Teaching series from 1 Thessalonians

Living in Light of Jesus' Return

1 Thessalonians 5:1-11

Teaching t22468


Brief review of setting. Paul continues on the topic he began in 4:13-18—the implications of Jesus’ return. In that passage, Paul informed them of knowledge they didn’t have—that when Jesus returns He will permanently reunite living and dead Christians. In this passage, he reminds them of the facts they already knew about Christ’s return, and explains how to live in light of it (read 5:1-11).

The fact: Jesus will return to establish God’s kingdom!

“The day of the Lord” (5:1) refers to a complex of events culminating in the personal, bodily return of Jesus to this earth as its rightful Messiah, or Ruler. Some Christians warn against making too big of a deal about this event, but it is the climactic event that is foretold throughout the entire Bible.

The first prediction comes immediately after the Fall (Gen.3:15). Every Old Testament prophet speaks of this event. Entire Psalms were composed to be sung at His Coming. Jesus speaks of it in every one of His discourses, and focuses entirely on it in one of them. Almost every New Testament letter speaks of it; many (like 1Thess.) bristle with references (28 references/30%). The last book of the Bible (Revelation) focuses on Jesus’ return. One of the early Christians’ prayers was: “Come quickly, Lord Jesus!” The whole plot of the Bible depends on this event.

Others object that it is wrong to emphasize a unique future event that requires blind faith. But God does not expect us to accept it by blind faith. He has supplied us with hundreds of predictions related to the Coming of His Messiah, most of which have already been fulfilled, so that our faith has a reasonable, evidential basis.

The Old Testament predicted the exact human lineage of the Messiah, progressively narrowing it down from a descendant of Adam and Eve to the virgin-born Son of Israel’s kingly line (Matt.1).

It predicted the Messiah’s death—when He would die (Dan.9), how He would die (Ps.22), and why He would die (Isa. 53). Jesus predicted His own death as the fulfillment of these predictions (with no good reason to fulfill this if He was not the Messiah).

He also predicted that He would be resurrected from the dead, which is the best attested fact of ancient history (LAST WEEK).

He also predicted a long period between His first and second Comings during which the good news of His death for our sins would be spread through His followers to every ethnic group in the world. The substantial fulfillment of this amazing prediction is the best-kept secret in our world.

I could go on multiplying examples. The point is this: Since the Bible has been so accurate on its past predictions about Jesus, we have excellent reason to trust it when it predicts His future return.

Jesus will return. The question is: Will it be a good day or a bad day for you? It depends entirely on whether or not you belong to Him now.

For those who don’t belong to Jesus, His return will be a bad surprise (re-read 5:2,3; notice the pronouns). They will expect human history to keep going like it has, but it won’t—to their great and irreversible loss.

It will be “like a thief in the night” – you go to bed thinking your belongings are secure, but when you awake you find that someone has stolen them and you can’t get them back (EXAMPLE)! In the same way, people who don’t belong to Jesus will be caught off guard by His return. They will think that they are safe and secure because of their investments or social prestige or military might, but Jesus’ return will destroy this security and bring them great loss. It will be “like labor pains upon a woman with child” – labor pains are sudden and severe, and once they start they keep going until the child is born. In the same way, the judgment brought by Jesus will be sudden, and there will be no escape from it.

Real life is full of no-do-over decisions (EXAMPLE). This is the biggest one of all. Jesus came the first time as a Savior to die for us to deliver us from God’s judgment; He will come the second time to bring God’s judgment to all who have not received Him as their Savior.

But if you belong to Jesus, His return is a great day (re-read 5:4,5; notice pronouns). It’s not something that will take us by surprise; we expect it. It’s not a nightmare we want to avoid thinking about; it is great day we look forward to.

Re-read 5:9,10. It’s a great day because then we get to be reunited with believing loved ones (LAST WEEK), and best of all, we get to be with Him.

We don’t have to worry about judgment because He died for us! He already bore the judgment we deserve for our sins against God, and all we had to do is humbly receive this as His gift. The moment we received His death for us, we became destined for salvation rather than wrath.

Why not join us in admitting that you need His death for your sins? Why not entrust yourself to Him, and join us in looking forward to His return?

The response: Be alert and sober!

How should Christians live in response to this fact of Jesus’ return? Re-read 5:6-8a. Paul says that we should be “alert and sober.” He is repeating what Jesus said when He predicted His return (Matt.24:35,36,42): “I am definitely returning, you don’t know when I am returning, so you should be ready at all times.” Let’s consider what this means and how to cultivate it.

These words mean to be wakeful, watchful, to have your wits about you, to be ready. An alert and sober Christian lives in way that is focused on and consistent with the all-important fact that Jesus is returning.

The opposite of alert and sober, of course, is to be asleep and/or drunk. The problem with people who are drunk or asleep when they shouldn’t be is that they’re unaware of things they should be aware of, so they’re a danger to themselves and others (e.g. DRIVING DRUNK OR FALLING ASLEEP). Paul is using these terms figuratively to describe true Christians who live in a way that is practically oblivious to Jesus’ return.

What does it look like as a Christian to be “asleep/drunk” versus “alert and sober?” The Bible fleshes out many contrasts between these two mind-sets. Here are a few:

“Asleep/drunk” views this lifetime as a destination and/or what matters most (SETTLERS), while “alert and sober” views this life primarily as a preparation for eternity (SOJOURNERS; Heb.11:9-16).

“On the one hand is the assumption that... eating, sleeping, growing, learning, breeding, and the rest, constitute the sum total of things... On the other hand is the... belief that the thoughts and actions of every hour are molding a soul which is on its way to eternity ...”

“Asleep/drunk” views the primary purpose of this life as getting and keeping as many earthly comforts as possible, while “alert and sober” views the primary purpose of this life as growing in Christ-like (godly) character. Read 1Tim.4:7b,8; 6:9,11.

“Asleep/drunk” views other people primarily as how they appear or affect us now, while “alert and sober” views other people primarily in terms of their possible eternal outcomes (2Cor.5:16a,17a).

“It may be possible for (me) to think too much about (my) own potential glory hereafter; it is hardly possible for (me) to think too often or too deeply about that of (my) neighbor ...It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare. All day long we are, in some degree, helping each other to one or the other of these destinations. It is in the light of these overwhelming possibilities... that we should conduct all our dealings with one another... You have never met a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilization - these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit - immortal horrors or everlasting splendors.”

“Asleep and drunk” wants to view this world as a basically safe playground, while “alert and sober” is acutely aware that it is a deeply broken battlefield.

“The fall of man has created a perpetual crisis. It will last until... Christ reigns over a redeemed and restored world. Until that time the earth remains a disaster area and its inhabitants live in a state of extraordinary emergency. To me it has always been difficult to understand those evangelical Christians who insist upon living in the crisis as if no crisis existed. They say they serve the Lord, but they divide their days so as to leave plenty of time to play and loaf and enjoy the pleasures of the world as well. They are at ease while the world burns.”

This is why Paul connects alertness and sobriety to the mind-set of a soldier in wartime (re-read 5:8)—confident of the eventual outcome, but fully engaged the present battle because it is real (real wounds and casualties, real defeats and victories). This soldier/battle language may make you nervous, because you connect it with desperate terrorists killing innocent people. But our battle is not against human beings; it is against spiritual forces of wickedness to rescue human beings. This is why Paul says the “armor” of an alert and sober lifestyle is faith, hope and love. Our faith in Christ enables us to live in hope—confidence that He is returning soon to complete our salvation (re-read 5:9,10). Our faith in Christ also motivates us to love—to serve others as representatives of Him who laid His life down for them, and to urge them to be reconciled to Him before He returns (2Cor.5:20,21).

“I wouldn’t want to become a fanatic!” This is indeed a danger to avoid, and some have shamed Christ’s reputation by their fanaticism. But is this danger more really more likely than the danger of spiritual sleep/drunkenness? A better question is: “How can I cultivate this alert and sober mind-set?”

One obvious way to do this is to regularly place ourselves in the environment of God’s Word. That’s what we just did, and you can see how it helps us move from “asleep/drunk” to “alert and sober,” just as oxygen brings us out of the madness of carbon-monoxide poisoning (EXPLAIN) into healthy consciousness.

Paul gives us one practical step in this direction (re-read 5:11): Live in community with other Christians, and intentionally remind one another of this hope and encourage one another to live this way. If you don’t do this, you will fall asleep (“Isolated Christians are defeated Christians”)! But you can also be in community with other Christians and yet still not do this.

When was the last time you talked about and rejoiced over this great hope with other Christians?

When was the last time you encouraged a suffering brother or sister with this hope?

When was the last time you exhorted a sleepy Christian to wake up to this mind-set?

When was the last time you exhorted a fellow-soldier to keep fighting on because this day is coming?

Are we putting one another to sleep with conversations dominated by the affairs of this life, or are we building alert and sober communities through this kind of interaction?

Harry Blamires, The Christian Mind (Ann Arbor: Servant Books, 1973), pp. 75,76.

C. S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1974), pp.14,15.

A. W. Tozer,