Neville Chamberlin declaring “Peace in our Time”
after meeting with Hitler
I am continuing with previews from my Thessalonians Commentary. Today I jump to the top of chapter 5 to look at what Paul has to say about the church putting too much confidence in the government.
1 Now, brothers and sisters, about times and dates we do not need to write to you, 2 for you know very well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night. 3 While people are saying, “Peace and safety,” destruction will come on them suddenly, as labor pains on a pregnant woman, and they will not escape.
Sometimes people will ask a question which has another, larger question behind it. It’s what I call the real question. Over the years I have developed an instinct for detecting these types of questions. Maybe it’s because I can always see when a student’s question is really going in a direction other than what it first seems. My wife will sometimes use this strategy when she wants me to do something for her. She might ask “Are you going to be home Tuesday night”? Or, “What are your plans for Saturday”? I usually respond by answering her question with a cautious “yes” followed up by “why do you ask”? “What have you got up your sleeve”? Or “What is it you want me to do”? I always know that when those types of questions are being asked there is something bigger lying behind it.
In 5:1-3 Paul seems to be using the same instinct. Apparently the Thessalonians have thought about everything Paul told them about the day of the Lord and decided to ask: “exactly when can we expect all of this to happen”? They are not the first to ask this, it is a perennial question. The disciples asked Jesus the same question at different times from different angles. Sometimes he answered the question, other times he did not (Matt 24:3-8; Mark 13:5-7; Acts 1:6-7). And it is not unusual to hear that question asked today. But there is a larger question behind the Thessalonians question about times and date question and Paul is able to see through it. The Thessalonians are wondering about security. They want to know for sure that they will be “fine” and don’t have anything to worry about. This is most likely why he warns them about those who are declaring “peace and security.” He could have answered their question and told them “you can’t know the day” or he could have given them some ambiguous sign posts, but instead he redirects their attention away from their desire for security to where their true hope lies. In the end, there is no security in this world other than in God and his son Jesus the Messiah.
But there may be something more behind Paul’s words in 5:3 when he tells them to beware of those who claim “peace and security.” The Roman world was living in the time of the pax Romana, the peace created/enforced by Rome and the words “peace” and “security” were regularly used to promote Roman propaganda on coins and monuments. One first century historian who reflects the enthusiasm for and confidence in Roman peace and security is Velleius Paterculus when he describes the founding of Rome.
The rejoicing of that day, the concourse of the citizens, their vows as they stretched their hands almost to the very heavens, and the hopes which they entertained for the perpetual security and the eternal existence of the Roman empire, I shall hardly be able to describe to the full even in my comprehensive work, much less try to do it justice here. I shall simply content myself with stating what a day of good omen it was for all. On that day there sprang up once more in parents the assurance of safety for their children, in husbands for the sanctity of marriage, in owners for the safety of their property, and in all men the assurance of safety, order, peace, and tranquility. (Compendium of Roman History, II. 103.5)
In many ways the Thessalonians owed their prosperity and security to the pax Romana. Their status as the “first city” of Macedonia was a direct result of their assisting the Romans to destroy another city, Philippi. For their loyalty, Mark Anthony granted them the status of “free city” rather than a colony. What Paul may be suggesting is that the “peace and security” the city enjoys is illusionary and he instead redirects their attention with the “thief in the night” imagery and calls for them to be sober minded. The metaphor of a woman in labor that accompanies this warning is focused not so much on the pain as it is the suddenness of it all. It emphasizes the inescapability of the event and pairs well with the unexpected nature of the thief’s visit in 5:2. But as we noted above this is not a warning that is intended to encourage good behavior via threats. Though they are to be aware of and cautious of those who cry “peace and security,” it is not the Thessalonians that are in danger of sudden destruction, but the ones crying “peace and security.”
It’s easy to look back at the Thessalonians and “tut, tut” them for not knowing better or for perhaps becoming too confident in the peaceful situation of the Pax Romana. But their circumstances can say much to the modern church. We live in an age that has been labeled by some as the Pax Americana, the period of peace created/enforced by the United States. Rightly or wrongly, the period since World War II has been a time in which American economic and military dominance has helped to keep the world from entering another major global conflict. With the collapse of the Soviet Union in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s the United States become the sole “super power.” It was beginning to look like the 21st century was going to be a time of peace. I remember how, as the new millennium dawned, pundits were celebrating the “new world order.” Then in a matter of minutes the illusion of peace, like the emperor’s new clothes, was shown to be what it really was, false security. The events of September, 11 along with subsequent attacks, conflicts and wars showed that all along we were foolish to think that Pax Americana was the guarantor of anything. The kind of peace and security the world wants can’t and won’t be found apart from God.
Similar to the Thessalonians, if not even more so, the modern church must remember that no government, social institution, foreign or economic policy can guarantee peace and security. To peg our hopes on a political personality, a party, a legislative bill or even the democratic process is to place ourselves in the same position of those about whom Paul warned the Thessalonians. Those who cry “peace and security” and divert their attention from God are unaware of just how quickly it can all be stripped away. When the church joins in with those cries it stands in danger of being surprised by the “thief in the night.”