Like us, the return of Christ was much on the minds of first-century Christians, yet Paul tells them he felt no need to write concerning its timing. Why? Because they should have known that the Day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night. There was no point in Paul trying to outline it all, as it will happen at a time that nobody can anticipate.
However, he writes something that seems contradictory in verse 4: Since they are not in darkness, that Day should not "overtake [them] as a thief." What is actually meant is that the day of God's wrath would not possess them—literally, "take them over." God's wrath would not swallow them up, or the destruction of that Day does not need to have power over them. He does not mean that it would not surprise them, but as a parallel verse clarifies, "For God has not appointed us to wrath" (verse 9), even though they will be surprised.
Verse 6 contains the same admonition seen elsewhere to be awake, to be sober, and to watch. Though we are not appointed to wrath, other verses show that we can certainly still incur it if we are not taking heed to ourselves (see Hebrews 10:26-31). So we are instructed to watch—to be vigilant about our spiritual state, to have continuous and wakeful concern over fulfilling our part of the covenant, to be on guard against spiritual dangers, spiritual drowsiness, and deception. Those who do these things, along with praying always, will be accounted worthy to escape the wrath. Simply watching down the road for a sign of the Master's return really does not prepare us for anything at all.
David C. Grabbe
'As a Thief in the Night'
Pre-tribulationists point to this verse to show that Christians will not be on earth but in heaven when the Great Tribulation occurs. Notice, however, that they have read into it something it does not say. It mentions neither heaven nor earth, and thus it has no bearing on the physical whereabouts of the saints when Christ returns.
This scripture does, though, make a good point about God's plans for us! He does not intend for us to feel His wrath in the Day of the Lord (I Thessalonians 5:2). With His calling, His Word, and His Spirit, we should be soberly watching world events, keeping tabs on the approaching crisis at the close of this age (verses 4-6). More than that, we should be applying the armor of God daily, preparing for our roles in the coming Kingdom of God (verse 8; Ephesians 6:10-18).
Richard T. Ritenbaugh
Caught Up in the Rapture