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The Politics of Scripture

The Politics of the Children of Light—1 Thessalonians 5:1-11 (Richard Davis)

Paul contrasts the children of light with the children of the darkness. This contrast is particularly manifest in the war that we fight and the weapons with which we do so.

Now concerning the times and the seasons, brothers and sisters, you do not need to have anything written to you. 2For you yourselves know very well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night. 3When they say, ‘There is peace and security’, then sudden destruction will come upon them, as labour pains come upon a pregnant woman, and there will be no escape! 4But you, beloved, are not in darkness, for that day to surprise you like a thief; 5for you are all children of light and children of the day; we are not of the night or of darkness. 6So then, let us not fall asleep as others do, but let us keep awake and be sober; 7for those who sleep sleep at night, and those who are drunk get drunk at night. 8But since we belong to the day, let us be sober, and put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation. 9For God has destined us not for wrath but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, 10who died for us, so that whether we are awake or asleep we may live with him. 11Therefore encourage one another and build up each other, as indeed you are doing.

Christians are different. At least they should be. That is the overall message of our passage, which covers the different state of Christians, their different behavior, and their different destination.

All these are interlinked. Because of their different status, Christians ask different questions. These questions will make no sense to others, such as the question Saint Paul responds to here about when Christ will return.

According to Paul, the author of this letter, Christians belong to the day and the non-Christians belong to the night. Christians, in the wording here, are “children of light and children of the day.” This is a common New Testament image with parallels in John 12:35-36, Ephesians 5:8-9, 1 Peter 2:9, and 1 John 3:10. In being children of the day, they avoid the darkness of night and its immoral activities, such as drunkenness.

Reinhold Niebuhr used this imagery (from Luke 16:8: “for the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light”) in his landmark defense of democracy The Children of Light and the Children of Darkness (1945). This work is the source of one of Niebuhr’s most celebrated sayings: “Man’s capacity for justice makes democracy possible; but man’s inclination to injustice makes democracy necessary” (vi).

Generally, throughout these New Testament passages, the children of light are praised and the children of darkness are condemned. Yet Niebuhr finds great value in the worldly wisdom of the children of darkness in recognizing the depravity of humans and the difficulty in overcoming self-interest in society. According to Niebuhr, balancing this with the morality of the children of light is what makes democracy and civil society possible in this interim state before the return of Christ.

Arguably this appreciation of the gift of the “children of this age,” or the children of darkness, takes us away from these texts, with Niebuhr urging the “children of light” to learn realism about the sinful world from the “children of darkness.” There is no value placed on the children of darkness in our passage from 1 Thessalonians.

As is their character, however, the children of darkness think they are smarter than they are really are. Here in 1 Thessalonians, the shrewd children of this age say, “There is peace and security,” yet cannot anticipate the destruction that is about to befall them.

Clearly their peace is the peace of the world and not the peace that Christ gives (John 14:27). The children of darkness get drunk and fall asleep at night, and are not prepared for the devastation that will come on them suddenly, like birth pangs.

In saying that Christians are different, what are we to make of verse 8, with its militaristic imagery? This verse invites comparison with other passages from Paul’s epistles that speak of military clothing and armor, especially Ephesians 6:11-17.

One interpretation of this militaristic imagery is that it promotes among Christians war-like thinking, and an acceptance of warfare and violence. The misuse of such biblical motifs in the medieval period resulted in violence by Christians that continues to dog the reputation of the church. Any interpretation of these verses that supports violence would be conformist with the violence of the world.

An alternative interpretation shows that another way in which Christians are different is how and what they fight. Throughout the early church, Christians laid down the Empire’s weapons and withdrew from the Empire’s military in order to become soldiers of Christ, ready to fight a spiritual war against the Devil.

An early example of this motif in theology comes from Tertullian on the dress of a Christian soldier. In the opening chapter of De Corona (The Chaplet), he recounted the story of a Roman soldier who refused to wear the crown of the Roman Army because he was a Christian. Tertullian went on to relate how, having already shed the crown, he progressively removed the uniform of the Empire replacing it with the uniform of Christ:

Glad to be rid of the burden, he let fall his heavy military cloak, he took off the uncomfortable boots he had worn as a scout, beginning to set foot on holy ground; he returned the sword which, too, he did not need to defend his Lord, and dropped the laurel crown from his hand.

Now the only purple cloak he had was the hope of shedding his blood; his feet were shod with the readiness of the Gospel, and he girt about himself the word of God, keener than any sword. Thus fully armed according to the Apostle’s advice, and hoping to be crowned more worthily with the white laurel crown of martyrdom, he awaited in prison the reward of Christ. [Tertullian, Disciplinary, Moral, and Ascetical Works. Translated by Rudolph Arbesmann, Emily Joseph Daly, Edwin A. Quain. (New York: Fathers of the Church, 1959), 232-233].

Origen, another early theologian, in On First Principles (written in the 220s), also contrasted the wars of this world and those spiritual wars in which Christians are engaged. He wrote: “God’s purpose is that through those numbered as His soldiers, who as soldiers on service to God do not get entangled in worldly pursuits (2 Tim 2:4), He may overturn the kingdoms of the Adversary” (Origen, “On First Principles: Book IV” in Origen: An Exhortation to Martyrdom, Prayer and Selected Work. Edited by Rowan A. Greer. [New York: Paulist Press, 1979], 200). In this cosmic battle, the weapons of the soldiers of Christ include, according to Origen, “the breastplate of love” and “the helmet the hope of salvation.”

From these early theologians, and many others, we may conclude two things. First, that the amour and weapons of the Christians replace the weapons of the world. While the peace-loving Christian today might lament the use of military imagery by Paul (especially given its misuse by those who support violence), the great value of keeping this imagery is to highlight the contrast between the weapons of the Christ, and those of the world, which Christ’s weapons totally replace.

Second, the overall the tone of this passage is defensive, not offensive. The Christian is like the night security guardsman, keeping watch and being alert for the thieves that might come in the night. Until Christ comes, the Christian is aware that they are under attack from the world and will protect themselves in body and soul in readiness for the return of Christ.

Here the helmet and the breastplate are defensive armor, protecting the head and the heart from attack against from the world and the Devil. Having a defensive focus, it is worth noting our passage from 1 Thessalonians lacks the offensive sword (Ephesians 6:11-17) or vengeful wrath (Isaiah 59:17), found in other similar passages.

Wearing the protection of Christ, the Christian is not destined for the wrath of God, indicating that the Christian’s armor protects also against God’s wrathful judgment. Christians are different in being saved through their Lord Jesus Christ and eagerly awaiting the arrival of the “day of the Lord.” Being protected by Christ, Christians live with him and do not suffer the same fate as the children of darkness.

In the end, Paul has reassured the Thessalonians that their questions about the return of Jesus are right; the current world with all its problems and violence is not the way God intends things to be. The political status quo is not God’s vision for the world. This is not as good as it gets.

A new rule is coming, which will throw the children of darkness and their false peace into perdition. In the meantime, Christians build each other up. There is no instruction to do anything different from they are doing already—building each other up and encouraging each other, to persevere in this fallen world.

Dr. Richard A. Davis is Senior Lecturer in Theology and Ethics at the Pacific Theological College in Suva, Fiji Islands. He tweets on @rad_1968.

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