Harry Whittaker
The Time Of The End

16) Peace And Safety

1 Thessalonians 5

For many years this familiar passage has been expounded as a prophecy that there will come a time when the nations of the world will either be seized by an overmastering anxiety to get together and rid themselves of the threat of war, or will feel at some political juncture that at last they have actually devised a scheme by which war has been finally abolished. At such a time “sudden destruction cometh upon them”; it will overtake them “as a thief in the night.” This will be the final cataclysm at the coming of the Lord.

Interpreted in this fashion, the Peace and Safety cry has been regarded as one of the outstanding signs of our times. U.N.O. and, before it, the League of Nations and also nearly every other twentieth century effort to patch up the quarrels and bickerings of the nations have in turn been hailed as the fulfilment of Paul’s prophecy, with the logical (sic!) conclusion that the coming of the Lord is just round the corner.

It cannot be too strongly emphasized that the value of this long-standing interpretation is only in direct proportion to its degree of Biblical support. For too long interpretation of these Bible signs has been by means of politics instead of by means of Bible. Thus the elucidation of Bible prophecy has been brought down to the level of a semi-political game, valid for those who are forbidden to take part in politics in any other way.


The present approach will be on somewhat different lines.

A not unimportant feature of Paul’s two letters to Thessalonica is the number of allusions, which it contains to the Lord’s Olivet prophecy. This is specially true in the section 1 Thessalonians 4: 15-5:10 (the chapter division here is unfortunate):

1 Thessalonians
4: 15 This we say unto you in a word of the Lord (i.e. what I am now reminding you of is what Jesus himself said).

4: 16 the Lord himself shall des- cend from heaven with a shout,
24: 30 they shall see the Son of man coming ... with power and great glory.
with the voice of an archangel, and with the trump of God.
24: 31 he shall send his angels with a great sound of a trumpet, and they
4: 17 we which are alive and re- main
shall gather together his elect.
shall be caught up in clouds to meet the Lord.
24: 30 coming in the clouds of heaven.

5: 1 the times and seasons,
21: 24 the times of the Gentiles.

5: 2 the day of the Lord so cometh as a thief in the night.
24: 43 if the good man of the house had known in what hour the thief would come.
5: 3 when they shall say, Peace and safety,
24: 48 my lord delayeth his coming.
then sudden destruction cometh upon them,
24: 43, 51 his house broken up ... shall cut him asunder.
as travail upon a woman with child .
24: 8 these are the beginning of travail.
5: 5 Ye are all children of light.
25: 1-13 the wise virgins with lamps lit.
5: 6 let us not sleep, but
25: 5 they all slumbered and slept.
let us watch,
24: 42; 25: 13 Watch therefore.
and be sober.
24: 49 eat and drink with the drunken.
5: 9 God hath not appointed us to wrath.
24: 51 appoint him his portion with the hypocrites.
5 :10 whether we wake or sleep ... ... live together with him.
25: 1-13 the virgins.

It is doubtless true that several of these correspondences occurring by themselves could hardly be recognizable as allusions to the Lord’s discourse, but the fact that they come together in the space of a few verses makes the probability of close connection a near-certainty. Those accustomed to tracing this kind of allusiveness in the inspired writers of Scripture will more readily perceive the character of this paragraph in 1 Thessalonians.


Once the fore-going parallel is recognized the conclusion becomes inevitable that those assuring themselves of peace and safety are not the nations of the world but the Lord’s own unprepared servants. It is to them that the Lord comes as a thief in the night.

A further argument, readily educible from this passage, leads to the same conclusion. Paul continues: “sudden destruction cometh upon them, as travail upon a woman with child.” This figure of speech needs to be pondered. A pregnant woman knows that her travail is inevitable. Also, she knows roughly when it will come. But she never knows the precise time. Almost always she is at length taken by surprise.

All these aspects of Paul’s simile are marvellously appropriate to the waiting church. She knows that the Lord will come. From the signs of the times she has a fair idea that the present epoch will see his coming. But “of that day and hour knoweth no man.”

On the other hand, to attempt to apply Paul’s figure to the nations of the world is to make nonsense of it. They do not know that the day of crisis is inevitable. All their planning is based on the assumption that it can be staved off by their own scheming. In any case the entire context of Paul’s exhortation disallows the possibility of reference to godless nations. In this epistle the apostle is concerned first and last with the well-being of this newly-founded ecclesia in Thessalonica.


A further conclusion to be drawn from this re-examination of 1 Thessalonians is that the idea of a preliminary secret thief-like advent of Christ before his open manifestation in glory to the nations of the world loses all its Biblical support.

Not only here but also in every other place where the same figure is used; it has reference to the condition of the Lord’s servants. It is to certain of the7n that the manifestation of the Lord will be like the stealthy depredations of a thief: “Behold, I come as a thief. Blessed is he that watcheth, and keepeth his garments ... “ (Revelation 16: 15). “If therefore thou (Sardis) shalt not watch, I will come on thee as a thief ...” (Revelation 3: 3). “The Lord is longsuffering to us-ward, not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance. But (to some who are unrepentant) the day of the Lord will come as a thief in the night” (2 Peter 3: 9, 10).

On the other hand Christ himself warned pointedly against being misled by those who teach that the second coming will be stealthy and secret. In effect the churches teach this when they try to persuade that the Lord’s coming is to the heart of the believer, or mystically in the “Real Presence” in the sacramental bread. Jehovah’s Witnesses teach the same thing when they affirm an invisible “spiritual” presence of the Lord since 1914.


To all these the answer of Scripture is: “Then if any man shall say unto you, Lo, here is Christ, or there; believe it not. For there shall arise false Christs and false prophets, and shall shew great signs and wonders; insomuch that, if it were possible, they shall deceive the very elect. Behold, I have told you before. Wherefore if they shall say unto you, Behold, he is in the desert; go not forth: behold, he is in the secret chambers; believe it not. For as the lightning cometh out of the east, and shineth unto the west; so shall also the coming of the Son of man be” (Matthew 24: 23-27). This passage is so clear and emphatic, it should make those pause and consider who have been in the habit of thinking (and teaching) in terms of a secret coming of Christ to his people assembled to meet him in some remote uninhabited part of the world.

It is not in this sense that the Lord comes as a thief. The point of this simile is different. When a burglar has broken into a home and slipped away with all the money and the choicest items of wealth it contains, the householder suddenly awakes to the fact that what he deemed to be his most treasured possessions are gone, they are his no longer.

The Lord’s coming will be like that. For all, and especially for the unprepared, there will suddenly dawn a day of stark self-awareness when with a flash of honest insight such as is rare even with the most mature and spiritual, it is realized that those things which have counted for so much in life — cars, clothes, homes, gardens, holidays, social standing, professional or business status —are seen to be of very little value in the presence of the Lord. It will be as though they have all been suddenly snatched away by a thief.

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