How is this new church doing? How are these Christians coming along?
Those were Paul’s concerns about this little church he planted in Thessalonica. After being run out of town, he heard news of their growing faith, hope, and love. He heard about their steadfastness in the midst of suffering. He heard about their firm convictions in a pluralistic society. He also heard about their weaknesses, some moral problems, and a few theological gaps, especially regarding the return of Christ.
Sounds like us.
There are differences, sure. Two thousand years changes much. But we also have much in common with this church plant. Paul’s words to them then are also God’s words to us now.
Here are three themes in these letters, corresponding to three expectations for reading.
Endurance Through Suffering
Paul took up his pen to encourage Christians living in discouraging times. These Christians suffered as a result of their faith from the beginning. The Apostle Paul was even run out of town shortly after bringing the gospel to them. Paul heard of their continued social and cultural difficulties. He also heard about their hopeful endurance, and he writes to give them more strength. We are also living in a pluralistic culture, with increasing trends of marginalization for Christians. The Thessalonians’ faith, hope, and love are encouraging examples for us today.
But where do we get the hope we need?
The Return of the King
These are future-oriented letters. Over and over, we hear of Jesus’ “coming (1 Thess. 2:19; 3:13; 4:15-17; 5:23; 2 Thess. 1:7-10; 2:1, 8). Paul wrote to clear up several misunderstandings about what to expect in the future in order to encourage more faithful living in the meantime. In the end, our hope is not merely in a series of events, an unfolding timeline, or an abstract idea of salvation. It’s in a person. We are those who are “waiting for his Son” (1 Thess. 1:10).
But what do we do until he comes?
We seek to please God in all of life. “As you received from us how you ought to walk and to please God, just as your are doing, that you do so more and more” (1 Thess. 4:1). These letters call us to a certain kind of faithful, earnest, diligent, active, loving lifestyle. We are waiting for Jesus to come, but this is not a passive waiting. It is active. A final expectation for reading these letters, then, is that we might more fully lean into this diligent pursuit of Christ-likeness. That we would take our personal growth in Christ seriously and that we would intentionally seek to help other Christians grow as disciples of Jesus.
This is an opportunity to be transformed by the grace of God in Christ. As John Stott put it: “He shows how the gospel creates the church and the church spreads the gospel, and how the gospel shapes the church, as the church seeks to live a life that is worthy of the gospel” (Stott, The Message of 1 & 2 Thessalonians, 20).