10 Sep “That day will come like a thief”: Misinterpreted Bible Passages #4
Approximate reading time: 7.5 minutes.
*If new to this series, you might want to check the introduction.*
The first three installments of this series covered misinterpretations most often seen at the popular level. While today’s passage is indeed commonly misinterpreted at the popular level, it is surprisingly very often misconstrued even at the highest levels of scholarship. The passage is found in 1 Thessalonians 5, where Paul begins to discuss the “Day of the Lord” (or “the Lord’s Day”; a term denoting the eschatological “Sabbath,” when Christ will return):
1 Thessalonians 5:1–3 Περὶ δὲ τῶν χρόνων καὶ τῶν καιρῶν, ἀδελφοί, οὐ χρείαν ἔχετε ὑμῖν γράφεσθαι, αὐτοὶ γὰρ ἀκριβῶς οἴδατε ὅτι ἡμέρα κυρίου ὡς κλέπτης ἐν νυκτὶ οὕτως ἔρχεται. ὅταν λέγωσιν· εἰρήνη καὶ ἀσφάλεια, τότε αἰφνίδιος αὐτοῖς ἐφίσταται ὄλεθρος ὥσπερ ἡ ὠδὶν τῇ ἐν γαστρὶ ἐχούσῃ, καὶ οὐ μὴ ἐκφύγωσιν.
“Now, brothers, you don’t need me to to write to you about the times and appointments*, because you know full well that the Day of the Lord will come just like a thief in the night—while they are saying, “Peace and safety,” then sudden destruction will come upon them like labor pains upon a pregnant woman, and they will not escape.”
*καιρῶν is rather difficult to translate here as it denotes a distinct or fixed period of time, often being used of festal holidays, special feasts, etc. It often has the notion of “the appropriate time,” but that doesn’t communicate the proper sense to an English ear in this passage. As such, I’ve chosen to translate it with “appointments,” which seems to give as close a parallel to the temporal notion expressed here as I can think of.
This passage is most often cited as evidence that Paul taught the imminent return of Christ, that is, that Jesus was going to return at any moment, without warning. This teaching is most notable with Dispensational Evangelical theologians pushing the so-called pre-Millennial, pre-Tribulation rapture (John MacArthur, Hal Lindsey, Tim LaHaye, et al.) but it is also surprisingly dominant in so-called “liberal” scholarship as well, making it one of the few places these two camps actually agree.
E.P. Sanders cites 1 Thess 5:2 as evidence that “the Day of the Lord [was] expected suddenly” (he also lists Phil 1:6 and 1 Cor 5:5, neither of which have anything remotely to do with imminent expectation). (Paul and Palestinian Judaism, 448)
J.D.G Dunn likewise cites 1 Thess 5:2f in a section where he argues that “the expectation of an imminent parousia was a prominent feature: it was well known that the Thessalonians’ turning to God had been a turning to await the parousia, the coming of Jesus …. Evidently Paul’s proclamation had led his converts to believe that the eschatological climaxwas very imminent indeed. … So far as Paul personally was concerned, ther was no real problem, and his own expectation of an imminent End was scarcely diminished.” (Unity and Diversity in the New Testament, 355)
In fact, ever since J.E.C. Schmidt’s Vermutungen über die bieden Breife an die Thessalonicher, this passage is often used as “Exhibit A” to show that 2 Thessalonians is not Pauline, since 2 Thessalonians chapter 2 clearly teaches against an imminent Parousia, laying out specific things that must happen before the return of Christ. The argument posits that some anonymous post-Pauline forger set out to remedy the problem of the “delayed Parousia” (that is, the growing disappointment that Jesus hadn’t returned right away like the first generation Christians had expected) by “correcting” Paul’s imminent theology, explaining that certain things had to happen first. (This narrative of disappointed early eschatological expectation being tempered by later New Testament writings, which push the Parousia to the distant future has been a fixture in New Testament scholarship for over a century now.)
But how could this passage mean anything other than an imminent expectation for the return of Christ? Doesn’t Paul clearly say the Day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night? Sure, and if that was all Paul said, the imminence interpretation would be fairly secure. But the passage doesn’t end there, despite so many interpreters stopping at that point. Yet again, a text without a context is a pretext—by not reading through the end of the passage, we arrive at a totally distorted, often entirely reversed, interpretation. Paul continues:
1 Thess 5:4 ὑμεῖς δέ, ἀδελφοί, οὐκ ἐστὲ ἐν σκότει, ἵνα ἡ ἡμέρα ὑμᾶς ὡς κλέπτης καταλάβῃ· πάντες γὰρ ὑμεῖς υἱοὶ φωτός ἐστε καὶ υἱοὶ ἡμέρας. Οὐκ ἐσμὲν νυκτὸς οὐδὲ σκότους· ἄρα οὖν μὴ καθεύδωμεν ὡς οἱ λοιποί ἀλλὰ γρηγορῶμεν καὶ νήφωμεν.
“But, brothers, you shouldn’t be surprised by that day like a thief, because you aren’t in darkness.* For you are all children^ of light and children^ of day—we are not of night or darkness. So then, let’s not sleep like the rest, but let us be alert and sober.”
*I have translated this verse rather dynamically here, rearranging the word order into more familiar and colloquial English style rather than maintaining the Greek word order. More slavishly translated, the verse reads as follows: “But you, brothers, are not in darkness so that the day should overtake you [emphatic] like a thief.” In English this “is/are not … so that X should” construction is archaic (the typical English reader is likely to misconstrue the positive “X should” at the end of the construction and actually get the interpretation backwards by not connecting it to the “are not” in the preceding clause), but it is a standard Greek way of expressing “X should not because Y…,” hence the translation above.
^The Greek has “brothers” here, but there’s little reason to retain the masculine gender in modern English, which tends to prefer “children” in such cases.
So the logic of the passage actually goes something like this:
“You already know about the times and appointments, so I don’t need to write you. You already know that it’s going to take the outsiders by surprise, since they’re living in darkness. That day will come upon the wicked like a thief in the night, like labor pains on a pregnant woman. But you won’t be taken by surprise, because you’re not in darkness. You can see clearly, since you’re in the light. So let’s make sure we stay sober and alert. …”
So, to recap, It’s abundantly clear that this passage does not say that Jesus could return at any moment, nor that everyone will be taken by surprise by the Day of the Lord. Nor is does Paul suggest in these verses that the Day is “right around the corner.” In fact, one of the most striking things about this passage—and 1 Thessalonians as a whole, in fact—is how calm, how reassuring the tone is. There is no wild-eyed “the end is near” sense in this letter. On the contrary, after reminders of proper behavior, Paul first goes out of his way to gently reassure the Thessalonians about the fate of those who die before the Parousia—the basic message is that it doesn’t matter when that day comes, only that it will indeed come.*
*That Paul says “we who are alive and remain” in 4:17 has been overblown—it’s a basic turn of phrase. My question for those pointing to this verse to prove that Paul clearly thought he would live to see the Parousia is whether Paul would have included himself among the dead if he had expected otherwise. Paul frequently uses the inclusive pronoun “we” in this kind of generic sense. To look for technical usage in this kind of generic phrase is overreaching unless there’s other evidence that it’s not. Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.*
Only after getting this basic message across does Paul turn to address the timing of the Day of the Lord. But it should not be forgotten that the timing question is still part of the same discussion as that in chapter 4. And as we’ve seen, Paul doesn’t preach immediacy or unexpectedness in chapter 5, but exactly the opposite. Paul reminds the Thessalonians that those who walking in the light will not be surprised by the Day of the Lord, since they, being awake and alert, should see it coming. The passage wraps up in the same way it began, with a reminder that the near-ness or distance of the Parousia is not the concern:
1 Thess 5:11 ὅτι οὐκ ἔθετο ἡμᾶς ὁ θεὸς εἰς ὀργὴν ἀλλὰ εἰς περιποίησιν σωτηρίας διὰ τοῦ κυρίου ἡμῶν Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ τοῦ ἀποθανόντος ὑπὲρ ἡμῶν, ἵνα εἴτε γρηγορῶμεν εἴτε καθεύδωμεν ἅμα σὺν αὐτῷ ζήσωμεν.
“Because God has not appointed us to wrath, but to possession of salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us so that whether we are awake or asleep, we live with him.”
Paul’s concluding thought on the matter is to emphasize yet again that the timing of the Lord’s coming isn’t especially relevant, that the proper concern is to live in the proper manner, since both the living and the dead will have to stand before Christ as judge on that Day. This is a far cry from the immediacy so often pulled from this passage!
One major reason a proper understanding of this passage is so critical is its use as perhaps the primary proof for non-Pauline authorship of 2 Thessalonians. But if Paul is not pushing imminence and immediacy in this passage, the eschatological scenarios of 1 and 2 Thessalonians aren’t contradictory. For that matter, I find it a bit ironic that the modern misreading of 1 Thessalonians 5 is precisely the kind of misreading that would have prompted something like 2 Thessalonians as a corrective. The author of 2 Thessalonians expresses some puzzlement that the Thessalonians think the Day of the Lord has already come (or, as most interpret this passage, is immediately imminent). Don’t they remember that it won’t be a surprise for the church, that certain things have to precede it? Once 1 Thessalonians is properly understood, it opens the door for 2 Thessalonians to be at least reconsidered as a possibly authentic Pauline epistle.
A second point of significance involves popular modern theology. Recall that imminence is a central feature of the so-called “pre-Tribulation rapture” teaching that has swept the Evangelical world in the last hundred years. But this passage clearly teaches against that concept, striking a critical blow at this shoddy end-times teaching.
Thirdly, the calm tone of this passage and its de-emphasis on the immediacy of Christ’s return calls into question the narrative of the “problem of the delayed Parousia” so often assumed in studies of earliest Christianity. 1 Thessalonians is likely either our earliest or second earliest epistle (some scholars who think that Paul wrote both Thessalonian letters have speculated that 2 Thessalonians actually came first), and if it already holds such a moderate view of the Parousia, on what ground can such a narrative stand? On the contrary, it seems that even the earliest Christian dogma, as witnessed in 1 Thessalonians 5 was prepared for a lengthy “delay” of the Parousia. As J. Christiaan Beker astutely observed:
Paul is simply not an apocalyptic fanatic who runs breathlessly through the Roman Empire because the end of the world is imminent. He spends, for instance, one and a half years at Ephesus and contemplates a mission to Spain. … It seems, therefore, that the scholarly debate on the delay of the Parousia focuses exclusively on calculating chronological time, that is, on the chronological dating that separates the Christ-event and the end time, whereas for Paul the issue is primarily not one of chronological reckoning but one of theological necessity (Paul the Apostle, 178).