As Jesus was sitting on the Mount of Olives, the disciples came to him privately. ‘‘Tell us,” they said, ‘‘when will this happen, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?” Jesus answered: ‘‘Watch out that no one deceives you. For many will come in my name, claiming, ‘I am the Christ,’ and will deceive many. You will hear of wars and rumors of wars, but see to it that you are not alarmed. Such things must happen, but the end is still to come. Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be famines and earthquakes in various places. All these are the beginning of birth pains.

I believe these signs are both descriptive of the entire age and especially of the final period before his Second Coming. The use of the phrase “birth pains” seems to indicate that these things will increase both in frequency and intensity as we approach the end of the age. With that in mind, consider these facts:

Signs of the Times

•False Christs The past few decades have witnessed a huge upsurge in charismatic leaders claiming to be Christ, including the Rev. Jim Jones, Moonies’ Rev. Sun Myung Moon, the Buddhist Dalai Lama, the Hindu Krishnamurti, the Jewish rabbi Menachem Schneerson, and the Bahais’ Baha Ullah, to name a few. Collectively, their followers number in the millions.

•War War in the original Greek of Matthew 24 is ethnos, meaning ethnic or racial war. A recent editorial in Time magazine reported there are presently 67 wars being fought around the planet and most of them are ethnic wars, including the recent slaughter in Rwanda and Bosnia. According to the National Defense Council Foundation, conflicts around the globe have doubled since 1989.

•Famine The LA Times reported recently that more than one billion people suffer

from serious malnutrition, exacerbated in the past months by worldwide drought. More than 35 million people living mostly in the southern states of Africa suffer from acute hunger and are threatened with imminent death.

•Pestilence The rate of infectious diseases has increased 58% since 1980, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control. Diseases once considered conquered are now reappearing, sometimes in drug-resistant forms. AIDS has become a worldwide scourge, and viral diseases such as Ebola pose an international threat because of transcontinental flight.

`•Earthquakes The number of dangerous earthquakes measuring 6.0 or greater on the Richter scale has been steadily increasing since the 1950s when there were nine. In the 1960s, there were 13. In the 1970s, 51. In the 1980s, 86. In the 1990s more than100 such serious earthquakes have already been recorded, according to the LA Herald Examiner.

(Most of this information was retrieved from a site on the Internet that I located using the CrossSearch Directory.)

The Death-Sentenced Generation

One day a young girl near the church I pastored in Downey, California came into my office. She had been coming to our Sunday School and I knew her well. As she sat down to talk I could see she had something serious on her mind. I asked her what it was. She said a friend had been talking to her about the Second Coming of Christ and it scared her. Was it really true, she asked, that when Jesus comes back the Christians will go up to be with him? Yes, I said. And is it true that some men will try to take over the world after that? “Yes, that’s right.” “I want to make sure I miss all of that,” she declared.

There are many people like that fifth-grade girl today. They’ve heard a lot of rumors from a lot of different people. And they are scared.



Who wouldn’t be living in a world like this one? Noel Coward called this the death-sentenced generation. And so we are. Some years ago CBS Special Reports did a broadcast called The Defense of the United States?. The first episode talked about the possibility of nuclear war between the U.S. and Russia. During the film they showed a Defense Department mock enactment of a ICBM attack on the U.S. The bottom line was this: We could see them coming. We would have 17 minutes notice. And we couldn’t do a thing about it. Do you know what our nuclear strategy has been? We absorb the first blow and then with whatever we have left blast the Russians out of the water. That frightens me because I live in Chicago. I don’t have a ghost of a chance of ever surviving that first blast. At the end of the show they showed what a small-megaton bomb exploding over Omaha, Nebraska would do. Just one would kill 2 million people.

The Last Act Is About to Begin

I turned off the set profoundly shaken by what I had seen. Years later we are still only a hairs-breadth from nuclear war. Where could it start? Iraq, Jerusalem, Iran, Afghanistan, Bosnia, Northern Ireland, Libya, Saudi Arabia, China. Let a large bomb explode right now in Chicago. None of us would live to see another day.

That’s the kind of world we live in. No wonder people are scared. We are a death-sentenced generation. Instinctively we realize that we are living in the intermission just before the curtain rises on the last act of human history. We have seen act 1, act 2, act 3. But this is only a 4 act play. And in 1996 we feel in our hearts the lights are dimming, the curtain is rising on the consummation of all human history.

The Bible and Today’s Headlines

As we look at the Bible our conviction grows that this world will not last much longer. If you ask, “Do you know for certain that Jesus will come back in your lifetime?”, the answer is No, I don’t know that and neither does anyone else. Date setting, or even time setting is a mark of a cult. Jesus may not come back for 1,000 years. But here is my challenge to you. Read the Bible and study what it describes about the world situation when Jesus does return. Then pick up the newspaper and read it. I believe you will be amazed at the similarity between the Bible and the today’s headlines. I believe the overall situation in the world today is very similar the to the situation the Bible describes for the days leading up to the return of Christ.

With that introduction, let’s turn our attention to our text—1 Thessalonians 5:1-11. The key word is found in verse 2, where Paul assures his readers that they “know very well.” The phrase means to know accurately or in detail. In this passage Paul is reminding us of certain things we already know about the Second Coming of Christ.

I. What We Know About the Future 1-3

Now, brothers, 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. 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.

Paul uses a particular term to describe the end times. He calls it “the day of the Lord.” That’s a phrase used many times in the Old Testament. It describes any time when God suddenly interrupts the normal flow of life and “breaks in” to time and space. The prophets used the term to describe God’s judgment on the pagan nations surrounding Israel. In fact, throughout history there have been many periods that might be called “the day of the Lord.” But all of those little “days” look forward to be the big “day” at the end history. They are like the preliminary fights leading up to the main event.

Our text tells us that we know three things about the coming Day of the Lord at the end of the age: First, it will come suddenly, like a thief in the night. Why did you lock your door last night? You did it because thieves normally come during the darkness while you are sleeping. Verse 3 even tells us what people will be saying in those days. They will cry, “Peace and safety.” That’s interesting. It means that the days just before the beginning of the final judgment will seem tranquil and peaceful. Jesus predicted the same thing in Matthew 24:37-38:

As it was in the days of Noah, so it will be at the coming of the Son of Man. For in the days before the flood, people were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, up to the day Noah entered the ark; and they knew nothing about what would happen until the flood came and took them all away. That is how it will be at the coming of the Son of Man.

In the Last Days the teachers will be teaching, the preachers preaching, the doctors treating, the lawyers arguing, the politicians speechifying, the salesmen making calls, the pharmacists filling prescriptions, the managers managing. In short, all will seem to be normal and peaceful. At exactly that moment—when the world least expects it, Jesus will return.

Second, it will be a period of great destruction. This refers to the vast judgments described in the book of Revelation, when the seals are broken, the trumpets sound and the bowls of God’s judgment poured out on the earth. All those terrible events will take place during a seven-year period called “the tribulation”

No Escape!

Third, there will be no escape. Here is the most important fact we need to know about the future. When the Day of the Lord finally comes and God’s fury is poured out on the earth, there will be no place to run, no place to hide. He uses a fascinating analogy to make his point. He compares it to a woman in the throes of childbirth. Every woman who has ever been pregnant knows what I mean. For months you wait for the day to come. You don’t know the exact day but you sense when it is getting close. Finally something happens and you say to your husband, “Sweetheart, it’s time to go to the hospital.” He may try to argue or reason with you but to no avail. When the time has come, you’ve got to go because the baby is on the way. You can’t ignore those sharp pains and you can’t make them go away.

The same is true of the Day of the Lord. When God’s judgment is poured out on this earth, no one will escape. The world cannot escape the tribulation period. Your only hope is to find the way of escape through the Lord Jesus Christ.

II. What We Know About Our Identity 4-5

But you, brothers, are not in darkness so that this day should surprise you like a thief. You are all sons of the light and sons of the day. We do not belong to the night or to the darkness.

Here is some very good news. There is light and there is darkness. These stand for the two great divisions of the human race—the saved and the lost. There are those who belong to the light and others who belong to the darkness. Note two key words in this text: “you” and “we.” Paul says clearly that Christians belong to the light and to the day, not to the darkness of the night.

The coming of Christ will clearly reveal those two kinds of people. Today it can be hard to tell because the sons of light live among the children of darkness. Even though we have fundamentally different values and lifestyles, still we live on the same planet, share the same space, live next door to each other, and often work in the same office together.

Sometimes it’s hard to tell if a person is a believer or not. But Paul’s point is that in that day—the Day of the Lord—the difference will be perfectly clear. We who belong to the light won’t be caught by surprise when Jesus returns and sudden destruction comes to the earth.

III. What We Know About Our Duty 6-8

So then, let us not be like others, who are asleep, but let us be alert and self-controlled. For those who sleep, sleep at night, and those who get drunk, get drunk at night. 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.

In verse 6 Paul uses two words to describe how we ought to live while we wait for Christ’s return. First, we must be alert. The word means “to make a determined effort to stay awake.” I had trouble doing that all day Wednesday because I stayed up late on Tuesday watching election returns. We all know that there are “morning people” and “evening people.” Spiritually we are called to be “morning people” for God. But some of us are spiritual sleepwalkers—with low standards and loose morality.



Second, we must be self-controlled. The word means “serious-minded” or “earnest.” It describes a person with spiritual poise in an unsettled world. This person is neither overly excited nor indifferent to the things that happen around him. To borrow a phrase from Madison Avenue, it means to be “cool, calm and collected.”

Verse 7 goes on to specify certain things that have no part in the Christian life. These are things associated with the evils of the night. He uses drunkenness as a prime example of how the unsaved live. That includes the party scene, the cocktail crowd, the bars and saloons, the social drinking, and all the rest. We are to have no part of it because we are people of the light and those things belong in the darkness.

We must be alert because the enemy attacks on every hand!

We must be self-controlled because we are always on duty!

We must reject moral compromise because it can only drag us down!

Soldier, Put On Your Uniform

Finally, we must put on the soldier’s uniform. Verse 8 tells us to put on the breastplate of faith of love. Just as the breastplate covered the vital organs, even so faith in God and love toward our brothers and sister will protect us in the time of battle. Then we are to put on the helmet of the hope of salvation. This protects the mind and produces clear thinking. What is the “hope of salvation"? It is the certainly that if we die before Jesus returns, we who believe will go directly to heaven. If we live till his return, it is the certainty that we will be raptured off this earth to meet the Lord in the earth. Either way we’re going to be delivered—whether alive or dead we’re going to meet Jesus very soon.

Paul is telling us there is a moral value to the Second Coming of Christ. There are certain standards that go with that truth. While we wait for his return, we live in a world of spiritual darkness that is hostile to spiritual truth. There is a battle raging all around us, a battle for the hearts and minds of men and women. I dare say it is also a battle for our culture and for our nation. Every Christian is a soldier in that battle.

In short, Paul is telling us to do three things in light of Christ’s return:

Wake up! (verse 6)

Clean up! (verse 7)

Dress up! (verse 8)

Jesus is coming again and we will meet him when he come—whether by resurrection from the dead or by rapture of the living. Is that just wishful thinking? Can anyone be sure they are going to meet the Lord someday? The last section of our passage clearly answers that question.

IV. What We Know About Our Destiny 9-11

For God did not appoint us to suffer wrath but to receive salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ. He died for us so that, whether we are awake or asleep, we may live together with him. Therefore encourage one another and build each other up, just as in fact you are doing.

The word “destiny” means “an appointed end.” We all plan for the future. Most of you have already planned where you will eat lunch after church today. You probably know what you are going to do tomorrow and Tuesday and the rest of the week. If you are like most people, you’ve already got plans in the works for Thanksgiving and Christmas. Perhaps you’ve got some goals in mind for next year or for the next 5 years or the next 10 years. Maybe you’ve got some career goals in mind that you hope to accomplish someday.

This is common and it is also wise and good. Planning for the future is a mark of wisdom and foresight. However, we live in an uncertain world. You may die before the end of this day. Or something may intervene to change your plans. You may change your mind about your long-range goals. No matter how well you plan things out, you can never be sure how they will turn out.

But God has a plan for you that is so certain that we may call it a destiny. Paul calls it an “appointment.”

Here are three statements to ponder:

God knows where you came from.

God knows where you are right now.

God knows where you will end up!

Our Destiny is Deliverance

What is the destiny of the saved?

1. Not to wrath. This is not a reference to eternal damnation in hell. In this passage Paul is thinking of the terrible destruction of the coming seven-year tribulation period. It is the wrath associated with the coming of the Day of the Lord. It is the sudden destruction that will come on the entire world. God has appointed that his children will not go through any of that wrath.

2. To receive salvation. The phrase means “full deliverance.” We are not appointed but to “full deliverance” by Jesus Christ. When the seals are broken and the four horsemen ride across the earth, when the trumpets blow and the sea turns to blood, when the bowls of God’s judgment are emptied on the earth, the world will be caught totally unprepared. But we won’t be surprised. In fact, we won’t even be here. We’ll be with the Lord in the air!

Safe, delivered, rescued, raptured!

Who will do this for us? Verse 9 gives us the answer: “Our Lord Jesus Christ.” Why would he do this? Verse 10 answers that: “He died for us.” That’s the substitionary atonement of Christ. He died in my place on the cross, bearing my sin, taking my shame. That’s the only basis for the assurance of salvation: the knowledge that Jesus Christ died on the cross for you and for me.

Let me sum up the message of this passage in just four simple words: Our Destiny is Deliverance. If you know Jesus Christ, you won’t have to face the terrors of the Last Days. You won’t have go to through the Tribulation and you won’t have to spend eternity in hell either.

Three Final Thoughts

I close now with three final points.

1. This text is teaching an important truth about the future. The order is crucial. First there is the rapture of the saints, then the Day of the Lord begins. Unbelievers cannot escape the Day of the Lord while believers will be rescued from it. We will not be overtaken by the Day of God’s Judgment because God has not destined us for wrath but for deliverance. Let me say it as plainly as I know how:

We are not waiting for the Tribulation … We’re waiting for Jesus to return!

2. Many believers are not ready for Jesus to return. They are spiritual sleepwalkers who have been intoxicated by the world. They have compromised their values and sold their spiritual heritage for a paltry moment of earthly pleasure.

Are you ready for Christ to return? Are you ready to meet him today? Tomorrow? What if he were to return in the next 24 hours, would you be ready or would you be ashamed to see him?

If you are a Christian, God is saying something to you this morning: Keep you eyes open and your armor on! Look up for your redemption draweth nigh.

3. Your Identity Determines Your destiny. Think of the words Paul uses in this passage:

Light and darkness

Sleeping and waking

Night and day

Us and them

Wrath and Salvation

Your choice is ruin or rescue, destruction or deliverance!

The unbelieving world will not escape. All that man has built will be crumble when Christ returns. If you don’t know Jesus, you have a date with judgment. Your future is wrath, judgment and tribulation. And you will not escape!

Are You Ready?

Jesus is coming! Are you ready?

He may come today! Are you ready?



God’s Word tells you the truth. There is no reason to be unprepared. If Jesus comes today and you aren’t ready to meet him, you will have only yourself to blame.

How can you escape the terrible wrath to come? Our text tells us the answer: It is through Jesus who died for us. You must transfer your trust to him. Open your heart to him. Ask him to forgive your sins. Believe that he died for you and rose from the dead. Crown him as the King of your life and the Lord of your heart.

If Jesus were to come today … and he may … would you be ready?

Ponder this final thought. If Jesus comes back before the sun goes down, what will happen to you? All eternity hangs on your answer to that simple question.

1996-11-10-Like-a-Thief-in-the-Night

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Ray Pritchard

RAY PRITCHARD

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