The apostle Paul in his first Thessalonians’ correspondence provides a sign-condition that must exist in the world before the day of the Lord’s judgment: the ungodly will be saying, “There is peace and security.” But look around…it is not the case. The opposite is true today. The ungodly are saying, “There is unrest and insecurity.” Therefore, according to the apostle Paul, Jesus cannot come back on May 21 as Harold Camping is predicting.
(1) Now on the topic of times and seasons, brothers and sisters, you have no need for anything to be written to you. (2) For you know quite well that the day of the Lord will come in the same way as a thief in the night. (3) Now when they are saying, “There is peace and security,” then sudden destruction comes on them, like labor pains on a pregnant woman, and they will surely not escape. But you, brothers and sisters, are not in the darkness for the day to overtake you like a thief would. (1 Thess 5:1—4).
By the time of the New Testament era, the two terms for “times” and “seasons” (chronos and kairos) were synonymous, so one should not read into this any temporal distinctions. It is a literary feature called a hendiadys, which is an expression of two words that express a single idea for emphasis (we have similar expressions in our contemporary English, e.g., “nice and easy”). Paul’s statement, “you have no need for anything to be written to you,” indicates two things:
(1) a question arose about the times and seasons of Christ’s return.
(2) they have previously been instructed on this matter (e.g., 2 Thess 2:5).
On a surface level, it is often assumed by interpreters that Paul is rebuffing their question about the timing of the Lord’s coming. For example: “Paul, what day is Jesus coming back? Dear Thessalonian church, I cannot tell you since he is coming back as a secret thief.” This is a careless reading of the context. The Thessalonians are not asking for some specific calendric year-day-hour timing of the Lord’s return. This is a misguided interpretation, for Paul’s answer reveals that they are asking not about a calendric “when” but a conditional “when.” In other words, Paul will answer that Jesus will come when a particular spiritual condition is met in the world.“
He gives the reason why he does not need to write them about the times and seasons: “For you know quite well that the day of the Lord will come in the same way as a thief in the night.” Apparently, Paul had already used this thief simile at the time he planted the Thessalonian church, but they did not grasp the full implications. The thief simile is common in the New Testament concerning Christ’s return (cf. Matt 24:43; Luke 12:39—40; 2 Peter 3:10; Rev 3:3; 16:15 ). We should not erroneously import into this thief image the theological system of imminence. One will look to no avail to find anything in any thief passages that teaches imminence. In addition, interpreters have wrongly read into the thief image meaning “unpredictability,” but verse 4 contradicts this notion. Instead, the image conveys a warning for spiritual readiness. If you are not spiritually ready for Christ’s return it will come upon you suddenly, with negative consequences. Obedience eliminates the possibility that our Lord’s return will be as a thief to those who are watchful. We belong to Christ, so we are to live with an attitude of expectancy—spiritual watchfulness—not imminence.
In verse 3, Paul teaches that the result of the Lord’s return as a thief to the ungodly will be sudden destruction. He is summarizing the beliefs of unbelievers when he says they will say, “There is peace and security.” He consistently notes a peace and security (albeit a surface-level quality) that will precede the day of the Lord. But this peace and security is illusory, a false security, for unbelievers because unforeseen sudden calamity will come on them just as unexpected labor pains on a pregnant woman (cf. Matt 24:37—39; Luke 21:34—36).
This condition does not exist in the world right now. And for Paul, to cite this condition it must be real, and not some subjective environment. In my futurist eschatology, I believe that an Antichrist figure one day will come on the scene to provide the ungodly with this “peace and security.” But that day has not come. Nevertheless, right now, the world is not saying, “There is peace and security.” Therefore, judgment day is not coming upon the ungodly until the condition exists. Persecution upon the entire global church will come first before the day of the Lord’s wrath when He will punish our wicked persecutors.