It is believed by many experts that I Thessalonians is the first of Paul’s many epistles (letters). Some say that it was written less than twenty years after the crucifixion – and before the Gospels. I don’t know if these are true, but assuming they are, it opens up some interesting doors for thought.
And one is that this epistle is filled with allusions to the teachings of the Lord Jesus. It is as though Paul took for granted that his readers knew the words of the Saviour. For example there is 4:2 – “For you know what commandments we gave you by the Lord Jesus.” Paul doesn’t clearly say, “The Son of God commanded us,” but he implies that they should know these commandments of Christ. Here Paul says, “Let us not sleep, as do others; but let us watch and be sober. For they that sleep sleep in the night; and they that be drunken are drunken in the night.” And what does the Lord say in Luke 21:34? “And take heed to yourselves, lest at any time your hearts be overcharged with surfeiting, and drunkenness, and cares of this life, and so that day come upon you unawares.” In Mark 13:36, Jesus said, “Don’t be caught sleeping.” Christ said of Himself that He is the light. He also said, “Yet a little while is the light with you. Walk while ye have the light, lest darkness come upon you: for he that walketh in darkness knoweth not whither he goeth. While ye have light, believe in the light, that ye may be the children of light.” Similarly, Paul calls us “children of light.”
From where did he get that idea? Was it from the whisper of the Holy Spirit – or was he quoting Christ? Someone argues, “it may have been revelation.” Yes, that is a possibility. But it also seems that Paul expected the believers of Thessalonica to know these precepts. One conclusion might be that the life of Christ and the commandments and doctrines (teachings) of Christ had traveled the 2,000 km from Israel to Macedonia.
In the midst of other of Christ’s doctrines is the theme of the second coming of Christ. It might be said that the general theme of I Thessalonians is the return of the Lord. Get ready for the return of the Lord, and here are some of the effects such expectation should give you. Why and how can the Christian, especially in the midst of persecution “rejoice ever more?” How are we able to sorrow differently from others? Doesn’t the possibility of the immediate presence of the Lord give us reason to “abstain from all appearance of evil”? “For the Lord himself shall descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trump of God: and the dead in Christ shall rise first: Then we which are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds, to meet the Lord in the air: and so shall we ever be with the Lord. Wherefore comfort one another with these words.”
How was it that the Thessalonians were ensamples to believers everywhere? “For from you sounded out the word of the Lord not only in Macedonia and Achaia, but also in every place your faith to God-ward is spread abroad; so that we need not to speak any thing. For they themselves shew of us what manner of entering in we had unto you, and how ye turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God; And to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead, even Jesus, which delivered us from the wrath to come.” The reality of Jesus’ soon return to earth, should help us to make plans for the future. That doctrine should determine how we lay up our investments. And it should take away our fears, putting our minds at ease. It should even tell us what sort of spiritual clothes to wear.
This evening, I’d like us to start by considering – to what we have been called to do – and to become.
“But let us, who are of the day, be sober, putting on the breastplate of faith and love; and for an helmet, the hope of salvation.” We have been called to be “day people” – sober day people. Sober? When Paul uses that word it is not in the context of an Alcoholics Anonymous Meeting. But of course it does touch on alcohol. All we have to do is look at the preceding verse. “Let us not sleep, as do others; but let us watch and be sober. For they that sleep sleep in the night; and they that be drunken are drunken in the night.” Alcohol is one of the most debasing temptations which the Devil has ever devised or encouraged. In its very first Biblical reference it is found in a disgusting context. It can take a logical, sane rational creature and turn him into a blithering homicidal maniac. The liquor industry has done more harm to humanity than the combination of all wars and all its dictators. Wine has drowned more people than the sea; it makes men act like donkeys. And it most definitely condemns men’s souls by making those people’s hearts unable to think clearly. “Know ye not that the unrighteous shall not inherit the kingdom of God? Be not deceived: neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor abusers of themselves with mankind, Nor thieves, nor covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor extortioners, shall inherit the kingdom of God.”
Of course the word “sober” refers negatively to drunkenness – but that is not its primary meaning. In literature and even in casual reading, people think of a sober person as somber, rigid, unfriendly. That nasty old Puritan or Presbyterian preacher from the 18th century was “sober.” And even flipping through the pages of the “Baptist Encyclopedia,” we see pictures of people who we’d describe as “sober” – and not in a good way.
But the Greek word “nepho” (nay’-fo) is also translated “to watch.” It speaks about being circumspect, to be calm and collected in spirit; dispassionate – in control. But it still leaves room for the God-given commands to be joyful, enthusiastic and even zealous. Christ Jesus has told us to exceed the Pharisees in many ways – and Paul did just that. The Apostle is the one telling us to be “sober,” but he was one of God’s most enthusiastic servants. Festus thought that Paul lost his mind because the Apostle was so excited about the things of God.
Paul is encouraging the saint to show re-straint – restraint. There are so many things about which we are encouraged to get passionate today. But if it is not clearly of the Lord, then we need to show sobriety – restraint. For example, I know that Americans can get passionate about their right to bear arms – to carry firearms. If any of you came to church packing a weapon, I might take notice, but I’d not be upset. However, if you started making a bigger deal about carrying a handgun than carrying a Bible, you’d be wrong. Be passionate about your constitutional rights, but if that passion exceeds your zeal for the Bible or the church of the Lord Jesus Christ, then I think Paul would tell you to back off – show more sobriety. It is the world’s philosophy to “eat, drink and be merry,” but that is not the Christian’s way of life. This soberness is the antithesis of the party-goer.
“Let us, who are of the day, be sober, putting on the breastplate of faith and love; and for an helmet, the hope of salvation.” For the Christian, self-control is one of our full-time occupations. It takes us into the very heart of the Christian way of life. It was about sobriety that the Lord Jesus said, “If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me.” Drunkenness kills – insobriety kills. “If ye live after the flesh, ye shall die: but if ye through the Spirit do mortify the deeds of the body, ye shall live.” Paul was talking about being sober when he said, “I keep under my body, and bring it into subjection: lest that by any means, when I have preached to others, I myself should be a castaway.”
Paul’s argument for this sobriety is that we are children of the day.
But what is this day to which he refers? It is not the day when Paul signed his name to this letter. And it is not a reference to the Day of the Lord. It is metaphorical; it is an allegory.
“The god of this world hath blinded the minds of them which believe not, lest the light of the glorious gospel of Christ should shine unto them.” The unsaved man, the unredeemed neighbor is in darkness when it comes to the Creator, the Saviour, the Judge of Heaven and earth. The man who is dead in trespasses and sins, can have no real appreciation for the return of Christ. “But of the times and the seasons, brethren, ye have no need that I write unto you. For yourselves know perfectly that the day of the Lord so cometh as a thief in the night. For when they shall say, Peace and safety; then sudden destruction cometh upon them, as travail upon a woman with child; and they shall not escape. But ye, brethren, are not in darkness, that that day should overtake you as a thief. Ye are all the children of light, and the children of the day: we are not of the night, nor of darkness. Therefore let us not sleep, as do others; but let us watch and be sober.” Christians are supposed to be people of knowledge, understanding and even wisdom. We are supposed to be filled with joy and activity. We are day people not night people.
Once again we have an illustration of the fact that the world is filled with two kinds of people. “And you hath he quickened, who were dead in trespasses and sins; Wherein in time past ye walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that now worketh in the children of disobedience: Among whom also we all had our conversation in times past in the lusts of our flesh, fulfilling the desires of the flesh and of the mind; and were by nature the children of wrath, even as others. But God, who is rich in mercy, for his great love wherewith he loved us, Even when we were dead in sins, hath quickened us together with Christ, (by grace ye are saved;) And hath raised us up together, and made us sit together in heavenly places in Christ Jesus: That in the ages to come he might shew the exceeding riches of his grace in his kindness toward us through Christ Jesus.” We are a part of creation’s aristocracy – we are bound to do right. We are children of the day, not creeping around at night doing unmentionable things. During the plagues on Egypt, Israel still had light in their homes, as so should we. And like Israel, our passover will be here soon, so we should have our loins girt, our shoes on and our walking sticks near-by. The Lord is coming.
Put a reign on your passions, on your hopes, on your cravings and wishes.
Our calling is to soberness; our character is light; and our clothing godly.
“But let us, who are of the day, be sober, putting on the breastplate of faith and love; and for an helmet, the hope of salvation.” This, of course, is the rough draft of the Christian’s armor – borrowed from Isaiah and more fully developed in Ephesians. One of the differences between this list and Ephesians is the number of garments mentioned. Another difference is that these are more defensive than offensive. And here they are described along with the three highest Christian graces – faith, hope and love. But it is interesting that Paul unites faith and love together in the light of hope. And elsewhere what does he say is the greatest of these graces, as far as the Christian life is concerned? Love is the gold standard of the Christian life. Gold. Do you remember that Solomon had shields made of gold. As a rule, gold is among the very worst metals for that sort of use. The purer the gold, the softer it is. A golden shield is not going to stop an arrow much less a bullet. To give it strength it needs to be alloyed.
It is faith and love which mixed together afford us protection. Both have their basis in Christ – “whom having not seen we love.” Whenever a person lovingly lays hold of Jesus by faith there can’t be anything to stand against him.
Hope, of course, is that which enables us to endure to the end. Hope give us another reason for sober self-control. Jesus our Saviour is coming again, watch and pray. Faith brings us into touch with the power of God. Love give us a desire to do all to the glory of God. Hope lifts our eyes from earth toward Heaven. And with these three things we learn to be able to govern ourselves. With these things covering our hearts and heads, the sorceries of the world cannot touch us. Then and only then can we become conquerors we ought to be. “Gird up the lions of your mind, be sober and hope to the end.” – II Peter 1:13