Saturday, April 18, 2020

An Overview of 1-2 Thessalonians

The letters to the Thessalonians are among the earliest of the New Testament writings. In them we do not yet see the full development of the great ideas we find in such a letter as Romans. But the great Christian doctrines are there and these letters show that the essential Christian message was preached from the first.

Eight times in these two short letters Paul refers to “the Gospel.” The term means “good news,” and Christians used it for the good news of salvation in Christ, good news about what God had done for sinners. Three times Paul calls it “the Gospel of God,” twice “the Gospel of Christ” (or “the Lord Jesus,” and once Paul refers to “our Gospel.” All three ways of putting it are important.

“The Gospel of God” brings home the truth that the Christian message takes its origin in none less than God. God took the initiative and “chose” the Thessalonians (1 Thess. 1:4; 2:13). The Gospel cannot possibly have better credentials.

It is “the Gospel of Christ” because Christ has the central place in it. The good news is that the Son of God has come to this earth to bring salvation to sinners. That means His atoning death on the cross (1 Thess. 5:10), a death that took away our sins. And it meant His resurrection in triumph over death, for the Christians did not worship a dead Savior but a living Lord.

When Paul speaks of “our Gospel” (2 Thess. 2:14) he is bringing out the truth that believers have made it their own. It is the good news of the Savior who has saved them. It is good news by which they live and which they proclaim both by what they say and by the kind of lives they live.

Paul emphasizes that the Gospel is not simply a matter of words. It came to the Thessalonians “with power, with the Holy Spirit and with deep conviction” (1 Thess. 1:5). Paul goes on to draw attention to the kind of lives the preachers lived as they sought to commend the Gospel, and to the kind of lives the converts lived as they imitated the preachers and their Lord (1 Thess. 1:5–6). The salvation of Christ meant that both the preachers and their converts lived lives that demonstrated the reality of their salvation.

In these letters it is plain that Jesus is Lord. There are but seven short chapters and the word Lord occurs forty-six times. Paul emphasizes that salvation does not mean license. The saved are brought into the service of their loving Lord with all that that means. But we are not to see this lordship as oppressive; Jesus is “the Lord of peace” (2 Thess. 3:16).

We should not miss the fact that evil will in the end be judged and evildoers punished. “God is just,” Paul writes, and at the end of this age He will defeat and punish all evil (2 Thess. 1:5ff.). The final triumph of good means the ultimate defeat of evil.

In both letters Paul has significant references to the return of the Lord Jesus to this earth at the end of time. Evidently some Thessalonians had misunderstood the teaching about the Second Coming. When some of their number died they thought they had missed all place in the events of that great day. Paul assures his readers that “the dead in Christ will rise first.” Then believers who are still alive will be “caught up with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever” (1 Thess. 4:17), a magnificent description of what our ultimate salvation means.

The subject evidently puzzled the Thessalonians, and some had accepted teaching that the Lord had already come (2 Thess. 2:2). Paul assures his friends that much will happen before the Lord’s return. Specifically, there will be a tremendous upsurge of evil headed up by “the man of sin” (KJV; in NIV this is translated “the lawless one”). But Jesus will overthrow this powerful being “with the breath of His mouth”; He will destroy him “by the splendor of His coming” (2 Thess. 2:8).

Paul does not develop the theme of Christian service in these letters, but he says a number of things that make it plain that the salvation Christ brings means that the saved live saved lives. They are to live in love (1 Thess. 1:3; notice the conjunction of faith, love, and hope). Indeed they do that (1 Thess. 3:6; he joins faith and love again in 5:8), and Paul prays that they will do so more and more (1 Thess. 3:12). Right doctrine issues forth in right living.