November 15, 2023 • Life for Leaders
Scripture — 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11 (NRSV)
Now concerning the times and the seasons, brothers and sisters, you do not need to have anything written to you. For you yourselves know very well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night. When they say, “There is peace and security,” then sudden destruction will come upon them, as labor pains come upon a pregnant woman, and there will be no escape! But you, beloved, are not in darkness, for that day to surprise you like a thief; for you are all children of light and children of the day; we are not of the night or of darkness. So then let us not fall asleep as others do, but let us keep awake and be sober; for those who sleep sleep at night, and those who are drunk get drunk at night. But since we belong to the day, let us be sober, and put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation. For God has destined us not for wrath but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us, so that whether we are awake or asleep we may live with him. Therefore encourage one another and build up each other, as indeed you are doing.
We have no control over when Christ is coming back. Let’s live a life of faith, hope, love, and building each other up while we wait.
I am a card-carrying Generation X-er (I like to joke that at this stage that means the card that is being carried is the AARP card) and was a teenager and then a college student during the 1980s. I think I’ve referred before here to my upbringing as “doctrinally orthodox but not culturally evangelical;” we were mainliners committed to the creeds and to fairly strict behavioral standards, but my first encounter with—for example—praise music shared on overhead projectors, or evangelistic drama ministries, or fluffy Bible covers, or nondenominational gatherings in buildings without pews, or Bible studies published by evangelical publishers, was at college. My mother encouraged me to find other Christians at college, so I went to InterVarsity meetings. It was largely a positive experience, but it was also where I learned about “A Thief in the Night.”
If you’ve never heard of this movie, you can read more about it here; Wikipedia describes it as an “evangelical horror film” and this is a pretty accurate description of its depiction of the Rapture. Christians since the late nineteenth century often have seemed to be divided into two groups: those who feel that a commitment to dispensationalist theology and the Rapture (you can read more about that here) is the only Biblical position on the end times, and those who have never heard of the term (me in 1989). “A Thief in the Night” was a popular movie in its day, but you’re more likely now to have encountered dispensationalism through the _Left Behind _books, which began publishing in 1995, and later the related movies.
The title of “A Thief in the Night” is, of course, undergirded by the Epistle lesson for this coming Sunday; the lesson has also sometimes been understood to undergird dispensationalist points more broadly. No one knows when Christ is going to come back, Paul urges the Thessalonians, and when Christ does return, it will be a big surprise—at least to those who have not been living the life of disciples (1 Thessalonians 5:3-5). Those who are already “children of light,” he argues, will _not _be surprised; they will be girded for the occasion in faith, love, and hope, and they will be building each other up.
That, I think, is where the emphasis needs to fall in this passage. As we move towards Advent and near the end of Ordinary Time, we hear a lot of the apocalyptic passages in the Scriptures, those passages that remind us that this present world is not all there is and that, somehow, Christ will return and set things right. (Here’s what I had to say about some of those “pre-Advent” readings in 2021.)
These readings are meant to prepare us for both Christ’s first and second Advents. But if, when we hear them, we focus on the horror rather than on the faith, hope, and love, then I think we are turning our eyes in the wrong direction. I am not a dispensationalist, but I agree with this passage that we have no control over when Christ is coming back. I also agree with Paul’s injunction: let’s live in such a way that, when it happens and in whatever way it happens, it will not strike us as a shock but as the culmination of our life of discipleship. Let’s live a life of faith, hope, love, and building each other up.
How can you live in faith, hope, and love?
How can you build up those around you?
I’m torn today between some of the songs I grew to love while a college student in InterVarsity and some of the other ways I have understood the Second Coming. So here are two songs: “Thief in the Night” by Big Tent Revival (which I listened to in college), based on this passage—and a very new 2019 hymn from a perspective often referred to as “postmillennial,” called “God’s Beloved Thief Approaches”—also based on this passage. (There is no recording, but you can listen to an organ playing the hymn tune here.)
Lord, may I wait for you in faith, hope, and love. Amen.
Banner image by Age Barros on Unsplash.
Find all Life for Leaders devotions here. Explore what the Bible has to say about work at the High Calling archive, hosted by the unique website of our partners, the Theology of Work Project. Reflection on today’s Life for Leaders theme can be found here: If Jesus Is Coming Back, How Should I Live Now?
Subscribe to Life for Leaders
Sign up to receive a Life for Leaders devotional each day in your inbox. It’s free to subscribe and you can unsubscribe at any time.
Jennifer Woodruff Tait (PhD, Duke University) is the editor of and frequent contributor to Life for Leaders. She is also the managing editor of Christian History magazine and web editor for the Theology of Work Project, and a priest in the Episcopal Church. She has written a book of poetry, Histories of Us. Jennifer lives in Berea, Kentucky, with her husband, Edwin, and their two daughters.
Click here to view Jennifer’s profile.