St Paul so far in his first letter to the Thessalonians has expressed both his thanksgiving for the faith of the Thessalonian believers and also his gratitude to God for the way they have not been shaken by the persecution and suffering they have been experiencing as a result of becoming believers. St Paul himself, as we have seen, had to leave Thessalonica abruptly and prematurely because of persecution from the Jewish community.
St Paul had sent St Timothy back to Thessalonica to see if the Thessalonian believers were persevering, and he has been in a state of some anxiety waiting for St Timothy to return with news of how the Church in Thessalonica is getting on. St Timothy, St Paul writes, has now returned and the news is good: the Thessalonian believers are keeping the faith, living in love, and longing to see St Paul and his co-workers again (1 Thessalonians 3:6). St Paul tells the Thessalonian believers that he longs to see them again too, and prays that it will be possible for him to return to visit them (1 Thessalonians 3:10-11). In the meantime, in the letter, St Paul seeks to remind the Thessalonian believers of what they were taught when he was with them and of the example that he and his co-workers have given them.
Although the news is good, and clearly the Thessalonian believers are doing their best to be faithful and to follow the teaching they have been given, they are still relatively new believers. In the last two chapters of the letter, then, St Paul seeks to address areas where he feels they need particular encouragement and help. St Timothy would have provided St Paul with information about the Thessalonian Church to help him in this. It is even possible that St Timothy brought a letter from the Church, although we do not know that for certain.
In chapter 4, St Paul begins by urging the Thessalonian believers to live as they have learned from St Paul and his co-workers and to continue to seek to please God in their lives (1 Thessalonians 4:1). St Paul singles out ‘sexual immorality’ as something they particularly need to avoid and guard against (1 Thessalonians 4:3).
While at first, Sts Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy had concentrated on preaching in the synagogue when they were in Thessalonica, the majority of the Church in Thessalonica were clearly from a pagan background. Some of them could have come from a group known as the ‘godfearers’. These were pagans who were attracted to the Jewish faith but who did not fully convert to Judaism. Others, however, seem to have been converted straight from paganism, independently of the synagogue. St Paul has described their background and new found faith in chapter 1:
‘For the people of those regions report about us what kind of welcome we had among you, and how you turned to God from idols, to serve a living and true God, and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead—Jesus, who rescues us from the wrath that is coming.’ (1 Thessalonians 1:9-10)
Pagan worship often included prostitution, and sexual freedom itself was common throughout Roman society. In the New Testament, idolatry and sexual immorality are often linked together. By urging the Thessalonian believers to avoid sexual immorality, St Paul is clearly focusing on an area where he thinks they were vulnerable.
St Paul turns next to an area in which the Thessalonian believers are doing well. He writes:
‘Now concerning love of the brothers and sisters, you do not need to have anyone write to you, for you yourselves have been taught by God to love one another; and indeed you do love all the brothers and sisters throughout Macedonia.’ (1 Thessalonians 4:9-10)
In encouraging them, however, to go loving one another, St Paul does so in somewhat unusual terms. He writes that they should aspire to live quietly, to mind their own affairs, and to work with their hands (1 Thessalonians 4:11). They are to do this, he writes:
‘… so that you may behave properly toward outsiders and be dependent on no one.’ (1 Thessalonians 4:12)
Saint Paul in chapter 4, writes about the ‘Day of the Lord’. Fundamental to how the New Testament describes what it means to believe in and live for Christ is the absolute conviction that Christ is physically going to return. The first believers genuinely believed both that it could be soon and that it would be unexpected. Saint Paul writes here as one who thinks of himself as being among those who would be alive when Christ returns.
All sorts of theological systems have been developed to explain what will happen when Christ returns and what the events leading up to it will be. This is not at all what Saint Paul is trying to do here. His concern is as much about what Christ’s return means for us now, before he comes again, as it is to describe what will happen when he actually does come again.
In describing our Lord’s return, Saint Paul deliberately uses vivid and symbolic language. The event itself will be real enough, but it is impossible for us fully either to imagine what it will be like or to describe it using human language. St Paul writes about it employing what would have been well-known phrases and images from both the Scriptures and from Roman culture: ‘cry of command’, ‘the archangel’s call’, and ‘the sound of God’s trumpet’.
While these phrases and images all refer to real events, which will happen in the future, they are not in themselves meant to be pressed too literally. We avoid getting it wrong, or falling into error, by keeping it simple. The fact that Christ will return is what matters, not the precise details surrounding his return.
But how are believers to live until he does? In teaching the Thessalonian believers how they are to live, Saint Paul assumes that there is a fundamental distinction between believers and unbelievers. He calls unbelievers ‘outsiders’ (1 Thessalonians 4:12). In living for Christ, we are to make it a priority to love those who, like us, are also are in Christ. When it comes to our daily lives, we are to get on with them. When Saint Paul says believers are to work with their hands (1 Thessalonians 4:11), he doesn’t mean that only manual work is of any use, although he does have a more positive view of manual work than many of us do. What Saint Paul means is that we shouldn’t give up work because we think Christ will soon be back. Nor are we to seek support from others in the Church wealthier than us, and certainly not from outsiders. We are to ‘keep calm and carry on!’
There is a question that the Thessalonian believers do need answering, however. It seems that some of the Thessalonian believers had died. The exact circumstances of their death and how they died, we are not told. It may have been because of natural causes or even as a result of persecution; we do not know. But their death did raise the question of what would happen to those believers who had died, given that they had died before our Lord’s return.
Notice that Saint Paul is writing out of a present pastoral concern and not because he wants to speculate about future events. The Thessalonian believers’ love for each other was such that they naturally grieved the loss of members of the community, and St Paul wants to offer them reassurance and comfort.
Saint Paul begins with the fact that Jesus died and rose again. This will be the future experience of believers who have died. The dead in Christ will rise first and meet with Christ as he begins his return. Those still alive, and Saint Paul writes as if he thinks he might be one of them, will meet up with Christ and the newly risen believers. And so, St Paul writes, we will be with the Lord for ever.
Saint Paul tells the Thessalonian believers to encourage one another with these words (1 Thessalonians 4:18). His words are not meant to lead to endless arguments about the future, but to give hope in the present. St Paul writes:
‘But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about those who have died, so that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope.’ (1 Thessalonians 4:13)
The believers’ sure hope is that Christ will return and that we will then be with him forever.
The question is often asked about how St Paul envisages the so-called ‘intermediate state’, that is, the time between when believers die and when they will rise to meet Christ when he comes again. St Paul never goes into details, but he is certain that whatever happens in this ‘in-between time’, we who are believers will be with the Lord. As St Paul puts it in chapter five, which we will look at in the podcast next week, Christ’s death for us means that ‘whether we are awake or asleep, we may live in him’ (1 Thessalonians 5:10).
Dead or alive, before Christ’s return or after, those who have put their faith in Christ are guaranteed life and a place with the Lord.
What does this all mean for us today?
1. We need to regain a sense of the importance of the Lord’s sure return for us in the present
Understandably, given that so many years have passed since the Lord’s death and resurrection without any sign of his return, believers have shifted their hope from the Lord’s second coming to going to be with the Lord when we die. Those who do think about the Lord’s return, mostly do so to speculate on the events that may or may not happen when he returns and the timetable for them.
Ironically, St Paul, who did believe that the Lord was coming soon, refused to enter into speculation about what would happen in the future when the Lord returned, and concentrated instead on what the Lord’s return meant in the present for us as believers. Inasmuch as we are concerned at all about our Lord’s return, we have reversed that concern and focus on the future and not the present. We need to reverse it back and focus on what our Lord’s future return means for us now.
After we die, the main event won’t be going to be with the Lord in some sort of heavenly existence, it will be when we rise to meet the Lord on his return. This will be the time when our redemption will be completed and when we will experience the redemption of our bodies, as St Paul writes about notably in Romans (Romans 8:23-25). Yes, we can be sure, as St Paul was, that when we die we will be kept safe, but we will be kept safe for a purpose. Death is not the end nor is it even the beginning. The beginning will still lie in the future. And before our salvation is complete, we will still have to appear before the judgement seat of Christ.
The general default position of the Church today is universalism. This is the belief that everyone will one day be saved. We are certain that regardless of what people may or may not have done, the love of God will eventually triumph. This combined with the common view of Jesus as someone who accepted and welcomed everyone with no questions asked means that we are insulated against the shock that these and other verses should give us. If we persist in believing that all will be well regardless, we are in for a far greater shock than we can ever imagine.
As St Paul writes:
‘For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive what is due for what he has done in the body, whether good or evil.’ (2 Corinthians 5:10)
This means that what we now do in the body and with our bodies matters tremendously. This is not to say we will be saved by our works, but we will certainly not be saved without them. St Paul warns believers in the Church in Corinth, in no uncertain terms, that certain forms of behaviour will exclude people from entering the Kingdom of God (1 Corinthians 6:9-10).
St Paul doesn’t say this to frighten us or to undermine our confidence in our salvation. He does so to encourage us to get our lifestyle right: so that we re-order our priorities now before it is too late.
2. Faith in Christ is a state of being that results in a way of life
St Paul begins chapter four with the words:
‘And so, brothers and sisters, we ask and urge you in the Lord Jesus that, as you learned from us how you ought to live and to please God (as, in fact, you are doing), you should do so more and more.’ (1 Thessalonians 4:1)
Faith isn’t just about what we believe in our heads but how we live our lives. Trusting in Christ must lead to obedience to Christ. St Paul in encouraging the Thessalonian believers in how they are to live and please God focuses on sexual behaviour.
In books about ethics, one thing you will hear a lot is that the Church in the past has concentrated far too much on issues of sex and has ignored other areas that are equally or more important. The Church is frequently accused of having been ‘hung up on sex’. This accusation is made especially against some sections of the Church and against leading figures in its history, most notably St Augustine.
While it is true that the Church in the past may have got aspects of its teaching wrong, it has not been wrong to prioritize issues of sexuality. There is an irony in that those who condemn the Church for being in the past, as they see it, obsessed with sexual behaviour are themselves now obsessed with issues of gender and sexual identity. The two, however, can’t be separated. Sexual behaviour, that is, who we have sex with, and sexual identity, that is, what gender we are, go together.
Many today argue that biological sex and gender are two different things. (BTW: This is what is being taught to children in many schools.) On this view, it is perfectly possible, for example, to be born biologically male and yet to be female in gender. This view, I believe, is both wrong and dangerous.
As humans we are embodied beings. Our bodies are intrinsic to our identity and to who we are. Our hope, as believers, is that our bodies will be resurrected and redeemed. When God created the human race, he created us biologically different: ‘male and female created he them’ (Genesis 1:27).
In Romans chapter one, St Paul writes that the immediate consequence of human beings rejecting God and turning to idols is that they fell into sexual disorder and sin. Sexuality and idolatry are closely inter-related. It is no coincidence that, as we today have substituted the worship of Self for the worship of God, our sexual identity has become such an issue. Our disordered spiritual identity has resulted in a disordered sexual identity. Sexual immorality is not just about who sleeps with whom, important though that is, but how we understand ourselves as sexual beings.
Clearly this is a subject that needs more said on it than I can say today. Suffice it, then, for now, to say that as much as we might prefer to relativize issues of sexuality and leave it to individuals to make choices for themselves that is not an option open to us if we take God’s word to us seriously. St Paul writing to those in the Church in Corinth who believed that they were free to do whatever they liked ‘in the body’ tells them:
‘Flee from sexual immorality. Every other sin a person commits is outside the body, but the sexually immoral person sins against his own body.’ (1 Corinthians 6:18)
Our bodies are essential to our identity. What we do in the body matters.
3. Faith in Christ creates a separated community made up of those who believe in Christ
When Christianity became the official religion of the Empire in the fourth century, it was to lead to the creation of ‘Christendom’ and the idea of the ‘Christian nation’. This was the belief that all who belonged to the Christian nation were themselves Christians. The process known as secularisation saw the end of Christendom as those nations that previously had adopted Christianity as their official religion largely abandoned it and removed Christianity from the public sphere, making religion essentially a private concern for individuals.
Unfortunately, the idea of Christendom continues profoundly to influence how the Church sees its role and mission in the world. We can’t bring ourselves to abandon the idea that the Church has a major part to play in the affairs of the state and society of which it is a part. We refuse to see ourselves as a separated community and to let go of the role we once had.
Our desire as a Church to be integrated rather than separated has been given fresh impetus by the adoption of universalism as the Church’s understanding of the future of humanity. On this view, everyone, it is believed, will one day be gathered into the coming Kingdom of God. This means that people, even now in the present, although they do not realize it, are part of the people of God.
Our role as a Church in preaching the Gospel on this understanding, then, is to make people aware of their status and future destiny and to announce to the world the good news of the universality of God’s Kingdom. What Christ has promised to his people, it is claimed, is promised to all people whether they realize it or not, accept it or not. All are included and all are to be welcomed and accepted.
This is not at all how our Lord, St Paul, and the New Testament writers saw it. The Gospel is about how those who are not members of the Kingdom can become members while there is still time for them to do so. Those who become members will be saved and those who do not will be lost. The Gospel tells people that it is only by turning from their present state of idolatry to the living God that they can be saved from the wrath that is to come (1 Thessalonians 1:10).
Those who turn to the living God become part of a community that does not belong to this world and who, instead, ‘seek the city that is to come’ (Hebrews 13:14)). Those outside the community of the Church are perishing and face destruction when the Lord returns. St Paul describes them as ‘without God’ and ‘without hope’ in this world. This is the reality of their situation and we are called as a Church to tell the truth and not to give false hope.
All that St Paul writes about how believers are to live is for those inside this community; those not part of the community are ‘outsiders’, who will one day find themselves excluded from the Kingdom our Lord comes to bring. In writing to the Thessalonian believers, St Paul seeks to guide them as to how they should live as they await their Lord’s return. He prays that their love for each other may increase. He expresses his desire for believers as he writes:
‘And may he so strengthen your hearts in holiness that you may be blameless before our God and Father at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints.’ (1 Thessalonians 3:13)
Our lifestyle in this world is to reflect this hope and understanding of the Gospel. It means we need to rethink how we behave in this world so that we may, as St Paul again puts it, ‘conduct ourselves properly towards outsiders and be dependent on no-one’, and certainly not on those in power in this world. We are to be a separated community of believers who lead lives worthy of God, who calls us into ‘his own kingdom and glory’ (1 Thessalonians 2:12).
And so today, we are a people of hope who look forward to that day when we will rise to meet the Lord who comes to save those who have put their trust in him. Until then, may we seek to lead lives worthy of him as men and women whose identity is found in Christ, who died for us, and for whose return we expectantly wait and pray.
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