Paul, Signs and Seasons
In Chapter 5 of 1 Thessalonians, Paul continues his discussion about the “coming” or ‘parousia’ of Jesus. But now, he addresses the question of its timing, as well as the different ways it will impact believers and nonbelievers. But rather than provide chronological information, he reminds the Thessalonians that the “DAY OF THE LORD” will come like a “THIEF IN THE NIGHT.” No one except God knows its timing, therefore, believers must remain ever vigilant and prepared for its sudden and unexpected arrival.
In this passage, the Apostle discusses different aspects of the “arrival” of Jesus that he just described in Chapter 4. What he does not do is provide a list of definitive “signs” that will mark that day’s imminence or chronological keys by which the Thessalonians can determine its timing.
The emphasis is on the unexpectedness of that day. Its timing is not known by anyone except God, and that is why it will overtake the unprepared with sudden destruction.
- (1 Thessalonians 5:1-3) – “But concerning the TIMES AND SEASONS, brethren, you have no need for anything to be written to you, for you yourselves know perfectly well that the day of the Lord IS COMING LIKE A THIEF IN THE NIGHT. As soon as they begin to say: Peace and safety! then, suddenly, destruction comes upon them just as the birth-throes to her that is with child, and in no way will they escape.”
THE DAY OF THE LORD
“Now concerning” (de…peri). This phrase marks the beginning of the section but does not mean the subject matter is unrelated to what preceded it. Paul has just dealt with anxieties about the participation of dead Christians in the “arrival” or parousia of Jesus. Here, he continues with additional but related information.
Verse 2 begins with the conjunction “for” or gar, which links it logically to the preceding verse. Paul has no need to write about the “times and seasons” BECAUSE the Thessalonians “themselves know accurately” that the “DAY OF THE LORD is coming like a thief in the night,” not because they understand all the signs expected to mark its approach.
Here, Paul uses the emphatic pronoun “you yourselves” to stress that his readers already know this information. Moreover, he describes their knowledge as “accurate” (akribōs). What they understand is not detailed information about the “signs of the times,” but the fact that Jesus will come “like a thief in the night.”
The point of the simile is that he will arrive UNEXPECTEDLY, like a thief, at a time the householder cannot possibly know. And Paul’s words echo the saying of Jesus in Matthew 24:42-45.
TIMES AND SEASONS
Both “times” and “seasons” are plural in the Greek sentence, and the two terms are combined by the conjunction “and.” Together, they cover any possible delimitation of time. The answer to the question of “when” he will come is the same answer provided by Jesus – “NO ONE KNOWS EXCEPT HIS FATHER.”
Moreover, Paul’s words may very well allude to the warning of Jesus to his disciples prior to his ascension: “It is not for you to know TIMES AND SEASONS” - (Acts 1:7-9). The analogy to a “thief in the night” stresses that the day’s timing is unknowable. And the conclusion Paul draws from this fact is the need for believers to be prepared always for its sudden arrival.
In the preceding paragraph, Paul used the term ‘parousia’ or “arrival.” Now, he applies the clause “Day of the Lord” to the same event.
When Jesus gave the analogy of a “thief in the night,” he applied it to the “coming of the Son of Man.” This demonstrates that the “coming” of Jesus coincides with the “Day of the Lord.” Paul also echoes another saying of Jesus from the Gospel of Luke:
- “Be on guard that your hearts may not be weighted down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of life, and THAT DAY come on you unexpectedly like a trap; for it will come upon all those who dwell on the face of all the earth. But keep on the alert, praying in order that you may have the strength to escape all these things that are about to take place” - (Luke 21:34-36).
And in Luke, the reference to “THAT DAY” has the “Day of the Lord” in view, and the disciples are summoned to pray that they may “ESCAPE all these things,” while in Paul’s sentence, the unprepared will “certainly NOT ESCAPE.” The same Greek verb is used in both passages for “escape,” which verbally links them (ekphugein).
According to Jesus, that day will come unexpectedly “like a trap.” But in Paul’s statement, it will arrive “like birth pains.” Undoubtedly, Jesus spoke Aramaic, which has a word that can be translated either as “trap” or “birth pangs” (hebel), and it is quite possible that Luke translated it as “trap” but Paul as “birth pains.”
Paul uses a second analogy, the image of a pregnant woman in labor. No one is surprised when a pregnant woman goes into labor, and no one doubts the eventual outcome. Labor pains point to the inevitable and in the present passage, to the destruction of the unprepared.
The picture of the thief emphasizes the unexpectedness of the day. The woman in labor points to the inevitability of destruction for those who are unprepared. “Unexpected destruction” will overtake the latter.
Paul is describing the human attitude of complacency, and this is borne out by the conjunction hotan (“WHENEVER they are saying”). Humanity prefers to live as if all things will continue as they always have despite the testimony of history.
A man can prepare for the eventuality of a home invasion by a thief, but he cannot predict when the thief will strike. For the unprepared, the ‘parousia’ will be an unexpected event that results in dire consequences. Likewise, believers must remain prepared for his sudden arrival because they do not and cannot know that day’s timing.