When Jesus catches us by surprise.

1 Thessalonians 5.1-5.

Since Paul, Silas, and Timothy just finished writing about the rapture at Jesus’s second coming in the previous paragraph, Christians read today’s paragraph (or paragraphs; the Tyndale House Greek New Testament is pretty sure this is two) as if they’re still talking about it. And they kinda are. Because the apostles didn’t know when Jesus is returning—none of us do!—and for all they knew, the next big disaster might end with the second coming. Which might still be true. You don’t know. Neither do I. All we know is Jesus can return at any time.

Which the Thessalonians shoulda learned fairly quickly after they first followed Jesus. The apostles even write they’ve known it perfectly well. 1Th 5.2 When he returns, it won’t be predictable—no matter how often “prophecy scholars” try to predict it. It won’t be at a time we expect—no matter how often “prophecy scholars” say we should definitely expect it. It comes like a thief at night, and as Jesus said, if you know when a thief is coming, you wait up and catch him. Mt 24.43 You won’t catch Jesus. He catches us.

But, like a thief in the daytime, when he catches us by surprise, we can rally quickly.

1 Thessalonians 5.1-5 KWL
1 About times and moments, fellow Christians,
you’ve no need for us to write you:
2 You’ve known perfectly well the Lord’s Day comes like a thief at night—
3 when people might say, “Safe and secure,” and suddenly ruin comes upon them,
like contractions upon someone with a baby in the womb,
and they might not flee in time.
4 You, fellow Christians, aren’t in the dark,
so the day to you is like when a thief reaches in:
5 All of you are “children of light” and “children of daytime.”
Don’t be night, nor dark.

Now yes, we Christians have been waiting for the past 20 centuries for Jesus to return, ever since the angels first told his gawking students he was returning. Ac 1.10-11 He’s got his reasons for taking so long, but the students back then expected he’d return in their lifetimes. (And he did—but for them individually, when they died.) Christians have been waiting for him ever since.

Despite Jesus saying even he doesn’t know when he’ll return, Mk 13.32 and that the timing is none of our business anyway, Ac 1.7 many a Christian has definitely become fixated on when it’ll be. Some prophecy scholars, whom we call date-setters, have even picked specific dates and times: Jesus will return next Monday, or in two months, or on the eve of the next election, or whenever. They’re so fixated on their obsession, they’ve abandoned bible, as well as sense.

Even so, it’s not wrong to wonder when Jesus is coming back. The Thessalonians were. They were under persecution, and wanted to see some light at the end of the tunnel. So… could he come back this week? The next? Next month? Next year?

For that matter, how prepared ought we be for his return? Should I sell my house? Quit my job? Cash in my 401(k) and give it to the needy? Ditch any future travel plans? Move to the desert, wear nothing but white robes, and wait atop a mesa? Or should I just give up hope he’s ever returning in my lifetime. What’s the deal?

Always be ready.

The apostles are gonna address what’s taking Christ so long in the next verses. But first they wanted to remind the Thessalonians—and us—Jesus’s return is gonna be abrupt and unexpected. It is, as Jesus himself described it, like a thief at night. Mt 24.42-44 There are all sorts of thieves—like burglars, like muggers—and the sort Jesus spoke of was more of a burglar, breaking into your house while you’re asleep.

Thieves rarely announce they’re coming. There are always exceptions, of course. Some of ’em want to show off their strength or frighten you: “I’m coming for you tonight” means they want you to just try and stop them, ’cause you won’t succeed. And some of ’em actually want to get caught. But Jesus and his apostles were talking about the typical thief, who wants to surprise you, and rob you blind while you’re still figuring out what just happened. Jesus’s return is gonna take everybody by surprise, Christians included. But watchful Christians are gonna adapt quickly. Others, not so much.

There are a few obvious similarities between Jesus’s invasion and a home invasion. People assume everything’s just fine, and go to bed… and they wake up and the place has been ransacked, and their valuables are gone.

But the apostles didn’t only stick with a robbery metaphor. Nor did they only stick with the second coming. In the scriptures, the “Lord’s Day” doesn’t only refer to Jesus’s second coming, or judgment day: It refers to any judgment day. Any day the LORD decides to put an stop to human evil, with either a natural disaster, a political disaster, or a war. When the Romans destroyed Jerusalem, that was “the Lord’s Day” too—and Jesus warned his kids it was coming, and to flee for the hills. Mt 24.16 That “Lord’s Day” didn’t end in the second coming. Lots of “Lord’s Days” won’t.

Hence the apostles spoke of ruin that suddenly comes upon you, like a pregnant woman’s contraction, “and they might not flee in time.” 1Th 5.3 The KJV has “They shall not escape,” which ignores the subjunctive verb ἐκφύγωσιν/ekfýgosin, “might escape.” Our Lord often provides a way out; certainly at his second coming he’s the way out. Disaster victims are certainly known to survive. But unless they’re the beneficiaries of dumb luck, they’re not gonna survive unless they’re ready for disaster to strike. And that’s how we Christians should be.

Stay in the light.

If you don’t wanna get jumped in the dark, don’t go into the dark.

Simple idea, but you’re not gonna find a lot of dark Christians who follow it. They live in the dark, and pretend it’s light. They worry and fear—they have no calm about what the End will look like, for they’re always worried they’ll miss it, or are trying their darnedest to delay it.

A lot of this anxiety is exacerbated by evangelists who like to ask, “When Jesus returns, will you be ready? If you have any fear in your heart about it—any at all—maybe you’re not ready. Repent!” Or something like that. And every little subtle doubt—some of them quite reasonable doubts about the harebrained End Times teachings these guys try to fob off on us—gets transformed into a real fear, and a panic that maybe we’re not ready for Jesus. Such people want him to delay.

Then of course there are those Christians who have other plans to accomplish first. I remember high school in particular: Plenty of boys were begging Jesus not to return just yet: They wanted to have sex. Pubescent kids are irrationally horny, y’know. When Jesus inaugurates his kingdom, there’ll be way better things than sex, but horny boys can’t imagine anything better, “so please please please don’t come… before I do.” Yeah, it’s stupid. But horny makes you stupid.

How many Christians are likewise stupidly hoping to achieve some form of worldly or “spiritual” success before Jesus returns? How many of us are perfectly happy for him to delay his return till then? But when we understand Jesus is truly gonna make everything better, none of us should want to delay the End. Nor fear it.

All these comparisons between the second coming and disaster, only apply to people who aren’t living in light. Supposedly we Christians are living in light, being the world’s light, “children of daytime”—whether the apostles mean that or children of the Day, the Lord’s Day. Either way we’re on Jesus’s side. We have nothing to worry about.

So we should be awake and sober, as opposed to dark Christians who fret about the End. As opposed to pagans who think it’s never coming. Both will be surprised when Jesus returns—some pleasantly surprised, ’cause it’s better than they ever hoped, and some horrified, ’cause it looks nothing like their revenge fantasies.

Either way, we Christians need to be prepared for it. Know it’s coming. He could invade any time. The sooner the better.