[For the third week now, I'm inviting the people of the congregation I serve as pastor into a consideration of the Bible passage around which our worship will be built this coming Sunday. If you have any comments, please let me know.]
First Thessalonians is the first of two letters from the first-century preacher and evangelist Paul, written to the congregation he founded in the city of Thesslonica. Thessalonica was the capital city of Macedonia.
Paul had gone there, along with his associates, Silas and Timothy, after being driven out of Philippi.
On three consecutive sabbath days, Paul had preached in the synagogue in Thessalonica. This conformed with a standard practice in the synagogues of those days. When a male visitor was among the worshipers, he was asked if there were anything he would like to say about the Torah. This is what lay behind the invitation sometimes extended to Jesus in Judean synagogues to "say a few words."
Paul's preaching convinced some of his fellow Jews who were there.
Also won over were Gentile listeners present at the sabbath services.
Throughout the Mediterranean Sea-basin, owing to generations of persecution, exile, and enslavement, there was a great dispersion (diaspora) of Jews. Wherever a Jewish population existed, they gathered for worship, some of them in formalized synagogues, some of them under trees outside of town. But wherever they gathered, Gentiles who had come to believe in the God of Israel--God-fearers, gathered with them as well. (Gentiles were referred to in the New Testament either as Greeks, referencing their being steeped in the Greek culture and language, or as ethnon, the ethnics. Greek language and culture was the equivalent of English today, the milieu of trade, communications, government, and business.)
The Jewish leadership were displeased with Paul and his team, though. They had worked to gather their fellow Jews and to proselytize the Gentile population and now here were these interlopers winning them over to the notion that Jesus of Nazareth had come as the Messiah, fulfilling the Old Testament prophecies by dying and rising, and making it possible for all people to experience a direct and personal relationship with God through Jesus, God in the Flesh.
Paul and Silas were forced to flee from Thessalonica. But they kept in touch and Paul guided the congregation into greater maturity of faith by sending them instructions. This letter is part of those instructions in faith.
Specifically taking a superficial look at First Thessalonians 5:1-11:
vv. 1-2: Paul's words are really similar to those given by Jesus to His disciples during His earthly ministry. "There's really no need," Paul seems to be saying, "to go any further in discussions of 'the end times' than to say that it could happen any time."
v.3: Even today, there are apocalyptic tea-leaf-readers, people who think they've got God's plans for the end of the world all figured out. Paul, quite frankly, would tell these people to shut up. (So does Jesus.)
The end of the earth and the return of Jesus will sneak up on the world like a burglar in the night.
v.4: But, Paul says, that day shouldn't really catch us off-guard, simply by virtue of our knowing that it's coming. Pauls' analogy is instructive: A pregnant mother knows that she will give birth even though she has no idea when contractions are going to hit.
v.5: We're to live our faithfulness to Christ openly and in the light. When we strive to keep no secrets from God, we have nothing to fear when the brilliant light of what the New Testament calls simply, the Day, the day of Jesus' return, will cause us no terror.
v.6: I love this verse!
It hearkens back to James, Peter, and John, who Jesus took with Him to pray on the night He was arrested. He asked them to be vigilant in praying that God would protect them all from the temptations and shame that loomed as possibilities in the hours to come. But they kept falling asleep.
It also reminds me of the New Testament admonition to never tire of doing good.
Jesus' message seems to tell us to never be so comfortable with the life of this world that we fail to vigilantly follow Him or be engaged in the life style of love of God and love of neighbor that is the Christian's appropriate response to the love and forgiveness of God given to us through Jesus.
v.7: Here, Paul says that sleep is appropriate at night, keeping in mind that in the first-century world that knew neither electricity or powered light, you couldn't really work anyway. He also points out that one of the activities that people engage in apart from the searing showcasing of light is drunkenness. If we're to live useful, happy lives, Paul says, we need to remain sober. He doesn't just have alcohol in mind. He has in mind sound judgment, judgment tied in with the One Who designed us in the first place.
v.8: Faith, hope, and love. Good stuff. Look at First Corinthians 13.
v.9: Wrath, as I understand it, isn't God lashing out at sinners. Wrath is that set of consequences that come to us when we decide to violate God's design for us and our world.
In the natural world, God created gravity. Gravity means that I can't with abandon jump from a skyscraper and expect to be unhurt. I'll fall and the landing will be the end of me. If that happens, it won't be because God is angry. It will simply be the reasonable consequence of my actions.
When we violate God's moral law, as embodied in the Ten Commandments, there are also consequences. Even if we're never discovered by others or even if the world regards our violations as being "no big deal," there is scar tissue on our souls. Sin can also harm our relationships with others, cause us to lose our self-respect, or make us inhumane. Sin, until we turn back (repent) to God and trust in Jesus Christ, also acts as a wall between God and us. We will condemn ourselves, running into the consequences of our repudiation of God, even though God wants us to be with Him forever.
v.10: Jesus' death and resurrection makes it possible for all who believe in Him to be with Him forever...as a free gift!
v.11: Here, Paul talks about the importance of the Church. In the face of all that happens in our lives, we can encourage one another in the certainty that we belong to Christ forever.
[Hopefully, more tomorrow. By the way, you can find more about the establishment of the church at Thessalonica in Acts 17.]