(1 Thess. 5:6 ESV) 6 So then let us not sleep, as others do, but let us keep awake and be sober.
Paul is now doing midrash — rabbinic style commentary. He is taking “night” as in “thief in the night” and treating it as a reference to darkness — that is, the absence of God.
Since we are saved and hence among the children of the day, we need not fear Jesus coming as a thief. Rather, we should not sleep — not meaning “do not die” but “be vigilant.” We “keep awake” by being vigilant against those who would tempt us to give up our salvation. And we should be sober — as Jesus will execute his wrath against drunkards.
In Greek, as in English, “sober” can mean “not drunk” but can also mean “dispassionate or circumspect, that is, vigilant. And so Paul can go from “drunkard” to “sober” to “attentive” by taking advantage of both meanings of “sober.”
1 Thess 5:7-10
Now, if you read what Paul just wrote against the background of Matt 24:36-44, I think Paul’s next few comments make better sense. For example, in 1 Thess 5:7-8, Paul urges the church to be sober and not indulge in pagan drunkenness. Why? Maybe because Jesus’ words include —
(Matt 24:37-39 ESV) For as were the days of Noah, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. 38 For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day when Noah entered the ark, 39 and they were unaware until the flood came and swept them all away, so will be the coming of the Son of Man.
Jesus could be misread (or misheard) as anticipating drunkenness at his return. Paul is anxious to make clear that the drunkards are the ones left out of Christian hope.
Jesus also says in Matt 24:42,
Therefore, stay awake, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming.
“Stay awake” on Jesus’ lips means “be vigilant” or “be attentive.” But when Paul discusses the afterlife, he refers to the death of a Christian as sleeping. In context, then, “stay awake” sounds like “stay alive.” Paul uses the double meaning to preach on being ready for Jesus’ return. If you stay awake, you’ll not be afraid of sleep.
Paul moves the meaning of “awake” from “pay attention” to “be alive in this age” to “be alive in the next age.” And that flow makes perfect sense, despite (or because of) the word play.
(1 Thess. 5:6-10 ESV) 6 So then let us not sleep [be attentive to the things of God], as others do, but let us keep awake [be attentive] and be sober [not drunkards/attentive]. 7 For those who sleep [the inattentive = the world], sleep at night [when Jesus will return in wrath], and those who get drunk, are drunk at night [when Jesus will return in wrath. Don’t expect the world to be purified until after Jesus returns.]. 8 But since we belong to the day [“Day” in the prophets is associated with the presence of God. Compare 1 John 1; Job 24:13-14.], let us be sober [not drunk, so we don’t forfeit our salvation], 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 [will be for those who in in the night or live outside the Kingdom], but to obtain salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, 10 who died for us so that whether we are awake or asleep [live or die in this age, rather than vigilant or not vigilant] we might live [eternally in the next age] with him [The Afterlife will involve living with Jesus!].
Anyway, I think that’s right. Recent scholarship has shown that it’s very likely that Paul’s letters were hand delivered by an emissary, who would read it to the church and would have had the letter explained to him by Paul. Oh, that we could have access to that knowledge!
The breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation
The metaphor of the Christian’s armour attracted Paul and he uses it a number of times (Rom. 13:12–13; 2 Cor. 6:7; 10:4; Eph. 6:13–17). The details are not always the same, which is a warning against pressing the metaphor too closely. Thus in Ephesians the breastplate is righteousness and faith is the shield, while neither hope nor love is mentioned. The idea probably goes back to Isaiah 59:17, where Yahweh is depicted as a warrior armed.
Leon Morris, 1 and 2 Thessalonians: An Introduction and Commentary, Tyndale NTC 13; IVP/Accordance electronic ed. (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1984), 97.
(Isa. 59:17 ESV) [God] put on righteousness as a breastplate, and a helmet of salvation on his head; he put on garments of vengeance for clothing, and wrapped himself in zeal as a cloak.
Interesting that Paul is telling us to dress as God dresses. And it’s interesting that in these passages, the only parts of the armor mentioned are defensive. Unlike in Eph 6, there is no mention of a sword or spear.
“Peace and security” comes from someone who defeats his enemies with righteousness (covenant faithfulness) and eternal salvation — not mere iron and brass.
Just so, the armor we are to put on is made of faith, hope, and love — and these are all gifts from God (1 Cor 13). It’s these things that provide true peace and security.
In 1 Thess 5:9, Paul says we’re not destined for wrath but for salvation through Jesus. Is this Calvinism? It’s not likely because the point of the passage is to be sober and awake so that you don’t lose your hope and so you have nothing to fear at the Second Coming. That is, the passage is a warning against falling away — hardly a Calvinist sort of teaching.
The negative possibility that lack of vigilance may lead to loss of salvation preserves Paul’s doctrine of election inherent in destined from that absolute rigorism into which it has often been pushed so that those who believed themselves elect were certain that no matter what they did they would persevere to inherit salvation.
Does our passage teach that some are destined for God’s anger? Paul does not draw this apparently obvious logical deduction. There is of course no need for him to do so since he is not writing about unbelievers, but equally there is no need for him to deny it. That Paul allows for the possibility of some of the ‘elect’ failing to reach salvation through their lack of vigilance suggests he would not have drawn it, or if he had that he would have qualified it. As at 1:4 we must say that there is no place in Paul where he writes positively of the ‘election’ of men to God’s anger.
Ernest Best, The First and Second Epistles to the Thessalonians, Black’s New Testament Commentary, (London: Continuum, 1986), 217.