Tuesday, December 17, 2019

Flyover Country: 1 Thessalonians

I’m not sure we need another ongoing series of posts at the moment, but a couple of friends have been after me for a while to do a series where each post summarizes a single book of the Bible in one go; an overview that would serve to highlight their themes and most important feature(s).

I’ve resisted this initially because there are so many such things online already. Then I looked more closely and realized some are more useful than others. Some are so brief and random they might as well be tweets, and a few really are.

I’ll aspire to usefulness at least. Execution is another story ...

Anyway, since the post I was going to write today about 1 Thessalonians was more of a view from 15,000 feet up than an in-depth analysis or word study, this seems like a good time to start.

So here we go:

One Sentence Summary: The apostle Paul’s instructions to Christians about how we should live because Jesus Christ is coming back.

Background and Purpose

If historians are correct, this is the second letter Paul wrote, around or about A.D. 51, a couple of years after writing to the Galatians. In English, it is a mere 89 verses, the second-shortest of Paul’s letters to churches, though far from the shortest book in the New Testament. It was always intended to circulate, as we can see from 5:27, which makes its distribution a moral imperative: “I put you under oath before the Lord to have this letter read to all the brothers.”

Why so urgent with this particular message? We can easily understand the burden Paul was under when he wrote Galatians, deeply concerned that the Judaizers would drag some or all of Paul’s Gentile converts in the Galatian churches back into the false doctrine of law-keeping as a means of salvation. But the return of the Lord? We now know that promised return is actually at least two millennia into the future of the church, roughly speaking. Why such urgency and severity of language to readers in the mid-first century? “Under oath before the Lord.” The apostle was not messing around.

Perhaps because, just like the possibility that my boss might be standing over my shoulder inspires me to effort and competence on the job, the return of our Lord is one of the most powerful incentives to holy living that might be imagined.

The Return of the Lord

Thus Paul mentions it in his introduction:
“... you turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God, and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead, Jesus who delivers us from the wrath to come,”
and five more times throughout this brief letter, at least once in every chapter, often referring to the Lord’s return with the Greek word parousia, frequently translated as “coming”. Indeed, the Lord’s coming is key to everything else he tells them.

This “coming” was not new teaching. It had been announced by the Lord Jesus and would later be reported to us in Matthew 24. It was a crucial component of “the faith” Paul and his co-workers regularly delivered to the saints everywhere. So with respect to the timing and suddenness of the Lord’s return, the apostle can say, “you have no need of anything written to you” and “you yourselves are fully aware.” Paul did, however, add something new in order to keep his readers from being deficient in their understanding or grieving unnecessarily: “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.” The precise meaning of these words is hotly debated among Christians, some of whom critique the idea of a “secret rapture”. But whatever you may think of the teaching, this is where you first find it.

Organization and Content

As with most letters, it is framed with the expected introductory comments (1:1-10) and concluding exhortations and benediction (5:23-28).

However, a surprising amount of the book — almost all of the first three chapters — concerns the relationship between Paul and the Thessalonians. This is much more personal material, and of much less urgent concern to other churches in the first century or to modern readers. Its usefulness to us is that it sets out Paul’s customs and practices when ministering to new believers as a model for evangelists and teachers today, and provides a foundation of moral authority for his commands to his readers to live the same way.

This extended rehearsal of the shared history of Paul and the Thessalonians is not particularly doctrinal stuff, and may inspire younger readers to tap their toes impatiently, waiting for the apostle to get to something they might be more interested in. In fact, we don’t really get doctrine and practice — the real meat of the book, and the part with the greatest relevance to us today — until chapters 4 and 5, right after the word “Finally”.

When we do, the apostle’s immediate concern is to encourage sexual morality (4:1-7), brotherly love and good testimony (4:8-12), hope during times of grief (4:13-18), sobriety (5:8), respect for leadership (5:12-13), and pithy instructions on a number of subjects related to appropriate conduct (5:13-22).

Value to Modern Readers

These commandments surely apply not just to the Thessalonians, but to all churches everywhere throughout history. And it is with the expectation of our Lord’s return in view that we are encouraged to live this way. The apostle would have his readers “blameless” (3:13, 5:23) and a source of glory and joy (2:19) at the Lord’s coming. That is the big incentive.


  1. The series (and I look forward to it) is actually a great idea. We're very used to micro-focus on a single verse or phrase, or perhaps there's a step back to look at a chapter. But rarely do we look at a book in its entirety to understand the big theme and the structure of the thing. Failure to do that results in all sorts of miserable interpretations (Hebrews would be a grand example of that type of error). Looking forward to this series as a good reference point to understand larger themes. Thanks.

    1. Rob! It's been years, bud. So good to hear from you.