The first letter to the Thessalonians was written by Paul, Sylvanus, and Timothy about 50 AD, soon after Paul arrived in Corinth. The primary motivation seems to have been Paul’s need to defend himself against slander. He touches briefly on the matter of prophecy as well, which he will focus on more in his second letter.
The people are commended for their faithful work and enduring hope. Their salvation was evident by the power of the Holy Spirit among them after they heard the Word. Paul reminds them that he too displayed this same power when he was among them.
They began to imitate Paul and the others and welcomed their teaching, even in the face of persecution. They have become renown for their faith and their having turned completely from idols to God, and they eagerly wait for Jesus’ return for them. All of this is proof of the power in which Paul had come to them.
The gospel had been brought to these people after Paul and the others had experienced insulting treatment at Philippi, yet they were bold anyway. They came not with deception and cunning but the truth of the gospel, not being concerned with popularity but with pleasing God. They used no flattery and were not greedy, did not seek praise and did not “throw their weight around” over the people. Instead, Paul and the others were like parents tenderly soothing their children. They were kind and gentle and encouraging through it all.
As a result, the people received the gospel gladly. But like the Jewish believers who were being persecuted by their own people, these believers too were being persecuted by theirs. Paul relates how his own people keep trying to forbid the Gentiles from hearing the gospel.
Paul expresses his desire to visit them again in person, in spite of the obstacles Satan has been throwing in front of him. He had decided to stay in Athens and send his co-worker Timothy to strengthen and encourage them. Paul had told them before about the persecution that is promised to believers, which he and others had experienced. It was persecution that was keeping him from visiting them, so he sent Timothy to check up on them and put his mind at ease.
But Timothy had returned and the news was good. This gave Paul great encouragement in his trials. He praises God for them and is all the more eager to see them again, wishing them continued growth and strength.
Paul reminds them of instructions he gave earlier about proper Christian behavior, and to continue in them and strive for maturity. This extends to how they do business in the world, not just among themselves. Many in the churches throughout history have ignored this teaching, treating “church” as a box to keep their religion in, while being just like the heathen out in the world. But at least the believers here were treating each other with love, something that isn’t always the case in many churches.
Now the focus turns to questions the people had about what happens when believers die. Instead of being exceedingly sad like the lost, they were to be comforted by the fact that we will see departed believers again in heaven. After all, if we believe that Jesus rose from the dead, there is no reason to doubt that his followers will rise too. Here we have a firm picture of not only our hope for resurrection, but an event commonly referred to as the Rapture. The Greek word means “to snatch away” or plunder, which was translated into Latin and then anglicized into “rapture”. Even in its modern sense, to be enraptured is to be “caught up” with our emotions. But context determines what is being “caught up” and why.
This particular context is about the righteous dead and the hope we have. Paul just told them that he is giving them a reason to hope, to not mourn like the heathen. We who are alive at the Coming of the Master (not the Day of the Master) will be “snatched away” immediately after the righteous dead. This is when the Master Himself comes down from heaven with a shout from the ruling Messenger and the trumpet of God. But the Master doesn’t come down to the earth, only “in the clouds”, to which we all are raised. So it really is a meeting in the clouds; first the dead and then we who are still living.
This, again, is all given to us as a reason to hope, something to encourage us. Many in the churches today mock this hope, saying that the Rapture is only escapism for people who are afraid of suffering or think themselves “holier than thou”, but those are false charges. People are to find great comfort and hope and encouragement in knowing it and in continuing to watch and wait for the Master’s return.
There is also a parallel with Jewish wedding customs, one found frequently throughout the New Testament. The groom-to-be would prepare a room in his father’s house, then come at an unpredictable time for his bride, with his friends shouting and blowing trumpets. He would take her to his father’s house for a feast, which would last seven days, and then they would begin their life together. In the same way, Jesus said that in his Father’s house were many rooms and that he was going there to prepare a place for us, his Bride. At the right time, unannounced and unknown to the Bride, he will return for us and take us to heaven to the “wedding banquet”. There will be seven years of celebration there, while the earth experiences seven years of God’s wrath against all who refused his invitation and despised his Son, the Groom.
Paul also addresses the timing of the end. He had already told them about this, but briefly summarizes. “The Day of the Master” will come suddenly and unexpectedly, like a thief during the night. People will be caught off-guard, thinking they have finally achieved peace and security, but doom and destruction rain down upon them instead. It is likened to when a pregnant woman’s time comes to give birth; we never know when the hour will come, but when it does, there is no doubt, and no stopping it.
In contrast, believers are not to be taken by surprise. We are “in the light” and people of the day, and have no excuse for falling asleep. In fact, we are to remain dressed for battle. Paul uses some of the same symbolism here as he did in writing to the Ephesians about “the whole armor of God”. We are to keep watch and be alert. We are mocked today for watching, for pointing out the lateness of the hour, for looking for clues about the nearness of the Master’s return. But faithful soldiers and brides remain true to the end.
Notice the words Paul uses: “they” will be taken by surprise, but “you” will not. There is a clear difference between how Paul refers to the Master’s coming for believers, and how he refers to “the day of the Master” for unbelievers. Two different events for two different groups. And we are told that the “coming” precedes the “day”.
We are not destined to suffer this impending wrath of God, but instead are to be taken out ahead of it by Jesus. Some would brush this off as the general hope of salvation, but look at the context. It’s all about our hope in a specific “coming”, in which we will be snatched away to heaven while still alive. It is something Paul uses to encourage the people who have been wondering about “times and seasons”. People don’t ask about those things in regards to general salvation.
The focus turns again, this time to watching their own Congregation for faithful workers and for guardians. These serve by warning others of spiritual danger. Yet in a world filled with heresy and falsehood, guardians have a lot of negative things to warn about, and we would naturally expect this to intensify as we near the end. This we observe, yet most guardians are shouted down and told to be silent.
Paul instructs them not to scorn prophecies, and he says this right after telling them not to squelch the Spirit. Prophecy is from God and we dare not ignore it. Yet this must be balanced with discernment; we are to test everything. We are to sift through it and keep what is good and from God, while discarding all that is not.
Paul now gives his customary farewell, with blessings and challenges.