2 Thessalonians – The Situation in Thessalonica

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Why is Paul writing the church at Thessalonica another letter? The consensus answer is that the church received a letter claiming to come from Paul has circulated to the church. This letter claimed that the “Day of the Lord” has already occurred. Paul writes to calm their fears and to assure then that the Day of the Lord has not yet arrived since the “Man of Lawlessness” has not been revealed.

But there may be more here than a false letter. It is possible that the persecution which the church has faced has caused some in the church to wonder if they are suffering because they have sinned (and are being punished) or perhaps have believed the wrong things about Jesus. Much of the Greco-Roman world was motivated by honor / shame, the suffering the church is facing appears to be a “shame” rather than an “honor.” “The Thessalonians themselves may have had a rather low conception of themselves, especially in light of the shame they endured as a persecuted people” (Green, Letter to the Thessalonians, 281).

Paul writes this second letter to clarify that Christians might suffer before the return of the Lord. First, suffering cannot be taken as an indication that the Great Tribulation has begun because God has an appointed time when the restraining power of God is removed from the world, permitting the Lawless One to be revealed.

Second, suffering ought not be taken as an indication of divine disfavor nor should the Christian think that they are dishonored because they are being persecuted. This sort of suffering is the lot of the Christian and the endurance the church has already demonstrated is a worthy testimony of the Lord’s work in their church and is a source of boasting for Paul. Paul is pleased that they are steadfast as they endure persecution (1:4).

Third, the source of the suffering which the church is experiencing is not God, but rather Satan. God is not punishing them at all. Since they are a successful, growing church, Satan is attempting to distract them from their commission as a church and limit their effectiveness As Green observes, “the persecutions were those that they suffered at the hands of their contemporaries and that were motivated by Satan (1 Thess. 1.6; 2.14; 3.3–5).”

The major theme of the letter is that  patient endurance in the face of persecution is an indication that the church is  living a life  comparable to the salvation they have already received. Christians are going to suffer naturally just like anyone, But Paul says in this letter that our response to suffering is an indication that we are “worthy of the kingdom of God.”

This teaching is diametrically opposed to the “health and wealth” gospel popular today. Many Christians sincerely believe that if they are right with the Lord they will be not only healthy, but wealthy and successful as well. This “gospel” is popular because it tells people what they want to hear, that God will fulfill all their earthly desires without requiring anything more than giving money to particular ministries. This sort of thinking confuses God with Santa Claus and seriously misinterprets and misapplies scripture.

Paul’s letter reverses this popular thinking.  It is not that God wants you to suffer illness and poverty, but rather than when you face trials your faith ought to be refined and renewed.

1 Thessalonians 5:12-13 – Respect Those Who Work Hard Among You

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The Church at Thessalonica was perhaps a year old when Paul writes this letter and most of the members were Gentiles, former pagans who now are in Christ. Typical of Paul’s churches, there were some rich, prominent members of the community, but also many poor, perhaps slaves. There would not have been that many who were leaders outside the church, so the people now who were “church leaders” were inexperienced.

This naturally leads to some troubles in the church. Imagine a slave who was particularly gifted with the Holy Spirit as a leader is chosen as a leader of the church and offers an admonition from Scripture. How would a prominent member of the Thessalonian society handle hearing a slave preaching the word and exhorting them to godly living? Alternatively, if a rich person from a socially well-placed family exhorted the congregation, would the poor slave listen to him objectively?

Given the commands Paul gives here, it is likely that these inexperienced leaders were not being given respect due them because of the office they held as elders of the church, and because of the labor the did for the church. Paul describes the work that they do as “toilsome labor,” the very same word Paul used to describe his own work in 1 Thess 1:3. The work that these leaders are doing is had work, taxing physically and emotionally. They are doing this work on behalf of the church, they are due some respect for being the ones that carry the heaviest load.

The leaders are appointed by God, they are “over you in the Lord.” This is how church leaders are described in Romans 12:8, as well as the leader of a family in 1 Tim 5:17. The emphasis is on leading with care and diligence.

Paul says that the congregation is to hold their leaders is high esteem in love because of their work. Notice that the congregation is to hold them in high esteem because of their work, not because of their personality, or whether they do what you want them do, or because you agree with everything they say, etc.

A year before Paul wrote this letter, the leaders of the Thessalonian church were still pagans, and now they are spirit led leaders of a growing Christian congregation. They were doing the best they could, even though they were not the “experts.”

Many applications of this principle come to mind for the modern church.  Paul’s point is that the work of the church is the most important thing and that any lack of personal respect needs to take a back seat to the presentation of the Gospel. This is a very difficult section because modern church is very performance oriented. We are very critical of a pastor or elder, comparing their abilities to other pastors and elders we know. I am thinking about the American church because that is what I know, but I am confident the same is true for any church, anywhere in the world.

Many pastors are judged as successful if they have a large congregation. They may judge themselves this way, if there are a lot of people there on Sunday morning they assume they are doing a great job. But numbers are not the measure of success or respect. It is possible that the pastor is doing everything that God wants him to do, yet there are lots of empty pews on Sunday.

People in the pew judge the pastor’s sermon by the standard of others they have heard, perhaps on Christian radio or the internet.  Modern media makes it possible to hear twenty excellent sermons a week, making it hard for your local pastor to compete!  This is like judging the ability of the church softball team by the standard of the Dodgers. They are playing the same game, but the level of experience and gifted-ness is in another league. There are not many Chuck Swindoll’s, or John MacArthur’s out there, it is highly unlikely we will be able to attract either of them to our church.

1 Thessalonians 4:15-17 – Meeting the Lord in the Air

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It is unfortunate that teaching on the Rapture has something of a joke in contemporary media. Too many people have made silly predictions of when it will happen. Parodies of the Left Behind series are common, so much so that most people who think about “the rapture” are not thinking in biblical categories, but the rather goofy cartoon images that are replayed in the Media. When Homer Simpson tries to predict the rapture, then something is intensely wrong.

But the “catching away” which Paul describes in 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 (and 1 Cor 15) is nothing like pop-media or apocalyptic Christians think it is. Paul did not predict the end of the world, nor did he use the doctrine of the Rapture to scare people into salvation, or to fleece the church of a few more dollars. Paul’s point in this text is to explain what was going to happen to those who had died in Christ before the coming of the Lord.

This event is described as the coming of the Lord. You might hear the word “parousia” (παρουσία) used (usually by someone trying to be pretentious).  The word is used for the presence of a god in a cultic ceremony, or a king or dignitary coming to a city for a visit. In the Jewish world, the word was used for the coming of the Messiah, this is probably the most useful for understanding 1 Thessalonians.

When Jesus comes, he will gather his people to himself “in the air.”   Paul uses several short descriptions here, all have to do with gathering people together.  First, there will be a loud command, a military term for a shouted order. It is sometimes used for a charioteer calling to his horses, or a hunter to his hounds, or a ship master to his rowers. Second, the voice of the archangel will cry out, and third, there will be a trumpet call of God. Loud trumpets are also associated with the coming of a great king, “…when the emperor Claudius died the sound of the trumpets was so deafening that it was thought that the dead could hear them” (Green, Letters to the Thessalonians, 224).

After the Lord has descended, and the dead have been raised, the Lord will catch the living believers up into the clouds, consummating their hope in this life.

The purpose of this catching away is to “meet with Lord.” The word translated “to meet” (ἀπάντησις) is often used of a delegation sent from a city to greet a dignitary or king, usually in order to escort that important person into a city.  The phrase appears 36 times in the LXX, frequently for meeting a king or military leader; sometimes it is used for going out to meet an army. For example, in 1 Kings 13:10, the LXX uses the exact same phrase for Saul going out “to meet” Samuel and greet him after the king had defeated the Amalakites. In 2 Chron 15:2 and 19:2 it is used to describe someone going out to meet a king.

In non-biblical Greek, the phrase is used by Polybius (Hist. 28:19.7) to describe two envoys sent out from Alexandria to meet Antiochus Epiphanes, who was at that time occupying Egypt. In 5.26.8 young men are sent out to meet Apelles, who desires to have an audience with Philip, the king of Macedon. In this text the young men go out, meet Apelles, and escort him back to Corinth “with great pomp.”

Polybius Hist. 5.26.8 On his arrival at Corinth, Leontius, Ptolemy and Megaleas, being commanders of the peltasts and the other chief divisions of the army, took great pains to incite the young men to go to meet him. He entered the town, therefore, with great pomp, owing to the number of officers and soldiers who went to meet him, and proceeded straight to the royal quarters.

Paul chose this word to describe the Rapture to highlight the glory of Jesus as he returns as the Messiah.  Paul is intentionally describing the return of Jesus as the glorious return of the ultimate Sovereign Lord in a way which Greeks and Romans would understand.  When the great king comes, his followers will be gathered to him in order to be a part of his great entourage escorting him back to the world he created.

1 Thessalonians 4:9-10 – Brotherly Love

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In the final section of 1 Thessalonians, Paul begins to deal with a few ethical issues which need improvement in the church. He also clarifying his teaching on the return of the Lord. Perhaps Timothy reported this as problems he observed, perhaps the church sent questions to Paul via Timothy.  Beginning in verse 9, Paul develops a family metaphor to describe how church members ought to behave towards one another.  Because we are used to hearing the term “brotherly love” we may miss the rhetorical punch of Paul’s use of the word in 1 Thessalonians.

What is brotherly love? The noun used in 1 Thess 4:9 (φιλαδελφία) was only used for literal family relationships before the Christian community began to use it as a metaphor for members of their community. The Greeks considered the relationship between brothers to be of primary importance, Plutarch used the term “brotherly love” to describe the proper relationship between brothers.

Plutarch, De fraterno amore 2 …where there is an unanimous accordance amongst brothers, the family thrives and flourishes, and friends and acquaintance, like a well furnished choir, in all their actions, words, and thoughts maintain a delightful harmony. “But jarring feuds advance the worst of men.”

Plutarch, De fraterno amore 15 Brothers should not be like the scales of a balance, the one rising upon the other’s sinking; but rather like numbers in arithmetic, the lesser and greater mutually helping and improving each other.

Plutarch, De fraterno amore 21 Again, it is highly commendable in him to have the highest esteem and honor for his brother’s wife, reputing and honoring her as the most sacred of all his brother’s sacred treasures, and thus to do honor to him

Based on the teaching of Jesus, the earliest believers referred to themselves as “brothers and sisters.” In Mark 3:3 Jesus indicates that his “brothers and sisters” are those who hear and obey his words. If those who followed Jesus faced rejection from their families, it is possible that Jesus intended his followers to be a new “family.” On the other hand, the family of Jesus may be an allusion to the larger theme of a New Israel among the followers of Jesus. In Acts 2:29 Peter addresses a Jewish crowd as “brothers,” meaning “fellow Jews.” So too Paul in Acts 22:1; 23:1 when he addresses large crowds of Jews.

Paul’s use of the term “brother” and “brotherly love” bears additional theological weight. By accepting Christ, we are adopted into the family of God, God is our father. This makes each person that has accepted Christ as their savior a brother or sister in Christ.

This new family in Christ is the foundation for many of Paul’s commands (cf., Rom 12:10; other Christian ethical instruction begins the same way: Heb 13:1; 1 Pet 1:22; 2 Pet 1:7; 1 Clem 48:1). He urges his readers to please God by treating each other like brothers and sisters.

If the church lives in brotherly love, then the father is pleased and honored. For the Greek world, nothing dishonors the parent more that children who do not display proper affection for one another and feud.  As Plutarch said, “jarring feuds advance the worst of men.”

1 Thessalonians 4:1-2 – “Excel in Living to Please God”

[Audio for this study is available at Sermons.net, as is a PDF copy of the notes. You may right-click and “save as….” ]

In the final section of 1 Thessalonians, Paul begins to deal with a few ethical issues which need improvement in the church. He also clarifying his teaching on the return of the Lord. Perhaps Timothy reported this as problems he observed, perhaps the church sent questions to Paul via Timothy.

In either case, Paul want to“ask” and “urge” to live a life that pleases God. These verbs (ἐρωτάω and παρακαλέω) are commonly used to encourage a reader to a particular action. They appear in personal letters between people of the same social status rather than a “superior” giving orders to his underlings. Paul’s view that the church is a family and that he is a “brother” within that family is implied by the use of these verbs (Green, Letters to the Thessalonians, 183). Potentially Paul could have “pulled rank” and told the church what needs to change – but he offers these commands a social equal.

But Paul includes a prepositional phrase, he asks them “in the Lord Jesus.” The commands in this section are not from Paul, but rather from the true authority, Jesus. Verse 8 will make this point again, if you reject this command you are rejecting the Holy Spirit!

Living a life which “pleases” may simply mean making another person happy or proud. But the word was used for citizens who had preformed some civic duty and had “pleased” the government enough to inscribe their names on monuments. In the context of the “ask in the Lord Jesus,” Paul is saying that these moral guidelines are ways to please the Lord, who is Jesus. Any citizen of Thessalonica would like to please their government and be honored with an inscription, therefore Paul says you ought to live your life the way the ultimate authority wants you to!

The church is already living to please God, but they can improve, they can do this “all the more.” Anyone that thinks they cannot improve is in trouble, not only have they ceased to grow, but they are probably moving backwards. Paul says keep moving ahead! Keep on pleasing God all the more.

How one “pleases God” as a Christian stands in contrast with the Greco-Roman world. Paul draws a contrast with the Roman world throughout the rest of the book. In 4:3-8 the church is not to tolerate sexual immorality like the world. Nor are they to defraud their brothers. The Christian ought to live an industrious quiet life, working with their hands. The Christian does not need to mourn or grieve like the pagan world concerning the death of brothers because we have the hope of resurrection (4:13-18).

It is this contrast with the world which is the radical element in Paul’s ethic. There ought to be something “different” about the Christian – that difference is what is pleasing to the Heavenly Father.