Tuesday of Week 22 of Ordinary Time – First Reading

Commentary on 1 Thessalonians 5:1-6, 9-11

Today we have our final reading from this letter. We will read Paul’s Second Letter to the Thessalonians next year at this time.

In this passage, Paul continues what we saw in yesterday’s reading on the subject of the Lord’s final coming. The theme today is watchfulness. As far as the Lord’s coming is concerned, there is no point in talking about times and dates because:

…the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night.

In the first verse of today’s reading, the phrase “Times and the seasons” is like a cliché. Behind it is the idea that God is outside time but, at the same time, controls time and its divisions. There have always been some Christians who try to fix the date of Our Lord’s return (“The end is nigh!”) and some Thessalonians may have been among them. We saw earlier how some Thessalonians were not bothering to work any more because they believed that the Lord was due any day soon. Paul wants to scotch such a mentality.

The expression “Day of the Lord” goes back to Amos 5:18. In the Old Testament it is a time when God will come and intervene with judgement and/or blessing. In the New Testament the thought of judgment continues, but it is also the “day of redemption” (Eph 4:30); the “day of God” (2 Pet 3:12), or of Christ (1 Cor 1:8; Phil 1:6); and “the last day” (John 6:39), the “great Day” (Jude 6) or simply “that day” (2 Thess 1:10). It is the climax of all things. There will be some preliminary signs, but the coming will be unexpected:

…if the master of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake… (Matt 24:43-44)

Paul, in fact, asserts he has no idea when the Last Day will come, and he merely repeats what the Lord said about having to stay awake till it comes. The Day of the Lord will come like a thief so it is necessary to stay awake because it will come soon. At first Paul expected he might live to see the Last Day; he later realised he might die before it, and warns people it will not come as soon as they thought. More than anything, the prospect of how long it would take to convert the pagans made it certain that the Last Day would not come for a very long time.

Paul warns that it is precisely when people are saying how quiet and peaceful everything is that sudden destruction comes on them. It will come as suddenly as labour pains on a pregnant woman and there will be no escape. This ‘destruction’ will not mean annihilation, but exclusion from the Lord’s presence, the end of real living and the nullification of all human ‘success’ and accomplishment. Hell is being separated from God and all that God stands for, separated from the deepest needs of our being.

Paul emphasises the surprise that will strike the unbeliever especially. The word ‘sudden’ here is only found once in another New Testament text but in the same context:

…that day [will] come upon you suddenly like a trap. (Luke 21:34)

In speaking about labour pains, the emphasis is not on the pain but rather on the suddenness and inevitability of such pains for an expectant mother.

But you, brothers and sisters, are not in darkness, for that day to surprise you like a thief…

True believers do not live in darkness nor do they belong to darkness. The mention of ‘the Day’ without further qualification helps Paul to introduce the mention of light and day and contrast ‘wakefulness’ with the dark, night and sleep, and also make the contrast between Christians (children of the light) and others (children of darkness).

The Thessalonian Christians, says Paul:

…are all children of light and children of the day; we are not of the night or of darkness.

In Semitic languages (such as Hebrew) to be the ‘son (child) of’ a particular quality meant to be characterised by that quality. Christians do not simply live in the light; they are characterised by light, they radiate light. Jesus said of himself:

I AM the Light of the world. (John 8:12)

And he said of his followers

You are the light of the world. (Matt 5:14)

As children of the day, then, they should:

…not fall asleep as others do, but let us keep awake and be sober.

Unbelievers are insensitive to things of the spirit, they are in a kind of sleep. Such sleep is not for the “children of light”. On the contrary, they are to be on the watch, ready for the coming of the Lord no matter when it happens. They need too to be ‘sober’, in full control of themselves and aware of what is going on around them. This contrasts with what Paul says in the next verse (not in our reading):

…for those who sleep sleep at night, and those who are drunk get drunk at night

They should realise that God’s plan for them is not vengeful punishment but that they should win salvation through Jesus Christ. God is on our side; he wants to be with us and for us to be with him. It was his will that Jesus died for us so that “awake or asleep” (i.e. whether still living or already dead), we should live united with him. The same opportunities for salvation are open to all – the living and the dead alike.

Paul then ends with an exhortation he gave earlier:

…encourage one another and build up each other, as indeed you are doing.

Literally, he tells them to build each other up, using a verb that basically applies to the building of houses, but frequently used by him for ‘building up’ the Body of Christ, which the Christian community is. All in all, it is a message of positive hope and confidence and reassurance.

We, too, need to maintain a balance between being ready to be called at any moment of any day, but being free from unnecessary fear and anxiety about the time or circumstances of our death. Let Paul’s attitude be ours – living or dead, he longed to be united with the Lord. The best preparation is to live always in the now: seeking, finding and responding to God in every person and in every experience of every moment of every day. Such a person will never be taken by surprise.

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