Faith: Thank God for the Gospelcomment (0)
January 6, 2000
By Timothy George
Written long before the Gospels, Paul’s letters to the Thessalonians are the earliest evidence we have of the Christian faith. They reflect Paul’s great love for the newly planted church at Thessalonica and his concern that it be faithful to Christ in the midst of persecution and suffering. Paul himself provides an outline for the letter in 1:3 when he thanks God for the Thessalonians and recalls their “work produced by faith,” their “labor prompted by love,” and their endurance inspired by hope.” This same triad – faith, love and hope – occurs again in 5:8 forming a kind of brackets around the central themes of the letter.
Paul addresses his letter “to the church of the Thessalonians” (1:1). For us the word “church” (ekklesia in Greek) was a common, everyday word that meant simply gathering, assembly or group. In a city like Thessalonica, there were many such gatherings: social clubs, religious societies, political bands, literary circles, etc. But there is something new and distinctive about the community Paul addresses. They are “the church of the Thessalonians in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.”
Paul underscores the supernatural character of the Christian community in 1:4 as he reminds them that they have been “chosen by God.” The Greek word for “chosen” is ekloge from which we get our English words “elected” and “election.” This is a major theme in Paul’s writings, and we need not be afraid of it. “Chosen” refers both to the personal salvation of the Thessalonians and to the special place they have in the progress of the gospel message. As individual believers, they have been chosen by God. He has selected them out so that they could belong to Him. This means that they can take no credit for their salvation. It is the work of God from first to last. As the Protestant Reformers put it, we are saved by grace alone, through faith alone, in Jesus Christ alone!
Paul begins and ends this letter with the word “grace,” God’s sovereign mercy and kindness which is at the heart of everything the apostle writes. But the Thessalonians are “chosen” in another sense as well. IN the course of his second missionary journey, when Paul had reached the northern regions of Asia Minor (now the country of Turkey), he intended to move eastward and tried to do so, but as Luke tells us “the Spirit of Jesus would not allow them to” (Acts 16:7). At this point Paul had a vision of a Macedonian man saying, “Come over to Macedonia and help us.” Immediately he turns westward, crosses the Aegean Sea and following the famous Roman road, the Via Egnatia, first plants a church at Philippi and then at Thessalonica.
Thessalonica was the capital city of Macedonia and one of the great urban centers of the Roman Empire. From here, Paul launched his great westward church-planting mission, eventually reaching Rome itself. This was one of the great turning points in the history of salvation. What if Paul had gone eastward instead of westward? The pattern of Christian history and Western civilization might look very different. By his providential ordering, God had chosen Thessalonica to play a strategic role in the unfolding drama of redemption.
It is important to recognize that Paul links the theme of election both with the love of God and the preaching of the gospel (1:4). God’s grace is never the occasion for self-righteous boasting, but for praise and thanksgiving that motivates us for missions and evangelism. Paul gives thanks for the faith of the Thessalonians, but he never loses sight that it is the “gospel of God” which has brought about such a transformation in them (2:2, 9, 13).
Paul commends the Thessalonians for three things. First, he says they became imitators of him and of the Lord. Here is one of the marks of authentic discipleship: the willingness to follow Christ in the path of suffering for His sake. Second, they themselves became a model for other believers in the region (1:7). Their faith was so contagious others were drawn to it. As Eugene Peterson translates this verse, “The word has gotten around. Your lives are echoing the Master’s Word.” The message of the Lord rang out from Thessalonica like a trumpet or gong echoing through the valleys and cities all around.
Thessalonica was a great center of pagan idolatry, the cult of Dionysius being especially strong. Paul commends the Thessalonians for forsaking these false gods, an act which involved a decisive break with the culture around them. The Christian faith is both a “saying no” and a “saying yes.” True conversion involves both repentance and faith. In forsaking their pagan past, these new believers were called to a twofold task: to serve the living and true God and to wait for His Son from heaven (1:9-10). These two belong inseparably together. To serve without waiting leads to burnout and exhaustion. To wait without serving leads to frustration and fanaticism. An eager looking for Jesus’ return is at once an evidence of salvation and a motivation for faithful living here and now.
Love: Authentic Mark of Ministry (1 Thessalonians 2 and 3)
First Thessalonians 2 and 3 tell us a great deal about the circumstances which moved Paul to write this letter. After planting the church in Thessalonica, Paul was hounded out of town by Jewish opponents and eventually made his way southward to Athens. Deeply burdened about the Thessalonians, Paul dispatched Timothy to encourage and strengthen them. Timothy returned with a good report indicating that, despite persecution, the church was still intact, though their faith needed to be strengthened (3:6-10).
Paul wrote the letter, which he expected to be read aloud in the church meeting (5:27), both to solidify his own relationship with the Thessalonians and to deal with several pastoral problems which had arisen in his absence.
When we read about Paul’s letters it sometimes seems as though we are listening to only one side of a two-way conversation. In these chapters Paul is evidently refuting certain slanderous charges that have been leveled against him in Thessalonica.
By “mirror reading” this text, we can reconstruct some of the rumors and lies Paul’s opponents were spreading about him.
Their attack might have gone something like this: “Paul’s whole visit was a failure. After all, he scurried out of town at night, which proves he had impure motives. Even while he was here he was greedy and insincere, always trying to trick us by his flattery and sneaky manipulation. He was always looking out for himself, concerned about his personal power and prestige.”
To refute these charges, Paul reminds the Thessalonians of what his stay among them was really like. Again and again Paul uses the expressions “you know” and “you remember.” He also resorts to the language of family referring to the Thessalonians as his “brothers” (Greek: adelphoi), a word used 19 times in 1 Thessalonians.
In Paul’s day, the marketplace was filled with Cynic sages and Stoic philosophers who peddled their wisdom with great rhetorical flourish and always for a profit. Paul wants it known that he has nothing in common with these hucksters!
To the Corinthians he would write, “Unlike so many, we do not peddle the Word of God for profit” (2 Cor. 2:17). IN order not to be confused with the phonies around him, Paul worked with his hands, making tenses, so as “not to be a burden to anyone” (2:9).
This is not a prohibition against ministers receiving remuneration, a principle Paul elsewhere affirms, but it is an urgent reminder to handle all financial matters with utmost integrity.
Paul intensifies the language of family as he describes his relationship with the Thessalonians in two metaphors of intimacy, the nursing mother and the loving father. The Greek word trophos (translated “nurse” in the KJV) refers to a mother wet-nursing her children. We are struck by this image of tender affection and self-giving care.
What is conveyed is the sense of unstinted affection and sacrificial love. Paul loved the Thessalonians “so much,” he says, he shared with them not only his message but his very life as well. Only this kind of love can enable a pastor to overcome disappointment, heartbreak and even rejection.
To the image of the nursing mother Paul adds a complementary word about the loving father. “With each of you we were like a father with his child, holding your hand, whispering encouragement, showing you step by step how to live well before God (Peterson).”
In Roman society the father had powerful legal and financial authority over his children, but Paul stresses fatherly guidance and nurture as a model for ministry. In our day fatherhood has gotten a bad rap both from radical feminists and from super-macho notions of contemporary culture. But Paul is surely drawing on Jesus’ own use of Abba as a term of endearment for God. It is the God who carried His people through the desert “as a father carries his son” (Deut. 1:31), the God who loved the world so much that He spared not His own Son, who is the model of all true fatherhood.
Paul expresses his desire to see the Thessalonians in a still more graphic term in 2:17: “We were torn away from you,” literally, “We were made orphans.” Spiritual warfare is going on, and Satan has managed to block Paul’s moves at several points (2:18). But Satan is a defeated enemy; Jesus is Victor. When He comes in glory (in the “presence” parousia, 2:19), Paul will go to meet Christ along with the Thessalonian believers whom he calls his crown, his glory and his joy.
What greater compliment could any pastor pay to his people than this? Until Jesus comes, Paul prays the Thessalonians will love one another more and more, and their love will overflow even to those who have yet to believe in Christ. In this way their hearts will be strengthened and they will appear before the Lord clothed in purity and holiness.
Hope: living for the future now
The last two chapters of First Thessalonians are concerned with how Christians should live in the light of Christ’s certain return. This passage is bracketed by a call to sanctification (4:3, 5:23). Justification happens once and for all, but sanctification is progressive. The word Paul uses to describe this continual growth in Christlikeness is mallon, “more and more” (4:1, 10). We are to rejoice always, pray constantly, and give thanks to God in all circumstances (5:16–18). In this way we will be sanctified “through and through” (5:23), mad ready to meet Christ at His coming.
Based on the report he has received from Timothy, Paul addresses several pastoral problems in Thessalonica. Specifically, he admonishes them in four areas:
Honor One Another: Avoid Sexual Impurity (4:3–8). Paul is writing to Christians who live in a sexually promiscuous world. Some of these believers had come to Christ from the cult of Dionysus, a sensual religion that used the male sex organ as its primary symbol. In the midst of this MTV/Howard stern-like culture, Paul reminds believers god has called them out of such a lifestyle. We should honor one another by leading lives that are sexually pure before God.
Love One Another: Keep your Witness Bright (4:9–12). Paul commends the Thessalonians for the presence of brotherly love in their community, and he links this word about loving one another with leading a quiet, responsible life. He wants their daily life to win “the respect of outsiders.”
Comfort One Another: Do not Despair at Death (4:13–18). This is one of the great passages in the New Testament on the second coming of Christ. The second coming, as Paul describes it, has four parts: (a) The Return. The Lord Himself will come down from heaven accompanied by a loud shut, louder than any sonic boom, and the cry of Michael the archangel indicating the Devil’s doom is near. Heaven’s trumpets will signal the advent of the great king. (b) The Resurrection. Those who have died as believers in Christ will come forth from their graves in new, glorified bodies. (c) The Rapture. Those believers who are alive at that time will be “caught up.” The rapture is God’s own doing, and it will be sudden and unexpected. (d) The Reunion. We shall be reunited with our Christian loved ones who have preceded us in death, and we shall meet the saints of all the ages. Most of all, we shall see the Lord face to face and be with Him forever. Paul gives this teaching so Christians may comfort and encourage one another in times of grief. We should not grieve as those who have no hope. For we serve a living Lord who has tasted the dregs of death and who has come back to tell us death is not a wall, but a door — an open door into a wonderful, unimaginable future which God will certainly bring to pass.
Build Up One Another: Stay Alert in the Night (5:1–11). Having dealt with the question of the individual believer who dies in Christ, Paul now turns to the wider issue of the timing of Christ’s return. When will this great event take place? Paul has no timetable or prophecy chart. But he does take two images from Jesus’ own teaching concerning the Second Coming. First, he says that day will be like a thief in the night (Matt. 24:43). It will come suddenly, without warning which means that Christians must stay alert and be on watch. Some believers have used the doctrine of Christ’s Second coming as an excuse to escape from the world, to sit and do nothing.
The second image Paul uses is that of a woman in the pains of labor ready to deliver a child (Matt. 24:19). This image speaks of the certainty and inevitability of Christ’s return and the pouring out of god’s judgment it will bring.
In the light of this teaching, how then should we live? Paul’s final instructions in 1 Thessalonians 5:12–28 give us a series of pithy answers to this question. We are to lead responsible lives; live in peace with one another; avoid evil of every kind while developing a walk with God marked by joy, prayer, thanksgiving, discernment and the filling of the Holy Spirit.
Paul told the Thessalonian Christians to seal their love with a holy kiss (5:26). This was a mark of affection within the community of faith. But it also had eschatological overtones. The kiss of peace we exchange with one another here on earth is a sign, a foretaste of that heavenly embrace the Bride will receive from the Bridegroom at the marriage supper of the Lamb (Rev. 19:6–9). Even so, come Lord Jesus!
Let God Be God! (2 Thessalonians)
Second Thessalonians was written to address three specific problems which had arisen in this church. Each of them is related to the doctrine of the second coming of Christ. In Chapter 1, Paul addresses the continuing persecution of the church and how this relates to God’s overall purpose in history. In Chapter 2 he refutes false teachings about the return of Christ, while in Chapter 3 he issues a stern warning against those within the church who have used the teaching of Christ’s coming again as an excuse for laziness.
Why were the Christians in Thessalonica persecuted so severely? Acts 17:7 tells us they were charged with “defying Caesar’s decrees, saying there is another king, one called Jesus.” The word for king is basileus, which also means “emperor.” The Christians were not violent revolutionaries. They paid their taxes and prayed for civil authorities. But they would not worship Caesar and thus were seen as disloyal. When the Christians confessed “Jesus is Lord” at their baptism, they were literally putting their lives on the line.
Beset by such “persecutions and trials” (1:4), some of the Thessalonian Christians may have wondered why God had not intervened. How can God be silent in the face of evil? The prophet Habakkuk asked the question which has echoed down the centuries: “How long, O Lord? Why do you tolerate wrong?” Paul answers by saying simply that “God is just” (1:6). In the course of human history it often seems that Satan has the upper hand, that evil triumphs over good. But God will certainly triumph in the end, and there will be a certain “payday someday.”
Paul here describes God’s judgment against sin in some of the most vivid language of the New Testament. The Jesus who refused to call legions of angels from heaven to deliver Him from the cross will one day descend “in blazing fire with His powerful angels” (1:7). The wrath of God will be displayed, and those who have rejected Christ will be punished “with everlasting destruction,” exiled from the presence of the Lord for all eternity.
Let us not minimize the reality of hell. We do not know the temperature of the inferno, and we should not speculate about such matters. But nothing could be worse than to be banished forever from the presence of the heavenly Father.
Paul’s main concern is to encourage the Thessalonians to persevere through all their trials knowing that God’s justice will triumph. In the meantime, Paul is constantly praying for them so that, even in suffering, “every good purpose” God has for them may be fulfilled.
While the flames of persecution burned around them, many within the church had become “unsettled” and “alarmed” by the false teaching that the second coming of Christ had already taken place.
To refute this error, Paul describes a sequence of prophetic events which must still come to pass before God draws the final curtain on the human drama.
First he says, there will be a final rebellion (Greek, apostasia), a great revolt against God. This will usher in the Antichrist, “the man of sin,” who will set himself up against the divine order of things to a degree hitherto unknown in history. The Antichrist will be a humanoid Satan deceiving many by his counterfeit miracles and sinister pretensions. But his reign of terror is temporary, for he will be destroyed by Christ at His coming.
In recent decades there have been many candidates for the Antichrist from Hitler to Saddam Hussein. Many have also speculated as to the timing of these events. But it is wise to remember that Paul tells us what, not when.
The purpose of this Pauline prophecy is twofold: To remind the Thessalonians to watch and pray because the final end has not yet come, and to assure them that, however evil the days may be, Jesus Christ is the Alpha and the Omega, the King of kings and the Lord of lords. At the end of the day, Satan and all his pomp will have to cry “uncle” before the glory of sovereign God.
The closing chapter of this letter is concerned with how Christians should live in light of the second coming.
Some in this church had become “idlers,” and Paul admonishes them to be responsible: “If a man refuses to work, he shall not eat” (3:10). Some of these idlers had become busybodies and gossips, sowing dissension within the church. Paul commands them to “settle down” (3:12). Still others were disrespectful of Paul’s own apostolic authority, and he instructs the church to discipline such dissidents in the spirit of love (3:14-15).
The burden of Paul’s second letter to the Thessalonians can be summarized in this expression: Let God be God! In the midst of persecution, be faithful and keep looking up. Though Satan is still at work in the world, his days are numbered.
Let us avoid curiosity and speculation when it comes to the second coming believing, as the Baptist Faith and Message puts it, that “God, in His own time and in His own way, will bring the world to its appropriate end.”
In the meantime, God has called us to work and witness, to serve and to love in the name of Jesus. Until He says, “Come up hither,” we must obey His imperative command to “Go ye therefore.”