1 & 2 Thessalonians Part Three Deep Dive
A DEEP DIVE INTO THESSALONIANS
PART THREE | DR ADAM WHITE
I finished last week’s Deep Dive by describing the Thessalonians as a very young group of believers who had not been established in the Word. Paul wrote to encourage them to hold on to the faith in the face of serious opposition, but there were still some issues to clear up. He begins in Chapter 4 by reminding them of what they already heard from him, the ‘basics’ as it were.
paul’s greatest hits
Every preacher has a message or a set of teachings that they are particularly passionate about. For those of you who have been in the same church for long enough and have heard the same few preachers preaching week in and week out, you know what I mean here. For Paul, there were some classic hits: be sanctified, avoid sexual immorality, learn to control your own body in a way that is holy and honourable (unlike the pagans), don’t wrong or take advantage of a brother or sister, live a holy life, love one another as you have been taught by God to love each other and do so more and more (1 Thess 4:3–10). This is all classic Paul. But then he deals with two seemingly separate issues that, on closer inspection, are interrelated.
1 Thess. 4:11-12 Make it your ambition to lead a quiet life: You should mind your own business and work with your hands, just as we told you, so that your daily life may win the respect of outsiders and so that you will not be dependent on anybody.
Paul then says,
1 Thess. 5:12-14 ‘Now we ask you, brothers and sisters, to acknowledge those who work hard among you, who care for you in the Lord and who admonish you. Hold them in the highest regard in love because of their work. Live in peace with each other. And we urge you, brothers and sisters, warn those who are idle and disruptive’.
This is a specific issue that is happening in Thessalonica. It seems that there are some who are being lazy and, rather than working to contribute to the collective good of the church, are (to use an Australian colloquialism) bludging off the rest of the community. It is especially interesting that Paul says in Chapter 4:12 ‘just as we told you’. In other words, Paul has already told them about this while he was there. It seems that unlike the other issues where they are going well, on this issue they are still having problems. But what is the reason for this behaviour? The rest of the letter appears to provide the answer.
unpacking the afterlife
In Chapters 4:13–5:11, Paul addresses a question over the resurrection. Some of the Thessalonians are concerned about what will happen to those who have died or will die before the return of Christ. How will they be taken to up to the Lord if they are dead and buried? It’s easy to understand their confusion, particularly when we consider how ancient people generally understood what happened in death.
The common idea in the ancient world was that when a person dies, they go to Hades. This is not ‘hell’, as some have interpreted it, it was simply the afterlife. We all go there, and we all share the same existence when we’re there, irrespective of whether we are good or bad in this life. In Hades, we take the form of a wispy spirit, not fully conscious, merely a vague image of our former self. That means that when we die, we leave behind our bodies. In fact, Plato said that the body is a prison house for the soul. What we do with our bodies in this life is of no consequence in the afterlife — eat and drink, for tomorrow we die. But then Paul comes to Thessalonica and tells them that not only will there be a resurrection at the return of Christ, it will be bodily. We will have resurrected bodies like Christ’s. Well, that changes everything. And it raises questions. What about those that die before Christ’s return? They are buried and return to dust. How will they be resurrected?
Paul responds in Chapters 4:13–5:11 by telling them that there will be a resurrection of both the living and the dead. Those who have died in this life will live again. This is, to me, perhaps the most powerful and encouraging aspects of the gospel: this life is not the end of the story. Those who we have lost are not lost forever, we will see them again. But Paul also wants to reiterate that it will happen at a time that we are not ready. While everyone is looking at the Roman Empire for hope and courage; while they are comforting themselves with the Empire’s motto ‘peace and security’, the Lord will return. So, be ready.
But there is one more issue to address. One that flows directly out of the idea that Jesus is coming back tomorrow. If the next life is coming soon, why bother putting any effort into this one? We will look at this in the final post.