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02 September 2019

Concerning Times and Seasons

SYNOPSIS - Paul has no need to write the Thessalonians about the “times and seasons” because the Lord is coming “like a thief in the night" - 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11.

Calendar - Photo by Eliza Diamond on Unsplash
Eliza Diamond on Unsplash
Paul continues his discussion about the “coming” or parousia of Jesus in the fifth chapter of his first letter to the Thessalonians. He now discusses the “when” of that day - How it will affect both believers and nonbelievers, and how Christians must be prepared for its sudden arrival.

The Apostle did not provide his readers with details about the timing of the “Day of the Lord”; instead, he declared they had no need for such information. Is this because they already possessed all the necessary details about its timing and the "signs" that would precede it?

In the passage, Paul discussed different aspects of that same coming of Jesus that he described in the previous chapter. He appeared about to answer the question “when,” but instead, he provided instructions on how Christians must live in anticipation of that day.

Some interpreters contend Paul had given the Thessalonians a detailed explanation of the “signs of the times” during his earlier visit. Considering the confusion of this assembly about the return of Jesus that Paul dealt with in the preceding paragraph, this is unlikely.
  • (1 Thessalonians 5:1-3) – “But concerning the times and the seasons, brethren,—ye have no need that unto you anything be written; For, ye yourselves, perfectly well know—that the day of the Lord, as a thief in the night, so cometh; As soon as they begin to say—Peace! and safety! then, suddenly, upon them cometh destruction—just as the birth-throe unto her that is with child—and in nowise shall they escape.
Now concerning” (deperi) marks the beginning of the next section.  This does not mean the topic is unrelated to what preceded it.  Paul had just dealt with anxieties about the participation of dead Christians in the “coming” or parousia of Jesus.

Verse 2 begins with the conjunction “for” or gar, which links the passage logically to the preceding verse.  Paul had no need to write about the “times and seasons” because the Thessalonians “themselves knew accurately” that the “Day of the Lord is coming like a thief in the night,” not because they knew all the signs of its approach.

The clause begins with an emphatic pronoun, “you yourselves,” to emphasizes they already knew this information.  Further, Paul described their knowledge as “accurate” (akribōs). What the Thessalonians understood is not detailed information about the “signs of the times,” but instead that Jesus would come “like a thief in the night.” The point of the simile was that he will arrive unexpectedly, at a time the householder cannot know.
Both terms “times” and “seasons” are plural - Combined, they cover any possible delimitation of time. Paul’s answer to the question of “when” was the same as the answer of Jesus - "No one knows except his Father" - (Compare - Acts 1:7-9).
The reference to the arrival as “a thief in the night” echoes a saying of Jesus from the Parable of the Thief in the Night.  Note the following passage:
  • (Matthew 24:42-45) - “Therefore be on the alert, for you do not know which day your Lord is coming. But be sure of this, that if the head of the house had known at what time of the night the thief was coming, he would have been on the alert and would not have allowed his house to be broken into. For this reason, you be ready too; for the Son of Man is coming at an hour when you think not” (Compare - Luke 12:39-40).
The analogy emphasizes the unknowability of that day’s arrival.  The conclusion Paul drew is the need to be prepared at all times for its sudden arrival, not by calculating timeframes and dates, but by watching, staying awake, and donning the “breastplate of faith and love, and the helmet of the hope of salvation.”

Is there a difference in meaning between chronos (“times”) and kairos (“seasons”)?  If so, Paul draws none. His usage of both is most likely stylistic. Even if he intended some differentiation, he indicates that the Thessalonians have no need for further details.  By using the plural forms, he covers all temporal eventualities.

In the preceding paragraph, Paul described the future coming or parousia of Jesus.  Now he uses the term “Day of the Lord.”  When Jesus used the analogy of a thief, he referred to the “coming of the Son of Man.”  Paul applies this same saying to the “Day of the Lord,” thus demonstrating that the coming of Jesus coincides with the "Day of the Lord," or effectively is synonymous with it. The Apostle also echoes a saying of Jesus recorded in the gospel of Luke:
  • (Luke 21:34-36) - Be on guard that your hearts may not be weighted down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of life, and that day come on you unexpectedly like a trap; for it will come upon all those who dwell on the face of all the earth. But keep on the alert at all times, praying in order that you may have strength to escape all these things that are about to take place, and to stand before the Son of Man.”
Several verbal and thematic links demonstrate that Paul has this saying in view.  First, the reference to “that day” has the “Day of the Lord” in view. Second, the adjective translated “unexpectedly” (aiphnidios) occurs only here and in the passage from LukeThird, the Greek verb rendered “come on” in both passages is ephistémi, which occurs frequently in Luke but only three times in Paul’s letters (1 Thessalonians 5:3, 2 Timothy 4:2, 4:6).

Fourth, in the passage from Luke,  disciples are summoned to pray in order “to escape all these things,” while in 1 Thessalonians 5:3 the unprepared will “certainly not escape.”  The same Greek verb is used in both verses (ekphugein).

Fifth, in Luke 21:34, that day will come unexpectedly “like a trap,” whereas, in 1 Thessalonians 5:3 it comes on “like birth pains.” At first glance, this appears to differentiate rather than connect the two passages.  However, Jesus undoubtedly spoke Aramaic, which has a word that can be translated either “trap” or “birth-pangs” (hebel).  It is possible Luke translated it into Greek as “trap,” whereas, Paul rendered it “birth pains.”

Hourglass Photo by Immo Wegmann on Unsplash
Photo by Immo Wegmann on Unsplash

The Apostle used a second analogy - A pregnant woman in labor.  This highlights a different aspect of the “
Day of the Lord.” No one is surprised when a pregnant woman goes into labor and no one doubts the outcome. Labor pains point to the inevitable, in the present passage, the destruction of the unprepared.

Paul stressed that the wicked will not escape, using a double negative in the Greek (“they will certainly not escape”).  While the picture of the thief emphasized the unexpectedness of Christ’s coming, the woman in labor points stressed the inevitability of destruction for the unprepared.

The analogy of “birth pains” (hōdin) is another echo from a saying of Jesus.  This Greek word occurs four times in the New Testament. In his ‘Olivet Discourse,’ Jesus described certain events as “the beginning of birth pains” - (hōdin - Matthew 24:8Mark 13:8, Acts 2:24).

Paul declared that “unexpected destruction” would overtake the unprepared.  This is the same Greek word he used in 2 Thessalonians 1:9 for those who “will pay the penalty of everlasting destruction at the revealing of the Lord Jesus from heaven.”

The unprepared proclaim “peace and security.” The phrase parallels a propaganda line of the Roman Empire, “peace and security” (pax et securitas).  Paul may have this in mind; more likely, he is describing a typical human attitude of complacency.  This is borne out by the conjunction hotan (“whenever”) with the present tense of legô (“to say”).

Paul addressed not the when of Christ’s return, but instead, the how. A man can prepare for the eventuality of a home invasion by a thief, but he cannot predict when it will occur.  For the unprepared, it will be an unexpected event that results in dire consequences.

The Need for Wakefulness
  • (1 Thessalonians 5:4-7) – “But ye, brethren, are not in darkness, that the day upon you, as upon thieves, should lay hold. For all ye are sons of light and sons of day,—we are not of night nor of darkness: Hence, then, let us not be sleeping, as the rest, but let us watch and be sober: For they that sleep, by night do sleep, and they that drink, by night do drink.
That "Day" will not overtake the Thessalonian believers because they “are not in darkness.” Unlike the unprepared of the world, believers in Jesus will not be caught off guard when the "Day of the Lord" arrives, expectedly or not.

The Greek term rendered “lay hold” (katalambanô) means, “overtake, seize, forcefully grasp, overpower.” Paul says nothing about an escape by departure from the earth.  His concern is that the "day" does not overtake Christians who are in an unprepared state.  Believers avoid the coming “destruction” through preparation for this event - That day will bring either salvation or destruction, depending on one’s standing before God.

Paul makes several contrasts between the prepared and the unprepared.  Unbelievers are in “darkness” and belong “to the night.”  They are asleep and, therefore, unprepared.  Believers, in contrast, are not in darkness; they are “sons of light” and “sons of the day.”

There is a verbal link between 1 Thessalonians 4:13 and 5:6. In 4:13, Paul expressed his desire for the Thessalonians not to be “ignorant concerning those who are asleep, that you may not grieve as do the others who have no hope.”  In 5:6, he exhorted this same group to “let us not sleep as others do but let us be alert and sober.” Both passages refer to unbelievers as “the others” (hoi loipoi); both refer to “those who are asleep.”  In the former, those who sleep are dead Christians; in the latter, Paul commands Christians not “to sleep” as the others do. In the latter passage, he referred not to the “sleep” of death, but to a failure to remain alert.

In Luke’s version, the Parable of the Watchmen precedes the Parable of the Thief in the night:
  • (Luke 12:35-38) - “Be dressed in readiness and keep your lamps alight. And be like men who are waiting for their master when he returns from the wedding feast, so that they may immediately open the door to him when he comes and knocks. Blessed are those slaves whom the master will find watching when he comes”).
The verb used in 1 Thessalonians 5:6 for “watch” is grégoreō, the same one found in Luke 12:37 for servants who were commanded to “watch.” Note the similar usage of grégoreō in the gospel of Matthew:
  • (Matthew 24:42) - “Therefore, watch, for you do not know which day your Lord is coming.”
  • (Matthew 25:13)- “Watch, then, for you do not know the day nor the hour”).

Words of Comfort
  • (1 Thessalonians 5:8-11) – “But we, being of the day, let us be sober, putting on a breastplate of faith and love, and for helmet, the hope of salvation. Because God did not appoint us unto anger, but unto acquiring salvation through our Lord Jesus [Christ] — Who died for us, in order that, whether we be watching or sleeping, together with him we should live. Wherefore, be consoling one another and building up each the other—even as ye are also doing.
Next, Paul exhorted the Thessalonians to “put on the breastplate of faith and love, and as a helmet, the hope of salvation.” The same triad of virtues is found in 1 Thessalonians 1:3 - “Work of faith, labor of love and steadfastness of hope” - (Compare - Romans 13:13, 2 Corinthians 6:7, Ephesians 6:14-16).

Of relevance is the theme of “hope.”  For Paul and the Thessalonians, “hope” will be realized “before our God and Father” - The saints at Thessalonica will be his “hope…before our Lord Jesus at His arrival” (1 Thessalonians 1:3, 2:19).

In 1 Thessalonians 4:13-14, believers were said not to be “without hope” because, at his "arrival," the dead in Christ will be raised.  Now, in verses 8-9, the “hope of salvation” is the “obtaining of salvation” through Jesus and, thereby, the avoidance of destruction. In each case in this letter, the “hope” is realized at the "arrival of Jesus" when believers stand before God, the dead are raised, and the "wrath" of God is executed on the disobedient.
The Coming “wrath” is contrasted with the final "salvation" of Christians when Jesus arrives. Those prepared through faithful living and watchfulness will “obtain salvation through Jesus Christ,” while the unprepared will find themselves “appointed to wrath.”
Since the final salvation of Christians is contrasted with the fate of unbelievers, it is natural to take “wrath” to refer to the final judgment, not to a series of plagues during an extended tribulation period. The appointed “wrath” for some, and the receipt of “salvation” by others, occur at the same time.

In Verse 10, Paul refers to Jesus “who died for us so that whether we are awake or asleep, we will live together with him.”  In the previous section, he described Christians who die as “those who have fallen asleep.”  Once again, Paul is describing two groups of believers:  Those awakeand Those “asleep (or dead).  Both acquire salvation at that time - Both “will live together with him” from that day.

Based on the larger context, Paul uses “sleep” metaphorically for Christians who die prior to the "Day of the Lord."  When the day does come, there will be both living and (resurrected) dead Christians on the earth to greet Jesus when he "arrives from heaven."

Verses 10-11 have verbal parallels to 1 Thessalonians 4:17. Paul uses the same two Greek words for “together with” in both passages (hama sun). Nowhere else in his letters does he combine the two terms.  Christians still alive when Jesus arrives will be caught up “together with” the dead in Christ. Likewise, whether alive (“awake”) or dead (“asleep”), on the "Day of the Lord" believers “will live together with him” thereafter.  As in 1 Thessalonians 4:14, the assurance of salvation is grounded in the past Death and Resurrection of Christ (“for if we believe that Jesus died and rose again”).

Previously, Paul told the Thessalonians to “comfort one another with these words.” So likewise here, he tells them to “comfort one another and build up one another.”  This is another link between this and the preceding section (1 Thessalonians 4:13-18).  The Greek words translated “comfort one another” in both passages are the same in (parakaleite allélous).

Another verbal link is the promise that believers will be with Christ after he arrives.  After the saints meet Jesus "in the air," they will be “with the Lord evermore.” Paul now promises that “whether we are awake or asleep, we may live together with him.”

Both paragraphs refer to unbelievers as “the others” (Greek - hoi loipoi). In 1 Thessalonians 4:13, the “others” are unbelievers who mourn over dead loved ones because they lack any resurrection hope.  In 1 Thessalonians 5:6, the “others” are those who are spiritually asleep and unprepared for the “Day of the Lord.”

In short, the verbal and thematic links between the two paragraphs demonstrate the same set of events is in view in both. The concern of Chapter 4 is the future resurrection of dead saints and their reunion with living ones when Jesus arrives. In 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11, Paul then describes how events will overtake the unprepared.

In 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18, Paul deals with questions about the fate of the Christian dead.  In 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11, the issue is the responsibility of believers who remain alive on the earth, which is to prepare for the sudden arrival of the "Day of the Lord." This is necessary because no man knows the “times and seasons” of that day - It will come “like a thief in the night.”

Chronological sequence?

Because 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11 follows the related paragraph in Chapter 4, some interpreters assume this points to chronological sequence. However, nothing in the literary context indicates that Paul intends for his audience to read the two sections in this way.  His letter to the Thessalonians is laid out topically, not chronologically. Paul was responding to specific issues and did so one at a time.  Further, specific words and themes link both paragraphs.

Summing Up

Paul answered the questions of when and how the "Day of the Lord" will come - It will come “like a thief in the night.” This is something the Thessalonians already understood and, therefore, Paul had no need to write further regarding that day’s timing or any "signs" that will mark its approach.

For the Christian, the coming of Christ is an imminent event, one for which he or she must always be prepared. It remains imminent precisely because its timing is not and cannot be known. For unbelievers, that day will come suddenly and unexpectedly - It will bring with it the "wrath of God." For those who are looking for the return of Jesus and live accordingly, although they remain ignorant of the date, the “Day of the Lord” will not take them by surprise, and it will mean their salvation.

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