Living by faith requires living not only in the light of the resurrection, but also in the hope of the return of Christ. Jesus himself said that he, in his earthly body, did not know when he would come back. He told his disciples that they should always be ready, because a thief cannot surprise a homeowner who is watching.
There are times in my life when a promise of God seems so vivid that I’m sure it will happen in the next fifteen minutes. Then the waiting starts. I know I’m not alone. The whole church has been waiting impatiently for the return of Christ for about two thousand years.
We see that impatience in one of Paul’s earliest writings. The Lord will come like a thief in the night. No one has any forewarning about when either Jesus or a thief will show up. In fact, thieves look to see who is unprepared before they choose which house to strike.
Paul used two different words for time when he said we need to know the times and seasons. One of them (chronos)is the time we can measure by the clock or by the calendar. That is the kind of time that tells us that about 2000 years has passed since the events described in the New Testament.
The other word means a kind of indefinite and immeasurable time. Where NIV has “dates,” translations in the King James tradition have “seasons.” It could be better translated “appropriate time.” A flower blooms when it is good and ready, certainly not on any kind of schedule that we can control.
If clock time is man’s time, then this other kind of time is God’s time. We have all wished at one time or another that he worked on our time, but he doesn’t. I heard once about a woman who tried to schedule everything a whole week in advance. One day her schedule read something like this: remind John to take the day off work; take the cat to mother’s; go to the hospital; have baby. . .
What are the chances everything ran smoothly according to her schedule on that day? What are the chances the baby came earlier in the week? Don’t we have God and the baby making their own decision without consulting mama’s schedule?
That is precisely why students of “Bible prophecy” are almost bound to be wrong if they say Christ will be back in a particular year, or even that a particular historical event marks the beginning of some kind of timetable. And Jesus warns us to watch for signs of his return.
The return of Christ emphasizes hope for those who accept him as Lord and Savior, but judgment and punishment for those who oppose him. You can stop worrying about anyone else’s salvation but your own. We can’t look on another person’s heart any more than we can understand God’s relationship to time.
So again, Jesus will come like a thief in the night. Like a thief’s victims, he will surprise the complacent. Whoever goes about his business in the world without recognizing that Jesus will return, or without considering his return important enough to take into account, will suffer some kind of sudden destruction. That does not necessarily mean going to hell, but It does mean some kind of loss that people who are prepared for return of Christ will not suffer.
The way to avoid loss is to live in the light instead of in darkness. Remember, we have to think God’s time here, not clock time. In God’s time, someone might be in the dark while someone else right next to him physically is in the light. We can go to sleep on clock time and still be alert on God’s time.
In that sense, people of the darkness live in unbelief, unawareness, and willful ignorance of the things of God. People of the darkness might profess Christ with their mouths and attend church regularly, but not go on to believe in their heart that God raised him from the dead. Paul says people of the darkness fall asleep and get drunk. Jesus added in one of his parables that they cheat God and oppress each other.
People of the light, on the other hand, live alertly, deliberately aware that Jesus will return. People of the light know that the Spirit of Christ is available to them even as they wait for it.
Does that mean that no one who has not heard the gospel and professed Christ with their lips can live in the light? Not necessarily. Only God can look on the heart and see its condition. Let’s stop worrying about things that are none of our business.
Here’s what is our business: faith, hope, and love. Probably everyone knows the end of 1 Corinthians 13, where Paul says these three will never pass away. But here they are (v. 8), together for at least the second time in 1 Thessalonians. You will frequently find them mentioned together throughout the New Testament.
These three virtues characterize and motivate the people of the light. Paul compares them to the armor of a Roman soldier. A soldier in armor stands ready for anything he encounters. He is awake, sober, vigilant, and prepared for anything that’s likely to happen.
People of the night, being asleep, drunk, and complacent, are destined for trouble. Since Paul uses the imagery of night to describe people living in unbelief, unawareness, and willful ignorance, we can say that night-people are destined to face God’s wrath.
Day people, who have already made peace with God, are destined to receive salvation. That does not mean that they can acquire it by their own goodness and effort. It means that they have already acquired it through God’s grace.
Finally, Paul said that Christ died for us, so that whether we are asleep or awake, we can live with him. In a sense, that garbles the distinction between light and darkness that he just made. If Christians can be asleep, then Christians can be people of darkness.
I find two ways of making sense of that. First, even though the church at Thessalonica was only a month or so old, some of its members had died—possibly as a result of the persecution that drove Paul out of town and continued after he left. The end of the fourth chapter, which is not part of any of your lessons, addresses that problem more directly. “Asleep” is a euphemism for “dead,” and dead Christians are still saved.
Second, wrath and judgment are never God’s last word on any subject. We have probably all experienced both in some measure at some time or another. Throughout the Bible, once God has pronounced judgment and released his wrath, he always offers grace.
Until such time as someone definitively rejects Christ, he can always turn to him and receive salvation. So taking into account all that Paul said about the people of night and darkness, if any of them accept the chance to repent, they will enjoy the same salvation upon the return of Christ as anyone else.
As for me, I want to be a person of light sooner rather than later. If I ever slip back into darkness and start to nod off, the sooner I wake up and rejoin the light, the better. I know Jesus is with me now. I know that he will come back to get me.
I know that I will either rise from the earth or from the grave to meet him. I can’t know that about anyone else, but each of you can know it for yourselves. That is the basis for Christian hope in the return of Christ.