Today we will consider the letter to the Thessalonians. They were a Gentile church in Macedonia that Paul planted on his second missionary journey. This letter was written not long after. Remember, Paul was in Thessalonica for about three weeks (Acts 17:2), and was chased out by unbelieving Jews (Acts 17:5-10). A little later, Paul sent Timothy back to Thessalonica (see 1 Thess 3:6), and Timothy’s report of the church is likely what prompted this letter.
Often overlooked in some of the letters of the New Testament is that they are sent by multiple people. This was not uncommon for the time. Here, Paul, Silas (short for Silvanus), and Timothy all send the letter as they were all together when the church was established. Let’s try to read this as a letter from beloved mentors in the faith to friends in a fledgling church instead of a theological treatise.1
Paul begins by telling his friends that he is praying for them, thanking God for their genuine faith and holy living (vv. 2-3). He encourages them: they are part of the elect because they believed the Gospel, a work of the Holy Spirit (vv. 4-5). They saw the way the three men lived and they imitated it, themselves becoming an example to Macedonian and Greek believers (vv. 5-7, 9-10) and peaching the Gospel themselves (v. 8).
Paul reminds them of his arrival there. Paul was treated poorly at Philippi (Acts 16:11-40) but nevertheless came to Thessalonica boldly preaching the Gospel even though they encountered persecution there, too (2:1-2 – see Acts 17:5-9). This persecution is for no other reason than Paul spoke the truth of the Gospel, and the Thessalonians know that because Paul sought no gain from his preaching (vv. 3-8). These men tried to set an example for the Thessalonians (vv. 9-12). And the Thessalonians responded in faith (v. 13) and were no different from the Jewish churches (v 14) who also suffered at the hands of their own countrymen for their faith (vv. 14-16).
Paul then tells them that he misses them (v. 17). They would have returned had Satan not incited the people against them (v. 18). Paul is so very proud of them for their faith (vv. 19-20). Since Paul couldn’t come back to them, and because he was worried about them, he sent Timothy back to encourage them in their faith in the face of persecution (3:1-5). Paul was so relieved and encouraged to hear from Timothy that they are persevering (v. 6, 8-10). He is also happy to hear that they miss and are worried about him, too (vv. 6-7). Paul prays that God would continue to preserve and sanctify them (vv. 11-13).
Paul now encourages them to continue to walk in faith (4:1) and according to the teaching of Christ (v. 2) to the end that they may be holy (vv. 3-8). Note that Paul encourages them to live “not like the Gentiles who do not know God” (v. 5). Paul is speaking of worshiping false gods and pagan worship rituals in verses 3-5. But note how the term “Gentile” here is used like the Jews used it – it meant someone outside the covenant community of God. But here, Paul is writing to physical Gentiles. Paul has taken a historical physical designation and made it a spiritual one! Note also that this sanctification or holiness they are called to is both their responsibility (to not disregard Christ) but also the work of the Holy Spirit (vv. 7-8). Paul encourages them to be holy and to love – which they are already doing – but to do it even more (v. 1, 9-10). He also encourages them to imitate him in working for their living (v. 11) so that they would be independent, enabling them to live holy lives (v. 12).
Paul then seems to address an issue that Timothy must have reported to him. The Thessalonians were worried that those who have died in Christ will now miss His coming and be excluded from the promises that go with His return (v. 13). Paul tells them that just as Christ was raised from death, so will all believers who die in faith (v. 14). In verse 15, Paul could be speaking of a word of revelation he received from Jesus or He can be referring to previous teachings of Jesus. Either way, what Jesus said is that those who have died will be raised before those who are alive at His coming are raptured2 and translated into glorified bodies (vv. 15-18). This is the clearest teaching the Bible gives us on the process of glorification at Christ’s return. The dead are resurrected first, and second those who are alive are raptured. Any interpretation of less clear Scripture (like Daniel or Revelation) must not contradict this clear teaching.3
Paul then addresses the coming of Christ in chapter 5. As they well know, no date can be set (5:1). When Paul says the Lord will come like a thief in the night (v. 2), he is speaking from the point of view of the unsaved. We know that because in the next verse (v. 3), he speaks of those upon whom destruction suddenly comes, and then in verse 4 he says explicitly that for believers, Christ’s coming will not surprise us like a thief. There is a difference in the “suddenness” of Christ’s Second coming for believers and unbelievers – those in light and those in darkness (v. 5). And since we are of the day and children of light, we should not sleep (v. 6) like those who are of the night (v. 7). He is telling us to always be looking for Christ’s coming. If we are expecting it, it cannot surprise us like a thief coming in the darkness of night!
So, Paul says, let us stay sober minded, walking in faith and continuing in love (v. 8). And let our minds be guarded by our hope of final salvation, because we are destined for it (v. 9), whether we are awake or asleep (v. 10), In other words, we do not stay awake and live as if we expect Christ to return any second because our salvation depends on it. No! We are to stay awake and live as if Christ is coming any second because we are already saved, and His coming and our glorification are guaranteed! That is why we – the church – need to encourage and edify each other (v. 11).
Paul then ends the letter with some final, practical exhortations. Respect and love those who work in the ministry, especially the elders who God has placed over them (v. 12-13). They should also live at peace within the church. Those who are idle (literally “disorderly”) should be admonished (v. 14). It is a duty of the church to do so. Those who are discouraged should be encouraged. It is a duty of the church to do so. The morally weak need to be helped (literally “managed”). It is a duty of the church to do so. And all three (the idle, the discouraged, the weak) should be treated with patience.
Within the church, we do not treat people as they treat us, but as we are called to treat them according to the second greatest commandment (v. 15). We should rejoice in all circumstances (v. 16 – see Acts 16:25). We should pray at all times (v. 17). We should give thanks to God no matter what (v. 18). Paul says specifically that this is God’s will for us. This is a sure sign of holiness (see 4:3). We should not stifle the Spirit (v. 19), that is, lose our sensitivity to Him and fail to display His power by living unholy in any way. We should not disdain anyone speaking the Word of God (v. 20) but we are responsible to make sure they are speaking in accordance with the Word of God (v. 21). We should be Bereans (see Acts 17:10-12)!
We should hold fast to what is morally good (v. 21) and distance ourselves from what is not (v. 22). This is our responsibility. And yet, it is God Who makes us holy and keeps us holy (v. 23). Thank God this is based on His faithfulness and not ours (v. 24)!! Paul ends by asking his friends to keep him and his companions in prayer (v. 25), and to give all the Christians in their church a kiss for him (v. 26). Paul insists that this be read to the whole church (v. 27). Paul ends where he begins: praying that God’s grace would be upon them (v. 28 – see 1:1). That’s all any of us need.
1 From here on out, I will refer to Paul as the writer with the understanding that Silas and Timothy may have had some say in what was written.
2 The term “rapture” comes from the Latin word that means “will be caught up” in verse 17.
3 You simply cannot assert a linear reading of Revelation if that means the rapture happens in chapter 4 and the resurrection happens in chapter 20.