I and II Thessalonians – Wait, Watch, and Work!
Theme of the Letters
There were various reasons why Paul wrote to the church of the Thessalonians. But Paul’s main aim was to encourage the young church to stand firm in his teachings in the face of persecutions and misinformation about the day of the Lord. He wanted them to keep up, or in his word, to “put on”, the hope of salvation.
But what is the hope of salvation? It is the hope we have as Christians, that one day all of us shall be resurrected and share in the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ. And this hope was the central theme in Paul’s letters to the Thessalonians.
Thus in his first letter, Paul expounded on the subjects of resurrection and of Christ coming back, and he gave us the first great revelation concerning the rapture. It is a very important revelation because it forms the basis of the hope we have.
I refer you to the screen to that marvellous revelation and encouragement that Paul wrote in 1Thess 4:13-18:
“Brothers, we do not want you to be ignorant about those who fall asleep, or to grieve like the rest of men who have no hope. We believe that Jesus died and rose again and so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him. According to the Lords own word, we tell you that we who are still alive, who are left till the coming of the Lord, will certainly not precede those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever. Therefore encourage each other with these words.”
Before Jesus went to the cross, he had hinted this glorious rapture to his disciples. He told them that if he went away, he would send the Holy Spirit to take his place, but he would come again, and take them to his Father’s house. It was a definite promise by the Lord to come again and take his disciples to another place, but he did not say how or when.
More than 20 years later, inspired by the Holy Spirit, Paul revealed in the passage that we have just read the details of the rapture for the first time. Bear in mind that Paul’s letter to the Thessalonica church, written in the early mid first century, was the earliest of the NT scriptures.
Now, the word “rapture” is not actually found in scripture. It comes from the Latin word “rapio”, meaning, “catch away, carry off”, the same idea conveyed by the Greek word in the letter that has been translated “caught up”. The suddenness of the rapture was reiterated by Paul some time later, in his letter to the Corinthians [chapter 15], in which he said “in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye”, we (our bodies) would be changed.
About timing, however, Paul had this to say in 1Thess 5:1-11:
“About times and dates we do not need to write to you, for you know very well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night… But you, brothers, are not in darkness that this day should surprise you like a thief. You are all sons of light and sons of the day… Since we belong to the day, let us be self-controlled, putting on faith and love as a breastplate, and the hope of salvation as a helmet. For God did not appoint us to suffer wrath but to receive salvation though our Lord Jesus Christ. He died for us so that, whether we are awake or asleep, we may live together with him. Therefore encourage one another and build each other up.”
In other words, Paul assured the Thessalonians, and we too as fellow Christians, that followers of Christ [whom Paul referred to as “sons of light” and “sons of the day”] will escape God’s judgement of the nations [which was commonly referred to as “day of the Lord”] and not be “surprised” by it. They have been “appointed” by God to receive salvation. This is the hope of salvation that he encouraged us to “put on” like a helmet.
In another shorter letter to the Thessalonians some months later, Paul gave a similar assurance that Christians are save from the wrath of God. This 2nd letter was necessary because a false report supposed to have come from Paul was going around, saying that the day of the Lord had already come. I will leave it to you to study that assurance in detail in your Sunday school classes, but let me just quote the relevant passage here to show you in 2Thess 2:13-15:
“But we ought always to thank God for you, brothers loved by the Lord, because from the beginning God chose you to be saved through the sanctifying work of the Spirit and through belief in the truth. He called you to this through our gospel that you might share in the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ. So then, brothers, stand firm and hold to the teachings we passed to you, whether by word of mouth or by letter.”
Now, in summary, brothers and sisters in Christ, the letters to the church of the Thessalonians will be a great source of inspiration to you concerning the hope of salvation. But let me end this presentation by saying that the letters also contain guidance on what our attitude to life should be in the light of the hope of salvation. This is where your study guide will help. There is a very big hint on the cover of the study guide! It says “Wait, Watch, and Work!” Enjoy your study of the letters.