The Global Message of 1 Thessalonians
Jesus’ work delivers believers from the coming day of the Lord, when God’s wrath will be revealed. Abiding in such hope strengthens God’s people to endure whatever adversity they face. Looking back at Christ’s work on the cross and looking forward to his second coming, believers around the world live patiently in the present, in love and holiness. This is the global message of 1 Thessalonians.
First Thessalonians and Redemptive History
Throughout Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonian church he speaks of the redemptive work of Christ. Jesus “delivers us from the wrath to come” (1 Thess. 1:10). He “died for us” to bring us back to God (5:10). In 1 Thessalonians as elsewhere, Paul views Christ’s death and resurrection as the climax of all human history.
Jesus’ coming two thousand years ago will not be his only coming, however. His life, death, and resurrection launched the new age longed for by the Old Testament prophets (see Jer. 31:31–34). And someday, his second coming will complete his redemptive and restorative work. It is this second coming that is especially emphasized in 1 Thessalonians. It is mentioned in every chapter of the letter (1 Thess. 1:10; 2:19–20; 3:13; 4:13–18; 5:1–11, 23–24).
The letter of 1 Thessalonians gives us a grand view of redemptive history, stretching from the Old Testament, through the first coming of Christ, to his second coming and the end of world history as we know it—a time when sin, sickness, and death will be no more.
Universal Themes in 1 Thessalonians
Love for others. Paul mentions the Thessalonians’ faith, hope, and love at both the beginning and the end of his letter to them (1 Thess. 1:3; 5:13), but throughout the letter his main focus is on love (3:6, 12; 4:9). Paul stresses that love is the fundamental mark of Christian living. He reminds the Thessalonian believers that he has always related to them with the affection of a mother and the tender exhortation of a father (2:6–12). What he says in the letter about Christ’s second coming ought not to overshadow this crucial call to love. It would indeed be tragic and ironic for believers to debate the precise details of Christ’s second coming in a loveless way. The church around the world today can never outgrow the exhortation to love as we have been loved (Eph. 5:2). This is the key mark of Christ’s disciples (1 John 4:7–8).
Christ’s second coming. At numerous points throughout 1 Thessalonians Paul returns to the theme of the second coming of Christ, or “the day of the Lord” (1 Thess. 5:2; see also 1:10; 2:19–20; 3:13; 4:13–18; 5:2–7, 23–24). The phrase “the day of the Lord” is common in the Old Testament prophets. It refers to the day when God will punish his enemies and vindicate his people (e.g., Isa. 13:3–16; 27:2–13; Joel 1:13–15; 2:31–32; Mal. 4:5). Hope in this coming day is a source of encouragement to Christians around the world facing various forms of adversity and opposition. When we encounter problems such as self-serving landlords, fraudulent business practices, corrupt political systems, and inter-ethnic strife, we can still have hope and we can forgive those who oppress us, knowing that one day all will be put right. Justice will prevail.
Holiness. Paul not only describes the hope of the coming day of the Lord. He also exhorts the Thessalonians to conduct themselves in godly ways in light of this hope. Christians are “children of light, children of the day” (1 Thess. 5:5)—they have been redeemed from their sin and have been given new life in God’s dawning kingdom. If this is true, Paul reasons, then they must live lives of holiness (5:1–11), including sexual holiness (4:1–8). Their lives should exhibit the faith, love, and hope they have because of Christ (1:3; 5:8).
The Global Message of 1 Thessalonians for Today
Paul shows deep affection and concern in 1 Thessalonians. He was not an aloof or detached theologian. As a missionary and church planter engaged at a deep heart-level with the people he had led to Christ, he wanted to see the message of salvation brought into those corners of the world where Jesus was not yet known (Rom. 15:20; 1 Cor. 3:10). As the global church receives and reflects on Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians, seeking to carry forward the gospel to the world today, two great themes rise to the surface: our central calling in the present and our glorious hope for the future.
Our present calling: love. Our main calling as Christians in this present life is love. Paul loved the men and women who came to know and trust Christ. Paul then called these believers to love one another. It is by this kind of love, the Bible tells us, that the unbelieving nations of the world will sit up and take notice of the church. “By this all people will know that you are my disciples,” said Jesus—“if you have love for one another” (John 13:35). Not eloquent preaching, not superior intellect, not clever arguments, not human applause: love. As the church today follows Paul’s call to “increase and abound in love for one another” (1 Thess. 3:12), in light of the gospel and through the power of the Spirit, the Christian church will be noticed by a watching world. Love for one another, beyond anything else, is our great and joyous call.
Our glorious hope: Christ’s return. The great hope for the future is Christ’s second coming. Even when we are afflicted with all kinds of difficulties, we know we will see Jesus return to earth in power and glory (Rev. 19:11–16). This is a comfort that overcomes any adversity of this fallen world. This is true, not because the adversity we face is trivial. On the contrary, the world today faces some of the greatest challenges of its history: shortage of clean water, malnourishment, terrorism and racism, ethnic strife, economic hardship, poor health care. And because of their loyalty to Christ, believers in many nations face even greater difficulties. More believers worldwide face persecution of various kinds today than at any other time in history. Yet while such challenges are not trivial but severe, the sure hope of Christ’s return goes deeper still.
The benediction in 1 Thessalonians 3 brings together both the present call to love and the glorious hope of the future:
Now 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 for one another and for all, as we do for you, so that he may establish your hearts blameless in holiness before our God and Father, at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints. (1 Thess. 3:11–13)