The Lord's Day Morning
July 22, 2012
“Living Life in Light of Jesus’ Return: A Thief in the Night”
1 Thessalonians 5:1-11
The Reverend Dr. J. Ligon Duncan III
If you have your Bibles, I'd invite you to turn with me to 1 Thessalonians chapter 5 as we continue our way through this letter of the apostle Paul. As you’re turning there, let me remind you that at the end of 1 Thessalonians 4 and in these first verses of chapter 5, Paul is addressing specifically the issue of the return of Christ. We've said all along our theme in the study of this letter has been, “Living Life in Light of Jesus’ Return,” to everything that Paul has said to us, everything he's encouraged us with, everything he's exhorted us to do, has been in light of the coming of the Lord Jesus. But in these passages especially he is specifically addressing the matter of the return of Christ. Last time as we were looking at 1 Thessalonians 4 the question had to do with, “What happens to believers who die before Jesus’ return? What is the status of believers who die before that final day, the return of the Lord Jesus Christ?” And we were able to look at Paul's teaching there and learn tremendous comfort for all of us who lose loved ones before the return of Christ. What is their state? They are immediately present with the Lord. And the apostle Paul comforts the Thessalonians with tremendous Biblical truths, some that have come directly from the Lord Jesus Christ Himself in that passage.
Today the question has to do still with the return of Christ but it's a little bit different. The question is, “How do you prepare for the return of Christ?” The Thessalonians want to know. And specifically you’re going to see in the first three verses of this passage the Thessalonians are interested in trying to nail down the timing of Christ's return. And the reason, you’ll understand, makes sense. Well, surely it would help to prepare for the return of Christ if you know when that was going to be. “Paul, wouldn't it help us to know when Jesus is coming again so that we're better prepared for His coming?” Now Paul gives them a very definite answer to that question and it's the same answer that Jesus gave to His disciples, and he does it in this passage. But then, Paul goes on to tell the Thessalonians how, in fact, every believer ought to go about preparing for the return of Jesus Christ. And that's what we're going to study together today.
Let's pray before we read God's Word.
Father, this is Your Word, it comes from Your mouth, and we pause right now and reflect that, in Your providence, some of our forbearers were willing to be burnt at the stake so that we could hear this word read in our own language. We do not take it for granted. We ask then, O God, that by Your Holy Spirit You would open our eyes to behold wonderful truth in Your Word, that You would open our ears that we would receive it and our hearts to believe and to respond in faith and obedience to this Your Word. We ask this in Jesus' name, amen.
This is God's Word. Hear it in 1 Thessalonians chapter 5 beginning in verse 1:
“Now concerning the times and the seasons, brothers, you have no need to have anything written to you. For you yourselves are fully aware that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night. 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. But you are not in darkness, brothers, for that day to surprise you like a thief. For you are all children of light, children of the day. We are not of the night or of the darkness. So then let us not sleep, as others do, but let us keep awake and be sober. For those who sleep, sleep at night, and those who get drunk, are drunk at night. 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. for God has not destined us for wrath, but to obtain salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us so that whether we are awake or asleep we might live with Him. Therefore encourage one another and build one another up, just as you are doing.”
Amen, and thus ends this reading of God's holy, inspired, and inerrant Word. May He write its eternal truth upon all our hearts.
So, how do we prepare for Jesus’ coming? How do we live life in light of Jesus’ return? Well everything that Paul has already taught us in that letter, in this letter that we're studying, helps us answer that question. But he is specifically addressing that issue in the passage before us. He is teaching us how to prepare for the return of Christ. And if I could divide it into two parts, he says, “Not by prognostication, but by the pursuit of godliness. Not by prognostication about when Jesus is coming again, but by the pursuit of godliness.”
And I'd like you to see four things in this passage. Let me just tell you where they are so that you can be on the lookout for them. First of all, in verses 1 to 3, Paul is going to explain why the best way to prepare for Jesus’ coming is not trying to figure out when that coming is going to be. It's not about prognostication. He’ll make that clear in verses 1 to 3. Then, in a glorious passage, verses 4 to 8, the apostle Paul will spell out five specific things that we ought to do by way of pursuing godliness. And we’ll look at each of those words as we work through that part of this passage. Then in verse 10, third, he’ll show us what the great prize of the Christian life is. And understanding who the great prize of the Christian life is makes all the difference in preparing for the coming of the Lord. And then in verse 11 he's going to tell us that we need to encourage one another in these things. We need one another in the Christian life. We were never meant to live the Christian life alone and we're to encourage one another in the truths which he teaches from verses 4 all the way down to verse 10 so that those things are worked into our heart, into our lives, into the very fabric of who we are so that we are prepared for the return of Christ. So let's look at these things together today.
THE LORD’S RETURN IS INEVITABLE BUT UNPREDICTABLE
The first thing that Paul says is prognostication is not the way to prepare for Jesus’ return. Look at verses 1 to 3 with me. “Now concerning the times and the seasons, brothers, you have no need to have anything written to you.” Now they've clearly said to Paul, “Paul, we’d like to hear more from you about the timing of Jesus’ return.” And his response is, “You don't need me to write to you about the timing of Jesus’ return. I've already taught you about that and Jesus has already told us that His coming will be like a thief in the night.” You remember when His disciples say, “Lord, explain to us when the end will come and what the signs of that end will be.” And do you remember what Jesus says to His disciples? “Of that day and of that hour no man knows, not even the Son of Man.” Now when Jesus tells you that He doesn't know something — little note to self here — it's probably a good thing for you to drop trying to figure out what it is that Jesus says He doesn't know. And so Paul is essentially repeating that right here. “You yourselves are fully aware that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night.” Now that language is coming right out of what Jesus said to the disciples. If you look at Matthew, Mark, and Luke, in all of those gospels, Jesus’ teaching to His disciples on His coming is recorded in different forms, in different lengths, but they use that language of His coming being like a thief on the night.
What's the point of that? The point is it's unpredictable. If you knew the thief was coming it would be vain for the thief to try and break into your home. It's the unpredictability of it that's being pointed to there. And what's the point of that? The point is this — the Lord's return is inevitable but it's unpredictable. Paul makes that very clear here. The occurrence of Jesus’ coming is absolutely certain. It is more certain that Jesus is going to return than it is that the sun is going to rise tomorrow. It is absolutely certain but the timing of it is uncertain. If there is one thing certain about the Lord's return it is that we cannot be certain about His timing. And so the apostle Paul says, “The way for you to prepare, Thessalonians, and the way for you to prepare, Jacksonians, is not to try and figure out the date of Jesus’ return. Prognostication about the timing of His return is not the way because His return is going to be sudden, it's going to be surprising, and it is certain.” Now Paul emphasizes here that that coming is going to be sudden and surprising, especially for unbelievers. Look at the language that he uses. Verse 3 — “While people are saying, ‘There is peace and security,’ sudden destruction will come upon them.” And then in verse 4, “But you are not in darkness, brothers, for that day to surprise you like a thief.” He's using darkness with moral connotations there. “You’re not in moral darkness. You’re not in the deadness of sin. You’re not in the grave of unrighteousness unlike the world.” And he's speaking of a world that just thinks it's every going to go on and it's going to meet a great surprise.
You know I think there have been different eras both in our nation's history and in western history and even over the course of the last two thousand years where our culture and other cultures have been more attune to the reality of the return of Christ. But we live in a time — and don't you feel this in the air? We live in a time where there is a pervasive carnal security. Very few people in our culture, outside of the churches, have any kind of anticipation of a reckoning with God at the end, a real belief in a returning Savior who is going to judge. And there's a certain poison in our culture that seeps into our souls — unbelief that this coming is really going to happen. That's one reason it's so important for us to sing this truth, to sing about the second coming of the Lord Jesus Christ, to pray. Do you remember the last prayer in the Bible? “Come, Lord Jesus! Come quickly!” That's part of the Christian faith — an expectation of His coming, a longing for His coming. But our culture, our culture promotes this kind of carnal security. You know the scientists tell you we're in a universe 13.8 billion light years across and 6 billion years from now, give or take a few, you know, the world will implode upon itself, but we don't have anything to worry about until then. And that kind of attitude seeps down into your heart. And Paul is saying, “Believer, when He comes, it's going to be sudden and the world is not going to be looking for it. It's like a thief in the night. It's going to be surprising but it is certain.”
THE WAY TO PREPARE FOR JESUS’ RETURN IS BY CULTIVATING GODLINESS
So the way you get ready for it is you don't prognosticate. What do you do then? That's the second thing that Paul begins to tell us here and look especially at verses 4 to 8 because he says that the way to get ready for Jesus’ return is not be prognostication, it is by the pursuit of godliness. The way to be ready for Jesus’ return is the pursuit of holiness in Christ by the life of faith. Look at what Paul says here. In verses 4 to 8 he says five things. First, look at verse 6. “Let us not sleep as others do but let us,” two things, “keep awake and be sober.” And then if you’d look down at the end of verse 8 he then says, “Let us be sober, having put on the breastplate of faith and love and the helmet of hope.” So notice those five things — keep awake, be sober, and then cultivate faith, love, and hope. Those five things – pursue holiness in Christ by the life of faith, by being awake, being sober, cultivating faith, love, and hope. Let's think about those for just a few moments.
PAUL CALLS US TO BE AWAKE
First of all, “be awake.” What's he saying? He's saying be watchful. You know, if you knew the thief was coming you’d be ready for him. Be awake; be watchful. Be watchful for what? Be watchful for the signs of the timing of Jesus’ return? No, this watchfulness is of a different sort. It is a watchfulness in which you are living life anticipating the return of Christ, and that puts everything else in its place. That means that you’re not living this life like this is all that there is. You’re living this life knowing that there is going to be a day when He comes again and He will settle all accounts and this world will be transformed in the new heavens and the new earth and so you don't overvalue things that are going to pass away. You’re watchful in that all of your life is lived in light of the fact that He is going to come again. Aren't you encouraged when you’re around people like that? People that the world admires for what they have and they appreciate what they have as a gift from God but it's not what they live for. They live for Jesus; they live for God; they live for His return. That's the kind of watchfulness that he's talking about. You’re living in light of the reality that Jesus is coming again.
PAUL CALLS US TO BE SELF-CONTROLLED
Then, “be sober.” Now there's no indication here — he uses the illustration, if you look in verse 7 — “for those who sleep, sleep at night, those who get drunk are drunk at night.” Somebody met me at the door after the early service and the said, “You know, I'm a trauma nurse and I see all sorts of bad things happen at night and you kind of get Paul picking on the night. I can remember my mother telling me, ‘Nothing good happens after good,’ she said, ‘nothing good.’” That was her warning to her young son, to stay out of trouble late at night. There's that intimation going on here but there's no indication that the Thessalonians had a problem with drunkenness. You know if he were writing to the Corinthians you might think so, but there's no indication that the Thessalonians are abusing alcohol. It's a metaphor here. The metaphor, “be sober,” and notice he repeats it. Look again in verse 8 — “since we belong to the day, let us be sober.” It's an indication that they are to be self-controlled. They are to use the things of this world in moderation. They’re to exercise self-control in the use of the world.
Now how does that feed into living life in light of Jesus’ return? Well it's a very easy connection. If you think this world is all there is, what are you trying to do? You’re probably trying to grab up as much of it as you can. There used to be a beer commercial on television that encouraged us to go for the gusto because you only go around once in life. Well that attitude is out there. You know, “He who dies with the most toys wins.” And Paul is saying, “No, no. Because we believe in Jesus’ return, be sober, be moderate, be self-controlled in the way you use this world because this is not all there is and this is not the most important thing. There are things that will last forever that matter more than this. So learn to use the world and love the Lord, not love the world and use the Lord.” So he says be watchful and be self-controlled.
PAUL CALLS US TO CULTIVATE FAITH
Then he says, “Put on the breastplate of faith.” You know we live by faith. We live by faith. We live by believing in the Word of God, trusting in the promises of God, putting our trust in the person of the Lord Jesus Christ, believing what God says in His Word. And the minute that you start to try and measure this life by what you experience and what you see and not in accordance to God's Word you’ll go wrong. Most of the life of faith is learning to trust the Lord with all our hearts and lean not on our own understanding. You know if you had been standing there late at night in Aurora, Colorado and you measured the love of God by the carnage that you saw there you’d be confused. In fact, someone wrote on the internet in the hours after the tragedy that occurred there, “Do you still believe in the mercy of God in light of what's happened?”
Well my friends, if you had been standing on a hill outside of Jerusalem watching what Jesus’ mother and His disciples saw on the afternoon of the crucifixion and you didn't have the Scripture to tell you what was going on, would you have drawn from that that God was, in His love and grace and mercy, saving the souls of billions? No, you would have looked at that and you would have said, “There's no justice in this world. This is the victory of hate and spite and envy and bitterness. This is a good man who's been crushed by the machine, the political machine, the religious machine. There's no justice in this world.” But the Bible teaches you to look at that cross differently. The life of faith is learning to take God at His word despite all evidences of the contrary. And Paul says, “You want to be ready for Jesus’ return? You've got to live by the Book. You learn from God's Word how to live. You don't estimate God and His purposes by the world. You learn by the Word not by the world.”
PAUL CALLS US TO CULTIVATE LOVE
Be watchful, be self-controlled, live by faith, live by love. There's the next thing. “Put on the breastplate of faith and love.” Jesus could sum up the whole of the commandments — “Love God, love your neighbor.” One of the last things that Jesus said to His disciples right before He was betrayed and taken captive and taken to an illegal trial and then crucified, do you remember what He said to them? “Love one another as I have loved you.” In other words, “You want to show Me that you love Me? Then here's what I want you to do. I want you to love one another.” Paul says, “You want to be ready for His return? Be loving. Love God, love one another. Love your neighbor, love your fellow congregation member, love your spouse.” And that's hard because you’re called to love sinners and sinners hurt you, even when you’re trying to love them. But if you want to be ready for His return, be about loving.
PAUL CALLS US TO CULTIVATE HOPE
And then there's hope. “Put on the helmet of hope” — not a wishful thinking but a sure and certain hope that He is coming again. How do you prepare for Jesus’ coming? You’re watchful, you’re self-controlled, you live by faith, not by sight, you live in love, you live in hope. That's how you prepare for Jesus’ coming.
JESUS DIED FOR US THAT WE MIGHT LIVE WITH HIM
And then to that Paul adds this, and you’ll see it in verse 10. He tells us something very important for us to understand about why Jesus died. You know there's not just one Biblical answer to, “What did Jesus’ death accomplish?” Jesus’ death accomplished untold blessings for His people and here's one of the things that Paul tells us that Jesus died for. Look at verse 9. “God has not destined us for wrath, but to obtain salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ who died for us so that whether we are awake or asleep,” and by the way, what does that language remind you of, “whether we are awake or asleep”? It's a metaphor for whether we are alive or dead. It reminds you of Philippians — whether I am alive or dead, whether I am awake or asleep I am in Christ. He says, “who died for us, so that whether we are awake or asleep we might live with Him.” Now listen to the main flow of the argument. Our Lord Jesus Christ died for us so that we might live with Him. He didn't just die so that we would be forgiven of sins. He did die so that we would be forgiven of sins but more than that, He died so that we might live with Him.
What's Paul saying to us here? Paul is saying that fellowship with Jesus is what Jesus died for us for, so that we might live with Him, so that we might fellowship with Him, so that we might be His and He ours forever. And that is the great blessing, the great treasure in life. No temporary pleasure or blessing in this world could possibly substitute for that eternal blessing of fellowship with Him. And so what Paul is saying is, Jesus is not just a means to an end. He is the end. He is the goal. He is the point. He is the prize. He is the treasure in life and boy, won't that get you ready for His return! You know, if you’re living for something here that you’re kind of not wanting to give up, it's going to be bad news at His coming. But if you’re living for Him, you’ll never have to give Him up. Jim Eliot, quoting one of the Puritans, said, “He is no fool who gives up what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose.” And that's what Paul is saying. You can't lose Jesus. He's forever. The reason He died is so that you would have Him and He would have you forever. Don't prize anything in this life more than that.
ENCOURAGE ONE ANOTHER WITH THESE THINGS
And then he says, fourth and finally, look at verse 11. “Encourage one another, build one another up with these things.” I've told you before about my Scottish friends, Ian and Alison Macleod and Murdo and Emma Macleod, but I could tell the story about five hundred families in this congregation too. Just being with Ian and Allison and Murdo and Emma — encouragement, because from the world's standpoint they have it all. But the things that the world would look, at least initially, at Ian and Allison and Murdo and Emma and admire, are not the things that Ian and Allison and Murdo and Emma count most important. Ian is a high ranking attorney with the British foreign office, our version of the office of the secretary of state. Allison is a medical doctor. People would look at them and say, “They've got it all.” Murdo is a high ranking attorney with a national health service and Emma is a university professor. They've both got wonderful families. But they treasure Jesus more than anything and just being around them and seeing them live a life in which they treasure Jesus more than anything is a huge encouragement to me. And I could tell that story about five hundred families right here today.
Do you realize that you can be an encouragement to one another just by living like this is not all that there is? Like there's something more important than the things that the world around you is just clamoring after? Do you realize that you can be an encouragement to one another just by doing that, just by valuing Jesus more than anything this world can give? Paul's saying, “We've got to encourage one another. The acid of unbelief in the world is trying to seep into our souls and rob us of joy and rob us of perspective and rob us of living for what we ought to live for. So therefore, encourage one another. Build one another up in these truths. May God bless you as you do so. Let's pray.
Heavenly Father, we thank You for Your Word. We ask that we would pay heed, by the grace of Your Holy Spirit, to these exhortations. And even more than that, that the Holy Spirit would make us want to desire these things, to do these things, make us want to treasure, prize, and find our satisfaction and joy in Jesus Christ above everything else. Grant that we might do that as a congregation and encourage one another in these things. We ask this in Jesus' name, amen.
Now if you’d take your hymnals and turn with me to number 320, we're going to sing the first two stanzas of, “Rejoice, All Ye Believers.”
Our God is so kind. He doesn't say, “I saved you, now the rest is on your own.” He provides you what you need as you wait for His coming, as you prepare for His coming. He provides you everything that you need. Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.