A Life Pleasing to God
4 Finally, then, brothers, we ask and urge you in the Lord Jesus, that as you received from us how you ought to walk and to please God, just as you are doing, that you do so more and more. 2 For you know what instructions we gave you through the Lord Jesus. 3 For this is the will of God, your sanctification: that you abstain from sexual immorality; 4 that each one of you know how to control his own body in holiness and honor, 5 not in the passion of lust like the Gentiles who do not know God; 6 that no one transgress and wrong his brother in this matter, because the Lord is an avenger in all these things, as we told you beforehand and solemnly warned you. 7 For God has not called us for impurity, but in holiness. 8 Therefore whoever disregards this, disregards not man but God, who gives his Holy Spirit to you.
The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. (2016). (1 Th 4:1–8). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles.
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.
1 Thessalonians 5:4–8
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. (1 Thess. 5:5–6)
In 1969, Bo Schembechler was appointed head football coach at the University of Michigan. One of college football’s most storied programs, the Michigan Wolverines had languished in mediocrity for over a decade. Schembechler arrived with an intensity that shocked his players, and almost half of them quit during his demanding first training camp. Schembechler’s philosophy was not based merely on individual expectations, however, but even more on a commitment to teamwork. He expressed his winning philosophy in a memorable speech on “The Team”:
We want the Big Ten championship and we’re gonna win it as a team … The Team. The Team, the Team.… We’re gonna play together as a team. We’re gonna believe in each other, we’re not gonna criticize each other, we’re not gonna talk about each other, we’re gonna encourage each other. And when we play as a team, when the old season is over, you and I know, it’s gonna be Michigan again.
Not only was Schembechler a legendary football coach, but the apostle Paul would have agreed with his priority on teamwork. In his first letter to the Thessalonians, Paul responded to their challenges with a similar emphasis. At the end of chapter 4, Paul gave clear teaching about Christ’s second coming and urged, “Therefore encourage one another with these words” (1 Thess. 4:18). In chapter 5, Paul addressed concerns about the timing of Christ’s return, concluding with a similar charge: “Therefore encourage one another and build one another up, just as you are doing” (5:11).
According to the apostle, the Christian strategy for enduring in faith through trials is to strengthen one another with biblical truth. This is Christian teamwork in the church and home. How is the Christian family to endure against cultural attacks? By the husband’s encouraging his wife and the parents’ encouraging their children with biblical truths. How are Christians to minister to those faltering or discouraged? With the encouragement of biblical truth. We are to take a team approach in the Christian life, not tearing each other down but building each other up with the truths of God’s Word.
Children of Light
The truth that Paul wants to impress on the minds of his Thessalonian readers concerns their relationship with Christ. The way to be prepared for Jesus’ coming, he says, is to have our heads clear about what it means to be joined to Christ in salvation. Paul writes: “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” (1 Thess. 5:4–5).
To describe the Christian’s situation, Paul employs the familiar biblical image of light. Believing in Jesus, the Christian no longer lives in the darkness but belongs to the realm of the light of Christ. This image has a number of facets, each of which is relevant to the believer. First, light reveals, whereas darkness leaves us in ignorance. Christians, therefore, are those who have seen the light of the truth of Christ and have come to know him as God’s Son and as Savior (see Isa. 9:2). Christians no longer live in ignorance of the great truths about God and man, sin and salvation, and Christ’s first and second comings. Second, light warms, which refers to the spiritual transformation of the heart that has been touched by the grace of Jesus. In darkness, our hearts were cold toward God. But now that Christ’s light has shone on us, our affections are warmed toward the things of God (John 12:46). Third, light conveys and stimulates life. We were once dead to God when we lived in darkness, but now we are alive and responsive to his Word. Just as sunlight causes plants to reach up toward the sky, God’s light draws us upward to heaven. Fourth, light guides us in the way we should go. The darkness of unbelief is the realm of stumbling, but Psalm 119:105 says, “Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path.” Similarly, Jesus asserted, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness” (John 8:12).
Paul’s point is that Christians should not be unprepared for Christ’s coming, since we now belong to the light. By calling us “children of light,” he means that the blessings of God’s light have come to distinguish us and characterize our lives. We belong to and are being transformed by the light of Christ. This truth applies not only to some believers but by definition to all who come to Christ in faith. Paul proclaims that “you are all children of light, children of the day” (1 Thess. 5:5). Christians have gained knowledge of truth, have been warmed to God’s ways, have received spiritual life, and are guided by the light of God’s Word. John described Jesus as “the light of men” (John 1:4). Therefore, the day of the Lord should never come upon us as a “surprise,” like “a thief” (1 Thess. 5:4), since we have been looking forward to and preparing for that bright day.
Verses 4 and 5 present one of the Bible’s main principles for Christian living and sanctification, namely, that Christian living arises out of Christian thinking. We observed earlier that Christians are to persevere in faith by encouraging one another in biblical truth. Paul now explains how this works: God’s Word is taught to us, we begin thinking in light of God’s Word, and by God’s grace this new thinking yields a new and godly lifestyle. Jesus mandated this process of transformation by illumination when he prayed to the Father, “Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth” (John 17:17).
This knowledge-based approach to sanctification mirrors Paul’s teaching in the book of Romans. Paul had taught the doctrine of justification through faith in Christ alone, apart from works. This raised a question whether Christians may continue to live sinfully, since we are saved by God’s grace as a free gift. Paul answered that no Christian who really thinks about salvation can draw such a conclusion: “How can we who died to sin still live in it?” he asked (Rom. 6:2). Paul argued that as Christians, we have died to sin in Christ and have been raised in Christ to righteousness. This being the case, Paul wrote, “reckon yourselves to be dead indeed to sin, but alive to God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom. 6:11 nkjv). When Paul said “reckon yourselves,” he employed an accounting term (logizomai), saying that just as we record financial transactions in our bank accounts, we must also take spiritual stock of our lives and take note of the radical change that has come through faith in Christ. James Montgomery Boice writes: “A holy life comes from knowing … that you can’t go back, that you have died to sin and been made alive to God.” The result of such biblical thinking will be a transformed lifestyle befitting our relationship with the Lord: “Let not sin therefore reign in your mortal body, to make you obey its passions …, but present … your members to God as instruments for righteousness” (Rom. 6:12–13).
Using the imagery of light and darkness, Paul pressed this same case upon the Thessalonians: “For you are all children of light, children of the day. We are not of the night or of the darkness” (1 Thess. 5:5). Reckoning what we have been given and have been made in Christ, we should live accordingly as we prepare for his return.
Having expressed his principle of reckoning who and what we are in Christ—children of light—Paul makes the application in terms of how we should therefore live in anticipation of Christ’s return. He focuses on three aspects of Christian readiness that will enable us to persevere in faith until the coming of Jesus to save us.
Paul’s first application is that since believers no longer belong to the darkness but are children of light, we should stay awake and not slumber: “So then let us not sleep, as others do, but let us keep awake” (1 Thess. 5:6). Being children of the light, Christians should not engage in the nighttime activities of darkness. Those in the dark are asleep to God, unaware of what is happening in the world, and unresponsive to the call of the gospel. The children of light, in contrast, are to be awake to God’s plan and alive to God’s calling.
The Bible provides a number of illustrations of believers who have fallen asleep. We think of the three disciples who were summoned to watch and pray with Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane. Jesus returned and found them sleeping. “Could you not watch with me one hour?” he asked (Matt. 26:40). Likewise, Christians are to be watchful during the significant events of our times. Are we to be obliviously prayerless as the great work of the gospel goes forth today? Should we not be watching and praying for missionaries, church-planters, parents raising Christian children, evangelists reaching their neighbors, and Christian leaders trying to stand for truth in our society? Should we not similarly be praying to God about the decline of our culture and the advance of sin tendencies that the Bible abhors? When it comes to watchfulness and prayer, the evidence today suggests that many Christians are asleep, hardly responsive to the spiritual challenges of our time. Jesus warned, “Watch and pray that you may not enter into temptation” (v. 41).
A second biblical example of a sleeping believer was Samson, who lost his strength as his hair was cut in the night. Samson had once been a mighty foe of the Philistine enemy. But he took his rest and made his peace with the world around him, settling into the arms of a Philistine named Delilah, who betrayed him. Samson’s slumber cannot be blamed on Delilah, however: Samson put himself to sleep spiritually by violating his covenant with the Lord. Once asleep, he awoke to his danger too late, realizing only then what he had lost through his alliance with the world. How many Christians today are asleep to the influences of popular culture, so that like Samson we become prisoners of worldly thinking and acting and so lose our usefulness to the cause of Christ?
A third example was given by Jesus in his parable of the tares and the wheat. A man sowed good seed in his field, “but while his men were sleeping, his enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat and went away” (Matt. 13:24–25). Likewise, in the tolerant spirit that grips the church today, there is little doctrinal vigilance over our churches and ministries. Christians are asleep to the threat of an active enemy who seeks to undermine and infiltrate the works of Christ’s kingdom so that we squander the gains given to us by God and lack the spiritual power to prevail in dangerous times. Charles Spurgeon lamented, “Those who ought to have been watchmen, and to have guarded the field, slept, and so the enemy had ample time to enter and scatter tares among the wheat.”
When Paul says that Christians should not sleep “as others do,” he notes that sleeping is the normal state of the unbelieving world, insensitive to the warnings of God’s wrath and the offer of God’s salvation in the gospel. John Lillie writes: “However wide awake they fancy themselves to be, however knowing and sagacious, they are really, as to all highest things—things of the soul, of eternity, of God—in a state of slumber; of habitual, deep, lethargic sleep.… They are alike insensible to the obligation of present duty, and secure as to the approach of danger.” Are you slumbering in the blissful folly of unbelief? If you are, the Bible offers you examples not merely of temporal loss but of eternal doom in God’s coming judgment. Sisera, the enemy of God’s people, was sleeping in his tent when Jael drove the spike through his skull (Judg. 4:21). Yet those who cry out to God for mercy will be saved. The prophet Jonah slept in the hold of the ship while the tempest raged above. For his hardness of heart toward God, Jonah was thrown overboard to die beneath the waves. God had mercy on the prophet by sending the great fish to bring him to salvation. If you are now asleep to your need for the gospel, God’s Word and the prayers of Christ’s people provide the only hope that you will be saved by awakening to faith.
Perhaps the most relevant biblical illustration of our need to stay awake is Jesus’ parable of the ten virgins waiting for the coming bridegroom. Five virgins were wise and “took flasks of oil with their lamps,” whereas the five foolish virgins “took no oil with them” (Matt. 25:2–3). The bridegroom was delayed, and when he arrived, only the five wise virgins had oil left to light their lamps. Furthermore, only “those who were ready went in with him to the marriage feast, and the door was shut” (v. 10). In the Bible, oil often stands for the ministry of the Holy Spirit. Thus, the emphasis in the parable is on the Spirit’s work in enabling us to believe the gospel and respond with a life of faith. If we neglect our faith and fall into unbelief, then like the foolish virgins we may be caught unawares by Christ’s coming. “Watch therefore,” Jesus said, “for you know neither the day nor the hour” (v. 13).
In addition to staying awake, Christians maintain their readiness for Christ’s return by staying 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” (1 Thess. 5:7–8). This application is a companion to the previous one: since Christians belong to the day, they should not be characterized by practices that take place during the night. Among these nighttime practices is a lifestyle that is inebriated with earthly pleasures and sin.
Underlining Paul’s teaching here is the realization that “there are certain kinds of conduct which are appropriate enough in the sons of night, but quite unbefitting to Christians.” Most obvious, here, is the fact that being drunk from alcohol or drugs, along with related forms of sensual revelry, is inexcusable in a follower of Jesus. When I was a college professor, a Christian student once gave in to his roommate and went out drinking and carousing. In the morning, he was chagrined to discover that even his unbelieving friends expressed their disgust: after all, he was supposed to be a Christian! In Ephesians 2:2–3, Paul described spiritually dead unbelievers as “following the course of this world, … carrying out the desires of the body and the mind,” and thus identifying themselves as “children of wrath.” Obviously, the children of light, who are “destined … to obtain salvation” (1 Thess. 5:9), should not embrace a similarly drunken pattern of life.
We should understand Paul’s call to sober living to involve more than drunkenness on alcohol or drugs. Today, this calling extends to the whole realm of entertainments of which Christians may imbibe, including movies and music that promote a sensual, self-absorbed lifestyle and glorify values that are contrary to God’s Word. In the workplace, Christians can become drunk with academic prestige, political power, or financial success. G. K. Beale explains: “To be drunk spiritually is to imbibe too much of the world’s way of looking at things and not enough of the way God views reality. To be intoxicated with the world’s wine is to be numbed to feeling any fear in the present of a coming judgment.”
Paul’s emphasis on sober living, repeated twice in these verses, could indicate that this was a problem among the Thessalonian new believers. Given our similarly intoxicated culture today, many young believers and new converts will likewise need to seek God’s power to start living a sober life that no longer indulges in the kinds of worldly recreations that deaden us to the things of God.
In his letter to the Romans, Paul spoke similarly about sobriety: “The night is far gone; the day is at hand.… Let us walk properly as in the daytime, not in orgies and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and sensuality, not in quarreling and jealousy” (Rom. 13:12–13). Here, Paul defines sobriety in terms of rejecting drunkenness, pursuing sexual purity and modesty, and living peaceably with others. He summed up his appeal in Romans 13:14 by exhorting his readers to “make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.” How essential it is for all Christians to realize as soon as possible our call to separation from the drunken ways of the world. Andrew Young writes: “Christians are not to be like others. As unpopular as it may be to stand apart from the crowd, we need to do so.… Ours is not to be a lifestyle of slumber and drunkenness, but by contrast, we are to be self-controlled and alert.”
Ready and Armed
Paul’s first two applications were negative in principle: “Let us not sleep … [or] get drunk” (1 Thess. 5:6–7). The third application is active and positive, calling for Christians to arm themselves with biblical virtues: “having put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation” (5:8).
Paul presents here for the first time in his writings an analogy that he will continue to develop in his later epistles, especially in Ephesians 6. He imagines Christians as preparing themselves for life in the same way that a soldier puts on his armor before heading into battle. John Calvin notes that Paul therefore understands that “the life of Christians is like a perpetual warfare.… He would have us, therefore, be diligently prepared and on the alert for resistance.” It is not enough for Christians merely to say No to sin and worldliness; we must also actively cultivate faith, love, and hope in order to be guarded from threats that would endanger our salvation.
The three virtues noted by Paul have recurred throughout this letter as the chief Christian resources: faith, love, and hope. The apostle thanked God in 1 Thessalonians 1:3 for the believers’ “work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ.” In 3:6, Paul rejoiced at Timothy’s “good news of your faith and love.” Now, he urges the Thessalonians to keep themselves ready for the coming of Christ by putting on these same virtues to defend themselves for salvation.
The two pieces of armor that Paul cites here are those that protect the vital areas of the heart and the head. The soldier’s chest was protected in battle by a breastplate, and Paul urges Christians to “put on the breastplate of faith and love” (1 Thess. 5:8). In Ephesians 6:14, Paul speaks of putting on “the breastplate of righteousness.” These descriptions go together—“faith and love” on the one hand and “righteousness” on the other—because faith and love are the means by which righteousness is received and then practiced. We are forgiven our sins and justified before God through faith in Jesus Christ (Gal. 2:16). Having believed, we then pursue a practical righteousness by leading a life of love—love for God and love for one another as outlined in God’s holy law.
The breastplate was the primary and most important piece in any panoply of armor, and likewise faith and love are at the center of Christian life and readiness. As Paul wrote to the Galatians, what really matters is “faith working through love” (Gal. 5:6). Christians should therefore put on faith by devoting ourselves to God’s Word and prayer, and then train ourselves to exercise our faith in loving obedience to God and loving service to others. With this armor, Christians fight to win in the warfare of this darkened age.
Added to the breastplate that guards the vital organs is the helmet that protects the head: “and for a helmet the hope of salvation” (1 Thess. 5:8). According to Paul, the Christian who possesses a biblical hope for salvation is able to think clearly and resist blows that would daze him or her into unbelief or folly. We ground our hope in God’s sovereignty over history—a history that is defined by Christ’s saving death for our sins and that will conclude in Christ’s saving return. When life comes crashing down on a believer’s head, the Christian’s helmet—his or her hope of salvation—imparts “a calm assurance in the midst of all trials and perils.” We are confident that whatever may happen, Christ is certain to save us in the end, and this hope enables us to think clearly amid the tumults of this world.
As an illustration of this helmet of salvation, John Lillie cites the example of the first Christian martyr, Stephen, who rejoiced to see Christ standing to receive him even “as he sank beneath the blows of his murderers,” praying aloud for Christ to forgive his persecutors. “I see the heavens opened, and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God,” Stephen cried with joy (Acts 7:56). Paul himself would face martyrdom with a bold calmness, confident of his salvation in the face of death:
I am already being poured out as a drink offering, and the time of my departure has come. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Henceforth there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will award to me on that Day, and not only to me but also to all who have loved his appearing. (2 Tim. 4:6–8)
The helmet of salvation will deliver us not only from worldly threats but also from a misguided dread of Christ’s second coming, as many Christians have sadly been led to do. For Paul and the early believers, Christ’s return was the hope for which they fervently longed. We are to live in readiness for that day, not suspending our lives and gazing at the sky in trepidation, but awake, sober, and armed with faith, love, and Christian hope. G. K. Beale writes: “The way to be ready for the last advent is to live a life of trust in God and his promises.” If we trust in the work that Christ has done for our salvation, dying on the cross for our sins; if we cultivate a love for God and for one another according to God’s Word; and if we look in hope for Christ’s coming to bring us with him into glory, we will be guarded for salvation and crowned with the grace to stand without fear before a dark and wicked world that can be awakened to the gospel only by the witness that we are emboldened to give.
Hail to the Victors!
Paul makes it clear that Christians should expect struggle and difficulty as we await the return of our Lord. Some may wonder whether it is worth all the effort of staying awake, keeping sober, and arming ourselves with faith, love, and hope. Can we expect to prevail? Jesus answers, “In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world” (John 16:33).
I mentioned how Bo Schembechler challenged Michigan football players with high expectations and rigorous demands, with nearly half his players quitting the team. During that first training camp, Bo strolled into the locker room one day and nailed a sign to the wall that remains there still. It reads, “Those Who Stay Will Be Champions!” That promise was kept throughout Schembechler’s tenure as Michigan football coach. Not one class of his recruits who stayed for four years failed to be conference champions at least once, and their collective efforts established a tradition of victory. If Bo Schembechler was able to keep his promise to make his teams champions, how much more able is Jesus Christ to promise eternal glory and salvation to all who persevere through faith, love, and hope in him. Paul urges believers to remind each other of such truths: “Therefore encourage one another with these words” (1 Thess. 4:18).
The Michigan fight song exclaims, “Hail to the Victors Valiant! Hail to the conquering heroes!” How much more honor will accrue to all who answer the call of Christ for salvation, who are made righteous with God through faith in him, and who persevere in love and hope to the end! William Walsham How wrote of the great day to come when the valiant children of light will be hailed as victors:
But lo! there breaks a yet more glorious day;
The saints triumphant rise in bright array;
The King of glory passes on his way.
That is the glorious hope of all who trust in Christ. Our calling now is worthy of that glorious end:
O may thy soldiers faithful, true, and bold
Fight as the saints who nobly fought of old,
And win with them the victor’s crown of gold.
8. Having put on the breastplate. He adds this, that he may the more effectually shake us out of our stupidity, for he calls us as it were to arms, that he may shew that it is not a time to sleep. It is true that he does not make use of the term war; but when he arms us with a breastplate and a helmet, he admonishes us that we must maintain a warfare. Whoever, therefore, is afraid of being surprised by the enemy, must keep awake, that he may be constantly on watch. As, therefore, he has exhorted to vigilance, on the ground that the doctrine of the gospel is like the light of day, so he now stirs us up by another argument—that we must wage war with our enemy. From this it follows, that idleness is too hazardous a thing. For we see that soldiers, though in other situations they may be intemperate, do nevertheless, when the enemy is near, from fear of destruction, refrain from gluttony and all bodily delights, and are diligently on watch so as to be upon their guard. As, therefore, Satan is on the alert against us, and tries a thousand schemes, we ought at least to be not less diligent and watchful.2
It is, however, in vain, that some seek a more refined exposition of the names of the kinds of armour, for Paul speaks here in a different way from what he does in Eph. 6:14, for there he makes righteousness the breastplate. This, therefore, will suffice for understanding his meaning, that he designs to teach, that the life of Christians is like a perpetual warfare, inasmuch as Satan does not cease to trouble and molest them. He would have us, therefore, be diligently prepared and on the alert for resistance: farther, he admonishes us that we have need of arms, because unless we be well armed we cannot withstand so powerful an enemy. He does not, however, enumerate all the parts of armour, (πανοπλίαν,) but simply makes mention of two, the breastplate and the helmet. In the mean time, he omits nothing of what belongs to spiritual armour, for the man that is provided with faith, love, and hope, will be found in no department unarmed.
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.
Sons of the day or sons of the night? (vv. 4–8)
In these verses Paul contrasts believers, who are the sons of light, with those who belong to the darkness.
Contrary to unbelievers, the Thessalonians need not fear that this day will surprise them like a thief, because they are not in ‘darkness’. This darkness is a reference to those who are spiritually blind and ignorant, the wicked and careless, who have no thought for their souls. All who are trapped in the darkness of sin and unbelief will be caught out by that day, for they cannot see it approaching, nor do they care about its coming.
The Thessalonians, however, will not be terrorized by the day of the Lord, nor will they be surprised by it. It will not steal in on them and destroy their reward, but be a day of light and joy. Why? Because they are ‘sons of the light and sons of the day’. They live in the light, and so will see the day coming and welcome it as the final triumph. The ‘light’ and ‘day’ point to the knowledge of Christ in salvation that they have already experienced. The light of redemption shines in their hearts and therefore they are destined for everlasting light.
As Christians we are a ‘chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God’, that we ‘may declare the praises of him who called us out of darkness into his wonderful light’ (1 Peter 2:9). We must not hold a vain curiosity concerning the day and hour of Christ’s return, but wait for it with a holy anticipation and prepare ourselves for its arrival. We must live in the light and behave as children of the light, for ‘we do not belong to the night or to the darkness’.
‘The night is nearly over; the day is almost here. So let us put aside the deeds of darkness and put on the armour of light’ (Rom. 13:12). What does Paul mean? The apostle explains it in the next verses: ‘Let us behave decently, as in the daytime, not in orgies and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and debauchery, not in dissension and jealousy. Rather, clothe yourself with the Lord Jesus Christ, and do not think about how to gratify the desires of the sinful nature’ (Rom. 13:13–14).
Be alert and self-controlled
It is unnatural to sleep when the midday sun is shining in our eyes, so it is unnatural to sleep spiritually now that we are children of the light. Sleep is natural to those who live in darkness, for it is the sleep of being insensible and helplessly unaware of the judgement to come. But Christians must not be like that. Instead, we are to be:
‘Alert.’ We are to be watchful, sober and spiritually awake. As we wait for our Saviour from heaven, we must be morally alert and live a holy life in view of the day of the Lord. We must live on earth in a way that pleases the Lord as we wait for him to take us to heaven. ‘Night’ is the element and sphere of unbelievers, the time when they sleep and get drunk, which is the opposite of being spiritually and morally awake. In many ways, the uncertainty about the date of Christ’s second coming should make Christians more watchful.
‘Self-Controlled.’ We must be filled with a moral and spiritual earnestness, calm and steady in our faith and actions, and faithfully performing our duty as we look forward to that day.
Jesus gave his disciples this warning: ‘Be careful, or your hearts will be weighed down with dissipation, drunkenness and the anxieties of life, and that day will close on you unexpectedly like a trap. For it will come upon all those who live on the face of the whole earth. Be always on the watch, and pray that you may be able to escape all that is about to happen, and that you may be able to stand before the Son of Man’ (Luke 21:34–36).
Put on faith, love and hope
As the Thessalonians ‘belong to the day’, they must behave accordingly. They are told for a second time to be ‘self-controlled’. In other words, they must watch over their hearts and lives in the same way as an armed soldier standing on guard is careful not to get drunk or fall asleep, which would not only be a dereliction of duty, but dangerous to himself and the people he is meant to be protecting.
Paul exhorts them to put on the whole spiritual armour of God. Faith and love act as a breastplate that protects the heart, and the hope of salvation is a helmet that guards the mind. Faith is that certain knowledge of God, his promises and salvation; love is a yielding to God in joyful obedience; and hope, which looks to the future, is an assurance of salvation which goes hand in hand with obedience. The breastplate and helmet are the spiritual defence we have against the world. With them in place, we shall be ready for the day of Christ’s return.
5:7–8 / Paul explains the exhortation of verse 6 by characterizing the conduct of “the rest” (hoi loipoi, 5:6). He speaks metaphorically. Activities associated with the night become images of the moral condition of those “without hope and without God in the world” (Eph. 2:12). In that sense, they are sons of darkness, For those who sleep, sleep at night, where the verb is again katheudō (see disc. on 5:6), and those who get drunk, get drunk at night. In contrast with such activities (and Paul now returns to the exhortation of v. 6 and develops it), since we (the believers) belong to the day, let us be self-controlled (nephō, again see disc. on 5:6), putting on faith and love as a breastplate, and the hope of salvation as a helmet (cf. Rom. 13:12; 2 Cor. 6:7; 10:4; Eph. 6:11–17). The familiar metaphor of armor might have been suggested by a glimpse of armor catching and reflecting the first light of day. But equally the image might have been suggested by Isaiah 59:17, where God himself is said to be decked in the breastplate of righteousness and the helmet of salvation. At all events, Paul invites his readers, by means of this metaphor, to appreciate and to practice what is theirs (for the triad of Christian graces, see the disc. on 1:3, and for the close association of faith and love, see Gal. 5:6). The general term salvation embraces the whole work of God in Christ on our behalf. It becomes ours by faith (see disc. on 1:3 and 3:2f; cf. also 2 Thess. 2:13). But in speaking of the hope of salvation, Paul focuses especially on that part of the work that remains to be completed at the return of Christ. The awareness that God has begun a good work in us and that he will complete it (see Phil. 1:6) is our best protection (armor) against the contingencies of an uncertain world. It is also our best incentive to holiness.
The right solution: staying alert (5:4–8)
The apostle explains that there is no need for us to be alarmed by the prospect of the Lord’s coming, because there is no need for it to take us by surprise. ‘Surprise’ is the key word in Paul’s argument. There are two reasons why people are taken by surprise when a burglar breaks in. The first is that he comes unexpectedly during the night, and the second is that the householder is asleep. We can do nothing about the first reason, but we can about the second. Similarly, Christ’s coming is definitely going to be unexpected. The solution to our problem lies not in knowing when he will come, but in staying awake and alert. For then, even if his Parousia is totally unexpected, we will be ready for him and not taken by surprise. But you, brothers, are not in darkness so that this day should surprise you like a thief (4).
Let me enlarge on Paul’s argument about day and night, light and darkness. Burglars take people by surprise because they come at night. To begin with, it is dark, so that we do not see them coming. In addition, most people are fast asleep. Or if they are awake, they are probably out at a party and may even be drunk. For those who sleep, sleep at night, and those who get drunk, get drunk at night (7). So darkness, sleep and drunkenness are three reasons why people are unprepared for a night visit by a burglar. If only he would oblige us by coming in the daytime! Then we would be ready for him. It would be light, and we could see him. We would ourselves be wide awake, and we would be alert and sober.
Just so with the coming of Christ. Will he come in the darkness or in the light? Spiritually speaking, will he come at night-time or at day-time? The answer to this vital question is ‘Both; it depends who we are’. In the case of unbelievers, he will come in the night because they belong to the night and live in darkness. But you, brothers, are not in darkness … (4). You are all sons of the light and sons of the day. We do not belong to the night or to the darkness (5).
This truth needs further elaboration. The Bible divides history into two ages or ‘aeons’. From the Old Testament perspective they were called ‘the present age’ (which was evil) and ‘the age to come’ (which would be the time of the Messiah). Moreover, the two ages were sometimes portrayed in terms of the night and the day. The present age was like a long dark night, but when the Messiah came, the sun would rise, the day would break, and the world would be flooded with light.
The Bible also teaches that Jesus Christ is that long-awaited Messiah, and that therefore the new age began when he came. He was the dawn of the new era. He ushered in the day. He proclaimed the break-in of the kingdom of God. At the same time, the old age has not yet come to an end. As John put it, ‘the darkness is passing and the true light is already shining’.76 So, for the time being, the two ages overlap. Unbelievers belong to the old age, and are still in the darkness. But those who belong to Jesus Christ have been transferred into the new age, into the light. Already in Christ we have ‘tasted … the powers of the coming age.’ Already, God has brought us ‘out of darkness into his wonderful light’.78 Only when Christ comes in glory will the present overlap then end. The transition period will be over. The old age will finally vanish, and those who belong to it will be destroyed. The new age will be consummated, and those who belong to it will be fully and finally redeemed.
So then (and this is the point which we have been working up to), whether we are ready for Christ’s coming or not depends on which age we belong to, on whether we are still in the darkness or already belong to the light. It is only if we are in the light that we will not be taken by surprise.
Imagine that you and your family are enjoying your summer holiday. One evening the sun goes down, you draw the curtains, and everybody goes to bed. You sleep well too, because the following day you are expecting a visit from the family’s favourite Uncle Bill. But because you are tired, you oversleep. In the morning the sun rises as usual, but you know nothing about it because you are still fast asleep and the curtains are still drawn. Only one member of the family wakes early, your eldest daughter. She gets up and flings back the curtains of her room, so that the sun streams in. Suddenly, there is a loud knock on the front door, and Uncle Bill stands outside. Your daughter is ready to welcome him. She is not taken by surprise, for she is awake, alert and in the light. But the rest of you are covered with confusion because you are still asleep and still in the darkness.
So the question which Paul’s teaching presses upon us is this: to which age do we belong, the old or the new? Do we belong to the night or to the day? Are we asleep or awake? Are our curtains still drawn, or has the light of Jesus Christ shone in upon us? Verses 4 to 8 become quite clear, once we have grasped the biblical teaching on the two ages—the old age of darkness and the new age of light. For the imagery of day and night, light and darkness, is continued throughout.
Moreover, Paul begins with an affirmation as to who we are, and continues with an exhortation as to what we should be. Indeed, he repeats this pattern for emphasis. First, he declares: But you … are not in darkness (4), because you are all sons of the light and sons of the day (5a). In consequence (associating himself with them), we do not belong to the night or to the darkness (5b). So then, because of who we are, let us not be like others (literally, ‘the rest of humankind’, as in 4:13), who are asleep, but let us be alert and self-controlled (6). In other words, if we belong to the day (the new day which dawned with Christ), our behaviour must be daytime behaviour. Let’s not sleep or even yawn our way through life, or live in our pyjamas. Let’s stay awake and alert. For then we shall be ready when Christ comes and we will not be taken by surprise.
The second time Paul affirms who we are and urges us to live appropriately, he goes beyond watchfulness and self-control to the need for us to be properly armed for the Christian warfare: But since we belong to the day, let us be self-controlled, putting on faith and love as a breastplate, and the hope of salvation as a helmet (8). Several times in his letters Paul likens Christians to soldiers and refers to our necessary armour and equipment. At the same time, he feels free to vary the symbolism. For example, in Ephesians 6 the breastplate is ‘righteousness’ and the helmet ‘salvation’, whereas here the breastplate and helmet together represent the triad of graces we considered in 1:3, namely ‘faith, love and hope’.
 MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (2002). 1 & 2 Thessalonians (pp. 158–162). Chicago: Moody Press.
 Phillips, R. D. (2015). 1 & 2 Thessalonians. (R. D. Phillips, P. G. Ryken, & D. M. Doriani, Eds.) (pp. 204–214). Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing.
 Calvin, J., & Pringle, J. (2010). Commentaries on the Epistles of Paul the Apostle to the Philippians, Colossians, and Thessalonians (pp. 288–289). Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software.
 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.
 Shenton, T. (2006). Opening up 1 Thessalonians (pp. 97–100). Leominster: Day One Publications.
 Williams, D. J. (2011). 1 and 2 Thessalonians (pp. 89–90). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books.
 Stott, J. R. W. (1994). The message of Thessalonians: the gospel & the end of time (pp. 109–113). Leicester, England; Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.