Introduction: 1 Thessalonians, written around 49 AD in Corinth, is probably Paul’s earliest letter and also the earliest document in the New Testament. It is an invaluable source of information about Paul’s early beliefs, his modus operandi as a missionary, and the beliefs of the earliest Christians. In this letter, brimming with warmth and affection, Paul commends the Thessalonians and reminds them of their shared hardships. He also comforts Thessalonians who worry about believers who have died, saying they will be resurrected at Jesus’ coming.
1 Thessalonians: We always thank God for all of you, because you became imitators of us and of the Lord in spite of persecution, and are now an example to all believers in Macedonia and Achaia. You turned from idols to serve the true God, and are awaiting the coming of Jesus, who will rescue us from the coming wrath. You know that our coming to you was not in vain–despite being mistreated at Philippi, we still declared the gospel to you, not to please mortals but to please God. You remember our toil–we worked all day to avoid burdening you financially, and in accepting our gospel, you were persecuted just like the Judean churches.
We wanted to see you, but Satan blocked our way. Finally, we sent Timothy to strengthen you in the midst of persecution, and Timothy has just returned with news of your faith and love. The instructions we gave you about how to live to please God, you ought to do more and more; you already love all the believers, but we urge you to love them more and more. Regarding those who have died: they will be resurrected at Jesus’ coming, and those of us who are alive at his coming will be no means precede those who died into the Lord’s company. Concerning the end times, you know that they will come like a thief in the night, so keep awake and sober. Respect those who labor among you; admonish the idlers, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with all of them.
- In this letter, we find out that Paul’s church in Thessalonica is composed of former pagans, not Jews (1:9 reads “…how you turned to God from idols”). This is contrary to the depiction in Acts, where Paul preaches only to Jews in the local synagogue while in Thessalonica (Acts 17:1-10).
- Paul, as well as the church in Thessalonica, clearly believed that Jesus would return within their generation:
we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will by no means precede those who have died. For the Lord himself, with a cry of command, with the archangel’s call and with the sound of God’s trumpet, will descend from heaven, and the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up in the clouds together with them to meet the Lord in the air; and so we will be with the Lord forever. (4:15-18)
- The Thessalonians become disturbed after some of the believers died. They were expecting an apocalypse to come, and Jesus to rescue them from God’s wrath (1:10). Didn’t the dead miss out on the chance for salvation? Paul’s answer is no: the dead will be resurrected. Apparently, the Thessalonians became believers without knowing what happens to the dead.