5:6 The next three verses call believers to a life that is consistent with their exalted position. This means watchfulness and sobriety. We are to watch against temptation, laziness, lethargy, and distraction. Positively, we should watch for the Savior’s return.
Sobriety here means not only being sober in conversation and in general demeanor but being temperate as far as food and drink are concerned.
5:7 In the natural realm, sleep is associated with night. So in the spiritual realm, careless indifference characterizes those who are sons of darkness, that is, the unconverted.
Men prefer to carry on their drunken revelry at night; they love darkness rather than light because their deeds are evil (John 3:19). The very name “night club” links the ideas of drinking and carousing with the darkness of night.
5:8 Those who are of the day should walk in the light as He is in the light (1 Jn. 1:7). This means judging and forsaking sin, and avoiding excesses of all kinds. It also means putting on the Christian armor and keeping it on. The armor consists of the breastplate of faith and love and the helmet of the hope of salvation. In other words, the armor is faith, love, and hope—the three cardinal elements of Christian character. It is not necessary to press the details of the breastplate and helmet. The apostle is simply saying that sons of light should wear the protective covering of a consistent, godly life. What preserves us from the corruption that is in the world through lust? Faith, or dependence on God. Love for the Lord and for one another. The hope of Christ’s return.
6–8a. Accordingly, let us not sleep as do the rest, but let us remain watchful and sober. For it is at night that sleepers sleep, and at night that drunkards (or that those who get drunk) are drunk. But since we belong to the day, let us be sober.
In view of the fact, then, that the writers and the readers (together with all Christians everywhere) are sons of light and not of darkness, belonging to the day and not to the night (see on verse 5), they are exhorted not to sleep but to remain watchful and sober.
It is clear that the terms to sleep, to be watchful, and to be sober are used metaphorically here. Thus used, their meaning is as follows:
To sleep (cf. Mark 13:36; Eph. 5:14) means to live as if there will never be a judgment-day. Spiritual and moral laxity is indicated. Luke 12:45 pictures this condition vividly. So does the description of the foolish virgins, who had taken no oil in their vessels with their lamps (Matt. 25:3, 8). It means not to be prepared.
To be watchful means to live a sanctified life, in the consciousness of the coming judgment-day. Spiritual and moral alertness is indicated. The watchful individual has his lamps burning and his loins “girded,” and it is in that condition that he looks forward to the return of the Bridegroom. On this read Luke 12:35–40. The watchful person is prepared.
A study of this verb to be watchful (γρηγορέω, whence the proper name Gregory), as used elsewhere, is rewarding. In addition to 1 Thess. 5:6 the passages in which the verb indisputably has a figurative sense are the following: Matt. 24:42; 25:13; Mark 13:35, 37; Acts 20:31; 1 Cor. 16:13; Col. 4:2; 1 Peter 5:8; Rev. 3:2, 3; 16:15.
These passages lead to the following conclusions:
- The uncertainty (on our part) of the day and the hour of Christ’s return is a reason for watchfulness (Matt. 24:42; 25:13; Mark 13:35, 37).
- Another reason for constant vigilance is the presence of enemies, seen and unseen, who threaten the flock (Acts 20:31; 1 Peter 5:8).
- To be watchful means to be spiritually awake (Rev. 3:2, 3; 16:15).
- It implies the habit of regular prayer, including thanksgiving (Col. 4:2).
- What is probably the fullest description of watchfulness is given in 1 Cor. 16:13, 14: “Be watchful, stand fast in the faith, acquit yourselves like men, be strong. Let all that you do be done in love.”
To be sober means to be filled with spiritual and moral earnestness, being neither overly excited on the one hand, nor indifferent on the other, but calm, steady, and sane (cf. 1 Peter 4:7), doing one’s duty and fulfilling one’s ministry (2 Tim. 4:5). The sober person lives deeply. His pleasures are not primarily those of the senses, like the pleasures of the drunkard for instance, but those of the soul. He is by no means a Stoic. On the contrary, with a full measure of joyful anticipation he looks forward to the return of the Lord (1 Peter 1:13). But he does not run away from his task! Note how both here and also in 1 Peter 5:8 the two verbs to be watchful and to be sober are used as synonyms.
The apostle’s exhortation, then, amounts to this: “Let us not be lax and unprepared, but let us be prepared, being spiritually alert, firm in the faith, courageous, strong, calmly but with glad anticipation looking forward to the future day. Let us, moreover, do all this because we belong to the day and not to the night.” The opposite course of action, namely, to be asleep spiritually and morally (instead of being on guard), and to be drunk spiritually and morally (instead of being sober), befits people who belong to the night (the realm of darkness and sin), just as even in the natural realm it is generally at night that sleepers sleep and that drunkards are drunk. (It is clear, of course, that here in verse 7 the words sleepers, sleep, drunkards, and are drunk are used in their primary, literal sense.)
The Distinctiveness of Believers’ Behavior
so then let us not sleep as others do, but let us be alert and sober. For those who sleep do their sleeping at night, and those who get drunk get drunk at night. But since we are of the day, let us be sober, having put on the breastplate of faith and love, and as a helmet, the hope of salvation. (5:6–8)
The phrase so then emphasizes the inseparable link between Christians’ nature and their behavior, between their character and their conduct—a truth taught throughout the New Testament (cf. 2:12; 4:1; Eph. 4:1, 17; Phil. 1:27; Col. 1:10). What people are determines how they act; believers are day people and must act accordingly.
On that basis, Paul exhorted the Thessalonians, let us not sleep as others do, but let us be alert and sober. The apostle did not need to exhort them to be day people, because their nature was permanently fixed by the transforming, regenerating power of God in salvation. But because that new nature is incarcerated in fallen, sinful human flesh (cf. Rom. 7:14–25), it is possible for day people to do deeds of the darkness. Therefore, Paul exhorted the Thessalonians to live consistently with their new natures. The present tense verbs indicate that the Thessalonians were to be continuously awake, alert, and sober. Rather than threaten them with chastening, the apostle appealed to their sense of spiritual dignity. As children of the day and the light, it was unthinkable for them to participate in the deeds of darkness (cf. Eph. 4:1; 5:11).
The term sleep (katheudō; a different word than the one used to refer metaphorically to “death” in 4:13–15) adds yet another dimension to Paul’s portrayal of the night people (the others to whom he refers). As children of the night and the darkness, it is not surprising to find them asleep in spiritual indifference, living as if there will be no judgment. Like the man in the Lord’s parable (Matt. 24:43), who was unaware that he was about to be robbed, they are foolish, unwitting, and unaware of the disaster that threatens to overtake them. That they sleep further compounds their dilemma; not only is the night they exist in pitch black, but they also are in a coma. In verse 7 the apostle will complete his description of their sorry plight by noting that they are asleep in the darkness in a drunken stupor. Sadly, though they are asleep to spiritual reality, night people are wide awake to the lusts of the flesh.
As day people, the Thessalonians had been delivered out of the dark night of sin, ignorance, rebellion, and unbelief. Therefore, it was ridiculous for them to walk in the darkness. There is no place for night life among day people—a truth Paul reinforced in another exhortation:
The night is almost gone, and the day is near. Therefore let us lay aside the deeds of darkness and put on the armor of light. Let us behave properly as in the day, not in carousing and drunkenness, not in sexual promiscuity and sensuality, not in strife and jealousy. But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh in regard to its lusts. (Rom. 13:12–14)
The apostle reminded Titus that “the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all men, instructing us to deny ungodliness and worldly desires and to live sensibly, righteously and godly in the present age” (Titus 2:11–12). Redeeming grace is also sanctifying grace.
Living consistent with their nature as day people provides believers with comfort, because living a righteous, godly life brings assurance of salvation (cf. 2 Peter 1:5–10). When day people walk in the darkness, however, they forfeit that assurance and become fearful of God’s judgment. They become “blind or short-sighted, having forgotten [their] purification from [their] former sins” (2 Peter 1:9). Though it is not possible for day people to be caught in the Day of the Lord, it is possible for sinning ones to lose assurance and fear they might be.
Sleep is the natural condition of night people, but day people are to be alert. Grēgoreō (alert), the source of the name “Gregory,” means to be awake or watchful. Unlike the slumbering, witless night people, day people are awake and able to rightly assess what is happening in the spiritual dimension. They heed Peter’s injunction, “Prepare your minds for action” (1 Peter 1:13) and, knowing the Day of the Lord is coming (2 Peter 3:10), they are “diligent to be found by Him in peace, spotless and blameless” (2 Peter 3:14).
In contrast to the drunken stupor that envelops night people, day people are also sober. To be sober means to be free from the influence of intoxicants. A sober person exhibits self-control, lives a serious, balanced, calm, steady life, and maintains proper priorities. To be sober is to be alert; the two terms are essentially synonyms. Just as sleep and drunkenness define night people’s insensitivity to spiritual reality, so alertness and soberness describe day people’s sensitivity to it. William Hendriksen notes:
The sober person lives deeply. His pleasures are not primarily those of the senses, like the pleasures of the drunkard for instance, but those of the soul. He is by no means a Stoic. On the contrary, with a full measure of joyful anticipation he looks forward to the return of the Lord (1 Peter 1:13). But he does not run away from his task! Note how both here and also in 1 Peter 5:8 the two verbs to be watchful and to be sober are used as synonyms.
The apostle’s exhortation, then, amounts to this: “Let us not be lax and unprepared, but let us be prepared, being spiritually alert, firm in the faith, courageous, strong, calmly but with glad anticipation looking forward to the future day. Let us, moreover, do all this because we belong to the day and not to the night.” (New Testament Commentary: Exposition of Thessalonians, Timothy, and Titus [Grand Rapids: Baker, 1981], 125–26; emphasis in original)
The self-evident observation that those who sleep do their sleeping at night, and those who get drunk get drunk at night, further strengthens Paul’s point. He also may have been alluding to a parable told by Jesus:
But if that slave says in his heart, “My master will be a long time in coming,” and begins to beat the slaves, both men and women, and to eat and drink and get drunk; the master of that slave will come on a day when he does not expect him and at an hour he does not know, and will cut him in pieces, and assign him a place with the unbelievers. (Luke 12:45–46)
Both sleeping and getting drunk are things generally done at night. Sleeping refers metaphorically to passive indifference; getting drunk to active sin.
Repeating what he said in verse 6 for emphasis, Paul wrote, But—in sharp contrast to the sleeping, drunken night people—since we are of the day, let us be sober. The apostle’s repetition suggests that their fear of being in the Day of the Lord was a major concern for the Thessalonians. In fact, they were so concerned that Paul had to address the issue again in his second inspired letter to them (2 Thess. 2:1ff.). Once again, he stressed that as day people, the Thessalonians would have no part in the Day of the Lord. Both their nature and their behavior set them apart from the night people on whom the Day of the Lord will descend.
The concepts of alertness and sobriety suggested to Paul the image of a soldier on duty. He therefore viewed day people as having put on the “armor of light” (Rom. 13:12; cf. Isa. 59:17; Eph. 6:13–17). A soldier’s breastplate protected his vital organs, the area where he was most vulnerable. It was the ancient equivalent of a bulletproof vest. The obvious function of a soldier’s helmet (like a modern football or motorcycle helmet) was to protect his head from blows that otherwise might crush his skull. The breastplate of faith and love and the helmet of the hope of salvation equip the Christian soldier to “stand firm against the schemes of the devil …. against the spiritual forces of wickedness in the heavenly places” (Eph. 6:11–12).
Faith, love, and hope form the supreme triad of Christian virtues (cf. 1:3; 1 Cor. 13:13). They also provide an excellent defense against temptation. Faith is trust in God’s power, promises, and plan. It is the unwavering belief that God is completely trustworthy in all that He says and does.
First, believers can trust God’s Person. He will never deviate from His nature as revealed in Scripture, but will always act consistently with His attributes. The writer of Hebrews declared of God the Son, “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever” (Heb. 13:8).
Second, believers can trust God’s power. God rhetorically asked Abraham, “Is anything too difficult for the Lord?” (Gen. 18:14; cf. Jer. 32:17, 27).
Third, believers can trust God’s promises. “God is not a man, that He should lie, nor a son of man, that He should repent; has He said, and will He not do it? Or has He spoken, and will He not make it good?” (Num. 23:19).
Fourth, believers can trust God’s sovereign plan, which can neither be halted nor hindered. Through Isaiah the prophet, God declared, “I act and who can reverse it?” (Isa. 43:13).
Faith provides a defense against temptation, because all sin results from a lack of trust in God. For example, worry is the failure to believe that God will act in love on behalf of His people; lying substitutes man’s selfish plans for God’s sovereign purposes; adultery denies God’s wisdom in instituting the monogamous marriage bond. Thus, faith is an impenetrable breastplate, providing sure protection against temptation. But to put it on, believers must study and meditate on the rich depths of God’s nature as revealed in Scripture, and then translate that knowledge into action in their lives.
If faith forms the hard, protective outer surface of a Christian’s breastplate, then love is its soft inner lining. Love toward God involves delight in and devotion to God as the supreme object of affection. It, too, provides a powerful deterrent to sin, since all sin involves a failure to love God. The greatest command, the injunction that sums up the whole law of God, is to “love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind” (Matt. 22:37). “Love is the fulfillment of the law” (Rom. 13:10), because those who genuinely love God will not do what grieves and offends Him. So love and faith form an impregnable barrier against temptation; it is only when one or both are lacking that Christians fall victim to sin. Perfect trust in and love for God leads to perfect obedience.
The final piece of armor is the helmet of the hope of salvation. The salvation in view here is not the past aspect of salvation (justification), or its present aspect (sanctification), but rather its future aspect (glorification). Paul described that future aspect of salvation in Romans 13:11 when he wrote, “Now salvation is nearer to us than when we believed.” It is then that believers will receive the eagerly anticipated redemption of their bodies (Rom. 8:23), when the Lord Jesus Christ “will transform the body of our humble state into conformity with the body of His glory” (Phil. 3:21). Focusing on the eternal glory that awaits them (2 Tim. 2:10; 1 Peter 5:10) protects believers against temptation. “Beloved, now we are children of God,” wrote John, “and it has not appeared as yet what we will be. We know that when He appears, we will be like Him, because we will see Him just as He is. And everyone who has this hope fixed on Him purifies himself, just as He is pure” (1 John 3:2–3).
When faith is weak, love grows cold. When love grows cold, hope is lost. When hope in God’s promise of future glory is weak, believers are vulnerable to temptation and sin. Only those who keep the breastplate of faith and love, and the helmet of the hope of salvation firmly in place can resist effectively the onslaught of the forces of darkness.
6 This verse provides a solid basis (“so then,” ara oun) for the ethical behavior Paul now urges on his readers—a lifestyle free from moral laxity. Mē katheudōmen (lit., “let us not sleep,” GK 2761) represents the ethical insensitivity that besets people in the other realm (“like others”; cf. 4:13). Though it is impossible for the day of the Lord to catch Christians unprepared, it is possible for them to adopt the same lifestyle as those who will be caught unawares. Paul urges his readers not to let this happen.
Conduct in keeping with “the light” and “the day” also includes alertness. Inattention to spiritual priorities is utterly inappropriate for those who will not be subject to the coming day of wrath. Though the Thessalonians were, if anything, overly watchful to the point of neglecting other Christian responsibilities (4:11–12; 2 Th 3:6–15), they were not to cease watching altogether.
Apparently self-control was a great need. Nēphō (“to be self-controlled, be sober,” GK 3768) is found with grēgoreō (“to be alert, watch,” GK 1213) in the noneschatological context of 1 Peter 5:8. Its usage in 1 Peter 1:13 and 4:7 is eschatological. Nēphō denotes sobriety. To counteract what might become a state of wild alarm or panic, Paul urges self-control as a balance for vagaries arising from distorted views of the parousia. Undue eschatological excitement was a serious malady; spiritual sobriety was the cure.
7 To explain his exhortation, Paul appeals to everyday experience. Sleep and drunkenness are most often associated with the night. Thus, he illustrates his figurative use of “sleep” in v. 6 by referring to the normal habit of sleep and uses “drunkenness” to point up his reference to the need for sobriety.
8 Paul resumes his exhortation but drops for the moment the need for alertness, speaking only of sobriety as a countermeasure against spiritual drunkenness. The idea of belonging to the realm of spiritual daylight goes back to vv. 4–5 and becomes the motivation for self-controlled action. So Paul goes on to describe “self-control” in figurative language drawn from Isaiah 59:17 (cf. Eph 6:14–17). Though the breastplate and helmet were Roman military apparel, lexical similarity to the Isaiah passage points to the OT as the probable source for his reference to them here.
The relation of this soldierly figure of speech to sobriety has been a puzzle. Frame, 187, suggests soberness as a prerequisite to effective vigilance by a sentry on duty. Yet vigilance is covered in the earlier word about alertness. Obviously, intoxication prevents effective duty as a sentry, and this thought may supply the answer. To be armed against wild excitement with its disregard for normal Christian responsibilities requires soberness. Paul had earlier spoken of the need for calmness (4:11–12). The Thessalonians had already made significant progress in faith and love (1:3; 3:6), but additional improvement was still needed (3:10; 4:1, 10). So the “breastplate” of faith and love could furnish protection from the problems mentioned in 5:14.
To these Paul adds the “hope of salvation” (cf. 1:10) as the indispensable “helmet.” The anticipated salvation in 5:8–9 includes deliverance from eschatological wrath and being raised to life with Christ (cf. Bruce, 112–13). These three (faith, love, and hope) will strengthen the readers for their present trials (1:3) and doubts (5:14). The Thessalonians can confidently anticipate a future deliverance not to be enjoyed by those in darkness (v. 3) but assured for those in the realm of light (vv. 4–5). Self-control consists of balancing future expectations with present obligations. The well-equipped soldier wears both a breastplate and a helmet.
 MacDonald, W. (1995). Believer’s Bible Commentary: Old and New Testaments. (A. Farstad, Ed.) (p. 2041). Nashville: Thomas Nelson.
 Hendriksen, W., & Kistemaker, S. J. (1953–2001). Exposition of I-II Thessalonians (Vol. 3, pp. 124–126). Grand Rapids: Baker Book House.
 MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (2002). 1 & 2 Thessalonians (pp. 158–162). Chicago: Moody Press.
 Thomas, R. L. (2006). 1 Thessalonians. In T. Longman III & D. E. Garland (Eds.), The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Ephesians–Philemon (Revised Edition) (Vol. 12, pp. 424–425). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.