Explanatory Notes on 1 Thessalonians
by Ken Schenck
The first verse of 1 Thessalonians indicates Paul, Silas (“Silvanus”), and Timothy are its senders, a datum that has never seriously been questioned. Paul speaks in the plural (“we”—e.g., 2:1) while speaking of Timothy some in the third person (e.g., 3:6). We should thus think primarily of Paul and Silas as the primary voices behind the letter, with Timothy perhaps serving as secretary and/or letter taker.
The audience is the “church of
the Thessalonians” (1:1), located in the city of
The location from which Paul and
Silas write could be Athens (3:1), from which Paul and Silas dispatched Timothy
back to Thessalonica to reinforce the initial faith of the community. On the other hand, it is also possible that
they have since moved on to
Paul apparently arrived in
The reason for 1 Thessalonians would seem at least two-fold. First it is meant to contribute to the continued solidification of Paul’s relationship with the Thessalonians and, more importantly, their commitment to the Christian gospel. At the same time, Paul uses the opportunity to address some questions and issues that have surfaced, such as what happens to believers who die before Christ’s return, as well as sexual immorality and indolence.
Paul and Silas and Timothy to the
Thus begins what may have been Paul's first surviving letter and, indeed, the first writing of the New Testament written. It is an ancient letter prescript with only a few unique features. Paul has included within the "sender" section Silas and Timothy, his coworkers. If we coordinate 1 Thessalonians with the book of Acts, Paul was with Silas and Timothy in
Thessalonica was in
"Grace and peace" would become Paul's standard greeting, combining as it seems something like the Greek for greetings (charein) and the Hebrew greeting (shalom), thus embodying the unity of Jew and Gentile.
1:2-3 We give thanks to God always concerning you all as we make mention in our prayers, constantly remembering your work of faith and labor of love and endurance of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ before our God and Father,
This is the thanksgiving section of the letter, also a standard feature of an ancient letter, although Paul develops it far more than most letters did.
The expression "work of faith" no doubt was not peculiar at all when Paul wrote it. It is thus a sign of how far off track the faith versus works debate today has gone. Faith and works for Paul were not contradictory notions, but faith showed itself in action.
1:4-5 ... knowing, brothers beloved by God, your election, because our gospel did not come to you in word only but also in power and with Holy Spirit and with much confidence, just as you know how we came to you because of you,
Election is something Paul infers after the fact rather than something that drives his theology. He induces that the Thessalonians are elect because perhaps miracles and other manifestations of power accompanied their conversion. Such an observation would not mean for Paul that they could not help but make it to the end or would not contradict someone leaving the fellowship. Paul predestination language does not cause anything in his theology, ethics, or action. It is rather an affirmation or effect of what has already happened.
1:6-7 ... and you became imitators of us and of the Lord, having received the word with much tribulation with the joy of Holy Spirit, so that you became an example to all who have faith in
Paul has no difficulty holding himself and Silas up against Jesus as examples to emulate in suffering and persecution. Jesus endured persecution. Paul and Silas have endured persecution. The Thessalonians have endured persecution, and their endurance is an example for those in
1:8 For the word of the Lord has gone out from you not only in
The Thessalonian church, according to Acts, was not the first church in
We notice that faith here is directed toward God. While it is fairly conventional for Christians to speak of faith in Christ, Paul more often thought of faith as directed toward God. The sense of faith here seems to be one of keeping faith or being faithful to God, which of course involves trusting in Him too. It is not a mere confession of faith, however, but a way of acting in faith.
1:9 For they themselves announce concerning you of what sort of entrance we had to you and how you turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God,
This verse indicates that the audience of 1 Thessalonians is Gentile rather than Jewish. As a Jew, Paul believes that there is only one legitimate, true God. Idols, on the other hand, do not have life.
1:10 ... and to await His Son from the skies, whom He raised from the dead, Jesus, who rescues us from the coming wrath.
Here is perhaps the earliest Pauline teaching on the coming of Christ. We might have translated the word for "skies" as "heavens," but that makes it too easy for us to impose later understandings of heaven on Paul's meaning. The word basically means skies, and Paul seemed to conceptualize the world in terms of three of them.
Interesting that the early formulation is that God raised Jesus from the dead rather than that Jesus arose. It is a testament once again to the theocentric nature of at least Paul's early thinking. Faith is directed toward God, and God is the one who raised Jesus "out of the corpses."
Jesus rescues us from the coming wrath. The wrath is presumably the wrath of God in judgment. Paul does not say how Jesus' victorious resurrection connects to his rescue of us from God's wrath.
For you yourselves know, brothers, our entrance with
you, that it has not been vain. But having suffered previously and being ill
treated, as you know, in
As in Acts, Paul indicates that he first came to Thessalonica along the
Paul seems to take the courage he, Silas, and Timothy had to preach the gospel, the good news of Jesus' Lordship, as an indication of God's support for them. They had the strength to preach it despite great conflict, presumably at Thessalonica as well.
2:3-4 For our admonition [has not been] from error nor from uncleanness nor with deceit, but just as we were approved by God to be entrusted with the gospel, so we are speaking, not as if we were pleasing mortals but God, the one who approves our hearts.
It was essential for an orator to secure the confidence of the audience, for them to trust the speaker and his (her?) motives. So Paul here affirms that he is a trustworthy authority. He is not mistaken, nor are his motives impure, nor is he trying to scam them. God has trusted them with the gospel. The stakes of deceit would be high, for they have God to answer to, not mere mortals.
2:5-7a For neither did we come at some time with a word of flattery, as you know, nor with a pretext for greed, God is witness, nor seeking glory from mortals nor from you nor from others, although we were able to exert pressure as apostles of Christ.
To call God as witness was no small thing. The ancients believed in the gods more truly than so many moderns and invoking them in the name of truth was a serious thing, as opposed to the shallow God language of many if not most today. Paul continues to vouch for his sincerity and good motives, invoking God as witness to the fact that he has not been flattering the Thessalonians or trying to get their possessions.
They were not seeking human glory and did not use their authority as apostles of Jesus Christ to their selfish advantage. They did not lord over the Thessalonians, as if they were really on a power trip.
2:7b-8 But we became gentle in your midst, as if we were a nurse nourishing her children, so being affectionate toward you, we desired to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own lives, because you became beloved to us.
In contrast to the domineering manner Paul and Silas might have assumed as apostles, they more took the role of a nurse, affectionately nursing them as children in Christ. They loved the Thessalonians as they shared their lives with them along with the gospel. This is the second time Paul has mentioned the gospel of God, but it will not be his last in this section.
2:9 For remember, brothers, our labor and our trouble, working night and day so that some of you might not be burdened, we preached to you the gospel of God.
Paul's motives for supporting himself may not have entirely been about not putting a burden on his churches. After all, Paul did receive support from the Philippians while he was at Thessalonica (Phil. 4:16). To receive patronage in the ancient world was to become encumbered by strings of obligation. It is at least possible that Paul did not as a policy accept support from churches while he was present so that he would not be so encumbered.
It is quite possible that Paul himself came from a family with some resources, assuming that he was a Roman citizen as Acts indicates. If so, then he may not have grown up working with his hands in the manner he did in his mission work. He lowered himself socially for the benefit of the gospel of God, which he mentions now a third time.
2:10-12 You yourselves are witnesses, and God, how holily and righteously and blamelessly we were to you who believe, just as you know, how as a father his own children admonishing each one of you and encouraging you and witnessing so that you might walk worthily of God who called you into His own kingdom and glory.
The confidence that Paul shows in his spirituality is foreign to the way so many Christians think of their own righteousness today. On the one hand, we may have a more exacting sense of perfection than Paul did. We tend to think of absolute perfection when we hear words like these, and Paul almost certainly does not. On the other hand, Paul no doubt lived for the gospel with a fullness of intent that few Christians today embody.
Here as elsewhere, Paul makes no accommodation for sin in his understanding of the gospel. Christian are to walk worthily of God. They are to be holy and righteous and blameless as he, Silas, and Timothy.
Paul identifies the audience as "those who believe" or "those who have faith." This faith in chapter 1 was directed toward God.
2:13 And for this reason also we ourselves give thanks to God constantly, that having received the word of hearing of God from us, you received not the word of mortals but, as it is, truly the word of God, who also works among you who believe.
Paul uses the kind of thanksgiving language typical of this part of a letter. Once again Paul refers to them as "you who believe" or "you who have faith." The word of God is presumably the message of the gospel of God, that God's reign as king is coming, the
2:14 For you yourselves became imitators, brothers, of the assemblies of God that are in Judea in Christ Jesus, because you also yourselves suffered the same things from your own kinspeople as they also suffered by the Judeans,
The new believers were apparently undergoing persecution in Thessalonica for their new found faith. It is difficult to imagine how this would be the case other than that 1) the continued to experience fall out from disruption Paul's preaching created while he was there or 2) they had somehow continued his preaching in public in some way. It seems unlikely that the powers that be would have opposed the new believers unless in some way they were somehow disturbing the peace of the city.
Paul here around the year AD51 indicates that at least some churches in
2:15-16a ... who also killed the Lord Jesus and the prophets and pushed us out and do not please God and are enemies of all people [because] they hinder us from speaking to the Gentiles in order that they might be saved,
The particular examples of persecution Paul mentions supports our theory of the kind of persecution Paul has in mind. It was presumably the temple leadership in particular that set into motion the events leading to Jesus' persecution. It was presumably these same forces for whom Paul worked before he saw the risen Christ, and it was presumably these forces that then ran Paul out of town when he returned three years later.
We have little reason to believe that Christianity under James in
2:16b ... so that their sins always fill up, and wrath has reached them at last.
It is difficult to think of a specific event that Paul might have in mind here. Some twelve years earlier the emperor Caligula had tried to set up a statue of himself in the
Other possibilities include the Judean famine of AD46 and Claudius' refusal to grant Jews the rights of Roman citizenship in the early 40's. But neither of these seems particularly to fit the bill. In the end, perhaps Paul here is anticipating events he believes will soon take place rather than ones that already had.
But we ourselves, brothers, after we were torn away from you for a brief hour,
in face, not in heart, we were all the more greatly diligent to see your face
with great desire, because we wanted to come to you--I myself, Paul, time and
again--and the Adversary prevented us.
It is interesting that in what is perhaps Paul's earliest letter he mentions the Satan, the Adversary. Satan does not play a prominent role in Paul's other letters. Apparently Paul had mentioned the Adversary to the Thessalonians when he was there or, being pagans, it is hard to imagine that they would know what he was talking about.
The Satan here is seen as a power that opposes Paul's work, the work of God. Paul singles himself from Silas and Timothy as particularly opposed. The letter on the whole has a genuine sense of co-authorship (with Silas, at least), but here Paul distinguishes himself as the primary voice. Paul does not address the question of God's sovereignty. However it happens, the Satan causes genuine problems for Paul's efforts.
2:19-20 For what is our hope or joy or crown of boasting before our Lord Jesus at his coming--if it is not you? For you yourselves are our glory and joy.
In this letter, perhaps Paul's earliest, he has a robust sense of Christ's coming, his "parousia." Everything about this statement implies that Paul expects that he and the Thessalonians will still be alive when that coming takes place. We wonder if Paul sees himself on a mission to take the gospel to all the Gentiles--at least in the civilized world. But he expects that he and the Thessalonians will live to see the coming. On that day, he will be able to present the Thessalonians to God as the fruit of his labor, a matter for him to glory in and boast about.
3:1-2a Therefore, when we couldn't take it any longer, we were pleased to remain in
The scenario Paul presents here is slightly different from that in Acts. In Acts, Paul leaves Silas and Timothy in Berea (not mentioned in Paul's own letters) and goes on to Athens by himself (Acts 17:14-15). From
The scenario in 1 Thessalonians is different. Here Paul and Silas are together in
The mention of
3:2b-3 ... in order that you might be established and to admonish you in your faith so that no one is shaken in these tribulations, for you yourselves know that we are appointed for this.
Once again we get the clear impression that the Thessalonians encountered significant hardship as a result of their faith in Jesus as Messiah, even though we do not know the precise nature of the hardship. Faith here seems to mean confidence in the truth of the gospel or perhaps their steadfastness in Christian commitment, as in 3:5. And that for which Paul and the Thessalonians are appointed would seem to be tribulation and persecution.
3:4-5 For even when we were with you, were telling you that we were about to face tribulation, just as both happened and you know. For this reason when I myself could no longer take it, I sent to know of your faith, lest somehow the Tempter tempted you and our labor came to be in vain.
Presumably by "the Temptor," Paul refers again to "the Satan" or "the Adversary." Here again Satan has a role that does not show up in Paul's later writings, although of course Paul does not deny him this role later on. The role here seems a little different from 2:18 above where Satan opposes and hinders. In 3:5 the Satan seems to play a role much more like the Adversary of Job, testing the people of the earth to see if they will remain loyal to God.
Faith here seems more to refer to steadfastness in Christian commitment. The statement seems to imply that not too much time has passed since Paul, Silas, and Timothy were in Thessalonica, perhaps precluding now as the time when Paul visited Illyricum in the northwest (cf. Rom. 15:19).
3:6 But now, since Timothy has come to us from you and has told us the good news of your faith and love and that you always have good memory of us, desiring to see us as we also do you,
Timothy's visit and report would appear to be the first real contact Paul has had with the Thessalonians since he left, again suggesting a somewhat brief amount of time since they left. Where Paul and Silas are now located is less clear. Are they still at
3:7-8 ... for this reason we were encouraged, brothers, because of you in every necessity and tribulation of you through your faith, because now we live if you yourselves are standing in the Lord.
The news that Paul received from Timothy was apparently good. The faith or steadfastness in commitment of the Thessalonians continued even though Paul and Silas were no longer there to admonish them. Paul and Silas are greatly encouraged. The alternative would have been demoralizing.
3:9-10 For what thanksgiving are we able to give back to God concerning you with all joy with which we rejoice because of you before our God, night and day asking exceedingly to see your face and to supply what is lacking in your faith?
Faith in 3:10 then seems to be something slightly different yet. Is it their confidence and commitment to Jesus as Lord? Is it their understanding of Jesus' Lordship?
Paul expresses his desire to return to them clearly. Circumstances have caused him to move on but he longs to return to solidify their Christian identity. As 1 Thessalonians 4 will make clear, in his brief visit Paul was not able to give them full instruction even on what seem to us such basic ideas as resurrection.
3:11-12 And may our God and Father himself and our Lord Jesus direct our way to you, and may the Lord make you increase and abound in love toward one another and toward all, as also us toward you...
With these next three verses Paul closes the first half of the letter. They are a kind of benediction, using a Greek mood called the optative, the optative of wish in particular. Paul expresses to God and the Thessalonians his desire to visit the Thessalonians again. He expresses his desire for them to abound in love toward one another, the fundamental Christian value in Paul's later letters of Galatians (in my dating) and Romans. He expresses the love of himself, Silas, and Timothy toward them.
3:13 ... so that your hearts might be established as blameless in holiness before our God and Father at the arrival of our Lord Jesus with all his holy ones.
The wish for them to abound in love apparently relates to the desired consequence or result of such multiplied love: blamelessness and holiness. Messiah Jesus will soon arrive from the sky with his holy ones. The identity of these holy ones is unclear here--are they angels, for example. In 4:17, the dead in Christ accompany him from heaven above, and of course "holy ones" is a phrase Paul uses later in reference to believers (e.g., 1 Cor. 1:2).
However, in that case, the Thessalonians would surely be included among the holy ones. Possibly one could read the statement in that way--Paul wishes them to be established as blameless when Messiah Jesus arrives with them in train. Presumably Paul does not merely refer to the dead in Christ returning with him (1 Thess. 4:17)? Perhaps in the end we should see a reference here to angels (e.g., 4:16).
The relationship of love toward one another that Paul mentioned in 3:12 is apparently the formula for blamelessness before God. It is also the behavior appropriate to that which belongs to God, which "touches" and is included within His holiness. Such individuals are thus blameless in holiness before God.
Therefore, the rest: I ask you and admonish you in the Lord Jesus so that just
as you received from us how it is necessary for you to walk and to please God,
just as also you are walking, so that you might abound more, for you know what
instructions we gave to you through the Lord Jesus.
Paul signals the beginning of the second half of the letter. The first half has largely had to do with the story of Paul's personal engagement with the Thessalonians as a community. Now he begins to give them specific teaching and admonition in relation to their thoughts and actions. He affirms that they are already "walking" or behaving in a certain way. Now he will reinforce some of that basic ethical instruction.
4:3-5 For this is the will of God: your sanctification, for you to abstain from sexual immorality, for each of you to know to control his own vessel in holiness and honor, not with the passion of desire like the Gentiles who do not know God,
Sanctification has the sense of being set apart as God's, with all the implications of being drawn on God's side of the line (as opposed to the "common," ordinary side or, further, the defiled side). Something that belongs to God is "superclean" and demands special handling.
Although Paul's theology significantly reconfigures the purity-impurity lines the Pentateuch and Jewish tradition drew around reality, sexual practice remained for Paul a principal area of potential defilement. Paul seems to nullify all the Old Testament purity legislation when it comes to the Gentiles except those relating to sexual conduct. He finds it inconceivable that a person might be the possession of the holy God, be "touching" the true God, and also be in contact with impure forms of sex.
Some have argued that porneia, "sexual immorality," has specific sexual connotations. The best argument for this position is the fact that porneia can occur in lists of vices that include other sexual sins like adultery. The argument is thus sometimes made that porneia only refers to particular types of sexual sins, like incest. The old King James translation of the word, "fornication," often misled interpreters into thinking that Paul was talking here about pre-marital sex.
In the end, however, it is not in the nature of vice lists for each item to be a discrete thing. Such vices often overlap in content. The safest conclusion would seem to be that by porneia, Paul refers to any of the types of sexual sin that are found in Leviticus 18. Because there were specific words for adultery and some probably created by Jews for certain types of homosexual sex, we might easily imagine that Paul would use those words when those actions were specifically in view. The word porneia would thus be used especially for "everything else," while also serving as a general word for the entire class of action.
In Jewish rhetoric, the classic "Gentile" sins were idolatry and sexual immorality. Paul here plays on that Jewish sense that Gentiles cannot control their sexual passions. In contrast believers are to conduct themselves with sexual purity and honor.
4:6 ... not to wrong or take advantage of your brother in a matter, because the Lord is just in relation to all things, as also we have said before to you and we have said emphatically.
This verse is sandwiched between the prior reference to sexual immorality and 4:7, which seems to continue the reference. It is thus likely also referring to sexual immorality. And when we ask about an area of sexual immorality in which a person might "take advantage" of a brother on a sexual matter, adultery must surely top the list. It is thus quite possible that in this section, Paul is warning the Thessalonian congregation about adultery within the church.
4:7-8 For God did not call you for uncleanness but in sanctification. Therefore, the one who rejects [this instruction] does not reject a mortal, but God who is giving His Holy Spirit to you.
Paul reminds the Thessalonians that God, not he, is the ultimate source of these exhortations. Paul also makes an implict connection between "being holy," "being sanctified," and the Holy Spirit within. Sexual immorality is thus all the more inappropriate, for we have God's Spirit within us. Paul will develop this line of thought in 1 Corinthians 5-6.
4:9-10a Now concerning brotherly love you do not have need [for me] to write to you, for you yourselves are God-taught so that you love one another, for you are even doing it to the brothers in all of Macedonia.
Believers are a family, and "love of brother" is a natural consequence. The Thessalonian church apparently was acting as family to others in
4:10b-12 And we admonish you, brothers, to abound more and try to live a quiet life and to mind your own business and to work with your own hands just as we have instructed [you] that you might walk honorably with those outside and might have need of nothing.
Paul does not advocate a revolutionary path toward the social structures of the day. He recommends that the Thessalonians "blend in." They should give no cause for persecution by outsiders, nor should they get themselves entangled with the strings of patronage, whereby they are supported by a gracious provider but usually were then expected to do various things in return for the favor. Paul wants them to support themselves and retreat from societal conflict.
4:13 Now I do not want you to be ignorant, brothers, about those who sleep, so that you do not grieve like the rest who do not have hope.
On first reflection, it may seem a little odd that Paul is only addressing the topic of the resurrection of the dead with the Thessalonians now in this letter. Paul may not have been in Thessalonica for very long, but he was there long enough for the Philippians to send him material support more than once (Phil. 4:16). It would seem he was there over a month, long enough to have a group of converts to send this letter to.
Yet it is reasonable to assume that Timothy brought back to Paul word that they had questions about those believers who died before Christ's parousia, his arrival back from heaven. From this we might infer that teaching on the resurrection of believers was not the highest priority in Paul's evangelistic message.
Instead, we can imagine that Paul's earliest preaching focused far more on the soon arrival of Christ to judge the world. It emphasizes the fact that Paul not only at this point expected Jesus to return within his lifetime. He apparently preached as if it could happen at any moment.
The reference to "those who sleep" is unique to Paul's earliest writings, 1 Thessalonians and 1 Corinthians. The majority of Pauline interpreters simply take it as a metaphor for death that implies nothing of what state Paul believed the dead to be in. We would, however, join that minority who suspect that Paul's thought underwent development or "growth" on this topic during the time he was at
We wonder if, particularly after his engagement with the Corinthians on the topic in 1 Corinthians 15 and a scary imprisonment at Ephesus, Paul began to think more about the intermediate state of Christian dead between death and Christ's arrival. The most natural way to take Paul's reference to sleep as a bona fide reference to an unconscious state between death and resurrection. At this point, as in 1 Corinthians 15, the state of those who die is one of hopelessness. The hope he provides is not within death, but in future resurrection.
4:14 For we have faith that Jesus died and was raised, so also God through Jesus will lead with him those who sleep.
Paul's earliest writings link Jesus' death and resurrection with the death and resurrection of those who place their faith on him. We might note that Paul's later participationist language is missing here, although we cannot prove that it is not implied. But certainly in Paul's more fully developed theological expression in Romans, we die with Christ and we rise with Christ. Here Paul only says that God will do for us what he did for Jesus.
In any case, the content of faith is the same here as in Romans 10:9: "If ... you believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead." We observe that God (the Father) is the active force in resurrection rather than Jesus himself. It is God who raised Jesus, and it is God who through Jesus will lead the dead (in Christ) out of the dead.
4:15 For we say this by the word of the Lord: that we who are living, who are left at the arrival of the Lord certainly will not precede those who sleep.
Again, Paul speaks to the Thessalonians as if there is a real possibility that he and they will be alive and will remain at the parousia. In relation to the dead (in Christ), living believers will not even meet Christ before them. Those who "sleep" in the ground will meet Christ first at his return.
4:16 Because the Lord himself, with a command, with the voice of the archangel and the trumpet of God, will descend from heaven and the dead in Christ will rise first,
This is the Day of the Lord, the day of his return and the Day of Salvation for those who have faith. It is Judgment Day, the day during which God will visit His wrath on the earth for its ungodliness. Jesus the Lord, the king, will descend from the sky, from heaven where he now sits at the right hand of God in the highest heaven. It does not seem likely that Jesus is implied to be the archangel here, but rather that the archangel and other angelic hosts accompany Jesus to the earth for the judgment.
The corpses in Christ, the dead in Christ, will rise from their graves first. We note that Paul mentions the dead in Christ. That is to say, Paul says nothing about Old Testament saints like Abraham, Isaac, or Jacob. It at least is not clear that he has any doctrine of general resurrection. We might also add that general conceptions of the Pharisaic belief on this subject, which are often used to infer Paul's thought here that is unexpressed, are based on very flimsy evidence indeed and such arguments are often quite circular and anachronistic.
4:17 Then we who are living, who are left will be snatched up together with them on the clouds for a meeting of the Lord in the air, and thus we will always be with the Lord.
This verse is apparently the origination for the word rapture, given the Latin wording rapiemur, "we will be snatched." Paul here seems to picture an assembly of believers in the air with Christ and the angelic hosts. First the dead corpses of believers are resurrected, and they rise to the air. Then the living believers are snatched up to meet them. Paul does not expand on the transformation of bodies here as he will in 1 Corinthians.
Some have plausibly suggested that the picture here is of one of an embassy from a city going out to greet a dignitary outside their city before leading that person back into the city. So believers go out to meet their king and come in his company back to the earth where he will reign. The meeting would thus not be to go off to heaven but to return to earth with him.
A good case can be made that being with the Lord forever thus does refer to believers going off to heaven with Christ. Rather, this is an assembly for the final judgment. In 1 Corinthians 6:2-3, Paul indicates that believers will participate in the judgment of the world and of angels. In 1 Thessalonians, therefore, Paul probably pictures Christ reigning on earth after his arrival, with believers as a part of that kingdom.
4:18 So encourage one another with these words.
These are words of hope. They are words of hope for those who have lost loved ones who were believers. They are words of hope for those undergoing persecution for their faith.
Now concerning the times and the seasons, brothers, you do not have need to
write to you for you yourselves know accurately that the Day of the Lord comes
as a thief in the night.
After writing of the nature of the resurrection of the dead corpses of believers in 4:13-18, Paul proceeds to discuss the timing of the Lord Jesus' arrival, as well as readiness for living believers. The Day of the Lord, of his parousia, his return from heaven and the Day of Judgment, will come without clear warning. It will come like a thief.
A thief does not announce his (or in theory her) arrival. Similarly, the Lord's arrival will not come on any precise schedule that believers might know or find out.
The fact that the Thessalonians do know these things accurately confirms our initial hunch that Paul's preaching in Thessalonica focused on the arrival of Christ to judge the world and save those who believe. He did not teach about resurrection because of the imminence of Christ's return.
5:3 Whenever they say, "Peace and security," then suddenly destruction comes to them as birth pain to a woman having in the womb and they will never escape.
The Day of the Lord for Paul, as we might expect from the Old Testament usage, refers to the arrival of Christ in his judging role. Those who think they are okay and that they are accountable to no one are in for a rude awakening. They may think they are safe from judgment on their wrongdoing, but they will not escape judgment.
The image of birth pain is particularly interesting. On the one hand, a woman does not know exactly when labor will begin. This part of the metaphor fits well with the thief in the night image of the previous verses. On the other hand, a woman does know she is pregnant. It is not clear that Paul wished the Thessalonians to follow through with this potentiality of the metaphor, namely, that one might know that the child is coming at any time.
In any case, 2 Thessalonians explores the opposite angle on the Day of the Lord, namely, certain general indications that the Day is near.
5:4-5 But you yourselves, brothers, you are not in darkness so that the Day should overtake you as a thief, for you yourselves all sons of light and sons of day. We are not of the night nor of darkness.
Those who are destined for judgment will experience the coming of the Day like a thief, a bad event that takes place at night when it is dark. Paul now shifts his metaphor somewhat and now distinguishes the audience from those for whom the suddenness will not be a pleasant surprise.
The image of the elect as sons of light versus outsiders as sons of darkness is found in the Dead Sea Scrolls and so would seem to be an apocalyptic Jewish image. The Day should not be like the coming of a thief for the audience for they are waiting for the arrival and are ready for it, whenever it will come.
5:6-7 Therefore, let us thus not sleep as the rest but let us be awake and let us be sober, for those who sleep, sleep at night, and those who are drunk are drunk at night.
So while those destined for judgment are asleep and not expecting the thief, believers are awake and are sober. They have not passed out after a night of drunken revelry, but are awake and ready, as if it were day.
5:8 But since we are of the day let us be sober, being clothed with the breastplate of faith and love and as a helmet, the hope of salvation,
The idea of Christian armor appears in its fullest form in Ephesians 6, but here we find an earlier form of it. In Ephesians, of course, it is a breastplate of righteousness, but the helmet is also one of salvation. Ephesians thus corresponds more closely to Isaiah 59:17, from which the image originally comes, although it is applied to God there (see also Wisdom 5:18). Paul will expand on the triad of faith, hope, and love in 1 Corinthians 13.
We hope for salvation because, as we have already seen, salvation is predominantly future oriented for Paul. It is on the Day of Wrath that believers are saved from that wrath.
5:9-10 ... because God has not appointed us for wrath but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us so that whether we are awake or are sleeping, we might live together with him.
This verse confirms the future orientation of salvation for Paul. When the Day of the Lord comes, believers will not experience God's wrath in judgment but salvation from that wrath. The death of the Lord Jesus Christ has made this salvation possible. Here are the very deeply ingrained assumptions about sacrifice and the wrath of gods. Christ's death accomplishes this "deep magic" of reconciliation to God and avoidance of God's wrath.
Thus far in chapter 5, Paul has used the imagery of being awake or being asleep in reference to readiness for Christ's return, and he has in fact used a different word for sleep than he did in the last part of chapter 4. But as Paul closes out this section on the arrival of Christ, he returns to the theme with which he began the section, namely, those who die before the parousia.
In an inclusio, he changes to speak of those who sleep in reference to those who die before Christ's return (although he uses the word for sleep he has used in chapter 5 rather than the one he had used in chapter 4). Whether we are alive at his return or whether we are sleeping, dead, at his arrival, we will live with him then.
5:11 Therefore, admonish one another and build each other up, each one the other, just as you are even doing.
Paul ended the first half of his discussion of the arrival in 4:18 with an admonition for the Thessalonians to encourage one another with these truths. He ends the second half of the discussion with a similar admonition. In this case, however, the Thessalonians already had an accurate understanding, so he can simply encourage them to continue what they have already been doing.
Final Instructions (5:12-22)
5:12-13 Now we ask you, brothers, to respect those who labor among you and care for you in the Lord and instruct you. Regard them with the greatest respect in love because of their work. Be at peace among yourselves.
These verses begin the closing of the letter. He will make some final exhortations and greetings and then close it.
This verse apparently indicates that the community had Christian leaders, perhaps some sort of group of elders, who would of course literally be older members of the Christian assembly. These individuals were apparently responsible for Christian instruction and were thought to hold spiritual authority. The admonition for the audience to be at peace, in this context, perhaps refers particularly to peace between these leaders and the rest of the assembly, a relationship in which the potential for conflict is not unfamiliar to us today.
5:14 And we admonish you, brothers, instruct the lazy. Encourage the discouraged. Help the weak. Be patient with all people.
The issue of certain lazy at Thessalonica is taken up particularly in 2 Thessalonians 3. But we should be careful not to overread this comment in the light of 2 Thessalonians. Paul does not clearly have specific individuals in mind here. In any collection of people, we can expect there to be some who do not do their share.
The other admonitions are similarly general. Christians encourage people who are discouraged. They help those who are not able to help themselves. Christians are patient with others. These are all manifestations of Christian love, the fundamental Christian virtue in Paul's thought as far as human relationships.
5:15 Look that someone does not repay someone with evil for evil, but always pursue the good toward one another and toward all people.
The similarity of this comment to Jesus' teaching in the Sermon on the Mount is often noticed (e.g., Matt. 5:38-48). Clearly the death and resurrection of Jesus were far more important for Paul than any teaching Jesus did on earth. Nevertheless, Paul does occasionally show that he knows some of Jesus' earthly teachings, and this is one such case.
This admonition once again reflects the fundamental Pauline ethic of love toward one's neighbor. Vengeance for wrongdoing is God's business, not a believer's concern. The believer must pursue reconciliation even with those who wrong him or her. They pursue the good not only toward one another within the fellowship of the Christian assembly, but also toward all people who are not believers.
5:16-18 Always rejoice. Be praying constantly. Give thanks in everything, for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.
This series of admonitions have to do with the believer's attitude. A believer should be a person with a positive attitude, someone who rejoices and gives thanks. The mention of frequent prayer appears in this context of giving thanks to God for the things that happen to you. Paul punctuates these exhortations by noting it is not just him saying them but in fact that this attitude is the will of God, manifested in what he did through Jesus the Messiah.
5:19-22 Do not quench the Spirit. Do not despise prophecy. Test all things. Hold fast to the good. Stay away from every form of evil.
The next series has to do with interaction with the spiritual realm. As much as some might like to see Paul as a heady thinker, his ministry was filled with what we today would consider charismatic ministry. He performed miracles. Signs followed him. Although we have no reason to think that tongues played much of a role in his ministry (he only mentions them in 1 Corinthians 12-14, where they are presenting a problem in Corinthian worship), he seems to consider prophecy a regular feature of early Christian worship.
Any individual in the church (including women, as we find in 1 Corinthians 11) may have a word of prophecy. Leaders are not to squelch the possible speaking of the Spirit through anyone. At the same time, they are not to follow the prophecy simply because someone thinks they have a word from God. Such messages must be tested, as Paul also says in 1 Corinthians 14:32 and 1 John 4:1 also indicates.
After the testing of the prophecy, they should cling to what is proven to be good, but stay away from anything bad. Indeed, they are to avoid evil in any form it might take.
5:23-24 Now may the God of peace himself make you thoroughly holy, and may your entire spirit and soul and body be kept blameless at the arrival of our Lord Jesus Christ. The One calling you is faithful, who also will do [it].
The rapid fire of brief admonitions in the closing section come to a close, and Paul begins his closing greeting and farewell. 5:23 is a wish for the audience to be thoroughly blameless before God. He wishes the entire assembly of believers to be completely set apart to God as God's in every part of their being and thus be at peace with the God of peace and reconciliation.
We read verses such as this one in context when we do not overread them or take comments down paths that were never the real point. For example, the image is primarily corporate rather than individual in focus. Paul's wish is for the entire assembly collectively to be blameless before God when the Lord arrives.
Further, blamelessness here is not a matter of not being able to do wrong, of never accidentally wronging another, or of having no imperfection. Blamelessness is a matter of doing what one knows is right under the assumption that one knows what is right. God's faithfulness includes His enablement to be blameless in this way (e.g., 1 Cor. 10:13).
Such blamelessness is essential if one is to be saved on the Day. The verb "to sanctify" or "make holy" is used parallel to "becoming blameless." Blamelessness does not exhaust the meaning of making holy, but it is clearly part of what is involved in becoming holy. Sanctification here presumably also involves purification from past sins.
We should not see in the mention of body, soul, and spirit some absolute statement of how God views the make-up of the human psyche. For one thing, this division of the human person is almost unique in the Bible (Heb. 4:12 comes close). The Old Testament and much of the New Testament does not use the word soul (psyche) in relation to a component or part of a person but rather to an entire, living being. Spirit (pneuma), breath, is much more often used in reference to the living part of a person that survives death.
But these are, in the end, simply expressions made from within the paradigms of the ancient world. They are the clothing of the message rather than the point of the message. To try to integrate such images with modern psychology would produce some very strange conceptualizations indeed.
5:25-26 Brothers, be praying for us. Greet all the brothers with a holy kiss.
The greeting of one another with a holy kiss indicates that believers are family to each other. And prayer for each other is a regular feature of Paul's own practice.
5:27-28 I adjure you by the Lord to read this letter to all the brothers. The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ [be] with you.
The letter, presumably first to be received by the leaders of the community, should then be read to the entire assembly, most of whom would be illiterate. We do not know who Paul planned to have deliver the letter, but the fact that Timothy had made a first trip makes it not unlikely that he might take another trip with this letter.
Paul then closes with a characteristic ending for him, the wish that God's graciousness be with them in their continued pilgrimage until he saw them or wrote to them again.