Like a Thief in the Night
1 Thessalonians 5:1-11
April 4, 2017
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What is the fate of the earth?
It depends on what you mean, and it depends on who you ask. Jonathan Schell made a splash when he wrote The Fate of the Earth in 1982. He predicted utter catastrophe through global nuclear war. It terrified many people with its graphic description of a world gone over the edge. After the nukes have been launched, society is destroyed, and billions are dead. It seemed all too real 35 years ago.
Should we still be worried today?
The danger seems greater today
In some ways, the danger seems greater now than then. Experts tell us North Korea has developed a nuclear warhead and is actively experimenting with rockets capable of reaching the United States. A high-level North Korean defector says that the dictator Kim Jong Un is desperate to maintain his power and is prepared to use nuclear weapons against the US and its allies.
I noticed this recent headline from The Independent: World War 3 is Coming. The article notes that both world wars in the 20th century were unanticipated. No one can say with certainty where the next world war will begin, but the author suggests Europe, the Middle East, and the Asia Pacific as the most likely flashpoints.
“World War III has begun, piecemeal”
Speaking of all the trouble in the world, Pope Francis said, “World War III has begun, piecemeal.” We know what he means: a battle here, an outbreak there, a terrorist attack in a big city, a revolution in the Middle East, and the relentless spread of nuclear weapons. One thing leads to another, and then you have Armageddon.
So how close are we to the end of the world?
Since 1947 a magazine called the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists has kept the “Doomsday Clock,” a symbolic clock that shows how close we are to global catastrophe. As the situation in the world gets better or worse, the hands of the clock are set closer or further away from midnight. The clock has been adjusted seven times since its inception when it was set at 7 minutes before midnight. It was moved back to 17 minutes before midnight in 1991. Since then the minute hand has come closer and closer to midnight, due to the spread of terrorism, the rise of rogue nuclear states, and increasing instability in the world. In early 2017 the Doomsday Clock was reset to 2 ½ minutes until midnight, the closest it has come since 1953.
How will the world end? Man has his answers, but God always gets the last word. The Bible says “the end of all things is at hand” (1 Peter 4:7), and Jesus said, “Yes, I am coming soon” (Revelation 22:20 NLT). The Apostle Paul said, “You know how late it is; time is running out. Wake up, for the coming of the Lord is nearer now than when we first believed” (Romans 13:11 LB).
2 1/2 minutes until midnight!
I spoke with a Christian leader in Kenya who said, “These are not the last days. These are the last hours.” Here is my challenge to you. Read the Bible and study its description of the world situation when Jesus returns. Then pick up the newspaper and read it. You will be amazed at the similarity between the Bible and today’s headlines.
With that introduction, let’s turn to our text—1 Thessalonians 5:1-11. In this passage, Paul reminds us of four things we already know about the end of the age.
I. We Know the Coming Destruction
“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” (vv. 1-3).
Paul uses a particular term to describe the end times. He calls it “the day of the Lord.” That’s a phrase found in many places in the Old Testament. It describes any moment 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 those little “days” look forward to the big “day” at the end of history.
The little “days” look forward to the final “Day of the Lord”
Our text tells us 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 sleep or while you are away from home.
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 are poured out on the earth. All those terrible events take place during a seven-year period called “the tribulation.”
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 hide. Paul 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, you say to your husband, “Sweetheart, it’s time to go to the hospital.” He may try to argue or reason with you, but it doesn’t matter. 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.
No one will escape!
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. We Know Our Identity
“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” (vv. 4-5).
Light and darkness symbolize the two great divisions of the human race—the saved and the lost. Note two key words in this text: “you” and “we.” Christians belong to the light and to the day, not to the darkness or 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 side by side with the children of darkness. Even though we have fundamentally different values and lifestyles, we share the same space, live next door to each other, we may listen to the same music and cheer for the same teams. Often we work in the same office together.
We share the same space
Sometimes it’s hard to tell if a person is a believer or not. But when the Day of the Lord finally comes, 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. We Know Our Duty
“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” (vv. 6-8).
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.” We all have trouble with that from time to time. Maybe you stayed up too late last night watching TV, or you had to write a term paper, or perhaps you’ve been working extra hours at your job. We all know there are “morning people” and “evening people.” Spiritually we are called to be “morning people” for God. Some of us need some caffeine—literally and spiritually–because we are in danger of becoming spiritual sleepwalkers.
Don’t be a spiritual sleepwalker!
Second, we must be self-controlled. The word means “serious-minded” or “earnest.” That doesn’t mean dour. Christians should enjoy life. Later on in this chapter Paul tells us to “rejoice always” (v. 16). We don’t need to be so serious all the time that we never laugh and never relax. The word “self-controlled” means to maintain your poise in an unsettle world. This person is neither overly excited nor indifferent to the things that happen around him. You find out if you are self-controlled when everything in your life is spinning out of control. Can you keep your cool when everyone around you is losing theirs? Can you keep from replying to an angry email or a hostile tweet or a critical comment on Facebook? The self-controlled person can walk away from a fight. Can you?
I love the phrase “keep calm and carry on.” That perfectly describes how Christians should live in a chaotic world.
Verse 7 specifies certain things that have no part in the Christian life. These are things associated with the evils of the night. Drunkenness serves as a prime example of how the unsaved live. This speaks to where we hang out, the parties we attend, and the people we choose as our closest friends. We are to have no part of a drunken lifestyle because we are people of the light and those things belong in the darkness. Be filled with the Spirit, not with alcohol (Ephesians 5:18).
Be filled with the spirit, not with alcohol!
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
Verse 8 tells us to put on the breastplate of faith and love. Just as the breastplate covered the vital organs, even so faith in God and love toward our brothers and sisters protects 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 certainty that if we die before Jesus returns, we will go directly to heaven. If we live until his return, it is the certainty that we will be raptured off this earth to meet the Lord in the air. Either way we’re going to be delivered—whether alive or dead we’re going to meet Jesus very soon.
We will meet the Lord soon
There is a moral value to the Second Coming of Christ. While we wait for his return, we live in a world that is hostile to spiritual truth. A battle rages all around us for the hearts and minds of men and women. It is also a battle for our culture and for our nation. Every Christian is a soldier in that battle.
We must do three things in light of Christ’s return:
Wake up! Clean up! Dress Up!
Wake up! (verse 6)
Clean up! (verse 7)
Dress up! (verse 8)
Jesus is coming again, and we will meet him when he comes, whether by resurrection or by rapture. Is that just wishful thinking? Can anyone be sure they are going to meet the Lord someday? The last section of our passage answers that question.
IV. We Know Our Destiny
“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” (vv. 9-11).
The word “destiny” means “an appointed end.” We all plan for the future. You probably know what you are going to do tomorrow. 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. But no matter how well you plan, you can never be sure what will happen in the future.
God knows our destiny
God’s plan for you 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.
What is the destiny of the saved?
1. Not to wrath
If you know Jesus, you are not destined for the terrible destruction associated with the coming Day of the Lord. We can go further and say if you have trusted Christ as your Savior, you are not destined for eternal hell. There is such a place, and some people will go there, but that is not your destiny if you know Christ.
2. To receive salvation
The phrase means “full deliverance.” We are not appointed to wrath but to “full deliverance.” 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 substitutionary 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.
Our destiny is deliverance!
Let me sum up the message of this passage in just four simple words: Our Destiny is Deliverance. If you know Jesus Christ, you are completely delivered from the wrath of God—now and in the future.
Are you ready for Christ to return? Are you ready to meet him today? What if he were to return in the next 24 hours, would you be ready or would you be ashamed to see him?
Maybe you don’t even know how to answer those questions. Paul tells us the answer in this passage:
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!
All that man has built will crumble when Christ returns
The unbelieving world will not escape. All that man has built crumbles 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.
Would you be ready to meet Jesus today?
If Jesus were to come today . . . and he may . . . would you be ready?
I read the story of a businessman who took his young son with him when he went to work. When they got to the building where he worked, the father told his son to stay by the door and soon he would return for him. But he got busy, the hours passed, and somehow he forgot what he had said. He ended up going out a different door than the one he had entered. When he got home, his wife asked him about their son. Worried and fearful, he hurried back and found his son where he had left him. He was tired, cold, hungry and scared, but he was waiting just as he had been told to do. When he saw his father, he smiled and said, “I knew you would come. You said you would.”
Fear not, child of God
It’s been 2000 years, and some of God’s children feel tired and hungry. We wonder why Jesus hasn’t come back yet. Perhaps he has forgotten us. Perhaps he made other plans. It’s been a long time from our point of view, but he’s only been gone for two days from heaven’s perspective (cf. 2 Peter 3:8). He said he would come back—and he will.
Fear not, child of God.
He hasn’t forgotten you.
Soon Christ will return for his own.
With this hope we lay our loved ones to rest in the sacred soil of death. With this hope we rise each morning, look to the eastern sky and say, “Maybe today.”
Christian, do you know what time it is?
The clock is ticking for all of us!
It’s later than it’s ever been.
It’s time to put off the deeds of darkness.
It’s time to put on the armor of light.
It’s time to take Jesus with you everywhere you go.
It’s time to get serious about your faith.
It’s time to stop sleepwalking through life.
Look! Do you see the first rays of dawn? The night is almost over, the sun is rising. Jesus is coming soon.
Have patience, child of God. Your Savior is on the way.
Take hope, defeated Christian. The Lord is at hand.
Be encouraged, suffering saint. The trumpet will soon sound.
Jesus is coming again.
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.