Text: 1 Thessalonians 5:1-8
One of the most precious lessons taught by my driving instructor was to be a defensive driver. Defensive driving requires the driver to consciously reduce the dangers that may come while driving on the road. The driver needs to be alert in order to anticipate potential hazards and the actions of other road users. This will allow the driver to take premptive steps to guard himself and others from possible harm.

To ensure that one is alert, he should make sure that he should not drive when he is tired. Neither should he drive when he is under the influence of alcohol. Alcohol dulls the senses and makes the person oblivious to reality. A person who lacks sobriety will not be alert to his surroundings.

In 1 Thessalonians 5:6, believers are commanded to “watch and be sober”. The Greek term translated “watch” (γρηγορέω, grēgoreō) is where we get the name Gregory. It not only refers to staying awake, to be in constant readiness or alertness (BDAG). On the other hand, the term “sober” refers to being free from drunkenness and thus to be well-balanced, disciplined and self-controlled. The principles of defensive driving thus serve as a vivid illustration of the Scriptural injunction given in verse 6.

Why Believers Must Watch and Be Sober

Why must believers “watch and be sober”? Paul gives the answer – the imminency of the “Day of the Lord”. The phrase “Day of the Lord” refers to any time in which God takes “conspicuous and decisive action”. One example of the use of this term is found in Joel 1:15, where it is used to describe a special time of judgement on the land of Judah to provoke the people to repentance of sin. The judgement during this Day of the LORD is an extremely devastating locust attack that leaves Judah in famine, with nothing to bring in to sacrifice in the house of the LORD.

The expression, however, can also be used in an eschatological sense to describe the end-time tribulation and judgment of the Lord. 1 Thessalonians 4:15-17 describes the rapture, whereby the dead in Christ shall be “caught up” to meet the Lord in the air. Such an event takes place only during the end times, leaving no doubt that the Day of the Lord as described in 1 Thessalonians 5:1-8 refers to the end-time judgment of God.

Paul mentions three aspects of the Day of the Lord for unbelievers – it is (i) a certain day, (ii) an unexpected day and (iii) a tragic day for unbelievers.

A Certain Day
In verse 2, Paul writes that the Day of the Lord “so cometh” (houtōs erchetai) as a thief in the night. The term erchtai is in the present tense instead of the expected future tense (i.e. will come). It is used here as a confident assertion of what is going to take place in the future. In other words, the Day of the Lord is looked upon as so certain to occur that it is thought of as already occurring. The implication for the unbeliever is that there is no escape from the Day of the Lord. His unbelief is absolutely unable to frustrate the plan of God’s judgement on sinful men. It is one in which “they shall not escape” (v.3).

An Unexpected Day
Paul asserts that unbelievers will be caught unawares by the coming of the Day of the Lord. Thus, the coming of the Day of the Lord is described as a “thief in the night” (kleptēs en nukti) in verse 2 and “sudden” (aiphinidios) in verse 3. The term “kleptēs” refers to someone who “steals by fraud and in secret”, in contrast with a lēstes (i.e. robber) who does it with “violence and openly” (Zodhiates), and thus one who acts covertly. If the thief comes in the day, the light will make him easily noticeable. But if the thief comes under the cover of darkness, he can strike when it is least anticipated. Thus, the coming of the Day of the Lord is “sudden” like a thief, because to the believers it is unexpected and unforeseen and thus cannot be anticipated.

But why is the Day of the Lord so unexpected for the unbelievers? It is because the people will have a false sense of “peace” and “safety”. Due to the peaceful world conditions in which the people are experiencing, they are caught unprepared for the destruction which is to befall them because of the wrath of God.

A Tragic Day
The Day of the Lord is also a tragic day for unbelievers due to the sudden destruction that shall come upon them (v.3). The term “destruction” (olethros) has the idea of unavoidable stress or torment resulting in a state of irreversible ruin. Once again, the “coming upon” (ephistemi) of this sudden destruction is in the future present, emphasising the sure reality of this destruction. The extent of the torment is explained
in a picturesque manner as a woman in labour pains. It is torment to the highest degree, never experienced before by man. The fact that it is so unexpected only serves to add to the anguish and chaos.

The Day of the Lord to the Believers
However, the Day of the Lord is not a surprise to the believers. For them, the Day of the Lord is an expected day. Paul have earlier addressed the Thessalonians as knowing perfectly (i.e. knowing accurately to the minutest detail) concerning the Day of the Lord. Armed with this knowledge, the Day of the Lord should not “overtake” (katalabē, to lay hold on something forcefully) the believers as a thief. The implication here is that believers will be ever ready for the Day of the LORD. Since it is an expected day, it is also a day of comfort. “Paul then uses several illustrations to show the difference of awareness between the believer and unbeliever with regards to the Day of the Lord.

The first contrast is in verse 5. Here the contrast is that of “light” versus “darkness”, “day” versus “light”. All things will be clearly seen with light, but not so when there is darkness. Hence, the believer will be able to know the signs of the Day of the Lord simply because they are able to discern spiritual things, which the unbeliever, being in spiritual darkness, is unable to do.

The second contrast can be found in verse 6, whereby the unbeliever is compared to a person who sleeps, while the believer is one who is watchful and sober. A person who is in deep sleep is unaware of his surroundings. On the other hand, the soldier who is awake and on guard is able to quickly spot the enemy sneaking behind the battle lines. The believer here then is commanded to be such a soldier. He is not to be in spiritual slumber, for the distinctive feature between him and the unbeliever is the readiness for the Day of the Lord.

The third contrast lies in verses 7 – 8. Here, the difference is drawn between a drunk and a sober person. A person who is drunk has no control of his senses. On the other hand, one who is sober is in full control of his senses. The picture of one who is sober is again compared to a soldier with his armour on. He is one that is ready and prepared for war. In this case, he is one who is ever expecting and ready for the coming of the Day of the Lord.

(To be continued)
Yours affectionately,
Pastor Clement Chew