18. 1 Thessalonians
Lecture: 1 Thessalonians
Let’s look at 1 Thessalonians. The occasion, or the reason that Paul writes this letter, is found in 1 Thessalonians 3:6, “Now that Timothy has come to us from you, and has brought us the good news of your faith and love and reported that you always remember us kindly and long to see us, as we long to see you ….” Timothy has come from the church, and he has brought good news. If you look at 3:1-2, he talks about this, “When we could bear it no longer, we were willing to be left behind at Athens alone, [while waiting for them, Acts says] and we sent Timothy, our brother and God’s servant to establish you in your faith and exhort you ….” Now Timothy has returned, and he informs Paul as to what is going on, and he is very happy about it. He praises the church. If you look at the opening part of the letter, after his beginning salutation (A to B), “Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy [A], to [B] the church of the Thessalonians, in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ”, and then you have the greeting, “grace to you and peace”. Then you have, “We give thanks to God always for you, constantly mentioning you in our prayers, remembering …” And so he has a good word of exhortation here which he refers to all the way from vv. 1-2 to v.10. There is that joyous expression. In 2:13, “We thank God constantly for this, that when you received the word of God, which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men but as what it really is, the word of God …..” In 3:6-10, “Now Timothy has brought us the good news of your faith … for this reason, brethren, in all our distress and affliction we have been comforted about you through your faith.” So you have in 3:6-10 also exaggeration. Praise is important. And Paul praises the churches. Even when he has some problems, he can find something to praise the church about. He even praises the Corinthian church. My goodness, if my church that I attend was having the problems that they had in Corinth, I would not be able to say too much good about it. But Paul does – it’s important, and he searches for things that he can comment and praise them about.
He also wants to encourage the church. There’s a time of persecution that they have (1:6) “You became imitators of us and of the Lord, for you received the word in much affliction, with joy inspired by the Holy Spirit.” And in 2:1, “For you yourselves know, brethren, that our visit to you was not in vain. But though we had already suffered and been shamefully treated at Philippi, [this fits nicely with the story of Paul in Acts – one of those un-designed coincidences, where Paul’s being beaten and thrown into prison.] …we had courage in our God to declare to you the gospel of God in the midst of great opposition.” So he wants to talk about his persecution, and is also encouraging them in theirs. In 2:14, “For you brethren became imitators of the churches of God in Christ Jesus that are in Judea. For you suffered the same things from your own countrymen as they did from the Jews.” So here he praises the church and encourages them.
He defends his own actions here, because it seems that the church is wondering why Paul didn’t come himself, but sent Timothy as a substitute. He mentions that time and time he wanted to come, but he was not able to, that Satan prevented him. “I was willing to be left alone in Athens, I was so concerned about you, and so I sent Timothy.” So that, I was all alone in Athens during this time, and I have a great concern, I want to defend this.
But there is a theological problem that is raised by this church, and it has to do with the “Parousia”. That’s a technical term that you need to know, because it’s used in the literature. It’s the Greek word for the coming, the coming of the Lord. There is some confusion here, and so Paul now tries to clarify this. And this clarification itself will be confusing to them, and he’ll have to write 2 Thessalonians as a result. But in 4:13 he says, “We would not have you ignorant, brethren about those who are asleep.” There’s a particular problem. Apparently, some Thessalonian believers have in the meantime died, and now there’s a real problem. Paul said that when the Lord returned, we would meet him. What about those who’ve died? And so now he now deals with those who have died, and the coming of the Lord. “We don’t want you to be ignorant, brethren, about those who have fallen asleep, that you may not grieve as others who do not have hope. For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep.” Death is not the end. Jesus died and rose from the dead, so those who are believers, your mother or father, or whoever it is that you lost, they too will have hope this way. “For this we declare to you by a word from the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will not precede those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will always be with the Lord. Therefore comfort one another with these words.” So, don’t be discouraged – those who have died will not miss out on the Lord’s return. When he returns, we will join him, but first the dead in Christ will rise, and we will join them in this regard.
There have been those who have argued that this indicates that Paul thought he and the Thessalonians would be alive when the Lord returned, and that the Lord’s return was very near and imminent. Later on he realized that was not true, and he changed his mind about the Lord’s return being very, very close. After all, doesn’t he say, “…we who are alive will meet him in the air…”? Now think for a minute. That doesn’t make a lot of sense. The letter is written in AD 50. Twenty years have gone by. There have been Christians who have died. Furthermore, there have been Thessalonians who recently died, who are Christians. If “we who are alive” means “all of us who are Christians that are now living, we will meet the Lord”, that assumes that no one again will die in Thessalonica. And that doesn’t make sense. The other question is, how would you write simply that those who have died when he returns, they will rise from the dead; and then we who are presently alive will meet him? How do you do that without being extremely cumbersome? Would you say “those who have died will meet him, and those who are alive (although some of us may not be alive any longer), we will meet him in the air”? That’s very awkward. At the present time, we talk about the dead and the living, and so the dead will rise and then we will rise and meet him. And so that’s the simplest way of dealing with it. Don’t push it and say that this means that Paul believed that he would be alive when the Lord returned. No, it means that at the present time he’s with the living, not the dead.
And he doesn’t have any specific idea as to when the Lord is returning. He can’t say “I have been guaranteed by the Lord I will still be alive when he returns.” He doesn’t say anything like that. And with the very fact that some of them have already died, Paul is quite aware that maybe even before this letter returns to them one or two more Christians may have died. So you can’t say that Paul is that naïve, that he thinks that no one who is a Christian from the time he has penned this letter will die again. It’s simply the only way that he can refer to the living and the dead. “When we’re alive” means Christians who are alive will meet him in the air, and those who are dead will rise from the dead. Where we are, nothing is specifically mentioned in that regard.
Concerning the time of the Lord’s return in 5:1-11, he simply points out that no one really knows that time; it’s unknown to us. The specific time is not revealed, which again suggests that, if that’s true, he couldn’t be so dogmatically naïve to say that “I know that I will still be alive when the Lord returns.”
Does that make sense? It’s amazing how a lot of biblical critics make such a big deal out of that, and I always wonder, “Well, how would you word it?” Well, the way you would word it, to protect yourself would be so awkward, that it’s just not the way people would write. So it’s just common sense that you would apply in this regard.
Let me just point out that he concludes his letter in the typical fashion, vv. 5:23 and following, and then in v. 26, “Greet the brethren with a holy kiss. I adjure you before the Lord to have this letter read to all the brethren. The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you.” “I adjure you by the Lord that this letter be read to all the brethren”: he has a high view of his letter, kind of like it’s scripture. He doesn’t say that, but he says that it should be read by everybody. When we recognize it as part of our Bible, it’s because we believe that this letter should be read to all the brethren. So we have a similar mindset in that regard as Paul.