When I was eleven years old and in sixth grade, my mom took me to an informational meeting at church regarding Boy Scouts of America. Attendees discussed the idea of organizing, or I should say reorganizing, a troop. The organization came to fruition, and I was blessed to take part until my eighteenth birthday, when I completed my Eagle Scout rank. My scout leaders taught me a great deal regarding citizenship, the outdoors, manhood, self-reliance, responsibility, and more.
The Scout Motto is “Be Prepared.” In the context of the Boy Scouts of America, the salient idea is to be prepared for whatever may happen, regardless of time and place. This motto has been a helpful mental companion in everything that I have endeavored to do in life. In the context of 1 Thessalonians 5, “Be Prepared” is even more important. The apostle Paul teaches about the return of the Lord and the necessity of being prepared for His return, as what follows is either everlasting bliss in heaven or unending misery in hell.
Like a Thief in the Night
While people are saying, “There is peace and security,” then sudden destruction will come upon them as labor pains come upon a pregnant woman, and they will not escape. (v. 3)
In the preceding verses, Paul expresses a desire that his readers not be ignorant regarding the return of the Lord, and he warns that Christ will return like a thief in the night. He then follows with the above illustration of a woman in labor pains. Paul’s point is that Jesus will return on a day that is unexpected. The thief breaks in at night under the assumption the occupants of the house will be sleeping. People say “peace and security” when they anticipate a calm and safe future. Labor often finds pregnant women unawares. Thus, will be the day of the Lord.
The church on earth has been consistently plagued through its history with people who claim to know the day and hour of Christ’s return. Jesus puts such bold claims to rest. “But concerning that day or that hour, no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father” (Mark 13:32). When such charlatans appear, we wonder if they are motivated not by benevolence, to prepare people for the coming of the Lord, but rather by greed for money or lust for prestige. Either way, we must be on our guard against them.
Awake and Sober
But since we belong to the day, let us be sober, having put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation. (v. 8)
The apostle goes on to explain that Christians are children of the light and day, not of darkness and the night. Christians are so, thanks to the Holy Spirit’s work in the Gospel of Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior. The Bible explains that as unbelievers we are blind, dead, and enemies of God. Those who don’t trust in Jesus Christ for salvation aren’t looking for His return, and they will be caught off guard, as those walking in the darkness of the night. Now that God has made us His children of the day and light, we are to be sober. Ultimately, it is God’s Holy Spirit who keeps Christians sober, using the means He used to make us Christians, the Word and Sacraments. We are to avail ourselves of these means: attending worship, receiving Holy Communion, reading devotions, having prayer.
Notice what Paul uses to illustrate this idea: a breastplate of faith and love, and a helmet of the hope of salvation. For the warrior, these items protect the vital organs in battle, most especially the heart and brain. For Christians, we understand this to mean that God desires to protect our heart and mind from false teaching which would lead us away from faith in Jesus Christ. It is through faith, a work of the Holy Spirit, that we receive the gifts of Jesus’ cross and empty tomb—namely, forgiveness of sins and life everlasting.
Destined Not for Wrath but, Instead, for Salvation
... who died for us so that whether we are awake or asleep we might live with Him. Therefore encourage one another and build one another up, just as you are doing. (vv. 10–11)
In the first nine verses, Paul explains that God has destined his readers not for wrath but, instead, for salvation. This destiny of heavenly salvation is certain for all those who trust in Jesus Christ. Paul then uses “awake” and “asleep” in two different senses to bring assurance to his readers. In the first sense, the apostle is teaching that Christians belong to the Lord whether it is day or night, whether they are awake or asleep. In the second sense, Paul is pointing to Christians who are alive physically on the earth and those who have died in the Lord. This notion is like what we confess in the Second Article of the Apostles’ Creed: From thence He will come to judge the living and the dead.
As Paul exhorts Christians to be awake and sober, to “Be Prepared” as goes the Boy Scout Motto, for His return, we are comforted to know that we are prepared for the Lord’s second coming because the Holy Spirit has prepared us.