Praise God we had wonderful church fellowship yesterday, Sunday, September 13th, 2020! I write my Monday blog—as it is my turn and deadlines, never wait—with a full heart and an encouraging outlook. God continues blessing our AGC church family's careful returning to in-person fellowship after six months of undulating COVID-19 restrictions. It is necessary and beautiful to gather together and live out the New Testament “one anothers,” and our Lord gave us the conditions to do so!
One thing I noticed in numerous conversations as I joyously re-connected with people, was how many of our church family members are wondering whether we are truly in the prophetic "last days" before Christ's triumphant return. This concern is no surprise as we consider the toll of the worldwide pandemic and the seeming ubiquity of sharp philosophical, political, and social division in our nation. And now, hurricanes and fires are consuming headlines. Day-to-day life is sobering, if not terrifying.
However, countless believers in the church's heritage have felt similar pressures in their day, and many have wondered whether they were seeing the last days. The Apostle Paul’s first letter to his church plant at Thessalonica proves an excellent case in point. So I’d like to take a look at that inspired epistle to show you how Paul helped the believers back then cope with a sobering and terrifying world around them.
Paul wrote First Thessalonians to encourage the believers in the church at Thessalonica to grow in holiness so that they might be blameless when Christ returns. Paul's eschatological (last days) focus was in response to reports from his protégé, Timothy, of problems in the church, to include confusion some were expressing regarding Christ’s promised return (3:10; 4:13; 5:1–2). So, Paul wrote concerning the second coming of Jesus Christ, but then he appealed pastorally to his distant flock showing how the last days teaching applied in the here-and-now moment they found themselves. In other words, he exhorted them to live rightly in light of eschatology versus being paralyzed in anticipation of the last days.
Health and Problems at Thessalonica
Catching up with Paul in Corinth (Acts 18:5), Timothy updated him on the Thessalonian church (1 Thess 3:6). Timothy reported that, generally, the church community was doing fine. However, some problems required Paul's attention. Certain members expressed confusion over what would happen to deceased Christians at Christ's return (3:10; 4:13). Some among them were sick and dying, as is always the case in our fallen world, but this reality was proving anxiety-producing for some. Also, Timothy related to Paul a question about the timing of the day of the Lord (5:1, 2).
There were other related vulnerabilities. Paul was made aware of concerns regarding the length and intensity of persecutions the Christians in Thessalonica were experiencing (3:3, 4). They also missed Paul's presence and expressed disappointment that he had not yet returned to see them (3:6–10). Another problem demanding attention involved some in the church who depended on others' wealth for support rather than earning their living (4:10–12; 5:14). These concerns were likely rooted in erroneously thinking about the future. Why work if Christ’s return is imminent?
Paul’s Response: Pastoral Explanations
Paul proved eager to encourage the embattled and discouraged believers at Thessalonica. He reminded them that God is sovereign and trustworthy because both the dead and the living in Christ were destined to be saved at the second coming (4:13–5:11): "With the sound of the trumpet of God," "the dead in Christ will rise first.” “Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds” (4:16, 17).
Paul then transitioned into more in-depth explanations regarding the day of the Lord (5:1–11). Here Paul sought to both reassure and exhort. His reassurance was meant to focus them on walking well in the here-and-now vice unnecessarily expending emotional capital on the specific timing and nature of Christ's return: "concerning times and seasons, brothers" "the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night" (5:1, 2). Instead, Paul exhorted them to grow in holiness so that they might be blameless on the day of the Lord. Be assured in your salvation in Christ, Paul asserted, for "you all are children of the light," (5:5) and "God has not destined us for wrath, but to obtain salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ" (5:9).
With these strong doctrinal assurances, Paul urged them to "keep awake and be sober" (5:6) while they encouraged one another in the Gospel's difficult work. Paul reminded them that persecution was expected, and even refining, for the Christian (3:3, 4). Moreover, Paul argued for the recently converted Thessalonian—living in a predominantly pagan community—to seek sexual holiness (4:3–8). Idle members should be motivated to serve God, themselves, and the community in gainful employment (4:9–12). Finally, Paul likely wished to undo the Thessalonian's heavy dependence on him by urging the church to respect and defer to its own ministers (5:12, 13). Here Paul also emphasized Timothy's credentials (3:2), while presenting of his missionary team as reliable and trustworthy.
Even as Paul offered reassurances undergirded by sound doctrine, he also warned of the destiny of God's enemies. Alongside strong assurances of the sublime future promised to believers secure in Christ, Paul pointed to horrors of impending wrath for those not yet saved by grace, through faith. Like a loving parent, Paul made clear the difference between the grace they were beneficiaries of and the price of unbelief: "The Lord is an avenger" (4:6), who will bring "sudden destruction" (5:3) to those who "are drunk at night" (5:7). Paul closed his appeal to holiness with a final reassurance: "He who calls you is faithful, he will surely do it" (5:24). God’s justice would be satisfied.
Wow…..does this summary sound relevant to our day? I think it does…..and profoundly so! As life in 2020 America presses hard against God’s truth and threatens our freedoms, we can be tempted to feel helpless, or even hopeless. Paul’s letter gives us an alternative path to succumbing to such temptation. Take heart, and do not fear the future. Christ's return will be indescribably beautiful for those who are His. As we anticipate that which we cannot fully know, let us help one another be ready for that beautiful day.
The same God who will return to make all things right in our world, made this promise as recorded in Isaiah 43:2:
"When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and when you pass through the rivers, they will not sweep over you. When you walk through the fire, you will not be burned; the flames will not set you ablaze.”