The Day of the Lord
(1 Thessalonians 5:1–3)
Now as to the times and the epochs, brethren, you have no need of anything to be written to you. For you yourselves know full well that the day of the Lord will come just like a thief in the night. While they are saying, “Peace and safety!” then destruction will come upon them suddenly like labor pains upon a woman with child, and they will not escape. (5:1–3)
After a century that experienced the terror of two world wars, the horror of the Holocaust, the brutality of the Korean conflict, the hopeless futility of the war in Vietnam, as well as innumerable revolutions, riots, assassinations, and acts of terrorism, a crucial question is, Where (if anywhere) is history going? Does it have a purpose, goal, or meaning? Or is it merely an endless succession of events leading nowhere? How are we to live, work, play, and love amidst the chaos, confusion, and meaninglessness of life? In his book Christ the Meaning of History, Hendrikus Berkhof writes,
Our generation is strangled by fear: fear for man, for his future, and for the direction in which we are driven against our will and desire. And out of this comes a cry for illumination concerning the meaning of the existence of mankind, and concerning the goal to which we are directed. It is a cry for an answer to the old question of the meaning of history. ([Grand Rapids: Baker, 1979], 13)
There are three popular contemporary views of history. The first is the cyclical view, which sees history as an endless circle, spiraling back through the same things over and over again. In the cynical words of the Preacher, “That which has been is that which will be, and that which has been done is that which will be done. So there is nothing new under the sun” (Eccl. 1:9). The cyclical view was popular among the ancient Greeks. Today it characterizes much of Eastern thought—especially Hinduism, with its continual cycle of death and rebirth (samsara). Through the influence of the New Age movement, it has also become increasingly popular in the West.
But the cyclical view evacuates any meaning or purpose from history, as John Marsh notes:
If such a view be true, then historical existence has been deprived of its significance. What I do now I have done in a previous world cycle, and will do again in future world cycles. Responsibility and decision disappear, and with them any real significance to historical life, which in fact becomes a rather grandiose natural cycle. Just as the corn is sown, grows, and ripens each year, so will the events of history recur time after time. Moreover, if all that can happen is the constant repetition of an event-cycle, there is no possibility of meaning in the cycle itself. It achieves nothing in itself, neither can it contribute to anything outside itself. The events of history are devoid of significance. (The Fulness of Time [London: Nisbet, 1952], 167)
A second view of history is that of atheistic naturalism. Unlike the cyclical view, this view sees history as linear and non-repetitive. But like the cyclical view, the naturalistic view assigns no meaning to history. History may be proceeding in a straight line instead of going around in circles, but it is not leading anywhere; it has no ultimate goal or purpose. Anthony Hoekema notes that according to this view, “No significant pattern can be found in history, no movement toward a goal; only a meaningless succession of events” (The Bible and the Future [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1989], 25). The celebrated British philosopher and vocal critic of Christianity Bertrand Russell admitted, “There is no law of cosmic progress.… From evolution, so far as our present knowledge shows, no ultimately optimistic philosophy can be validly inferred” (cited in Henry M. Morris, That Their Words May Be Used Against Them [Green Forest, Ark.: Master Books, 1997], 418). The zealous defender of Darwinism Richard Dawkins acknowledges, “Evolution has no long-term goal. There is no long distance target, no final perfection to serve as a criterion for selection, although human vanity cherishes the absurd notion that our species is the final goal of evolution” (cited in Morris, 412). Thus, human history is just one phase of the meaningless flow of evolutionary history. The influential evolutionary paleontologist George Gaylord Simpson put it bluntly: “Man is the result of a purposeless and natural process that did not have him in mind” (cited in Phillip E. Johnson, Darwin on Trial [Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity, 1993], 116). Such a hopeless, purposeless, empty view of history reduces man to insignificance, to nothing more than a “chance configuration of atoms in the slip stream of meaningless chance history” (Francis A. Schaeffer, Death in the City [Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity, 1972], 18).
The Christian view of history stands in sharp contrast to the hopeless despair of the first two views. The Bible reveals history to be the outworking of the purposeful plan of the sovereign, creator God. Job confessed, “I know that You can do all things, and that no purpose of Yours can be thwarted” (Job 42:2). Through the prophet Isaiah, God declared, “My purpose will be established, and I will accomplish all My good pleasure” (Isa. 46:10), and “I act and who can reverse it?” (Isa. 43:13). Jesus Christ is the central figure in history; the Old Testament points to His coming, and the New Testament describes and expounds His life, death, resurrection, and second coming.
As history continues to unfold the eternally planned purposes of God, one event looms large on the horizon: the Day of the Lord. That event will mark the end of man’s day, as God acts in judgment to take back direct control of the earth from the usurpers (both human and demonic) who presently rule it. It will be an unprecedented time of cataclysmic judgment on all unrepentant sinners.
Most preachers strive to be positive, affirming, and comforting, and hence rarely preach on God’s wrath, vengeance, and judgment. But to ignore such truth is to “shrink from declaring … the whole purpose of God” (Acts 20:27). It is to forsake the preacher’s responsibility to “preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, exhort, with great patience and instruction” (2 Tim. 4:2). Scripture repeatedly warns of God’s judgment and the eternal punishment of unbelievers. Judgment was a major emphasis of both the Old Testament prophets and the New Testament apostles. But the one who spoke most often about judgment was the Lord Jesus Christ. All true preachers must follow His example, as did Paul (cf. 1:10; 2:16; 4:6; 5:9; 2 Thess. 1:5–9).
Paul had preached the sobering truth about the Day of the Lord to the Thessalonians during his relatively brief stay in their city (2 Thess. 2:5). After he left, questions arose in their minds about both the Rapture and the Day of the Lord. Timothy likely conveyed those concerns to Paul when he returned from his trip to Thessalonica (3:2, 6). Having answered their questions about the Rapture in the previous passage (4:13–18), Paul now dealt with the Thessalonians’ concerns about the Day of the Lord. From the blessed event of the catching away of the church, Paul turned to the horrible event that follows it—the destruction of the wicked rejecters of the Lord Jesus Christ. As it was in dealing with the Rapture, Paul’s purpose in writing this section on the Day of the Lord was not primarily theological and eschatological but pastoral and practical.
Paul introduced his discussion of the Day of the Lord with the transitional phrase peri de (now as to). The apostle used that phrase frequently in his writings to signal a change of subject (e.g., 4:9; 1 Cor. 7:1, 25; 8:1; 12:1; 16:1, 12). Paul’s use of the affectionate term brethren as a call to renewed attention also suggests a new topic (cf. 2:1, 17; 4:1, 13). In his discussion of end-time events, Paul turned from the Rapture (4:13–18) to a new subject, the Day of the Lord.
The phrase the times (chronos) and the epochs (kairos) refers in a general sense to the end times (cf. Dan. 2:21; Acts 1:7). Though the two words may be used here in an overlapping sense, there is a subtle difference in meaning between them. Chronos refers to chronological time, to clock time or calendar time. Kairos, on the other hand, views time in terms of events, eras, or seasons, such as the times of the Gentiles (Luke 21:24). Taken together, the two terms suggest that the Thessalonians were curious about the timing of the end-time events. That both nouns are plural indicates that many different time periods (cf. Dan. 7:25; 9:24–27; 12:7, 11, 12; Rev. 11:2–3; 13:5) and events (e.g., the Rapture, the rise of Antichrist, the salvation of Israel, the seal, trumpet, and bowl judgments, the Second Coming, the battle of Armageddon, the sheep and goat judgment, the binding of Satan, the millennial kingdom, the loosing of Satan and subsequent worldwide rebellion at the end of the Millennium, the Great White Throne judgment, and the new heavens and the new earth) make up the end times.
Specifically, the congregation wanted to know when the Rapture and the Day of the Lord would take place. As noted in the previous chapter of this volume, they were concerned that they had somehow missed the Rapture and were in the Day of the Lord (cf. 2 Thess. 2:1–2). In verse 4 of this chapter, Paul reassured them that they would not experience the Day of the Lord. (See the discussion of 5:4–11 in chapter 13 of this volume.)
But to their question as to when the Day of the Lord would come, Paul replied, you have no need of anything to be written to you. The Lord Jesus Christ gave a similar answer to His disciples; when they asked Him, “Lord, is it at this time You are restoring the kingdom to Israel?” (Acts 1:6) He replied, “It is not for you to know times or epochs which the Father has fixed by His own authority” (Acts 1:7; cf. Matt. 24:36, 44, 50; 25:13). The Thessalonians did not need to know when the Day of the Lord would come; they already knew all that God intended them to know. To know when the Day of the Lord will come would foster spiritual indifference if it were still a long way off, or panic if it were coming soon. Being spiritually prepared for the return of Christ does not involve date setting, clock-watching, or sign seeking. God has chosen not to reveal the specific time of end-time events so that all believers will live in constant anticipation of them.
As he replied to the Thessalonians’ questions about the Day of the Lord, Paul discussed three aspects of that momentous event: its coming, character, and completeness.
The Coming of the Day of the Lord
For you yourselves know full well that the day of the Lord will come just like a thief in the night. While they are saying, “Peace and safety!” (5:2–3a)
What the Thessalonians already knew full well was that the day of the Lord will come just like a thief in the night—suddenly, unexpectedly, unwelcomed, and harmfully. It will be a terrifying shock to those who do not know the Lord Jesus Christ. Akribōs (full well) describes careful, accurate, painstaking research (cf. Matt. 2:8; Luke 1:3; Acts 18:25). The Thessalonians knew for certain that the Day of the Lord will arrive unexpectedly. Obviously, then, the time of its arrival will not be revealed; no sane thief announces in advance what time of the night he plans to rob someone.
In the Olivet Discourse—Jesus’ own sermon on His second coming—He used the imagery of a thief in the night to refer to the unexpectedness of His return: “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” (Matt. 24:43; cf. Rev. 16:15). Like the Day of the Lord, the exact time of the Second Coming will not be revealed, though there will be signs that Christ’s return is imminent (Matt. 24:4–33). Jesus put every generation on notice that they must live in expectation of His return and the events of the Day of the Lord that lead up to it.
The metaphor of a thief coming is never used to refer to the Rapture of the church. It describes the coming of the Lord in judgment at the end of the seven-year Tribulation period, and the judgment at the end of the thousand-year kingdom of Christ on earth (2 Peter 3:10). A thief coming is not a hopeful, joyful event of deliverance, but an unexpected calamity.
The important biblical term the day of the Lord describes God’s cataclysmic future judgment on the wicked. It is mentioned explicitly nineteen times in the Old Testament (Isa. 2:12; 13:6, 9; Ezek. 13:5; 30:3; Joel 1:15; 2:1, 11, 31; 3:14; Amos 5:18 [2 times], 20; Obad. 15; Zeph. 1:7, 14 [2 times]; Zech. 14:1; Mal. 4:5) and four times in the New Testament (cf. Acts 2:20; 2 Thess. 2:2; 2 Peter 3:10), and is alluded to in other passages (cf. Rev. 6:17; 16:14). It will be the time when God pours out His fury on the wicked; in fact, Scripture three times calls the Day of the Lord the “day of vengeance” (Isa. 34:8; 61:2; 63:4).
The Day of the Lord must be distinguished from the “day of Christ” (Phil. 1:10; 2:16), the “day of Christ Jesus” (Phil. 1:6), the “day of the Lord Jesus” (1 Cor. 5:5), and the “day of our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Cor. 1:8); all of those terms refer to the time when believers will receive their rewards from the Lord Jesus Christ (Rom. 14:10; 1 Cor. 3:11–14; 4:1–5; 2 Cor. 5:9–10). The Day of the Lord must also be distinguished from the “day of God” (2 Peter 3:12), which refers to the eternal state.
The Old Testament passages dealing with the Day of the Lord often convey a sense of imminence, nearness, and expectation: “Wail, for the day of the Lord is near!” (Isa. 13:6); “For the day is near, even the day of the Lord is near” (Ezek. 30:3); “For the day of the Lord is near” (Joel 1:15); “Let all the inhabitants of the land tremble, for the day of the Lord is coming; surely it is near” (Joel 2:1); “Multitudes, multitudes in the valley of decision! For the day of the Lord is near in the valley of decision” (Joel 3:14); “For the day of the Lord draws near on all the nations” (Obad. 15); “Be silent before the Lord God! For the day of the Lord is near” (Zeph. 1:7); “Near is the great day of the Lord, near and coming very quickly” (Zeph. 1:14).
The Old Testament prophets envisioned historical days of the Lord that would preview the final, eschatological Day of the Lord. God often used providentially controlled circumstances, such as using one nation to destroy another, or natural disasters, as instruments of His judgment. But those historical days of the Lord were merely a prelude to the final eschatological Day of the Lord, which will be far greater in extent and more terrible in its destruction.
The Old Testament Day of the Lord passages often have both a near and a far fulfillment, as does much Old Testament prophecy. In Psalm 69:9 David wrote, “Zeal for Your house has consumed me, and the reproaches of those who reproach You have fallen on me”; yet after Jesus cleansed the temple, “His disciples remembered that it was written, ‘zeal for Your house will consume me’ ” (John 2:17). Psalm 22 has in view both David’s suffering and the crucifixion of Christ. Isaiah 7:14 refers both to the historical birth of Isaiah’s son and prophetically to the virgin birth of Christ. Similarly, Isaiah 13:6 points to a historical day of the Lord, while verse 9 of that same chapter has the final, eschatological Day of the Lord in view. Joel 1:15; 2:1, 11 describe a historical day of the Lord; Joel 3:1–14 the eschatological Day of the Lord. Obadiah 1–14 depicts the historical day of the Lord in which Edom was judged; verses 15–21 describe the eschatological Day of the Lord. Zephaniah 1:7–14 predicts an imminent, historical day of the Lord judgment on Judah, which was fulfilled shortly afterward in the Babylonian Captivity; 3:8–20 predicts the final Day of the Lord.
Summarizing the interplay of the historical and eschatological Days of the Lord in the writings of the Old Testament prophets, George Eldon Ladd writes,
The Day of the Lord was near because God was about to act; and the historical event was in a real sense an anticipation of the final eschatological deed.… The historical imminence of the Day of the Lord did not include all that the Day of the Lord meant; history and eschatology were held in dynamic tension, for both were the Day of the Lord. (The Presence of the Future [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1976], 320. Italics in original.)
Unlike the Rapture, which will not be preceded by any signs, there will be several precursors that will herald the arrival of the eschatological Day of the Lord. They will not, however, reveal the specific time that it will come.
The first sign that the Day of the Lord is drawing near will be the appearance of an Elijah-like forerunner. In Malachi 4:5 the Lord declared, “Behold, I am going to send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and terrible day of the Lord.” Like many other Day of the Lord prophecies, this one had a historical fulfillment in John the Baptist (Luke 1:17) and will also have a future fulfillment in the end times. Some have speculated that this forerunner will be one of the two witnesses (Rev. 11:3). Whoever he is, he will herald the imminent return of the Lord Jesus Christ and the arrival of the Day of the Lord that precedes it.
Second, a worldwide rebellion against God and His Word will precede the Day of the Lord. In 2 Thessalonians 2:3 Paul reminded the Thessalonians that the Day of the Lord (v. 2) “will not come unless the apostasy comes first.” That apostasy will include a worldwide system of false religion. (See the discussion of 2 Thessalonians 2:3 in chapter 23 of this volume.)
Third, the Day of the Lord will not come until “the man of lawlessness is revealed, the son of destruction, who opposes and exalts himself above every so-called god or object of worship, so that he takes his seat in the temple of God, displaying himself as being God” (2 Thess. 2:3–4). The rise of Antichrist and his desecration of the temple (Dan. 9:27; 11:31; 12:11; Matt. 24:15) will precede the coming of the Day of the Lord. (See the discussion of 2:3–4 in chapter 23 of this volume.)
Fourth, the nations will begin to assemble in the valley of decision for the battle of Armageddon (Joel 3:2–14).
Fifth, dramatic signs in the heavens will precede the coming of the Day of the Lord; God “will display wonders in the sky and on the earth, blood, fire and columns of smoke. The sun will be turned into darkness and the moon into blood before the great and awesome day of the Lord comes.… The sun and moon grow dark and the stars lose their brightness” (Joel 2:30–31; 3:15; cf. Isa. 13:10; Matt. 24:29; Luke 21:25; Rev. 6:12–13; 8:12).
In the Olivet Discourse, Jesus gave another list of precursors to the Day of the Lord—a list paralleled in the first five seal judgments in Revelation. The Lord described these judgments as “birth pangs” (Matt. 24:8)—an apt analogy to the labor pains that come suddenly upon a pregnant woman and intensify until she gives birth. Just as a woman’s labor pains warn her that her time to give birth is imminent, so these birth pangs should warn people that the Day of the Lord is near.
The first birth pang is a proliferation of false teachers, false prophets, and false religions. They will succeed in explaining away the signs so that people will not recognize that they point to the Day of the Lord. In Matthew 24:5 Jesus warned, “Many will come in My name, saying, ‘I am the Christ,’ and will mislead many.” But the epitome of all of them will be the ultimate false prophet, the final world ruler, the Antichrist. He is known in Scripture by many names: the little horn (Dan. 7:8), the king who does as he pleases (Dan. 11:36–45), the man of lawlessness (2 Thess. 2:3), the son of destruction (2 Thess. 2:3), and the beast (Rev. 11:7; 13:2–8). This demon-indwelled individual will be a man of charisma, charm, persuasiveness, brilliance, authority, ruthlessness—and consummate wickedness. He will at first appear to be everything a desperate world longs for—a man who will unify the world under his leadership and usher in a short-lived era of global peace and prosperity. He will even make a seven-year pact with Israel (Dan. 9:27), promising to provide the security and protection that nation has always longed for. But halfway through that pact, Antichrist will reveal his true colors. He will put a stop to Israel’s religion and desecrate the temple by setting himself up as God and demanding that the world worship him (2 Thess. 2:4).
The first of the seal judgments (Rev. 6:2) depicts Antichrist’s rise to power: “I looked, and behold, a white horse, and he who sat on it had a bow; and a crown was given to him, and he went out conquering and to conquer.” The bow depicts Antichrist’s power, but the absence of arrows and the fact that the crown was freely given to him indicate his victory will not come through war. Antichrist’s victory will be a bloodless, political, ideological conquest, as the world turns to him to lead them through the unparalleled crisis of the time of Tribulation.
Antichrist’s false peace will not last long, for the second birth pang is war. In Matthew 24:6–7 Jesus warned, “You will be hearing of wars and rumors of wars. See that you are not frightened, for those things must take place, but that is not yet the end. For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom.” War on an unprecedented scale will characterize the Tribulation (Dan. 11:36–45), culminating in the unimaginable slaughter of the battle of Armageddon (Rev. 19:17–21).
The second seal judgment (Rev. 6:3–4) also depicts the devastating wars that will precede the Day of the Lord: “When He broke the second seal, I heard the second living creature saying, ‘Come.’ And another, a red horse, went out; and to him who sat on it, it was granted to take peace from the earth, and that men would slay one another; and a great sword was given to him.” War personified rides the red horse of battle and slaughter.
Adding to the misery and suffering caused by war will be the natural disasters associated with the third birth pang: “In various places there will be famines and earthquakes” (Matt. 24:7). The third and fourth seal judgments also describe the natural disasters that precede the Day of the Lord:
When He broke the third seal, I heard the third living creature saying, “Come.” I looked, and behold, a black horse; and he who sat on it had a pair of scales in his hand. And I heard something like a voice in the center of the four living creatures saying, “A quart of wheat for a denarius, and three quarts of barley for a denarius; and do not damage the oil and the wine.” (Rev. 6:5–6)
That a denarius (one day’s wages) would purchase only a quart of wheat (one day’s supply for one person) and enough barley (low quality grain usually fed to livestock) to feed a small family for one day graphically depicts the famine conditions that will prevail.
The fourth seal pictures death on a scale unprecedented in human history:
When the Lamb broke the fourth seal, I heard the voice of the fourth living creature saying, “Come.” I looked, and behold, an ashen horse; and he who sat on it had the name Death; and Hades was following with him. Authority was given to them over a fourth of the earth, to kill with sword and with famine and with pestilence and by the wild beasts of the earth. (Rev. 6:7–8)
The devastation caused by war and famine will result in a staggering death toll—one fourth of the earth’s population.
The fourth birth pang describes the martyrdom of many of the Tribulation believers. In the midst of the devastation, slaughter, and horror of the Tribulation, many (Rev. 7:9) will be redeemed through the preaching of the two witnesses (Rev. 11:2–6), the 144,000 Jewish evangelists (Rev. 7), and the “angel flying in midheaven, having an eternal gospel to preach to those who live on the earth, and to every nation and tribe and tongue and people” (Rev. 14:6). Jesus warned those believers, “They will deliver you to tribulation, and will kill you, and you will be hated by all nations because of My name” (Matt. 24:9). When the Lord Jesus Christ broke the fifth seal, John
saw underneath the altar the souls of those who had been slain because of the word of God, and because of the testimony which they had maintained; and they cried out with a loud voice, saying, “How long, O Lord, holy and true, will You refrain from judging and avenging our blood on those who dwell on the earth?” And there was given to each of them a white robe; and they were told that they should rest for a little while longer, until the number of their fellow servants and their brethren who were to be killed even as they had been, would be completed also. (Rev. 6:9–11)
The final birth pang, unlike the first four, is a positive sign. Jesus said in Matthew 24:14, “This gospel of the kingdom shall be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all the nations, and then the end will come.” As noted above, there will be vast numbers of people converted during the Tribulation as a result of the preaching of the two witnesses, the 144,000 Jewish evangelists, and the angel flying in midheaven.
Unbelievably, incomprehensibly, despite these obvious, unmistakable signs, most people will still be caught by surprise when the Day of the Lord comes. The terrible outpouring of God’s wrath in judgment will happen while they are saying, “Peace and safety!” The only explanation for such a ludicrous, absurd response is that people will be deceived by false prophets. Jesus warned, “Many will come in My name, saying, ‘I am the Christ,’ and will mislead many.… Many false prophets will arise and will mislead many.… For false Christs and false prophets will arise and will show great signs and wonders, so as to mislead, if possible, even the elect” (Matt. 24:5, 11, 24). Those lying deceivers will dupe the world into believing that peace and prosperity are just around the corner, despite the ominous signs that the Day of the Lord is fast approaching.
The Old Testament prophets also encountered deceiving false prophets who scoffed at their warnings of impending doom. Jeremiah warned his countrymen, “Flee for safety, O sons of Benjamin, from the midst of Jerusalem! Now blow a trumpet in Tekoa and raise a signal over Beth-haccerem; for evil looks down from the north, and a great destruction” (Jer. 6:1). But in spite of Jeremiah’s warning, the false prophets were “saying, ‘Peace, peace,’ but there is no peace” (Jer. 6:14; cf. 8:11). In Jeremiah 14:13 Jeremiah complained, “ ‘Ah, Lord God!’ I said, ‘Look, the prophets are telling them, “You will not see the sword nor will you have famine, but I will give you lasting peace in this place.” ’ ” In verse 14 God replied, “The prophets are prophesying falsehood in My name. I have neither sent them nor commanded them nor spoken to them; they are prophesying to you a false vision, divination, futility and the deception of their own minds.” Lamentations 2:14 notes, “Your prophets have seen for you false and foolish visions; and they have not exposed your iniquity so as to restore you from captivity, but they have seen for you false and misleading oracles” (cf. Micah 3:5). God declared of the false prophets who plagued Israel:
It is definitely because they have misled My people by saying, “Peace!” when there is no peace. And when anyone builds a wall, behold, they plaster it over with whitewash; so tell those who plaster it over with whitewash, that it will fall. A flooding rain will come, and you, O hailstones, will fall; and a violent wind will break out. Behold, when the wall has fallen, will you not be asked, “Where is the plaster with which you plastered it?” Therefore, thus says the Lord God, “I will make a violent wind break out in My wrath. There will also be in My anger a flooding rain and hailstones to consume it in wrath. So I will tear down the wall which you plastered over with whitewash and bring it down to the ground, so that its foundation is laid bare; and when it falls, you will be consumed in its midst. And you will know that I am the Lord. Thus I will spend My wrath on the wall and on those who have plastered it over with whitewash; and I will say to you, ‘The wall is gone and its plasterers are gone, along with the prophets of Israel who prophesy to Jerusalem, and who see visions of peace for her when there is no peace,’ ” declares the Lord God. (Ezek. 13:10–16)
In the end time, the false prophets will use “great signs and wonders” (Matt. 24:24) to mislead the world. As a result of their deception, life will go on with some semblance of normalcy, just as it did before the Flood:
For the coming of the Son of Man will be just like the days of Noah. For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day that Noah entered the ark, and they did not understand until the flood came and took them all away; so will the coming of the Son of Man be. (Matt. 24:37–39)
The false prophet, the associate of the Antichrist, will use signs and wonders to persuade people to worship the Antichrist: “He performs great signs, so that he even makes fire come down out of heaven to the earth in the presence of men” (Rev. 13:13).
Unbelievers’ susceptibility to the false prophets’ deception is a sign of God’s judgment on them. In 2 Thessalonians 2:10–12 Paul wrote that those deceived by the Antichrist will “perish, because they did not receive the love of the truth so as to be saved. For this reason God will send upon them a deluding influence so that they will believe what is false, in order that they all may be judged who did not believe the truth, but took pleasure in wickedness.” As a result, the sudden, unexpected coming of the Day of the Lord will sweep them away in judgment.
The Character of the Day of the Lord
then destruction will come upon them suddenly like labor pains upon a woman with child, (5:3b)
Olethros (destruction) does not refer to annihilation, but separation from God (cf. 2 Thess. 1:9). It does not mean the destruction of being, but of well-being (cf. 1 Tim. 6:9); not the end of existence, but the destruction of the purpose for existence. God will accomplish the destruction of unbelievers by casting them into the eternal torment of hell (2 Thess. 1:9).
Revelation 6:12–17 graphically depicts the destructiveness of the Day of the Lord:
I looked when He broke the sixth seal, and there was a great earthquake; and the sun became black as sackcloth made of hair, and the whole moon became like blood; and the stars of the sky fell to the earth, as a fig tree casts its unripe figs when shaken by a great wind. The sky was split apart like a scroll when it is rolled up, and every mountain and island were moved out of their places. Then the kings of the earth and the great men and the commanders and the rich and the strong and every slave and free man hid themselves in the caves and among the rocks of the mountains; and they said to the mountains and to the rocks, “Fall on us and hide us from the presence of Him who sits on the throne, and from the wrath of the Lamb; for the great day of their wrath has come, and who is able to stand?”
Acts 2:19–20 describes the Day of the Lord as a time of “wonders in the sky above and signs on the earth below, blood, and fire, and vapor of smoke. The sun will be turned into darkness and the moon into blood, before the great and glorious day of the Lord shall come.”
By using the term them (a reference to unbelievers), Paul reassured the Thessalonians that they will not face destruction. As he states plainly in verse 4, the Thessalonians will not experience the Day of the Lord; they will be raptured before it begins. (See the discussion of v. 4 in chapter 13 of this volume.) As noted earlier in this chapter, the Day of the Lord will come suddenly and unexpectedly on unbelievers. They will fail to heed the many precursors that should have warned them of its imminent arrival, just as labor pains coming upon a woman with child warn her that the birth of her child is imminent. (See the discussion of “birth pangs” above.)
The Completeness of the Day of the Lord
and they will not escape. (5:3c)
The tragic result of unbelievers’ unpreparedness for the Day of the Lord is that they will not escape divine judgment. The use of the double negative ou mē stresses the comprehensiveness of the Day of the Lord, which will bring destruction on every unbeliever alive when it comes.
Believers should be comforted by the reality that they will be raptured before the coming of the Day of the Lord and not experience its horrors. Yet the knowledge that that event looms large on the prophetic horizon should also motivate them to evangelize the lost. The tragic reality is that those who reject the Lord Jesus Christ will experience God’s temporal and eternal wrath. In the sobering, pensive words of the writer of Hebrews, “How will we escape if we neglect so great a salvation?” (Heb. 2:3).
Like a Thief in the Night
1 Thessalonians 5:1–4
For you yourselves are fully aware that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night. While people are saying, “There is peace and security,” then sudden destruction will come upon them as labor pains come upon a pregnant woman, and they will not escape. (1 Thess. 5:2–3)
Stephanie and Ray left the suburbs for a safer home in the country after being burglarized while on vacation. A visit from exconvicts Matt Johnston and Jon Douglas Rainey, however, proved that Stephanie and Ray were no more safe in the country than they had been closer to town. Johnston and Rainey were hosts of the Discovery Channel show It Takes a Thief, and the ease with which they broke in and stole valuable property week after week before a national audience shows how vulnerable anyone is to a trained and motivated burglar. Their example shows why the expression “a thief in the night” is one that evokes fear and dread.
The Day of the Lord
It seems from Paul’s letter that the Thessalonian Christians were worried about what might occur to them on some dark night. Having earlier addressed their concern about the destiny of believers who had died, Paul now responds to their concerns about the timing of Christ’s return. “Now concerning the times and the seasons, brothers,” he writes, “you have no need to have anything written to you” (1 Thess. 5:1). The two words for “times and seasons” (chronos and kairos) correspond roughly to “length of time” and “sequence of events.” The Thessalonians were concerned, we may infer, about the timing of Christ’s return, lest they be unprepared when Jesus came. Paul responded that he had covered this topic thoroughly during his time among them: “You have no need to have anything written to you. For you yourselves are fully aware that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night” (1 Thess. 5:2).
Before we criticize these early believers for fretting over a matter about which they had already been taught, we should realize the sober nature of the subject. In 1 Thessalonians 4:15, Paul had written about “the coming of the Lord.” Now he describes the same event with the designation “the day of the Lord.” If we understand the meaning of this term, we will better understand their concern about the timing and sequence of events in its coming.
“The day of the Lord” is an expression with its origin in the prophetic writings, signifying the coming of God to judge his enemies in fiery wrath. The eighth century b.c. prophet Amos warned of God’s coming to the wicked people of Samaria: “Is not the day of the Lord darkness, and not light, and gloom with no brightness in it?” (Amos 5:20). The day of the Lord is the time of reckoning for sinners who transgress God’s law and enemies who oppress God’s people. Ezekiel wrote: “It will be a day of clouds, a time of doom for the nations” (Ezek. 30:3). In the Old Testament, “the day of the Lord” referred to a complex of events in which God broke into history to judge his enemies and save his people, pointing forward to the great day of the Lord when Christ returns. Andrew Young described it as “a day of wrath and destruction for rebellious individuals and nations, and at the same time a day of salvation and deliverance for his people.”
Dispensational scholars seek to distinguish between “the day of Christ,” which brings deliverance to the church, and “the day of the Lord” as a cataclysmic judgment. This distinction is mandated by the pretribulation eschatology that requires a two-stage return, with Christ’s first removing his church and then later returning to judge the earth before his millennial rule. This theory becomes particularly strained, however, when it seeks to differentiate between “the day of the Lord” and “the day of Christ” (Phil. 1:10), or even “the day of the Lord Jesus” (1 Cor. 5:5 nkjv). This arbitrary distinction is most clearly refuted in 2 Thessalonians 2:1–2, where Paul speaks of “the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ” as “the day of the Lord,” showing that they are in fact one and the same event (see also 2 Thess. 1:6–7). The apostle Peter states that the day of the Lord is not merely one among many steps along the way to the end but is the climactic event to end all history: “But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a roar, and the heavenly bodies will be burned up and dissolved, and the earth and the works that are done on it will be exposed” (2 Peter 3:10).
The Bible’s teaching on the day of the Lord tells us that history is moving forward to a great reckoning for all the evil on the earth and to salvation for the people of God. This contrasts with the prevailing unbelief of our day, based on the theory of evolution, which holds that history has neither a goal nor any meaning. As Ravi Zacharias writes, “A philosophy of meaninglessness is an unavoidable consequence of the antitheistic starting point.” The Bible teaches the opposite. Just as history had its beginning in God’s sovereign act of creation, it will conclude in the sovereign return of the Lord, the day when man’s apparent sway is brought to an end and God’s sovereign purposes are unveiled as being fully achieved. John Lillie writes: “Now it is man’s day—the day of man’s ambition—man’s pleasures—man’s judging—man’s glory; and ‘God is not in all his thoughts’ (Ps. 10:4). How great the change from this to ‘the day of the Lord’! Then ‘the lofty looks of man shall be humbled, and the haughtiness of men shall be bowed down; and the Lord alone shall be exalted in that day.’ ”
Since the day of the Lord will culminate God’s purpose for history, Christians must not shrink from declaring this important Bible truth. To be sure, there are better and worse ways to declare the day of the Lord. When I ministered in Philadelphia, a woman came almost every day to the train station with a large placard depicting the human race in flames and called sinners to escape God’s judgment. In all the days I walked past the woman and her sign, I never saw anyone stop to discuss the topic, despite the accuracy of her message. Yet we must avoid the opposite extreme of neglecting to tell the world about the day of the Lord. It is evident that Paul had given priority to this doctrine while in Thessalonica. Like Paul, we need to combine our witness to God’s coming judgment with a declaration of God’s grace and mercy through Jesus, who came to die for sin and whose return is the believer’s “blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ” (Titus 2:13).
Christ’s Unforeseen Return
The Thessalonians were asking about “times and seasons” because they were concerned to be prepared for God’s judgment. John Stott comments, “They thought they could most easily get ready for Christ’s coming in judgment if they could know when he would arrive.” The problem with this approach, Paul replied, is that “the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night” (1 Thess. 5:2).
The point of this analogy is that the Lord’s return will arrive at a time and in a way unforeseen by the world. The problem with thieves is that they do not announce their coming, but wait for an unexpected opportunity. Here Paul is reproducing the teaching of Jesus on his own return: “But concerning that day or that hour, no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father” (Mark 13:32). Unfortunately, this plain teaching has not kept history from being littered with those claiming to know when Christ will return. In 1833, William Miller published his belief that Christ would return in 1843. When that year passed, the date was reset for April 18, 1844, and then again for October 22, 1844, with thousands of followers anxiously awaiting the end of the world, many of them having sold their possessions. After “the Great Disappointment,” when this date passed, various theories were offered, one of them spawning the Seventh-day Adventist movement that continues to thrive today. G. K. Beale notes a similar occurrence when a group of Korean Christians so strongly expected Christ’s return in October 1992 that they sold their homes and goods. In the despair that overcame them when Christ failed to meet their schedule, some of them took their own lives. Beale notes that “without exception, the expectations of each of these groups throughout history have been dashed.”6 Today “The Rapture Index” can be accessed on the Internet, offering advance warning of Christ’s return by means of a point scale for activities associated with the end of the world. The website describes itself as “a Dow Jones Industrial Average of end time activity,” and a “prophetic speedometer. The higher the number, the faster we’re moving towards the occurrence of pre-tribulation rapture.”
While both Jesus and Paul emphasized the unforeseen nature of the Lord’s coming, the Bible also displays an expectation of its nearness. Isaiah warned wicked Jerusalem of an onslaught from the north as an unforeseen day of the Lord that would come soon: “Wail, for the day of the Lord is near; as destruction from the Almighty it will come!” (Isa. 13:6). Ezekiel later gave a similar warning related to Nebuchadnezzar’s destruction of Jerusalem: “Wail, ‘Alas for the day!’ For the day is near, the day of the Lord is near” (Ezek. 30:2–3). Zephaniah added: “The great day of the Lord is near, near and hastening fast” (Zeph. 1:14). What was said of these earlier, more limited judgments is all the more true of the great and final day of the Lord in the coming of Jesus Christ. Even if it should turn out that Christ returns at some far distant date in the future, the reality of death makes it certain that judgment is near to everyone who lives and breathes at this very moment. Hebrews 9:27 reminds us that “it is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment.”
Some scholars have made much of Paul’s use of the first-person plural in speaking of his expectation of Christ’s coming: “We who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will always be with the Lord” (1 Thess. 4:17). The claim is made that Paul erroneously believed that Christ would return during his own lifetime and was disappointed by his mistake. This idea is refuted by Paul’s own teaching that no one knows the time of Christ’s return. Yet the apostle’s urgency does point out that the Christian attitude toward the day of the Lord ought always to be one of excited expectation. Anthony Hoekema explains: “The believer should live in constant, joyful expectation of Christ’s return; though he does not know the exact time of it, he should always be ready for it.” In the second-to-last verse of the entire Bible, Jesus himself declared: “Surely I am coming soon.” The expectant believer answers, “Amen. Come, Lord Jesus!” (Rev. 22:20).
As Paul and other biblical writers explain it, the result of Christ’s unforeseen coming will be sudden destruction on those who were unprepared: “While people are saying, ‘There is peace and security,’ then sudden destruction will come upon them as labor pains come upon a pregnant woman, and they will not escape” (1 Thess. 5:3). Here, the apostle mirrors the earlier teaching of Jesus, who compared the world at his return to the unprepared world on the brink of Noah’s flood: “For as were the days of Noah, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day when Noah entered the ark, and they were unaware until the flood came and swept them all away, so will be the coming of the Son of Man” (Matt. 24:37–39).
Jesus was not teaching that there is something wrong with eating, drinking, or marrying. His point was that the worldly will be oblivious to the demands of God and to their danger as rebels against God’s rule. They will be concerned about their own affairs: their pleasures, ambitions, and worldly pursuits. Just as worldly preoccupation keeps so many men and women from thinking about God and eternity now, the same attitude will expose the ungodly to destruction on the day of the Lord when it suddenly comes, completely unforeseen, like a thief in the night.
In virtually every judgment recorded in the Bible, worldly unbelievers, having turned from the light of God’s Word, were completely in the dark about the devastation about to strike them. While Jeremiah was foretelling Jerusalem’s destruction, the false prophets were telling the people: “You shall not see the sword, nor shall you have famine” (Jer. 14:13). “Peace, peace,” they cried, but there was no peace (6:14). The prophets of secular unbelief take the same stance today in mocking the Bible’s claims of coming judgment. Ben Witherington argues that “there is peace and security” was probably a political slogan frequently heard in the Roman Empire of Paul’s day, just as similar slogans are often trumpeted in our elections today. If this was the boast of the Roman Empire in the first century, then “Paul must have thought ‘What foolish slogans and vain hopes when the day of the Lord is coming.’ ” Likewise, Christians today should not be caught up in the utopian promises of any political party or social movement, knowing as we do that every endeavor of man is crippled by sinful corruption and believing the Bible’s claim that only the return of Christ will bring true “peace and security” to those who hope in him.
Yet as Jesus notes in Matthew 24:37–39, the most complete blindfold is not secularist dogma but the combination of worldly materialism and sensualism. Tim Shenton writes: “Unbelievers only believe what they can see. As they cannot see the judgment of God approaching, they dismiss it as fantasy and scaremongering.… They are deaf to the warnings of God, absorbed in their own selfishness, and utterly blind to the judgment that is hanging over them.” This situation again highlights the necessity of Christians’ speaking the truth boldly about the day of the Lord and the judgment of God.
The Bible clearly states that the sudden judgment on the day of the Lord will involve utter ruin and devastation. Peter foretold a cataclysmic cleansing of the world in fire: “The day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a roar, and the heavenly bodies will be burned up and dissolved, and the earth and the works that are done on it will be exposed” (2 Peter 3:10). Revelation 6:15–17 presents a similar picture of supernatural upheaval, in which the dismayed ungodly seek to hide “themselves in the caves and among the rocks of the mountains, calling to the mountains and rocks, ‘Fall on us and hide us from the face of him who is seated on the throne, and from the wrath of the Lamb, for the great day of their wrath has come, and who can stand?’ ” On that day, all the treasures gained by a world of sin will be lost, replaced by the wretched prospect of “eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might, when he comes on that day to be glorified in his saints” (2 Thess. 1:9–10).
Jesus cited Noah’s flood as a type of the future judgment. People were leading their self-centered lives, oblivious to God’s wrath, when the flood struck them suddenly and swept virtually the entire race away in watery wrath. Jesus said: “So will be the coming of the Son of Man. Then two men will be in the field; one will be taken and one left. Two women will be grinding at the mill; one will be taken and one left” (Matt. 24:39–41). The future judgment of the day of the Lord will bring similar disaster, only by fire instead of by rain and water. In this connection, it should be pointed out that in Noah’s flood, those who were “left behind” were the godly remnant whom God saved. As mentioned in the previous chapter, one of the curiosities of recent end-times speculation is the reversal of this biblical pattern, so that Christians dread above all things being “left behind.” As Paul stated clearly in 1 Thessalonians 4:17, it is “we who are alive, who are left,” who join the Lord in his return and enjoy an everlasting bliss with him.
We have noted that the day of the Lord will be unforeseen and sudden, but Paul adds that it will also be unavoidable. There will be no escape on the day of the Lord. He makes this point by making reference to a pregnant woman in birth pangs: “sudden destruction will come upon them as labor pains come upon a pregnant woman, and they will not escape” (1 Thess. 5:3). Daunting as labor is today, in the ancient world it involved dreadful suffering and serious danger to the delivering mother. The point is that once the contractions begin, the painful labor is inescapable and irreversible. Likewise, once the judgment of God has come, there will then be no chance of escaping divine wrath and destruction. J. Philip Arthur notes: “Once the end of all things is upon us, it will be too late for those who are not prepared to escape the inevitable outcome.”
Readiness on That Day
Realizing that once the day of the Lord has appeared it will be too late to get ready brings us back to the anxiety of the Thessalonians. They were concerned to be ready for Christ’s coming and therefore wondered about the “times and the seasons” of this great event. Paul answered that the way to be prepared for Christ’s coming is not to know the date—which no one can know—but to prepare ourselves in advance. The way to be ready for the day of the Lord is to act now on the offer of salvation granted to sinners through the saving work of Jesus Christ.
One of the unfortunate features of much end-times teaching is the notion that Christians must ready themselves in some special way beyond trusting in the gospel. Shock-sermons are given to youths, suggesting that if caught in some sinful act when Jesus returns, they may join the ranks of those swept away for judgment. The biblical calling to readiness is often taken to involve some special intensity beyond that of simple Christian faith. The promises of Jesus Christ, however, assure us that readiness for the day of the Lord may be achieved now simply by turning to him for forgiveness and eternal life. Jesus preached: “Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life. He does not come into judgment, but has passed from death to life” (John 5:24). John 3:36 contrasts the danger of unbelief with the readiness of simple faith in Jesus: “Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him.”
To be sure, those who prepare for the last day by believing in Jesus not only receive forgiveness of sin and justification through faith alone, but also are regenerated so that they increasingly are “dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 6:11). Paul therefore writes: “But you are not in darkness, brothers, for that day to surprise you like a thief” (1 Thess. 5:4). Unpreparedness for the day of the Lord is a feature of life in the darkness of sin and unbelief, whereas readiness characterizes those who live in light of Christ. The believer’s readiness for Christ’s coming does not consist in additionally meritorious fervor, but through the salvation that every sinner receives when he or she turns to Christ in saving faith. In other words, while believers look with dismay on the world’s giddy blindness of coming judgment, we may be certain of our own readiness right now simply by trusting Christ for our salvation and surrendering our lives to the Savior who one day will come as Lord both to judge the wicked world and to complete the salvation of all who trust in him.
Believers on Tiptoe
For all who have stepped out of darkness into the light by trusting Jesus, Paul has an all-important statement that completely changes our attitude toward the coming of Christ. “But you are not in darkness, brothers,” he remarks, “for that day to surprise you like a thief” (1 Thess. 5:4). Everything that Paul has said about the unbelieving world is reversed when it comes to Christ’s believing people. Jesus’ coming is unforeseen by the world. But far from being surprised, the believer lives every day in joyful expectation of the Lord’s day. Christ will come to the unbeliever like a thief in the night, breaking into a life that the person had deemed secure and stripping away all that he or she had trusted and loved. To the believer, who has primarily sought for treasures not in this world but in heaven, the coming of the Lord unlocks our inheritance. Romans 8:17 says that believers are “heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him.” The day of the Lord brings destruction and defeat to all the evil, worldly powers, but the believer looks forward to Christ’s coming as our day of vindication, deliverance, and glorification. Though the ungodly will “suffer the punishment of eternal destruction,” Christ “comes on that day to be glorified in his saints, and to be marveled at among all who have believed” (2 Thess. 1:9–10).
According to Paul, not only believers but also “the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God” (Rom. 8:21). The day of the Lord is the creation’s own deliverance from the curse of mankind’s sin. Therefore, Paul exclaims, “the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God” (v. 19). Eric Alexander points out two things in this statement. The first is that the longing creation sets an example for everyone who has readied himself or herself for Christ’s coming by trusting in Jesus for salvation. As the creation expresses “eager longing” for that coming day, so believers ought to live in conscious expectation of the coming day of Christ’s glory in us and our glory in him. Second, Alexander points out that “eager longing” falls short of expressing Paul’s true point about the creation’s attitude. He writes:
The language expresses the idea of someone standing on tiptoe—the kind of thing people do when they are waiting for somebody to arrive at an airport or a train station. There are crowds of people there. So when somebody is waiting for a friend, perhaps a fiancée, he is on tiptoe, peering over people, waiting. This is how creation is pictured. The whole cosmos is standing on tiptoe, groaning, waiting for the liberation of the glory of the people of God.
The example of creation is given for us to emulate as we anticipate the coming of Christ. The day of the Lord is not unforeseen to those who have received God’s Word in faith. Christ does not come like a thief in the night, but like a long-awaited king whose triumph will inaugurate our own liberation and glory. We look for his coming as a bride prepares for the coming of her beloved groom, to whisk her away on a wonderful adventure. Therefore, we wait on tiptoe, casting our glance constantly on the clouds for a gleam of the glory of the Son of Man. Alexander concludes: “So we should set our hearts on that day and walk through this world as men and women who eagerly—like the creation itself which is here teaching us a lesson—wait for the day of God.”
2 For this reason Paul can say to the Thessalonians, “you know very well” the features of “the day of the Lord.” “Very well” translates akribōs (GK 209), a word of precision. Paul is not sarcastically alluding to their own claim but conceding that their knowledge of this subject was adequate, definite, and specific, ultimately including even pertinent teachings of Jesus (Mt 24:43; Lk 12:39; cf. Lightfoot, 71; Ellicott, 68).
The specific subject is “the day of the Lord.” A theme garnering extensive biblical attention, this “day” has multiple characteristics. It is so associated with the ultimate overthrow of God’s enemies (Isa 2:12) that the word hēmera (“day,” GK 2465) can sometimes mean “judgment” (1 Co 4:3). It will be a day of national deliverance for Israel and a day of salvation (1 Th 5:9), but it will also be a day when God’s wrath puts extended pressure on his enemies (Isa 3:16–24; 13:9–11; Jer 30:7; Eze 38–39; Am 5:18–19; Zep 1:14–18; 1 Th 1:10; 2:16; 5:9).
In using “day of the Lord” terminology to describe the tribulation of Daniel’s seventieth week, Jesus included the tribulation within the day of the Lord (cf. Mt 24:21 with Jer 30:7; Da 12:1; Joel 2:2). This time of trial at the outset of the earthly day of the Lord will therefore not be brief but will be comparable to a woman’s labor before giving birth to a child (Isa 13:8; 26:17–19; 66:7–13; Jer 30:7–8; Mic 4:9–10; Mt 24:8; 1 Th 5:3). Growing human agony will be climaxed by Messiah’s second coming to earth, a coming that will terminate this earthly turmoil through direct judgment.
Jesus cannot personally appear on earth, however, until this preliminary period has run its course. Armageddon and the series of tribulation visitations prior to his coming to earth are inseparable from each other (Rev 6–19). If Jesus’ triumphant return to earth (19:11–21) is part of the day of the Lord, as all admit, so special divine dealings preparatory to it must also be part of it. God’s eschatological wrath is a unit. To hypothesize two kinds of future wrath, one prior to the day of the Lord and another within it, is arbitrary (contra Gundry, Church and the Tribulation, 46, 54).
But this earthly wrath does not pertain to those in Christ (1 Th 5:9). Their meeting with Christ will be “in the air” (4:17) and will be separate from God’s dealing with people on earth. The only way to hold that this meeting with Christ in the air is an imminent prospect is to see it as simultaneous with the beginning of the divine wrath against earth. The day of the Lord will bring salvation to believers and terrible judgment to unbelievers (cf. Joseph Plevnik, “1 Thessalonians 5:1–11: Its Authenticity, Intention and Message,” Bib 60 : 88–90). Only if the rapture coincides with the beginning of the day of the Lord can both be imminent and the salvation of those in Christ coincide with the coming of wrath to the rest of the world (5:9; cf. Walvoord, 81).
Were either the rapture or the day of the Lord to precede the other, one or the other would cease to be an imminent prospect, and thus the “thief in the night” and related expressions (cf. 1:10; 4:15, 17) would be inappropriate. That both are imminent possibilities is why Paul can talk about these two in successive paragraphs. That is how the Lord’s personal coming as well as “the day’s” coming can be compared to “a thief” (2 Pe 3:10; cf. Rev 3:3, 11; 16:15). Erchetai (“will come,” GK 2262) is a vivid futuristic present (cf. Jn 14:3) to portray the day as already on its way with an arrival anticipated at any moment (cf. 1 Th 1:10).
In no uncertain terms, the day of God’s wrath is imminent, though some refer to the day’s coming as unexpected and sudden rather than imminent (so Malherbe, 290, 368; Green, 232). The coming of that day can hardly be unexpected and sudden without being imminent. It cannot be unexpected and sudden if a prophesied event is to precede it, thereby removing it from the unexpected and sudden category; therefore, it must be imminent as well as unexpected and sudden. For further discussion of this feature, see comments at 2 Thessalonians 2:1–4.
“In the night” is a detail of the simile not included in other NT uses of the figure. Nighttime is the usual time for thievery, i.e., under cover of darkness. Such unexpectedness will mark the inauguration of the tribulation, i.e., the seventieth week of Daniel and the day of the Lord.
The Thessalonians have had this instruction about such matters, though later they were deceived regarding them (2 Th 2:1–2). Yet even with that knowledge and prior to efforts to deceive them, they had difficulty in applying the truths in a practical way while awaiting the day of the Lord. Thus, in the following verses Paul seeks to alleviate their difficulty.
2 With an explanatory “for” Paul now offers the immediate explanation as to why he has no need to write regarding “times and seasons.” They already “know very well” about “the day of the Lord,” a clause that has all the earmarks of parental language, where a parent, not for the first time, is about to tell the child something they should know very well but in any case need to be reminded. The clause thus begins with yet another emphatic “you yourselves” know, the fourth in this letter. The adverb rendered “very well” in the TNIV, which sits in the emphatic first position in Paul’s sentence, perhaps suggests that the issue raised here came to Paul from the Thessalonians. Thus, with what may be a touch of irony, Paul’s point is that what they want to know “accurately” is not something that can be known at all.18 In any case, the content of what they already know becomes the metaphor from which the rest of the passage is a spin-off.
This is the first occurrence of the phrase “day of the Lord” in the Pauline corpus, and it is clear by the way it appears here that it is well known to the Thessalonians themselves. The phrase will occur again in the next letter (2 Thess 2:2) as a primary point of contention within the community, where some have asserted (probably in a prophetic utterance) that the day of the Lord has already come in some way. Thereafter it occurs infrequently, and only in passing rather than as a matter of discussion. The language itself comes from the prophetic tradition, where it already had a degree of ambiguity. Apparently at an earlier period it was for the people themselves a day of expectation when Yahweh would come and restore Israel’s fortunes. This is especially the perspective expressed in its earliest appearance in the Old Testament—in Amos 5:18, where the prophet turns the people’s expectation of privilege on its head, announcing that it should be seen as a day to be dreaded because of God’s coming judgment (5:20; 8:3, 9). And this is the perspective that is continued throughout most of the prophetic tradition, although the positive aspect can be found as well, especially in Isaiah (2:2–4; 11:10; 19:18–25; 25:6–9), but as “that day” without the explicit qualifier “of the Lord.” The judgmental aspect of the expected “day of the Lord” is what Paul picks up in this passage; but he will also turn it on its head as he goes on in verses 4–8 to make a wordplay on the “day/night” language in this opening clause. In any case, Paul’s immediate concern is merely descriptive, reminding the Thessalonians of what they already know well: that (literally) “the day of the Lord, as a thief in the night, thus it comes.”
Along with matters from the preceding passage, this particular imagery is further evidence that Paul is well acquainted with the Jesus tradition, again as it is found in Luke’s version. After all, the “thief in the night” image does not occur at all in the prophets, but it is found in the teaching of Jesus: “But understand this: if the owner of the house had known at what hour the thief was coming, he would not have let his house be broken into” (Luke 12:39), a passage which is followed immediately with an appeal to readiness because of the unexpected nature of such thievery. The point of the imagery both in the Gospel and here in Paul is that Christ’s coming will be sudden and without warning.22
One should also note that “the Lord” in this phrase is now Christ, rather than God the Father. The christological significance of this transfer of language should not be missed. The actual wording of this phrase in the Old Testament is “the day of Yahweh,” which in oral reading in the Jewish community had become “the day of Adonai [the Lord].” This in turn is what the Septuagint translators turned into “the day of Kyrios [Greek for ‘Lord’].” As with prayer addressed to Christ in 3:11–12, this is another moment which demonstrates that a very high Christology was already in place for Paul by the time he wrote this his earliest letter, since “the Lord” in his phrase refers as always to Christ, not to God the Father.
5:2 / The day of the Lord’s return will come like a thief in the night. Teaching on the Parousia and, in particular, on the impossibility of predicting when it would occur was evidently part of the missionaries’ instruction. If this metaphor of the thief in the night is any guide, their instruction was based on Jesus’ own teaching (cf. Matt. 24:43; Luke 12:39; Rev. 3:3; 16:15). The expression the day of the Lord, used of Jesus’ return, originated in the ot, where it refers to the day when God would intervene in history to bring “the present evil age” to an end (cf. Gal. 1:4) and to inaugurate “the age to come,” the age of his kingdom (rule) in the final and fullest sense of that term. The day of the Lord would see the salvation of the just and the judgment of the unjust. It would be a day of high drama, which is often described in terms of nature itself being involved in the event (cf. Joel 2:31; Amos 5:18; Mal. 4:5). In a sense, this day arrived with the advent of Jesus, for he inaugurated the kingdom, and salvation and judgment have begun. But the high drama awaits his return (at the end of the day, so to speak), which for Christians becomes “the day of the Lord (Jesus)” (see note on 1:1 for Jesus as Lord and on 2:12 for kingdom). In the Greek, neither “day” nor “Lord” has the definite article. This may indicate that this, like “times and dates,” was a conventional phrase in the Christian vocabulary. The verb translated by niv as the future “will come” is actually a present tense, “is coming,” adding a note of certainty and a vividness to the statement.
2. For, says Paul, you yourselves know very well that the day of the Lord comes like a thief in the night.
The thief takes the owner of the house by surprise. He does not send a warning letter to this effect, “Tomorrow, at such and such a time, I’ll pay you a visit. Be sure to hide all your valuables:” He comes suddenly and unexpectedly. So also will be the coming of the day of the Lord (that is, the day of his arrival unto judgment). Hence, it is foolish to inquire about the how long and the when.
However, the comparison holds also in another, closely related, respect: the thief generally finds people unprepared. But here the comparison is true only with respect to unbelievers, not with respect to believers (see on verse 4). Several passages immediately occur to the mind: Matt. 24:43 (= Luke 12:39); 2 Peter 3:10; Rev. 3:3; 16:15.
These matters had been so clearly presented to the Thessalonians while the missionaries were still with them that, if they will only reflect on them, they will realize that the things about which they are wondering are really very well (ἀκριβῶς accurately, cf. Luke 1:3) known to them. Sometimes men wonder about facts which, deep down in their hearts, they really know accurately!
 MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (2002). 1 & 2 Thessalonians (pp. 139–151). Chicago: Moody Press.
 Phillips, R. D. (2015). 1 & 2 Thessalonians. (R. D. Phillips, P. G. Ryken, & D. M. Doriani, Eds.) (pp. 193–203). Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing.
 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. 420–421). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.
 Fee, G. D. (2009). The First and Second Letters to the Thessalonians (pp. 186–188). Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.
 Williams, D. J. (2011). 1 and 2 Thessalonians (pp. 86–87). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books.
 Hendriksen, W., & Kistemaker, S. J. (1953–2001). Exposition of I-II Thessalonians (Vol. 3, p. 122). Grand Rapids: Baker Book House.