How can we understand 1 Thessalonians 5:1-4?
Answer: Here's how:
Suppose we consider a Christian man named Joe. Joe is very aged and on the brink of death in a hospital. Then, one day, Joe finally passes away "like a thief in the night." Now, if we could see through Joe's eyes, he has just crossed the threshold of this world into the eternity of God: He is standing in the immediate Presence of Christ.
But, as Joe looks around, he also sees all the faithful, right there, standing with him. He even sees Adam along with Abel, Noah, Abraham, Moses, David, Paul, you, and me -- all the faithful throughout history.
So, where is that? Answer: The "clouds of heaven", just as we read (1 Thess. 4:17, Acts 1:11). You will ask: "How can this be?" Well, Peter tells us:
2 Peter 3:8b: "[With] the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years like one day."
Peter is metaphorically describing an eternal state where time (as we now experience it) does not elapse. For the sake of argument, let’s assume that 1 day in heaven exactly is equal to 1,000 years based precisely on Peter’s words. If that were literally true, then the following must also be true:
1 heavenly minute = 2/3 Earth years; 1 heavenly hour = 42 Earth years;
1 heavenly day = 1,000 Earth years; 1 heavenly week = 7,000 Earth years.
In this scenario, while those who died almost 50 years ago “wait,” only 1 hour has elapsed in heaven. Abraham, who died roughly 4,000 years ago will have experienced around 4 days in heaven.
But, we know that 1,000 years is merely symbolic. It is a metaphor for timelessness, the absence of time. Since we cannot grasp this concept, Peter speaks allegorically about it. Therefore, the amount of “time” that anyone has been in the Presence of God is merely an instant, a "twinkling of an eye" (1 Cor. 15:52).
Just as with Joe, when any faithful person reaches their final destination in eternity (from their perspective), it happens to be the very same moment that everyone else arrives because time as we understand it (in eternity) no longer exists. (Note that I did not describe the lost in Hades this way.)
So, how does this relate to 1 Thessalonians 5? Just this: Our death occurs (to everyone) as a "thief in the night."
As Paul writes, "we have no need of anything to be written to [us]." Yes, the day of the Lord will come just like a thief in the night. Just when we think everything is peaceful and safe, we have a heart attack, or are killed in an auto accident, or shooting, or whatever else you might imagine. Incredibly, the faithful never need to worry over such eventualities (see Jn. 8:51, 11:26).
Unfortunately, the faithless are destined for "destruction [the flames of Hades] which will come upon them suddenly [as well]... and they will not escape."
On the other hand, the faithful "are not in darkness, that the day would overtake [us] like a thief." That (should) be because we understand that the faithful will at once step into the Presence of Christ -- not the other way around. Here are some passages you might wish to consider:
|Approximately 150 Passages That Speak of Christ’s Return
1 Corinthians 1:7-8 1 Timothy 6:14 John 6:50-71 Matthew 24:14
1 Corinthians 4:5 2 Corinthians 5:8 John 14:1-3 Matthew 24:27
1 Corinthians 11:26 2 Corinthians 5:10 Jude 1:14 Matthew 24:30-31, 33
1 Corinthians 15:23 2 Peter 1:16 Jude 1:21 Matthew 24:36-40
1 Corinthians 15:52 2 Peter 3:4,10,12,14 Luke 9:26 Matthew 24:42-44, 50
1 John 2:28 2 Thessalonians 1:7 Luke 12:40 Matthew 25:13, 31
1 John 3:2 2 Thessalonians 2:1 Luke 17:26;18:8 Matthew 26:64
1 Peter 1:7 2 Thessalonians 2:8 Luke 21:27-28 Philippians 1:23
1 Peter 1:13 2 Timothy 4:1-2 Luke 21:34-36 Philippians 3:20-21
1 Peter 4:13 2 Timothy 4:8 Luke 23:43 Philippians 4:5
1 Peter 5:4 Acts 1:7, 9-11 Mark 8:38 Revelation 1:7-8
1 Thessalonians 1:10 Acts 17:31 Mark 9:1 Revelation 3:3, 10-11
1 Thessalonians 2:19 Colossians 3:4 Mark 13:26 Revelation 16:15
1 Thessalonians 3:13 Hebrews 9:28 Mark 13:32-35 Revelation 22:12
1 Thessalonians 4:14-17 Hebrews 10:25,37 Mark 14:62 Revelation 22:20
1 Thessalonians 5:2-3 James 5:7-9 Matthew 7:21-23 Romans 2:5-16
1 Thessalonians 5:23 John 5:25; 6:39-40 Matthew 16:27-28 Titus 2:13
Ask yourself what event occurs in everyone's life as a "thief in the night," unexpectedly, and perhaps things will become clearer. You might also wonder how millions of faithful Christians have already departed: How would they ever witness Christ's return?
(Note: I've answered something like this here, along with illustrations to help.)