“Therefore let us not sleep, as others do, but let us watch and be sober” (1 Thessalonians 5:6).
1 Thessalonians 5:6 opens a brief section of this letter in which Paul the Apostle encourages his readers to pursue the kind of lives that are “…worthy of God who calls you into His own kingdom and glory” (1 Thessalonians 2:12).
The first directive found here in 1 Thessalonians 5:6 is “…let us not fall asleep as others do” (Mounce). This may seem confusing as Paul has already used the word “sleep” as a metaphor for death in the previous chapter of this letter. Since it seems obvious that Paul is not referring to the death process in this portion of Scripture, what are we to make of this statement?
To answer this question, we can revisit the importance of context in reading the Biblical Scriptures. We can define the word “context” as “the part of a text or statement that surrounds a particular word or passage and determines its meaning.” (1) In other words, the Biblical material preceding and following each verse helps determine its meaning.
Although the word “sleep” used in the original language of this passage differs from the word for sleep used earlier in 1 Thessalonians 4:13-15, we can identify the proper application for these verses simply by examining their context. In 1 Thessalonians chapter four, the context involved the physical death of a loved one. Here in 1 Thessalonians chapter five, the context involves the need to avoid spiritual and moral indifference.
With this in mind, we might ask why Paul didn’t just say what he meant. For instance, if Paul meant to refer to physical death in 1 Thessalonians chapter four and spiritual indifference in 1 Thessalonians chapter five then why didn’t he do so? In response, we can say that these metaphors help draw out the meaning of a passage and provide us with a fuller, richer understanding of God’s Word.
In addition, these portions of Scripture (and others like them) encourage us to seek God for their meaning and application. Difficult passages and unfamiliar metaphors compel us to seek the Author (and His representatives) for the clarifications necessary to understand and apply a given passage of Scripture. This enables us to develop a close relationship with the Author instead of simply taking the answers from a book.
So while it might have been easier if God had arranged His Word differently, it’s important to remember that “easier” doesn’t always represent the best path to spiritual growth.
(1) The American Heritage Dictionary, third edition