Even though it’s likely one of the earliest Christian documents, 1 Thessalonians makes it clear that Paul considers the suddenness of Christ’s return to be apparent to believers. “…for you know very well,” he writes in 1 Thessalonians 5:2, “that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night.”
But he goes on, in verse 4, to describe a major aspect of what it means to be a follower of Christ: “But you are not in darkness, brothers, for that day to surprise you like a thief.”
In a recent sermon, my pastor paused mid-message and asked, “What if he comes right now?” He waited for laughter. Or, since no one was likely to be brash enough to laugh during a sermon, he watched us a moment for more subtle signs of incredulity… What if he comes right now? He wanted to know if we took that question as seriously as Paul did.
To the secular world, this is probably at the core of what makes Christians seem absurd. After all, it has been about 2,000 years. What are we expecting at this point? Where is your God? Paul consigns these people to the night—to a time for sleeping and drunkenness (5:7), a time when thieves break in and steal.
But to the followers of Christ, he writes, “…since we belong to the day, let us be sober, putting on faith and love as a breastplate, and the hope of salvation as a helmet” (5:8). And let us do these things now, not concerning ourselves with “times and seasons,” as he says in 5:1. God is outside of time. What is 2,000 years? What is 2 seconds? What if he comes right now?
This kind of anticipation and waiting does not, Paul is saying, assume our immobility. I’m immobile if I’m waiting for the bus because I have (roughly) the exact time of its arrival in front of me. If I leave to get a coffee, I risk missing it. But Christ “died for us so that, whether we are awake or asleep, we may live together with him” (5:10).
Jesus Christ, being beyond human scheduling, and relieving us of the paralysis of “times and seasons” by his promise, expects us to continue in our active lives of faith. Waiting while on the move, so to speak. Putting on faith in eager expectation. If God wants our lives to be more than a wait at the bus station, how can his second coming be anything but sudden? Sudden, but not unlooked for by those to whom he has revealed himself.
What if he comes right now?
It’s a startling question, and the one with which my pastor followed it up that Sunday morning was even more so: Assuming Christ doesn’t come right this minute (i.e., during church), but does come later today, what will you be doing at that moment?
I’ve been thinking about that lately. Will it reflect poorly on me if I’m watching TV when he shows up? Heaven help us all if it does, but I lean on 1 Thessalonians 5:10 again here. I think the purpose of the question above has more to do with mindset. What if we lived our day-to-day lives under the constant assumption that Christ could come at this exact moment? How might we live differently if we believed now (and also now, and also now) that he might arrive?
This would mean that Jesus remain on our minds just about all the time. Paul, after all, is looking for us to draw this conclusion. A few verses later, in his final instructions, he exhorts us to “pray continually” (5:17).
A note on 1 Thessalonians 5, from the Halley’s Bible Handbook—which can be found in the Study This sidebar on Bible Gateway—puts this anticipatory mindset of the Christian life in the following context:
“…the Thessalonian epistles are commonly regarded as the earliest written New Testament books. Both are about the Lord’s coming again. The last of the New Testament books to have been written is Revelation; its final words (except for the benediction) are ‘Yes, I am coming soon.’”