How to Read the Bible Book by Book: 1 Thessalonians
1 Thessalonians 1:4-5: “For you know, brothers and sisters loved by God, that he has chosen you, because our gospel came to you not simply with words but also with power, with the Holy Spirit and deep conviction.”
Each letter of the New Testament has a subject that it is best known for. For example, when thinking about the book of Romans a person thinks of justification by faith. When thinking of Ephesians, we think of the mystery of God’s plan. For Philippians we think about joy. When we come to the two letters that are written to the Thessalonian churches, it is quite likely there is another theme that comes to mind. That theme is “the Day of the Lord.”
The Day of the Lord is a concept that comes out of the prophets of the Old Testament but has now been carried forward into the new era. Through the prophets, God constantly warned of “a day” that was to come when he would bring judgment on Israel for their disobedience. It was not intended to be seen as a literal day, of course; it is more like a period. But it spoke of God’s wrath on the people for their sin.
For the people of Israel, that day came when the Babylonians invaded their land and took them into foreign captivity. Eventually that “day” ended, and Israel was allowed to go back to their land. But the Day of the Lord that fell upon Israel was just a foreshadow of what would one day fall upon the whole earth. One day Christ is returning. The first time he came was as a sacrificial lamb to be slaughtered as a sin offering. But when he returns a second time the lamb will become the Lion of Judah. Once and for all he will bring judgment on all the ungodly and free his redeemed people from the effects of their slavery to sin. It is a day that the godly anticipate and that the godless dread, if only they knew they should dread it.
The subject of the Day of the Lord will come up in both letters to the Thessalonians. Here in the first letter, he will merely teach about what they should anticipate, and how that day will come like a thief in the night. But in the second letter, Paul will get more specific about events that must take place before that “day” finally descends upon the earth.
In some ways, the letter of 1st Thessalonians is the least theological of all Paul’s letters. It does not follow his normal pattern of theology in the first half, followed up by practical teaching in the second. Instead, in the opening three chapters of this letter, Paul sends a very warm and personal greeting to the members of this church. Paul was not able to stay in Thessalonica as long as he would have liked, and so he has sent Timothy to check on them. Apparently, he brought back an encouraging report. This has filled Paul’s heart with gratitude and joy. He loves to hear that his “children” (2:7) in the faith are doing well and prospering. There is suffering to be sure. Just as Paul was persecuted there by Jewish legalists, so also are many of their members. Yet, in their sorrow, there is also great joy in the presence of God because they have been found worthy to enter God’s eternal kingdom. Paul hopes to come back to them one day so that he can share his heart with them once again. In the meantime, he hopes that they will keep the faith and live according to this great gospel that he has taught to them.
Beginning in chapter 4, Paul turns to a couple of practical matters. First, in verses 1-8, Paul addresses the issue of sexual immorality. He expects the Thessalonians to be sanctified in their sexual life, and to not live in promiscuous ways like the pagans do. They should learn to control their own body, knowing that the Lord will punish those who give themselves up to sexual sin. Second, Paul then encourages them to love one another more and more. He admits that he does not need to write to them about this subject. They already love one another well, and the reputation of their love has spread all through Macedonia. But there is always room to grow in all of God’s virtues, and so there is room to grow here as well.
Finally, beginning in 4:13, Paul takes up the last major subject of this letter, which is this theme of “the Day of the Lord.” Because Paul had to leave Thessalonica quickly, he did not get to answer all their questions about Christ’s return. They had concern for their loved ones who had died, worried that they might miss out on some of the good things that will happen when Christ returns. But Paul says to them that when brothers or sisters in Christ die, we do not grieve them like the rest of the world who has no hope. We know that when Christ returns, before we on earth are called into the sky to be with him, first the dead in Christ will be raised. It is only after they are raised that we go to join them by meeting Christ in the sky and then escorting him back to the realm where he will reign as king. This is a very vivid picture he leaves with them.
In chapter 5, he will go on to explain that about the dates and the times of this event, no one knows for sure. But they can be confident of this, while many will be saying “peace and safety,” as did the false prophets of old, the day of the Lord will come upon them like a thief in the night. But since as believers they belong to the day, that judgment will not catch them unaware. They are waiting. They are watching. And with a soberness that is worthy of this kind of life, they continue to live for Christ. It is a message that remains relevant to us all these years later. The Day of the Lord is closer than it has ever been. Are we watching and waiting?