Now, brothers and sisters, 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 …
But you, brothers and sisters, are not in darkness so that this day should surprise you like a thief. You are all children of the light and children of the day. We do not belong to the night or to the darkness. So then, let us not be like others, who are asleep, but let us be awake and sober. 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 sober, putting on faith and love as a breastplate, and the hope of salvation as a helmet. For God did not appoint us to suffer wrath but to receive salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ. (verses 1-2, 4-9)
In the 1970s, during my impressionable teen years (yes, I’m that old!), there were a whole number of books published that matched up prophetic passages from the Old and New Testaments with current world events and political leaders. Although they didn’t specifically nail down times and dates, certainly they purported to limit the possibilities, implying that Christ’s second coming would occur within a focused slice of history in the foreseeable future.
Many of those current events and political leaders are now well past, leaving behind the failed attempt to predict the timeframe of the second coming. We shouldn’t be surprised. Paul tells the Thessalonians (and us, together with the writers of the 1970s): “about times and dates we do not need to write to you, for you know that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night.” In other words, we won’t know. A thief doesn’t intend his arrival to be date-stamped. So, too, with the coming of the Lord.
But, at the same time, we who are believers are not meant to be caught off guard. Paul says, you “are not in darkness so that this day should surprise you like a thief.” No, we don’t know the timing, but, yes, we certainly know it’s going to happen! So, we’re meant to be prepared.
This passage reminds us of Jesus’ parables about the master of the house who went away on a long journey, leaving his estate in the hands of his servants. They didn’t know exactly when he would return, but it was all the more reason to be perpetually on the alert, watching and waiting.
Jesus says that’s to be our stance regarding his coming. Alert. Watching. Waiting.
A cautionary tale of failure in this regard emerges in the Garden of Gethsemane when Peter, James, and John dozed off instead of engaging in active, supportive prayer as Jesus had requested. Returning, he rebuked them: “Could you not keep watch?” (Mark 14:37). It’s exactly the punchline of his parable: “What I say to you, I say to everyone: ‘Watch!’” (Mark 13:17).
That’s what Paul reiterates here. We won’t know the exact timing of Christ’s coming. We’re not meant to focus there. Instead, we’re to stay alert, not sleeping, but rather awake and sober. Practically, it means that we fully embrace Paul’s three great, enduring words of the Christian life – “these three remain: faith, hope and love” (1 Corinthians 13:13). Here he tells the Thessalonians to put on “faith and love as a breastplate, and the hope of salvation as a helmet.” We are called to actively engage these three each moment. “Faith,” as we put the weight of our lives – every part – continually in his hands. “Love,” as we follow his lead, laying aside our own rights for others, serving for their good. “Hope,” as we lift our sights beyond the present moment to the certainty of the future, all of it in Christ.
This is what it means to live in the light of his second coming. Not debating the times and dates. No. Rather, living here in the present as faithful servants of our Master. Awake. Sober. Clothed in Faith, Love, Hope. Energized with eagerness to embrace our Lord at his return. Or, should this be our lot, to walk faithfully all the way to the end of our own life’s span, ready to embrace him in eternity.
Either way, all to his glory.
Lord Jesus, I rejoice that you are coming again. I don’t know when. But that you are coming, I know with certainty. Strengthen me by your Spirit to watch, to live alert, being clothed in faith and love and hope. To your glory. Expectant of your return. Amen.
Reflect: Practically, what does it mean for you to “Watch” as you go through this day? What do you need to do to stay alert? What steps do you need to take?