The key to unlocking the dynamic of 1 Thessalonians is grasped only when you realise that is written in the aftermath of one of the most dramatic ‘revivals’ that Christianity has ever witnessed. It is essential to read 1 Thessalonians chapter 1 alongside Acts 17:1-10, and indeed all of Acts 16 and 17. 1 Thessalonians is a study of the power of the Word (the gospel message), the Spirit and love to form God’s new creation – a believing community centred on Christ.
Click on the link above for an audio version of 1 Thessalonians.
Simple: Read Acts 16 and 17 (to understand the wider context of Paul’s second missionary journey), and read Acts 17:1-10 for the story of how this church was planted.
Committed: Read 1 Thessalonians through once every day for a fortnight
1) Work through the BfL courses.
2) Answer the BfL questions relating this letter to 21st Century at the end of each course carefully.
3) Keep praying and asking the Lord to speak to you.
Suggested verses for meditation …
1:5 ‘… because our gospel came to you not only in word, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction. You know what kind of men we proved to be among you for your sake.’
2:11 ‘For you know how, like a father with his children, we exhorted each one of you and encouraged you and charged you to walk in a manner worthy of God, who calls you to his own kingdom and glory.’
4:3 ‘For this is the will of God, your sanctification: that you abstain from sexual immorality…’
4:9 ‘Now concerning brotherly love you have no need for anyone to write to you, for you yourselves have been taught by God to love one another.’
4:11 ‘… and aspire to live quietly, and to mind your own affairs, and to work with your hands, as we instructed you.’
5:16-18 ‘Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.’
1 Thessalonians 5:24 ‘The one who calls you is faithful, and he will do it.’
Acts 16 and 17 describe the extraordinary effect that Paul’s little missionary team had throughout Macedonia and Achaia (now eastern Greece) as they fled from city to city preaching the gospel message in the power of the Spirit and bringing either revival or riot, and often both! The letter of 1 Thessalonians was written in the wake of one of the most dramatic explosions of gospel power that the young Christian church had witnessed to that point (CE50). This letter therefore gives penetrating insights into the results, the effects and the outcomes of preaching the gospel of King Jesus, and what is then needed in such circumstances.
The letter is first of all an explanation (most of the first three chapters) by the apostle Paul of his behaviour and his decisions. Paul’s ministry in Thessalonica had met such a strong reaction that the young believing community was forced to send Paul away (Acts 17:9-10) and, probably because of the bail conditions, he was unable to return. So, he sent his young assistant Timothy. When Timothy returned with news that the believing community was standing firm, his relief was palpable (1 Thessalonians 3:8-10). He then wrote this letter to explain the reasons for his decisions, to answer some of their questions and to instruct them in their discipleship.
In this, the earliest existing Pauline letter, we have an insight into the character of the apostle to the Gentiles. His love for the young believers is deeply inspirational, as is his courage in preaching the Word of the gospel in the power of the Spirit, and the clarity of his understanding into the essence of living a sanctified life as we await Christ’s return. These last two chapters not only demonstrate the issues that the young believers in Thessalonica were facing, but outline the sort of issues that all new believers face: issues of morality, community love throughout the church, work, church relations, especially with the church leadership, and the lifestyle of discipleship in the Spirit. We therefore have here a model curriculum for discipleship.
Question 1 -
Have you ever witnessed a revival, or the swift change in a community as it encounters the gospel, as described in chapter 1?
Question 2 -
Why are new Christians so fascinated with the return of Christ?
Question 3 -
When you were a new Christian, did anyone help you in the way Paul describes in chapter 2?
Destination: The very young Christian church in Thessalonica, established by Paul and his missionary team (Silas and Timothy) in 49CE. The account, in Acts 17:1-10, should be read carefully as it describes the formation of the Thessalonian church and there are a several important details mentioned both in that passage and in this letter. Paul wrote this first letter to the Thessalonians (in fact, it is the earliest of his letters that we have) from Corinth, which is about 575km (360 miles) south of Thessalonica by road, a journey that would have taken over a fortnight to walk.
Situation: It appears that the magistrate’s bail conditions (Acts 17:9) prevented Paul from returning to the region (2:18), so Paul sent Timothy in his place (3:1-2). When Timothy returns to Corinth he gives to Paul an essentially encouraging report which includes the following information …
Paul writes ‘1 Thessalonians’ in response to what Timothy has reported back to Paul (and Silas).
This letter has all the usual features of a New Testament letter. Although written as a private letter, it also states that it is to be read publicly (5:27). The letter contains a clear autobiographical element, and is occasionally candid about the deep feelings between the author and the Thessalonian church community. The letter exhorts the community to holiness and community love, and contains a good number of instructions about Christian discipleship.
The Structure of Paul’s argument in 1 Thessalonians:
This letter falls into two parts.
In the first three chapters, Paul recounts the events from when he first visited Thessalonica and planted the church to Timothy’s return after visiting them:
|1:1 - 3||Introduction and thanksgiving.|
|1:4 - 10||The dramatic creation of the church as the gospel is preached.|
|2:1 - 12||The integrity of Paul’s missionary team.|
|2:13 - 16||The suffering of the young church.|
|2:17 - 3:5||Paul sends Timothy to strengthen the young church.|
|3:6 - 10||Timothy returns with an encouraging report.|
|3:11 - 13||Prayer of blessing.|
The second part, chapters four and five, address several key pastoral issues and serve as a discipleship programme for the young Christians:
|4:1 - 8||Sexual purity.|
|4:9 - 10||Love within the Christian community.|
|4:11 - 12||Work and responsibility.|
|4:13 - 5:11||Doctrine: the return of Christ.|
|5:12 - 15||Leadership issues in the Christian community.|
|5:16 - 18||Godly lifestyle.|
|5:19 - 22||Cultivating the life of the Spirit.|
|5:23 - 28||Blessing exhortation and final instructions.|
Themes: Paul addresses so many topics in this short letter that it is not easy to identify all the themes.
Question 1 -
In chapters 4 and 5, Paul describes the lifestyle of a disciple – what does he list as the leading features? What does he mention first, and why?
Question 2 -
2:14 addresses the issue of persecution. The persecution of Christians is growing strongly worldwide. Study the Open Doors website. What can you and your Christian friends do in response?
Question 3 -
Who is the most loving Christian pastor you have ever met (2:7, 11, 3:2, 5:14)?
Question 4 -
The New Testament teaches that Paul’s proclamation of the gospel was not a human thing, but the word of God himself (2:13, 2 Peter 3:15-16). How can apprentices of Jesus get God’s word into our thinking and living?
Verse by Verse
1 – Paul was in Corinth, about 360 miles from Thessalonica.
2 – He was banned from visiting them by the bail conditions on Jason (Acts 17:9).
3 – The Thessalonian believers were very young in their faith, they were vulnerable, and needed help.
4 – Their opponents were accusing Paul and his colleagues, in their absence, of tricking the Thessalonians, flattering them and taking advantage of them. Paul, several hundred miles away, is unable to defend himself.
5 – There were doctrinal and pastoral issues that needed addressing:
The structure of Paul’s argument:
1:1 – 3 Introduction and Thanksgiving
Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy,
To the church of the Thessalonians in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ:
Grace to you and peace.
2 We give thanks to God always for all of you, constantly mentioning you in our prayers, 3 remembering before our God and Father your work of faith and labour of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ.
Explanation: With the possible exception of Galatians, these are the first written words of Paul in the New Testament. These short phrases are pregnant with highly developed theology, pastoral and missionary experience.
Comment on key verses:
1:1 Community in mission. These three men had established the Thessalonian church, and Paul is careful to include his fellow-workers, although he is the leading author. Silvanus is usually shortened to ‘Silas’ (as Nicholas is to Nick). There is only one church in the city of Thessalonica and it lives in God the Father through the reconciling and atoning work of Jesus Christ the Lord, whose great work has established ‘peace’ between the Father and those who believe, and brought us into a place of ‘grace’.
1:2 It is a holy discipline (Holy Habit) to always begin prayers with thanksgiving.
1:3 The trio, ‘faith, love, hope’ are the defining axioms of church: ‘faith’ defines us as Christians, ‘love’ is the evidence that our faith is genuine (John 13:34-35, Galatians 5:6), and ‘hope’ is the future we have in Christ because we are genuine believers.
1:4 – 10 The dramatic creation of the church through gospel preaching
4 For we know, brothers loved by God, that he has chosen you, 5 because our gospel came to you not only in word, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction. You know what kind of men we proved to be among you for your sake. 6 And you became imitators of us and of the Lord, for you received the word in much affliction, with the joy of the Holy Spirit, 7 so that you became an example to all the believers in Macedonia and in Achaia. 8 For not only has the word of the Lord sounded forth from you in Macedonia and Achaia, but your faith in God has gone forth everywhere, so that we need not say anything. 9 For they themselves report concerning us the kind of reception we had among you, and how you turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God, 10 and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead, Jesus who delivers us from the wrath to come.
Explanation: This paragraph describes the explosive power of the gospel in one of the most significant awakenings in Christian history. Paul recounts two leading developments. First, through the power of the gospel preaching and the Spirit, the message of the Kingdom (Acts 17:7) very dramatically created a church. Second, the new believers quickly adopted the lifestyle of the missionaries, so that in four stages it was: 1) lived by the mission team, 2) imitated by the new believers, who 3) immediately became an example to the entire population of Macedonia and Achaia, with the result that 4) non-believers told the missionary team in Corinth (350 miles away) of the lifestyle of the believers in Thessalonica.
Comment on key verses:
1:4 The very fact that we have understood and chosen to believe the gospel shows that God has chosen us.
1:5 The evidence of the power of God and the Spirit’s work is the new believers’ conviction that the gospel is true and must be believed and lived.
1:6 Their new faith was immediately tested severely. The evidence that the Spirit was continuing to work was the joy they experienced in their suffering, and their determination to endure.
1:7-9 Paul states that this change has been so dramatic that the entire population of the region are talking about it. This means that this work of the Spirit is something like an awakening and a revival all at once.
1:10 In typical Pauline fashion, his last phrase introduces and anticipates subjects that he will address later in the letter: in 4:13-5:11 he will teach in detail about the return of Christ, and the subject of wrath is mentioned in 2:16, and then much more specifically in 2 Thessalonians 1:5-10.
2:1 – 12 The integrity of Paul’s missionary team
For you yourselves know, brothers, that our coming to you was not in vain.2 But though we had already suffered and been shamefully treated at Philippi, as you know, we had boldness in our God to declare to you the gospel of God in the midst of much conflict. 3 For our appeal does not spring from error or impurity or any attempt to deceive, 4 but just as we have been approved by God to be entrusted with the gospel, so we speak, not to please man, but to please God who tests our hearts. 5 For we never came with words of flattery, as you know, nor with a pretext for greed—God is witness. 6 Nor did we seek glory from people, whether from you or from others, though we could have made demands as apostles of Christ. 7 But we were gentle among you, like a nursing mother taking care of her own children. 8 So, being affectionately desirous of you, we were ready to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves, because you had become very dear to us.
9 For you remember, brothers, our labour and toil: we worked night and day, that we might not be a burden to any of you, while we proclaimed to you the gospel of God. 10 You are witnesses, and God also, how holy and righteous and blameless was our conduct toward you believers. 11 For you know how, like a father with his children, 12 we exhorted each one of you and encouraged you and charged you to walk in a manner worthy of God, who calls you into his own kingdom and glory.
Explanation: The tone of Paul’s account of their visit to Thessalonica is distinctively defensive. Paul is carefully articulating what actually happened during the brief time his missionary team were in the city. This must indicate that on his return (3:6), Timothy has reported to Paul that their opponents are vigorously maligning them in their absence, accusing them of misguided, impure motives and of having the intention to deceive the Thessalonians for their own advantage through flattery, manipulation and bullying. Paul’s response is an appeal to the truth and recount the facts and the team’s motivation before God himself. Then he introduces a deeply personal approach with family imagery, appealing to the integrity of their ministry and their appeal to live ‘in a manner worthy of God’ (v12).
Comment on key verses:
2:1 Although it seems strange in the light of the evidence, some of the opponents seem to have been claiming that the missionary team’s ministry was completely in vain.
2:4 This is one of the great verses in which we see into Paul’s heart and the motivation for the ministry to which God has called him (see also Galatians 1:10, 2 Corinthians 4:2-8).
2:6 Paul had every right as an apostle to demand financial support from those he ministered to (1 Corinthians 9:12, 15).
2:8 This is one of the great joys of ministry.
2:13 – 16 The suffering of the young church
13 And we also 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, which is at work in you believers. 14 For you, brothers, 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, 15 who killed both the Lord Jesus and the prophets, and drove us out, and displease God and oppose all mankind 16 by hindering us from speaking to the Gentiles that they might be saved—so as always to fill up the measure of their sins. But wrath has come upon them at last!
Explanation: There are two issues in this paragraph. First, Paul thanks God that the message of the Cross and Kingdom was received as the very word of God – which it is. This is the root reason why the church grew so dramatically. The second is that it was the religious Jews who vigorously opposed the message and persecuted the young church, just as they had done in Jerusalem – ironically under Saul/Paul’s leadership. Jesus addresses this in one of his severest warning to the Pharisees (Matthew 23:13-14).
Comment on key verses:
2:16 It is not clear what Paul has in mind when writing ‘wrath has come upon them at last’. Jesus took the wrath of God on the Cross as the representative embodiment of humanity and as God himself, so that we can be forgiven and receive the Holy Spirit. It could be a reference to the future judgement that those who vigorously oppose God’s purposes are certain to face precisely because they have opposed the very salvation that God has provided. If you reject the lifeboat that God has provided to save you, and even stop others getting in it, you will have to face the full consequences of your decision.
2:17 – 3:5 Paul sends Timothy to strengthen the young church
17 But since we were torn away from you, brothers, for a short time, in person not in heart, we endeavoured the more eagerly and with great desire to see you face to face, 18 because we wanted to come to you—I, Paul, again and again—but Satan hindered us. 19 For what is our hope or joy or crown of boasting before our Lord Jesus at his coming? Is it not you? 20 For you are our glory and joy.
3 Therefore when we could bear it no longer, we were willing to be left behind at Athens alone, 2 and we sent Timothy, our brother and God’s co-worker in the gospel of Christ, to establish and exhort you in your faith, 3 that no one be moved by these afflictions. For you yourselves know that we are destined for this. 4 For when we were with you, we kept telling you beforehand that we were to suffer affliction, just as it has come to pass, and just as you know. 5 For this reason, when I could bear it no longer, I sent to learn about your faith, for fear that somehow the tempter had tempted you and our labour would be in vain.
Explanation: Paul continues to explain the reasons for his missionary decisions. The reference to Satan hindering things almost certainly refers to the bail conditions that the Thessalonian magistrates had placed on Jason: ‘You are released on bail on condition that your friend Paul does not return to this region’. Had Paul returned, then Jason, and in all likelihood other young Christians as well, would have been put in prison. We see here the intense struggle that Paul faced and wrestled with as he cared for the young believers.
Comment on key verses:
2:18 We do not know exactly what Paul is referring to, although the bail terms on Jason (Acts 17:9) may have been structured by the magistrates to keep ‘that trouble-maker Paul’ out of the region. Whatever Satan’s intervention was, it backfired exceptionally badly because it had the direct effect of not only causing Paul to write this letter, which has been the source of exceptional spiritual food for all Christians for 2,000 years, but Satan’s action also catapulted Paul into his writing ministry. The Lord Jesus therefore allowed Satan to make this exceptional blunder in order to fulfil his far higher purpose. Of course, the whole event both exposed Satan and his tactics, and in the process utterly humiliated him in front of all biblically literate and spiritually discerning people!
3:4 Either because of the feature of suffering declared by the Lord at Paul’s call (Acts 9:16), or through prophetic revelation (such as Acts 20:23), the possibility of suffering rejection and violence was a daily reality for the missionary team because it frequently happened.
3:6 – 10 Timothy returns with an encouraging report
6 But 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— 7 for this reason, brothers, in all our distress and affliction we have been comforted about you through your faith. 8 For now we live, if you are standing fast in the Lord. 9 For what thanksgiving can we return to God for you, for all the joy that we feel for your sake before our God, 10 as we pray most earnestly night and day that we may see you face to face and supply what is lacking in your faith?
Explanation: Paul continues recounting the traumatic events of the past few months from his perspective. He is overjoyed when Timothy returns and gives such a positive report about the young church.
Comment on key verses:
3:6 Note that Paul assesses the church in terms of its ‘faith and love’ – this is because a church is a community of people who believe certain things about Jesus, and the evidence of their faith is their love for one another. Galatians 5:6 puts it like this: ‘the only thing that counts is faith expressing itself in love’.
3:8 ‘Standing fast (or firm)’ is one of the leading exhortations that Paul learned from Jesus (Mark 13:13).
3:9 Unsurprisingly, Paul reverts to thanksgiving and praise.
3:10 Paul knows there are still some areas where their faith is lacking, and he will address these discipleship issues in the second part of the letter.
3:11 – 13 Prayer of blessing
11 Now may our God and Father himself, and our Lord Jesus, direct our way to you, 12 and may the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all, as we do for you, 13 so that he may establish your hearts blameless in holiness before our God and Father, at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints.
Explanation: The nature and tone of these verses is ‘blessing’, following the prototype of Numbers 6, where Aaron is given authority to speak in the ‘middle voice’ a blessing that God commits himself to bless his people. This specific injunction from Moses to Aaron has been developed, even ‘beautified’ in Psalm 67, where the invocation has been moderated into a petition: ‘May … God be gracious …’. Paul very naturally concludes the first section of this letter by seamlessly changing his argument and exhortation into a prayer that God will strengthen the very attribute of love that he has already encouraged the Thessalonian believers for exhibiting. This prayer mirrors his final blessing prayer at the end of the second section of the letter (5:23-24). Then, very typically, Paul highlights in his prayer the very subject that he is about to address: ‘holiness’ at the return of Christ (v13).
Comment on key verses:
3:13 Holiness begins in the heart, which is where the Holy Spirit pours out love for God. Paul phrases this request in the context of the return of Christ because these are the two aspects of discipleship that the young Thessalonian believers need guidance on, and which he will address in chapters 4 and 5.
In this second part of the letter, Paul both addresses issues that Timothy has reported back to him, and answers more directly some questions that the young believing community have directly asked him about: community relations (4:9-10), their fear that those who have died are lost from Christ (4:13-17), and the details about the return of Christ (5:1-11). The section deals with central discipleship issues that most new believers face after their conversion, and Paul seems to deliberately recognise this by framing these exhortations and admonitions within a literary ‘inclusio’ on ‘sanctification’ (4:3 and 5:23).
4:1 – 8 Sexual purity
4 Finally, then, brothers (and sisters), we ask and urge you in the Lord Jesus, that as you received from us how you ought to walk and to please God, just as you are doing, that you do so more and more. 2 For you know what instructions we gave you through the Lord Jesus. 3 For this is the will of God, your sanctification: that you abstain from sexual immorality; 4 that each one of you know how to control his own body in holiness and honour, 5 not in the passion of lust like the Gentiles who do not know God; 6 that no one transgress and wrong his brother in this matter, because the Lord is an avenger in all these things, as we told you beforehand and solemnly warned you. 7 For God has not called us for impurity, but in holiness.8 Therefore whoever disregards this, disregards not man but God, who gives his Holy Spirit to you.
Explanation: Having recounted the dramatic events of the past few months, and explained his decisions and motivation of the missionary team, Paul is now able to focus on the main exhortations he wants to give to the new believers, on the basis of what Timothy has reported to him from his visit to Thessalonica. These instructions run from 4:3 to 5:23 and are given in the specific context of ‘sanctification’, which forms a literary ‘inclusio’. Paul covers seven subjects in what is effectively a manual on discipleship. 1:3 is therefore a leading primary instruction on all discipleship: ‘It is God’s will that you should be sanctified’. Paul gives these instructions in a Trinitarian context, citing first the authority of Jesus (v2), the will of God (the Father) (v3), and the gift of the Holy Spirit (v8).
Comment on key verses:
4:1 Although he uses a word that does mean ‘finally’, it is clear from both here and elsewhere in his letters that Paul means something more like ‘…and now to a key point I want to make’ (Philippians 3:1).
4:6 Sexual immorality is also the first issue Paul addresses in 1 Corinthians, after establishing his gospel and authority in chapters 1-4. The issue at Thessalonica seems to be that one man has taken advantage of another believer and ‘taken his woman’ with the implication that they were having sex together. Paul teaches that all believers ‘should learn to control their own bodies’, that is, their sexual behaviour (v4). When asked, Jesus was also clear that he expected everyone to know God’s ordinance stated in Genesis 2:24 (Matthew 19:4-6). This is strong stuff that runs across the grain of today’s liberal society, and all believers married or single are challenged by it. In this context, Jesus gives two exceptionally challenging teachings: first, that every apprentice must be absolutely ruthless in cutting lust out of their lives (Matthew 5:27-30), which at the beginning of the 21st Century means the ruthless rejection of all pornography. Second, that God’s purpose is marriage for life, and remarriage after divorce is adultery, except if the former partner has already committed adultery (Matthew 5:31-32, Luke 16:18). These teachings probably explain why there are so few apprentices of Jesus in this world, but we should be encouraged that Jesus himself said that prostitutes and sinners were getting into the Kingdom of God ahead of the religious leaders (Matthew 21:31). ‘Impurity’ here refers to sexual practice that is immoral, driven by passionate lust, and involves some act of wrongdoing against a fellow Christian. In contrast, ‘holiness’ refers to the practice and enjoyment of sex within God’s will, not doing things that dishonour and damage either the spouse or another person (v6).
4:9 – 10 Love within the Christian community
9 Now concerning brotherly love you have no need for anyone to write to you, for you yourselves have been taught by God to love one another, 10 for that indeed is what you are doing to all the brothers throughout Macedonia. But we urge you, brothers, to do this more and more…
Explanation: Paul’s second ‘discipleship’ admonition is about agape love for other believers. At first sight it looks peculiar that Paul should raise a subject and then effectively say, ‘actually, I hardly need to mention this because you are doing so well at it’. However, it makes good sense when we realise that Paul thinks in categories, and here he has in mind the category of the three main areas of sin: idolatry, immorality and hatred. These categories are transparently clear throughout his letter of 1 Corinthians). Paul has addressed idolatry in his narrative of the awakening in Thessalonica where he states that even the non-Christians in Corinth were reporting back to the missionary team that the Thessalonians had ‘turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God’ (1:9). Paul addresses the issue of immorality as the first discipleship imperative (4:3-8) and so the obvious next subject is the issue of hatred, and its remedy, ‘love’. The Thessalonians were already excelling in ‘brotherly love’ (1:3, 3:6, 3:12).
Comment on key verses:
4:9 ‘Now about …’ is Paul’s classic way of introducing a new subject, a literary device he uses frequently in 1 Corinthians.
4:10 Paul uses a very similar exhortation at the end of 5:11.
4:11 – 12 Work and responsibility
11 and to aspire to live quietly, and to mind your own affairs, and to work with your hands, as we instructed you, 12 so that you may walk properly before outsiders and be dependent on no one.
Explanation: This is the third discipleship issue. These short phrases touch the heart of the whole of our lives. They speak to our personal approach to living and teach us to work well, to earn our own money so we provide for ourselves and those closely dependent on us, and that we are not to be a nuisance in our communities. Paul is almost certainly warning a few whose attitude to life was to sponge off others, quite probably the ‘rice Christians’, although ‘rice Christians’ don’t tend to hang around in persecution. Paul is addressing the attitude of the idle which is to live off others. But his words went unheeded and he was forced to address the problem with real vehemence in 2 Thessalonians 3:6.
4:13 – 5:11 Doctrine: the return of Christ
13 But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about those who are asleep, that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. 14 For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep. 15 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. 16 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. 17 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. 18 Therefore encourage one another with these words.
Explanation: To us, with two thousand years of church history behind us, it comes as a bit of a surprise that the Thessalonians believers could have been so thrown by such a simple misunderstanding. Paul gently affirms the truth that believers who die are not somehow cut off from Christ. In a piece of very clear of doctrinal teaching, Paul describes the future return of Christ in order to make the point that those believers who have died, who are ‘asleep’ (v15), will return with Christ.
Comment on key verses:
4:13 The grieving process is healthy and a proper part of human experience, as evidenced in Acts 8:2. Paul’s point is that believers have ‘hope’ – the quiet confidence in the future with Christ – so to grieve without hope is contradiction.
5 Now concerning the times and the seasons, brothers, you have no need to have anything written to you. 2 For you yourselves are fully aware that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night. 3 While people are saying, “There is peace and security,” then sudden destruction will come upon them as labour pains come upon a pregnant woman, and they will not escape. 4 But you are not in darkness, brothers, for that day to surprise you like a thief. 5 For you are all children of light, children of the day. We are not of the night or of the darkness.6 So then let us not sleep, as others do, but let us keep awake and be sober. 7 For those who sleep, sleep at night, and those who get drunk, are drunk at night. 8 But since we belong to the day, let us be sober, having put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation. 9 For God has not destined us for wrath, but to obtain salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, 10 who died for us so that whether we are awake or asleep we might live with him. 11 Therefore encourage one another and build one another up, just as you are doing.
Explanation: For whatever reason there is confusion in the young community about the details of Christ’s return. Paul puts the responsibility back on them by reminding them that he has already told them the details, and then repeating Christ’s own teachings (Matthew 24:42-44) about the thief in the night and the imperative to be alert; ‘keep awake’ (v6). Then from v5 onwards, Paul builds on the ‘sleeping’ motif to make the point in v8 that a believer’s mind should be protected by ‘the hope of salvation’. Hope is the quiet certainty that now we are in Christ, our future with him is absolutely assured. All believers should no longer fear the future wrath of God, which we should understand as the results of living disobedient lives outside the will of God. Paul, whose ministry perspective is always cruciform, then brings this teaching to a conclusion with a summary statement on atonement (v10), and a final exhortation to the believing community to strengthen each other through mutual exhortation.
Comment on key verses:
5:10 It is easy to overlook this simple but clear atonement statement: ‘he died for us … so that we might live for him’. Galatians 3:13 elucidates this more strongly: ‘Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us’, and Peter makes a very similar statement in 1 Peter 3:18: ‘Christ died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God.’
5:12 – 15 Leadership issues in the church
12 We ask you, brothers, to respect those who labour among you and are over you in the Lord and admonish you, 13 and to esteem them very highly in love because of their work. Be at peace among yourselves. 14 And we urge you, brothers, admonish the idle, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with them all. 15 See that no one repays anyone evil for evil, but always seek to do good to one another and to everyone.
Explanation: Verses 12-13 address the whole believing community with an exhortation to respect their leaders and work peacefully with them, supporting them in their pastoral leadership. The specific admonition that they should be at peace among themselves means that in some way there was tension between the leadership and the members.
V14-15 address the leaders. These short imperatives contain exceptional pastoral wisdom as well as opening a window on some of the different issues in the young community of believers.
Comment on key verses:
5:14 A (probably small) number of new believers were idle, that is, they were not working or seeking work, and they have already been addressed generally in 4:12. In Paul’s second letter to the Thessalonians, this issue will have deteriorated very significantly, so he is forced to issue the strongest warning and command in all his writings (3:6-15).
5:15 In making this warning Paul may have in mind the relationship dispute of 4:6, where it seems one man has taken another ‘brother’s’ woman! He wants this matter settled quickly without any escalation.
5:16 – 18 Lifestyle habits for the apprentice of Jesus
16 Rejoice always, 17 pray without ceasing, 18 give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.
Explanation: Here is the utter genius of Paul! He perfectly captures in short words and phrases the essence of living with Christ (5:10) moment by moment.
Comment on key verses:
5:17 Of course this is practically impossible; you can’t pray without ceasing if you are giving a speech! But, godly people have learned to live in a continuous attitude of praying.
5:18 We should not give thanks for evil, but when evil happens we can give thanks that the Lord is in control and is redeeming everything.
5:19 – 22 Cultivating the life of the Spirit
19 Do not quench the Spirit. 20 Do not despise prophecies, 21 but test everything; hold fast what is good. 22 Abstain from every form of evil.
Explanation: These verses address the charismatic activity of the Holy Spirit in the new community of believers, and they indicate that Paul’s earlier reference to the Spirit coming with power and conviction (1:5) did include a charismatic dimension, as was the case in the other Pentecostal incidents in the New Testament (Acts 2:1-13, Acts 10:44, Acts 19:1-7). Prophecy is the leading charisma (1 Corinthians 14:1), which is why he addresses it succinctly in these five brief, perfectly balanced imperatives. The fact that the first two imperatives are in the negative implies that the Thessalonian believers had come to a point of rejecting the Spirit’s work – perhaps because the quality of some of the prophetic messages was poor, faulty or even simply wrong. But as has been wisely stated: ‘the answer to poor use, is not disuse, but proper use!’ At the heart of Paul’s exhortations is the need for the gift of discernment.
5:23 – 28 Blessing, exhortation and final instructions
23 Now may the God of peace himself sanctify you completely, and may your whole spirit and soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. 24 He who calls you is faithful; he will surely do it.
25 Brothers, pray for us.
26 Greet all the brothers with a holy kiss.
27 I put you under oath before the Lord to have this letter read to all the brothers.
28 The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you.
Explanation: These verses directly correspond to Paul’s introductory statements at the beginning of this section (4:1-3). In repeating the word ‘sanctify’, Paul indicates that it is the underlying theme throughout chapters 4 and 5. Although there have been many imperatives for the apprentice of Jesus throughout this section, nevertheless, ultimately it is God who is working out his agenda, and it will be fulfilled. Throughout, Paul has mentioned the Trinitarian activities of the Godhead (4:2,3,7, and 5:16,19,23), which are lived out in the three arenas of body, soul and spirit.
Comment on key verses:
5:23 The word ‘may’ expresses the middle voice of blessing that is derived from the Aaronic blessing of Numbers 6:24-27, expressed in modified form in Psalm 67, and used by Paul in his summary of the first part of the letter in 3:11-13.
5:24 This is a magnificent statement of faith and truth that all apprentices should learn and meditate on often and deeply. Ultimately all our discipleship is his work through and through.
The overall message of 1 Thessalonians:
Paul writes a wonderfully warm, encouraging letter to a community of young believers in Thessalonica, who have been powerfully converted in a revival that has swept across eastern Greece, only to then find themselves facing a reaction of strong persecution just as they begin to take their first steps in discipleship.
The leading imperatives:
4:3-8 Abstain from immorality: 3 For this is the will of God, your sanctification: that you abstain from sexual immorality; 4 that each one of you know how to control his own body in holiness and honour, 5 not in the passion of lust like the Gentiles who do not know God; 6 that no one transgress and wrong his brother in this matter, because the Lord is an avenger in all these things, as we told you beforehand and solemnly warned you. 7 For God has not called us for impurity, but in holiness.8 Therefore whoever disregards this, disregards not man but God, who gives his Holy Spirit to you.
4:9-10 Love one another: 9 Now concerning brotherly love you have no need for anyone to write to you, for you yourselves have been taught by God to love one another, 10 for that indeed is what you are doing to all the brothers throughout Macedonia. But we urge you, brothers, to do this more and more…
4:11-12 Live quietly and work hard: 11 and to aspire to live quietly, and to mind your own affairs, and to work with your hands, as we instructed you, 12 so that you may walk properly before outsiders and be dependent on no one.
4:13-5:11 Make sure you know the key Christian doctrines properly.
5:12-13 Respect the church leaders: 12 We ask you, brothers, to respect those who labour among you and are over you in the Lord and admonish you, 13 and to esteem them very highly in love because of their work. Be at peace among yourselves.
5:14 – 15 Church leaders should pastor the church members diligently and lovingly: 14 And we urge you, brothers, admonish the idle, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with them all. 15 See that no one repays anyone evil for evil, but always seek to do good to one another and to everyone.
5:16-18 Every apprentice of Jesus should … 16 Rejoice always, 17 pray without ceasing, 18 give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.
5:19-22 The apprentice’s interaction with the Spirit: 19 Do not quench the Spirit. 20 Do not despise prophecies, 21 but test everything; hold fast what is good. 22 Abstain from every form of evil.
5:27 Read and listen to scripture: 27 I put you under oath before the Lord to have this letter read to all the brothers.
The implied imperatives:
1:2 Always begin prayer with thanksgiving: 2 We give thanks to God always for all of you, constantly mentioning you in our prayers…
1:6 Imitate the behaviour of Paul and his colleagues: 6 And you became imitators of us and of the Lord, for you received the word in much affliction, with the joy of the Holy Spirit…
1:9 Turn to God from idols: how you turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God…
2:2 Proclaim the gospel boldly: we had boldness in our God to declare to you the gospel of God in the midst of much conflict.
2:4 Speak as those approved by God himself: we have been approved by God to be entrusted with the gospel, so we speak, not to please man, but to please God who tests our hearts.
2:9 Do not burden those you minister to: 9 For you remember, brothers, our labour and toil: we worked night and day, that we might not be a burden to any of you, while we proclaimed to you the gospel of God.
2:13 Receive the gospel as the word of God: 13 And we also 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, which is at work in you believers.
2:5-8, 10-12 Integrity and genuine love in ministry: 5 For we never came with words of flattery, as you know, nor with a pretext for greed—God is witness. 6 Nor did we seek glory from people, whether from you or from others, though we could have made demands as apostles of Christ. 7 But we were gentle among you, like a nursing mother taking care of her own children. 8 So, being affectionately desirous of you, we were ready to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves, because you had become very dear to us.
10 You are witnesses, and God also, how holy and righteous and blameless was our conduct toward you believers. 11 For you know how, like a father with his children, 12 we exhorted each one of you and encouraged you and charged you to walk in a manner worthy of God, who calls you into his own kingdom and glory.
5:25-26 Final instructions: 25 Brothers, pray for us. 26 Greet all the brothers with a holy kiss.
Holy Habits: (Holy Habits are patterns of living and lifestyle practices which we choose to do in our lives. These can be in order to either withdraw from the dominion of the world, such as silence, secrecy, submission, fasting, watching, simple living, or, practices that plunge us into the life of the Kingdom, such as prayer, worship, celebration, study, serving the poor and deprived, etc. They can be as simple as kneeling by your bed and thanking God at the end of the day, or as substantial as attending an annual Christian festival.)
Question 1 -
There is a tendency among some Christians and some denominations to strongly criticise anyone, or any other denomination, who holds a different view about the return of Christ. The three main views are generally held to be pre-millennialism, post-millennialism and a-millennialism. What principles should determine how we discuss these views with each other (4:13-5:11; Mark 13, Romans 14:1,13,19)?
Question 2 -
Throughout this letter, Paul describes both the power of the gospel (‘Word’) and the power of the Spirit to convict people and to establish the new Christian community, the Church. List and summarise the different verses in the letter that describe each of these.
Question 3 -
The word ‘hope’ is used by Paul to describe our attitude as Christians to all that the future holds, and particularly our future experience of our heavenly Father’s goodness, primarily at the return of Christ. ‘Hope’ is a leading topic in this letter. What do the following verses describe about the believer’s hope and its effects: 1:10, 3:13, 4:13, 4:18, 5:5-8, 5:23-24?
Question 4 -
Why does Paul react so strongly against laziness (4:11, 5:13, 2 Thessalonians 3:6-15)? What do you imagine was really going on? Have you ever come across ‘rice Christians’?
Question 5 -
In 5:12-15, Paul first addresses all the members of the young Christian community (v12-13), and then the leaders (v14-15). What do you think was the problem? What key attitudes should influence the behaviour of each group?
Question 6 -
In 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18, Paul gives three Herculean imperatives to all apprentices of Jesus, addressing issues at the centre of our living and abiding with Christ. What Holy Habits can we do both corporately and individually to integrate these behaviours into the very fabric of our daily lives?