Roots in Matt 24
(1 Thess. 5:1-2 ESV) 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.
Jesus announced that the Second Coming (or Parousia) would come like a “thief in the night” in Matt 24:36, meaning that even the saved won’t know the date.
(Matt. 24:36-44 ESV) 36 “But concerning that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father only. 37 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. … 42 Therefore, stay awake, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming. 43 But know this, that if the master of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not have let his house be broken into. 44 Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect.”
Matthew’s Gospel wasn’t written until some time later than 1 Thess, but Paul had access to the teachings of Jesus either by direct inspiration, by training received from the other apostles, or a separate collection of sayings lost to history (likely because those materials were accumulated into one or more of the Gospels).
Paul had apparently covered this teaching while he was in Thessalonica — which is far from surprising. How could he teach them Christian hope without addressing the Second Coming?
Paul’s understanding of the kosmos
As Paul sees the world, that is, in his worldview, the cosmos is divided into the Kingdom and the world, children of the day and children of the night, the sober and the drunkards, the attentive and the inattentive, those who’ve been saved from wrath and those will be suffer God’s wrath, those who have hope and those who have no hope. (1 John is very similar in thought.)
Paul is not speaking of an alternative to the Five Steps of Salvation. He is speaking pastorally to his flock about how to avoid the coming wrath and instead not be in the night when Jesus arrives like a thief in the night. It’s more midrash or rabbinic-style commentary on the words of Jesus we now have as Matthew 24. Paul associates a word here, a metaphor there, and he passionately calls on his converts to be ready for Jesus’ return.
Contemporary readers and teachers want to talk about salvation as a process so that there are no knowable lines between the lost and the saved. But Paul seems to think he knows how to tell the difference — and that we should tell the difference.
1 Thess 5:3-5
Peace and security
(1 Thess. 5:3-5 ESV) 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.
“Peace and security” is exactly the promise given by the Caesars to their subjects. The price was to worship Augustus and his successors as “son of god,” “lord,” and “savior.” This was a peace that those living in Thessalonica were proud of because the result was greater trade and prosperity — and if that cost the occasional sacrifice of incense to the emperor, and even if it cost giving Rome total control over their lives — it was a small price to pay to become wealthy.
“Destruction” translates olethros, the same word often used of death or the destruction of a city or nation.
(Ezek. 6:14 ESV) 14 And I will stretch out my hand against them and make the land desolate and waste [LXX: olethros], in all their dwelling places, from the wilderness to Riblah. Then they will know that I am the LORD.”
“Sudden” translates a Greek word meaning sudden. And yet we routinely take “sudden destruction” to mean “eternal non-destruction.” This is one of the many passages that persuades me that Edward Fudge is right to argue for conditionalism, that is, the doctrine that the damned will suffer punishment in the afterlife and then be destroyed — that is, they will cease to exist after God has imposed punishment in perfect justice.
After all, the idea of perpetual conscious torment does not fit well with “sudden destruction.” In fact, it’s the very opposite — not sudden and not destruction.
Labor pains and a thief
Paul uses two metaphors for the Second Coming — a thief in the night and a woman in labor.
A thief not only comes when he not expected and when the owner of the house is likely asleep, he comes suddenly and he takes quickly. Paul is looking at the Second Coming from the perspective of the lost.
A woman goes into labor at a time that cannot be predicted. In the ancient world, the risk of death to the mother was very high — and so it was both an exciting moment of new birth and a terrifying moment that the mother or baby might die. Just so, the Second Coming could be a great thing or a dreadful thing.
(1 Thess. 5:4 ESV) But you are not in darkness, brothers, for that day to surprise you like a thief.
Paul now takes a surprising turn. He concludes that the Second Coming is only “like a thief” — a bad thing — for the damned. The saved aren’t in darkness and so they’re safe from the dangers threatened by the Parousia.
(1 Thess. 5:2-4 ESV) For you yourselves are fully aware that the day of the Lord [the Second Coming] will come like a thief in the night. 3 While people are saying, “There is peace and security [as promised by the Caesars to Thessalonica],” then sudden destruction [not perpetual conscious torment] will come upon them as labor pains come upon a pregnant woman [unpredictably], and they [who rely on Rome for peace and security] will not escape [sudden destruction]. 4 But you are not in darkness, brothers, for that day to surprise you like a thief. [The church may not know when Jesus is to return, but to us, it won’t be like a thief breaking in. It’ll be a celebration!] 5 For you are all children of light, children of the day. We are not of the night or of the darkness. [The prophets routinely used “light” and “day” to symbolize the presence of God. The saved are in God’s presence and so have nothing to fear from the Second Coming.]