This blog continues my work on Paul’s first letter to the Assembly in Thessaloniki. I have made a fresh translation and a brief commentary.
1 Tuessalonians 5:1
Now you don’t need any written instruction about ordinary or special times, since you know correctly that the Lord’s day will come like a thief in the night. When people are saying, “Peace and Stability!” unforeseen ruin will come upon them, like labour pains on a pregnant woman, and they won’t escape. But you, my dear ones, are not in darkness in which that day may startle you like a thief, for you are all children of light and day; we do not belong to night or darkness.
So let’s not doze like the others, but stay awake and sober. Yes, the dozers doze at night and the drunkards get drunk at night, but since we belong to the day, let’s be sober, putting on the breastplate of faithfulness and love, and the hope of victory as a helmet. For God has not set us up for his anger, but for gaining victory through our Lord, Jesus Messiah, the one who died for us, so that awake or asleep we may live with him. So encourage and build up each other, as indeed you are doing.
I have distinguished between the Greek chronon (ordinary times) and kairon(special times or dates). Paul imagines God as controlling these in ways that human beings cannot accurately discern. The phrase about the thief comes from Jesus as reported in Matthew 24, who warned about the thief breaking into the house while the householder sleeps. Paul discourages any speculation on the timing of Jesus’ return. Careless people will not expect any foreclosure of worldly existence; peace and plenty are enough for them. The heart of Paul’s vivid language about the end of the world, is that time is given to creatures by the creator who will choose when their time is up, and hold them responsible for their use of it. This view is not congenial to most people people today, but nor was it then. It derives from a Jewish view of history under God, which only found its way to wider acceptance through the spread of Christian faith. Perhaps the growing awareness of global warming and its consequences will make apocalyptic language popular again.
The image of “labour pains” is derived from Jewish messianic thinking, and remains important in Paul’s theology of God’s purpose in creation. In Romans 8 he speaks of the whole creation groaning in labour pains as it longs for God’s perfection to be delivered.
The language of light and darkness, day and night is used by Paul to distinguish those who want to see the truth from those who don’t. Both light and darkness are chosen rather than imposed. In some religious thinking these are mythological entities which can determine human lives. Paul sees them as existential realities created by individuals and societies.
Believers, according to Paul are involved in spiritual warfare against the worldly “powers”, the cross-cultural ideologies of the age. Faithfulness to the one God through Jesus Messiah provides the means whereby believers can expose these ideologies and defeat them. He repeats his call for a sobriety which maintains people in reality rather than being deceived by ideologies. In the era of fake news, Paul’s thinking is relevant.
In this battle ”paraklesis” that is, encouragement, is essential. The gospel encourages because it tells people that God does not want to condemn them, but rather to give them victory. And the Assembly also has a part to play in being a communnity that builds people up, rather than bringing them down. Together the believers reflect God’s encouragement one to another.