Preached by Benjamin Vrbicek
In last week’s sermon we talked about the glorious return of Jesus and how that gives hope to Christians. Paul concluded the passage with the command that all of us—not just pastors—are to encourage one another with the truth of his return. In this week’s passage, Paul continues this same discussion, though he uses different language. Rather than speaking of the return of Jesus, Paul speaks of the “day of the Lord,” which is a phrase common in the Old Testament. But regardless of the language used, the command to all of us is the same as last week: encourage one another. As we read and study this passage, that’s what I hope to we will do.
Follow along with me as I read from 1 Thessalonians 5:1–11, and then we’ll pray that God would be our teacher.
1 Now concerning the times and the seasons, brothers, you have no need to have anything written to you. 2 For you yourselves are fully aware that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night. 3 While 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. 4 But you are not in darkness, brothers, for that day to surprise you like a thief. 5 For 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. 7 For those who sleep, sleep at night, and those who get drunk, are drunk at night. 8 But 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. 9 For God has not destined us for wrath, but to obtain salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, 10 who died for us so that whether we are awake or asleep we might live with him. 11 Therefore encourage one another and build one another up, just as you are doing.
It’s not impossible to forget really important things. And typically when we forget something really important, it happens slowly. I’ve mentioned before that when I went on my honeymoon, at the time, you didn’t need a passport to go where we went. But you did need a birth certificate, which I was well aware of. Until I forgot. Somewhere during the engagement I just sort of stopped remembering that a “no” to a passport meant was a “yes” to a birth certificate. I just sort of forgot until the kind woman at Miami international airport reminded me that we would not be going without one or the other. By the way, we had already paid for the hotel that night and the rest of the week. We got there on standby the next day, but not without an expensive lesson and a lot of effort.
It’s not impossible to forget really important things. To say it without the double negative, it’s possible to forget really important things. The Old Testament tells the story of when God’s people just sort of lost the book of the law, which likely refers to the first five books of the Bible, the Pentateuch. They just sort of lost Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy until King Josiah paid for renovations to the Temple. When they found the Bible and began to read it, they said something like, “We’re not really doing any of this, but we will starting today” (2 Kings 22).
Some groups who call themselves Christians have lost the Bible today. They just have. But even for those of us who proport to take the Bible seriously, it’s possible for us to slowly stop taking about something important. The glorious return of King Jesus is one such thing. Again, this is not simply a problem for “churches out there somewhere.” So often when I speak of the gospel, I’ll use various shorthand phrases to refer to the whole gospel. Often when speaking of the gospel in shorthand, whether in church or at home or in something I write, I’ll often speak of the gospel as the “life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus to the throne of the universe where he extends forgiveness to all who receive him as Lord.” All that is true enough. But it’s incomplete. It’s missing something important.
A year and a half ago, the president of our church denomination was visiting a few pastors in the area. He and his wife shared dinner with local pastors. After the meal there was a Q&A. I don’t even remember what the question was or which pastor asked it, but in answering the question the president of our denomination spoke of the gospel in shorthand. But when he spoke of the gospel in shorthand, he said the “life, death, resurrection, ascension, AND the Second Coming of Jesus.” When he did that, I felt a twinge of conviction. I’d been leaving off the Second Coming. I slowly forgot something really important.
After last week’s sermon one person told me that a sermon so focused on the return of Jesus was like “listening to a song he used to love but never hears anymore.” Some of you who have been walking with Jesus forty years have been around long enough to observe the way an emphasis can shift. Sometimes they are good shifts, the recovering of something underappreciated. Other times, as with a vibrant expectation of the return of Jesus, a good emphasis can wrongly fade over time. We still believe it; we just don’t talk about it anymore.
Why do you think we speak less about the return of Jesus? I’m not sure all the reasons this is. I suspect part of our aversion to speaking about the return of Jesus and the day of the Lord is an overreaction to abuses. To some Christians, everything about the end times is so clear; they have charts and ways to map the whole book of Revelation and the obscure prophecies in the book of Daniel and Ezekiel. Some of us listen to that feeling that it’s too contrived and then wrongly over-correct by ignoring. That’s probably one reason we don’t talk much about the second coming.
Another reason is our affluence. In our wealth we don’t need a second coming. We don’t need to pray for daily bread because bread comes from a store, not God. We don’t need a second coming of the Lord to make this world better because we can go to the story and buy one hundred different types of cheese—in 15 minutes I could be in five different stores where every type of cheese in every kind of style exists. We have shredded pepper jack cheese, cubed pepper jack cheese, sliced pepper jack cheese, whole blocks of pepper jack cheese, and I noticed on our dinner table the other night “traditional cut” pepper jack cheese, which meant shredded cheese that was shredded fat. And we have each of those options and more for each kind of cheese. Who needs Jesus to come make the world a better place, right? Who needs a savior when we have prosperity to usher in the new heavens and the new earth?
We should thank God for cars and planes and central air and mass-produced clothing and the internet and penicillin and MRIs. We thank God for these products of affluence. But they are not God. Even if our affluence has made our vibrant hope dull, it is the return of Jesus on the great day of the Lord that gives Christians our true hope, at least that’s what Paul says in our passage.
I want to look at this passage in two sections. First, we’ll look at what Paul says is true, and then we’ll briefly mention what Paul wants us to do in light of what is true.
1. The “Already and Not-Yet”
Let’s start by seeing what Paul is specifically teaching about the day of the Lord, and I want to do so using the theological framework of the “already” and the “not-yet.”
Many theological concepts come in fancy words: soteriology is the study of salvation; hermeneutics is the art and science of reading the Bible well; propitiation means the absorbing of God’s wrath against sin, which is what Jesus did on the cross (see v. 9b–10); and exegesis is taking out from the Bible what is really there, as opposed to eisegesis, which is putting into the Bible what is not there. Again, many theological concepts come in fancy words.
But the “already and not-yet” doesn’t sound so fancy, does it? But like soteriology, hermeneutics, propitiation, and exegesis, it’s really important. The “already and not-yet” is a way of speaking about what God has already done and is doing through the work of Jesus, but it also acknowledges that there is a future, bigger and better climax of the work of Jesus. It’s a way of saying Christians are already saved, and we are not yet saved—the best is yet to come.
I mention this, neither to be confusing or merely to teach you fancy Christian pastor lingo, but because the theme of the “already and not-yet” is all over the passage. Let me point out one of them.
8 But 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.
In v. 8 Paul says that Christians “belong to the day.” That’s a metaphor. Light and daytime are metaphors for living in holiness, just as darkness and nighttime are metaphors for living in sin. Notice specifically what Paul says. He says we “belong to the day,” that is, right now to be a Christian is be someone who has been changed. Right now, if you are a Christian, your chief identity is not the sinful things you did in high school or last week. Your chief identity right now is that you belong to the Lord in such a way that that the light and holiness that typifies the Lord, typifies you. You don’t live perfectly, of course. But you belong to the children of the day and the light (v. 5). This is the already. Christians, right now, belong to the Lord and belong to the day.
We see our “already” status hinted at in the used of the language of “brothers” in vv. 1 & 4. There’s a footnote that says that brothers means brothers and sisters. Paul was not related to them. But brother and sister is what you call someone who has the same father. Paul is saying that through their faith in Jesus, they each have the same spiritual father, namely, God is their father. As I’ve been working through this book, I was struck by the number of times Paul uses this phrase, brothers, and noticed that 1 and 2 Thessalonians have the highest density of the use of the term in any of Paul’s letters. To no other church does Paul as frequently remind them that right now and already, they have the same father—they are already brothers and sisters.
And notice the language from v. 8 of “having put on breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation.” The language of “having put on” is speaking of something true right now. The language of “having put on” is the language of the already.
Now, what have we put on? Paul speaks of a certain breastplate and helmet. There is an Old Testament allusion here (Isaiah 59:12), but like children of the day and the light, breastplate and helmet are also metaphors. You see this even the specific way the line about helmet is translated: “and for a helmet the hope of salvation.” It’s not an actual helmet but hope of salvation is a protecting helmet.
If back in the day we were traveling through Asia Minor and came to Thessalonica, and we saw a group of men with breastplates and helmets, these would be enough details to tell us that they belonged to the Roman military; they had breastplates and helmets after all. Paul is saying that through faith in Jesus we have put on the breastplate of faith and love and the helmet of the hope of salvation. A Christian is one who has already put on faith, hope, and love, a trio of phrases commonly mentioned by Paul. So, right now (already) we are children of light, children of day, brothers and sisters because we have the same father, and have already put on salvation as a helmet.
Now look at what Paul says in vv. 9–10.
9 For God has not destined us for wrath, but to obtain salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, 10 who died for us so that whether we are awake or asleep we might live with him.
In v. 8 Paul spoke of Christians as having already put on the helmet of salvation. It’s already done. Here in v. 9 we read that we Christians are those destined to obtain salvation. Now Paul speaks of salvation as something not already here, something not yet here.
So which is it, Paul? Is salvation already here or not here? It’s both. Our salvation is something that we begin to enjoy in this life, but salvation is something that will be bigger and better in the next life, which I think is something Christians can forget. That’s why Paul says that whether we are awake or asleep, we will live with him. Whether we are alive when Jesus comes back (awake) or whether we have died (asleep), we will live with him. No matter what happens to us in this life, if we have put on faith and hope and love in the gospel, not one ounce of God’s wrath can touch us. We need to be saved from the wrath of God, which we are saved from now—and we will be from then. Let me re-read vv. 1–3.
1 Now concerning the times and the seasons, brothers, you have no need to have anything written to you. 2 For you yourselves are fully aware that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night. 3 While 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.
God warns us that while people are flouting the peace and security in this world—while people say we have our salvation in our affluence and in our 100 different kind of cheese in the grocery store—the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night, and with it will come destruction. There is a harsh edge to the return of Christ and the day of the Lord.
I wonder if that troubles you? The wrath of God against sin can be a difficult topic to discuss in church. But I’ll encourage you to think about the way all of us have a longing for justice hard-wired into us. We want there to be justice. We might not agree with what justice is in a particular situation, but we all want it.
When I work out at the gym, they have CSPAN on one of the TVs, which to me seems like a constant stream of people calling for justice—who did the latest thing wrong and what should be done about it. If you don’t like CSPAN, that’s fine. The same thing happens on your favorite political network.
When we speak of the wrath of God and justice being done on the day of the Lord, we are speaking of God leaving no wrong unaccounted for. God’s goodness requires him to feel a certain way about injustice. His punishment seeps into this world in an “already” type of way, but primarily ultimate justice will come in the not-yet. And that is meant to be an encouraging thing to suffering people. If I came to my house after church today and noticed that it has been vandalized beyond repair, what kind of a person would I be if I didn’t feel a certain way about that? And what kind of God would God be if he overlooked all injustice—that he didn’t care my house was destroyed? God’s wrath is his measured anger at the abuse of his world and belittling of his glory and the preferring of other, lesser so-called gods to himself.
2. The “So Then”
And this leads to the next point. If through the death of Jesus, Jesus has died in our place, that is, he has taken away all the wrath that was meant for us and absorbed it to himself, what sort of people ought we to be? If you and I live between the already and the not yet, if we have already put on salvation and one day we will fully experience salvation, then how should we live between that day and this day?
Look what Paul tells us in vv. 6 and 11.
6 So then let us not sleep, as others do, but let us keep awake and be sober. . . . 11 Therefore encourage one another and build one another up, just as you are doing.
As Christians we live between the already and the not-yet, which means we have a “so then” (v. 6) and a “therefore”(v. 11). If what is gloriously true of us now will be more gloriously true of us someday, then we have things to do in the meantime, we have a so then and a therefore.
Paul taught that a vibrant awareness about the return of Jesus should motivate Christians to activity. Vibrant awareness is the opposite of being asleep. Being spiritually asleep is to be inactive, to just lay around drowsy and unaware. And that might be a decent description of how many Christians live—as sleepwalking rather than being sober. Instead, Paul notes, we should be active in encouraging one another and building each other up. “Building up” is construction language. It’s active. It takes effort. And to be honest, it makes a mess. Have you ever built something that didn’t make a mess? When we renovated this building, it made a huge mess before it was beautiful. For a few months I made a janitors closet my office because everywhere else was so messy. Think about that. The cleanest most stable place to work as we built up this building was a janitor’s closet.
What things in your life make you spiritually sleepy? That’s an open-ended question, but I’d submit to you that forsaking to gather regularly in a Bible-preaching church is one thing that makes Christians spiritually sleepy. Consuming hours and hours of entertainment throughout the week and then neglecting the recalibration is local church, is a recipe for being spiritually sleepy, not sober. And note something about the phrase “encourage one another and build one another up.” One another. One another. You can’t obey this passage in isolation. Part of my job as a pastor allows me to be involved in others people’s lives to ask the hard questions, to pray, and to study the Bible. But what I get to practice as a pastor often is simply what every Christian should be doing. You can’t encourage someone, and you can’t build them up if you don’t know the names of other Christians in your church.
Let me close by stressing Paul’s main point. No matter how big the mess in our lives, if we are already right now in Christ then our future is bright. No cancer or career failure, no wayward child or crippling financial heartbreak, no addiction or scheme of the evil one will be able to overthrow your destiny. God says you were not destined for wrath, and therefore you are not destined for wrath. You are destined for salvation and joy and life that is truly life. And that knowledge should make a difference now. That’s Paul’s main point.
Last winter we went on vacation to Florida. While waiting in line at an amusement park, our youngest child was screaming from the long day. We asked an employee if she thought we would make it on the next round of the ride or if we’d have to wait another 20 minutes. She responded something like, “Well, I’m not sure. It’s usually around here that the cutoff happens.”
Her words unleashed anxiety on all those within earshot. People began subtly jockeying for position, attempting to scoot up just a bit when someone wasn’t looking. I found myself getting sucked into this as well. My youngest child was screaming after all.
It turned out there were plenty of seats on the train, with rows of room to spare. But my point is that what we believe about the future makes a real difference for how we live now. When the future is uncertain, our fear of missing out starts to throb.
Think what would have happened if when I asked the employee if we would make it on the ride she told us, “I know you are not yet on the ride. But I’ve counted the number of seats on the ride, and I’ve counted the number of people in line, and—trust me—it is as though you are already on the ride because nothing can hinder you from getting on the ride; you could even say its destined to happen.” That information would have stopped my stress and the infighting that occurred in our line. Our view of the future changes how we live, and the future God promises Christians is bright.
I mentioned at the beginning that’s it’s really easy to forget important things. If you forget about the salvation that will be fully ours at the second coming of Jesus, that forgetfulness will have consequences. You won’t stop worshiping; you’ll just worship the wrong things. We were made for worship of God. I’m praying that we would be a church that encourages one another and builds each other up in these truths, that though we are not yet on the train, in Christ we already are.