Author: The Apostle Paul
Date of Writing: AD 51 (Paul's earliest epistle)
Target Audience: Jewish and Greek believers who gather as a “church” in Thessalonica.
Theme: Living in view of the coming of Christ
INTO THE WORD (STUDY):
- Why do you think Paul called the Thessalonian church his "hope," "joy" and "crown" (see 2:19)?
- If Paul promised them trials and persecution when he was with them (3:4), why is he writing them about it now?
- What in Timothy's report particularly encourages Paul? What does this tell you about Paul's desires and concerns for the Thessalonians?
- What guidelines can you find in Paul's desires, concerns and prayers for those who disciple new Christians today?
Think Q.U.E.S.T.: Do you still have a lingering QUESTION? What is particularly UNEASY for you or catches your attention? Is there an EXHORTATION or command in this passage? What is the SETTING (historical/cultural/linguistic context)? Is there a TRUTH to grasp?
INTO MY LIFE (APPLICATION):
1. If someone were to tell you that God promises a trouble-free life to those who are true Christians, how would you respond? How does God help your through life's trials?
2. In what specific ways have you been encouraged by someone else's faith? Have you told them about it?
3. Which of Paul's prayer requests would you want someone to pray for you? Do likewise for someone in your small group.
As a result of my conversational study in 1 Thessalonians 3, I choose to pursue the following transformative life action:
- To view my troubles and trials through a lens of HOPE (God is working all things for my good).
- To view my troubles and trials through a lens of JOY (God is working all things my contentment).
- To view my troubles and trials through a lens of a CROWN (God is working all things for my future).
HISTORICAL/CULTURAL BACKGROUND AND COMMENTARY
Paul the Pastor (1 Thessalonians 3:1-10):
In 1 Thessalonians 3, we discover several qualities of a good pastor or someone called to "shepherd" (lead) God's people in their spiritual growth.
First, there is affection. A good pastor loves his people, but even more so, he likes them too. He enjoys their presence and looks forward to spending time with them.
Second, there is anxiety. Every leader is nervous about a new venture or a new product or a new situation. Many of us remember being first time parents and that feeling "Are we really ready for this?" Pastoral leadership is no different. God has given his shepherds responsibility and with responsibility comes natural anxiety about both the process and the outcomes.
Third, there is help. Every good pastor needs co-leaders to assist in the task of ministry. For Paul, it was companions like Timothy, Titus and Silas. Paul was unable to return to Thessalonica. Consequently, he relied upon Timothy to be his eyes and ears, hands and feet.
Fourth, there is a joy. Paul was happy that his Thessalonian converts were staying true to their faith. Despite his brief (3-week) stay in the city, and the trouble that quickly surrounded his work, the Thessalonians were still true to the Word. Paul was learning that with the Holy Spirit, he can build a church...even if he is no longer present.
Finally, there is a prayer. Paul constantly prayed for the churches he planted and the people he discipled. They proved, over time, to be a tremendous burden. Prayer is a wonderful way to support a person, especially from a distance. We will never know how much God has blessed our lives using the prayers of other people.
All is of God (1 Thessalonians 3:11-13)
In this prayer passage, we see the mind of Paul and how he views everything as being of God.
For example, Paul prays for God to open a way for him to come to Thessalonica (3:11). This might seem like a small matter to us today. All Paul has to do is go back to Thessalonica. It's not like he has a job, or a wife/family, or a home that's holding him back. He's obviously not afraid of being persecuted. And yet, in some way Satan is "blocking" him. Paul fundamentally believes that God is in control. When God opens the door to return, it will be clear and he will be able.
Second, Paul prays for God to enable the Thessalonians to fulfill the law of love in their daily lives (3:12). He wanted love to "overflow" in all that they did--whether at work, play, home or church. Too many times we try to live our lives without God, without His blessing...and our ability to love is impacted. In Galatians 5:22-23 we are introduced to the fruit of the Spirit: But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Notice the first quality is LOVE and the last quality is SELF-CONTROL. Could this be the evolution of a Christ-like life? All things begin with love and when we love, we find joy. When we experience joy, we learn peace. When we have peace, there's a patience. With patience comes kindness and with kindness there is goodness. When we are full of goodness, faithfulness sprouts. When we are faithful then gentleness grows and when gentleness matures, self-control blossoms. It's no wonder Paul says "love" is the "greatest of all (1 Corinthians 13:13).
Finally, Paul prays for their strength and holiness so they are ready for Jesus' coming (3:13). This is a common theme in Paul's letters to the Thessalonians: the coming of Christ. Later in 1 Thessalonians 5:23, Paul will pray for God to "sanctify [the Thessalonians] through and through. May [their] whole spirit, soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ."
This is the second time (2:19, 3:13) that Paul has spoke about the "coming of Jesus Christ" except this time he adds "with his holy ones." It's safe to say the vast majority of Christian believers today would view this "second coming" as yet a FUTURE event. It has been the general teaching of the church from nearly the beginning. Jesus' coming is when the resurrection of the dead will occur, this world will "dissolve" and time will end. It's pretty cut and dried, right?
Actually, no. It's why we need to lay some groundwork now for our future conversations in Thessalonians. After all, there are other interpretations for these "end-time" passages. Let's consider one of the more ancient ones.
"These Last Days"
The topic of Jesus' coming wasn't a new one. In fact, the New Testament is threaded with the idea that Jesus is coming...and coming soon. The first-century church clearly felt they were in the "last days" and that Jesus' return was imminent.
(Peter quoting Joel as being fulfilled on the Day of Pentecost) In the last days, God says, I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your young men will see visions, your old men will dream dreams (Acts 2:17).
...but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom also he made the universe (Hebrews 1:2).
"...For I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more." By calling this covenant “new,” he has made the first one obsolete; and what is obsolete and outdated will soon disappear (Hebrews 8:12-13).
You too, be patient and stand firm, because the Lord’s coming is near. Don’t grumble against one another, brothers and sisters, or you will be judged. The Judge is standing at the door! (James 5:8-9)
Dear children, this is the last hour; and as you have heard that the antichrist is coming, even now many antichrists have come. This is how we know it is the last hour (1 John 2:18).
The revelation from Jesus Christ, which God gave him to show his servants what must soon take place. He made it known by sending his angel to his servant John, who testifies to everything he saw—that is, the word of God and the testimony of Jesus Christ. Blessed is the one who reads aloud the words of this prophecy, and blessed are those who hear it and take to heart what is written in it, because the time is near. (Revelation 1:1-3)
Then he told me, “Do not seal up the words of the prophecy of this scroll, because the time is near." (Revelation 22:10)
All these passages show a time stamp that the early church felt they were the "last generation." Why would they think that? And have we misunderstood this "coming of Jesus" in our Scriptures? Again, most Christians believe these passages apply to a FUTURE coming of Christ, but is that the best interpretation? Is it the only interpretation? Let's be honest. This is a hard teaching. It's hard because it's a huge paradigm shift in how we might understand the "coming of Christ." The Church (of all types) has taught for centuries that Jesus' coming was still a future event...but what if it's not? What if the "coming of Christ" already happened?
Have I got your attention? Good. Now, my goal here isn't to confuse. I remember the first time I heard this interpretation! It did sound rather strange, but I hope you'll trust me as I reveal a different way of looking at the "coming of Christ."
You see, it's possible that we could be missing something rather obvious. Something that will help us interpret not just Thessalonians, but other apocalyptic works like Daniel and Revelation. It starts by looking back to Jesus' teaching on his "coming".
There was a moment when Jesus' own disciples specifically asked Jesus to give the WHEN for His "coming." In Matthew 24, Jesus told his disciples that one day the temple they so admired would be completely destroyed. They then asked Jesus privately: "Tell us...when will this happen, and what will be the SIGN of your coming and of the end of the age? (24:3)" You get the idea that this isn't the first time Jesus talked about the "end" of the temple. His disciples had an inside perspective to help them and their inquiry suggests a deeper desire to understand.
Jesus began his answer by outlining a number of "birth pang" signs: deception, false messiahs, wars and rumors of wars, famines and earth quakes (24:4-8). Jesus also said his disciples and the followers of his disciples [early church] will face persecution, execution, hate, apostasy, betrayal, false prophets, increased wickedness, and spiritual apathy (24:9-12).
Then Jesus turned his attention to the glorious Jewish temple and gave them a sign:
"So when YOU see standing in the holy place 'the abomination that causes desolation,' spoken of through the prophet Daniel--let the READER understand--then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains...(24:15-16)."
Essentially, Jesus affirmed an ancient prophecy by Daniel. He spoke of a coming "Anointed One" who would "confirm a covenant" to "end sacrifice and offering" and "set up an abomination that causes desolation" upon the temple (Daniel 9:27). Sound familiar? We'll address this idea more when we study 2 Thessalonians 2.
Jesus seemingly best fits that "Anointed One" description (as he was "anointed" at his baptism to minister as the Messiah). Jesus also confirmed the Abrahamic covenant with the Jews, but He also brought a NEW COVENANT to the world. It's a covenant where He is the high priest, the sacrificial Lamb and the final Offering all rolled into one. When Jesus observed the temple and said "Look, your house is left to you DESOLATE (Matt 23:39), He fulfilled Daniel's prophecy. He pronounced or "set up" the "desolation" that would eventually happen in roughly 40 years. In late summer of 70 AD, the Romans (under the general Titus) will break through the fortified walls of Jerusalem and eventually desecrate the temple. It's a well-documented historical fact by Roman historians and a Jewish historian named Josephus.
But don't miss the PROMISE in Matthew 23:39! After Jesus said the temple would be desolated, He stated: "For I tell you, you will not see me again until you say 'Blessed is he who COMES in the name of the Lord." Jesus ties a COMING to this DESOLATION. It's likely why his disciples asked WHEN this "coming" at the "end of the age" would happen. Jesus sparked their curiosity...and maybe their fear.
In Matthew 24, Jesus continued to teach his disciples about this horrific "desolation" and destruction of the Jerusalem temple. He noted how important it is for his disciples to teach their disciples to be ready, especially if they're living in Jerusalem when it happens. He warned them to "flee to the mountains" and don't go back for anything, not even their cloak (which served as a coat and bedding). Jesus lamented how terrible it would be for this destruction upon the city and the temple. It would be particularly dangerous to escape if you were a pregnant/nursing mother, or it was winter or on the Sabbath (when the Jews were resting). Jesus summarized this entire period as a "great distress" or "great tribulation" that will "never be equaled again (24:16-21)." He even said if "those days had not be cut short" that the entire Jewish race could be wiped away (24:22). Ironically, during the Jewish-Roman War the percentage of Jews killed was far greater than the Holocaust under Hitler! Nero and Rome almost destroyed the entire Jewish race but, thankfully, fell short. It truly was a period of "unequaled distress!"
Jesus then warned again of false messiahs who would use this opportunity for their own gain. Some would even perform "great signs and wonders" that deceive. He then stated plainly: "See, I have told you ahead of time (24:25)." Jesus isn't mincing words. He's not speaking in double. He's being very clear. He also says "YOU" meaning HIS DISCIPLES. This teaching was meant for THEM not for us. It was a prophecy to help these first-century Christians to survive this "great distress" that was coming--a tribulation that would destroy the temple completely.
And then Jesus pointed to the SIGN that his disciples wanted. The SIGN that will show HIS COMING and THE END OF THE AGE. But before we can tackle "the sign" we need to look briefly at the phrase "the end of the age." What is it?
The End of the Age
Many Christians are taught the "end of the age" is synonymous with the "end of the world" or the "end of time." But is that accurate? In ancient vocabulary an "age" was a period of time for a specific "chapter" in the history of a people. For the Jews they had an age of Abraham, an age of Moses, an age of conquest and settlement, an age of kings and an age of exile. Nowhere in the New Testament does "end of the age" mean "end of time." Rather, in its best use it means the "end of a chapter."
For example, in Proverbs 8:22-23: The Lord brought me forth as the first of his works, before his deeds of old; I was formed long ages ago, at the very beginning, when the world came to be. Obviously the passing of an age, or ages, doesn't mean end of time.
Isaiah 45:17 says: But Israel will be saved by the Lord with an everlasting salvation; you will never be put to shame or disgraced, to ages everlasting. This suggests countless ages exist yet in the future.
Jesus spoke of a coming age in Matthew 12:32: Anyone who speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven, but anyone who speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven, either in this age or in the age to come. If we interpret the present age and it's "end" as the end of time and the "age to come" as heaven or eternity, this verse creates a problem. Will there be unforgivable blasphemy in eternity (the age to come)? I doubt it.
In Matthew 13, Jesus taught about a coming "harvest" of righteous wheat and destruction (judgment) of wicked weeds:
The field is the world, and the good seed stands for the people of the kingdom. The weeds are the people of the evil one, and the enemy who sows them is the devil. The harvest is the end of the age, and the harvesters are angels. As the weeds are pulled up and burned in the fire, so it will be at the end of the age.
In Matthew 28:19-20, Jesus told his disciples to go everywhere and preach/teach all that He had taught them, then affirmed: "And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age."
Which brings us back to Matthew 24:3 and the disciples original question about the destruction of the temple: "When will this happen (the time) and what will be the sign of Jesus' coming AND the end of the age?" Most Bible students have been taught the disciples were asking multiple questions and getting multiple answers. We ASSUME they already knew that the "end of the age" was the end of time. We assume Jesus is coming when the world ends. We also assume the first part of the question ("when will this [destruction of the temple] happen?") is connected to the A.D. 70 Roman invasion.
There are a lot of assumptions...and that's the problem. At least it's one that I struggled with for years. After all, I was taught that Jesus answered the "when" question in the destruction of the temple (AD 70) but somewhere in this text there is a transition from AD 70 to the "end of the age" or the end of the world. To be honest, the more I studied Matthew 24 (and sister chapters like Mark 13 and Luke 21), the more confused I grew. In its purest, simplest interpretation, Jesus is speaking to HIS DISCIPLES (and the early church) about a DESTRUCTION that we can easily point to now as an historical event (the destruction of Jerusalem in September AD 70).
Is it possible the disciples (and Jesus) were all assuming ONE event and we, erroneously, assume there's TWO? What if the "end of the age" wasn't the "end of time" but the "time of the end" as prophesied in Daniel 12:1,4:
At that time Michael, the great prince who protects your people, will arise. There will be a time of distress such as has not happened from the beginning of nations until then...But you, Daniel, roll up and seal the words of the scroll until the time of the end.
Most Bible students would be surprised to learn the Scriptures never speak of END TIMES or even the END OF TIME. These are human interpretations upon the phrase "time of the end." Only in Daniel 12 do we have this phrase and it's pregnant with events connected to a distinct time frame that perfectly fits the 3.5 year Jewish-Roman War (AD 66-70). According to Daniel this "time of the end" is a period of unequaled "distress." In it's finality is a time of resurrection for the Old Testament faithful (Daniel 12:1-2). It's also something far in the future for Daniel and his people (the Jews). It's why he's told to "seal up" his prophecy. It's not meant for him but for a future generation.
Now let's return to Jesus' teaching on this "great distress" and his "coming" in Matthew 24:
“Immediately after the distress of those days: the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light; the stars will fall from the sky, and the heavenly bodies will be shaken.’[Compare Isaiah 13:6-10; 34:4]
“Then will appear the sign of the Son of Man in heaven. And then all the peoples of the earth will mourn when they see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven, with power and great glory [Compare Daniel 7:13-14.] And he will send his angels with a loud trumpet call, and they will gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of the heavens to the other.
“Now learn this lesson from the fig tree: As soon as its twigs get tender and its leaves come out, you know that summer is near. Even so, when you see all these things, you know that he is near, right at the door. Truly I tell you, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away.
But about that day or hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father
First of all, it's hard to find a "transition" from the "distress" of the destruction of Jerusalem (which we know historically happened in AD 70) and the "coming of Christ on the clouds" that's still yet to happen. The parallel passage in Luke 21 is far more specific--describing "armies surrounding Jerusalem"--and the transition to a future "coming" even harder to see. In fact, there really is no transition...and that's why it's very problematic.
Second, the apocalyptic language of the "sun going dark, the moon turning red or the stars falling" were common idioms for the end of a nation. In Isaiah 13, it's a judgment upon Babylon that uses this imagery. In Isaiah 34 it's a more general judgment upon pagan nations. When an Israelite heard these idioms, the message was clear: a nation was coming to an END. It wasn't a literal thing at all, but a symbolic rendering.
Consequently, the most natural reading of this text is that the "WHEN" is the DESTRUCTION OF JERUSALEM (as that's WHEN the temple was desolated by the pagan Roman armies and biblical Judaism came to an end). We know this happened "in their generation" (Jesus predicted this destruction around AD 30 and forty years later--in their generation--it happened). After 70 AD, the Jews have been a people without a spiritual homeland. In 1948, they finally got some real estate returned but they still have no temple, no sacrificial system, no priesthood. Biblical Judaism ended in AD 70. The SIGN to look for was Jesus "coming in the clouds." Did this also happen in AD 70? It's possible.
Consider the words of the Jewish historian Josephus, writing about the destruction of Jerusalem in his famous work of antiquity The Wars of the Jews (6.5.3):
On the twenty-first day of the month of Artemisius, a certain prodigious and incredible phenomenon appeared; I suppose the account of it would seem to be a fable, were it not related by those that saw it, and were not the events that followed it of so considerable a nature as to deserve such signals; for, before sunsetting, chariots and troops of soldiers in their armor were seen running about among the clouds, and surrounding of cities.
Other ancient historians like the Roman Tacitus and Pseudo-Hegesippus also mention a similar SIGHT in their writings. However, Josephus remains the most trusted source because he was an eyewitness to the destruction of Jerusalem. Josephus confessed his account would sound like "a fable" if it wasn't clearly visible to all who witnessed it.
So is it possible that Paul has this teaching by Jesus in view when he pens the Thessalonians? Probably. As an apostle of Jesus, Paul received direct revelation on these matters. He knew that when Jerusalem was invaded and the temple was destroyed that the "end of the age" had happened and "all things" were now fulfilled. He also knew what was connected to that "time of the end" too...which is why Paul will deal with Thessalonian misconceptions about the resurrection in chapter 4 and the "day of the Lord" in chapter 5 and the "man of lawlessness" in 2 Thessalonians 2.
I recognize that his teaching might be unsettling because it's a DIFFERENT way of looking at Jesus' teaching on his "second coming." We have long been grooved, theologically, to think of Jesus' coming as a yet FUTURE event (and it might still be) but there's another way to look at these "last days" and "time of the end" and "coming of Christ" passages too. Even if you believe Jesus had a "coming" in AD 70, it doesn't mean that Jesus could come one final time at the end of the world too. Some theologians see a "double ring" in biblical prophecies. They had both a specific fulfillment in the first century and will "ring again" at the end of time.
When it comes to end-time views, there are no less than four or five that have merit. It's hard to be overly dogmatic with any particular perspective, but every Bible student will eventually commit to one.
It's why I'm not fully persuaded on any "end time" view. I'm a student of the Word just like anyone reading this commentary and I want to "rightly divide it" for my students (2 Timothy 2:15). I do see some validity to a preterist (past-fulfillment AD 70) view, but I still have my doubts and questions. With that said, I equally struggle with the "Jesus is coming soon" and the "end is near" statements throughout the New Testament. It's clear that Jesus not only said He was returning in the lifetime of his disciples but his disciples counted on that promise. Was Jesus a liar? Did he intentionally mislead his disciples? I also struggle with finding "transitions" from AD 70 to a future coming of Christ in Matthew 24, Mark 13 and Luke 21. I don't understand teachings by Jesus where he claims some of his followers, including John the apostle, won't die until they've experienced his coming (Matthew 16:28; Mark 9:1; Luke 9:27; John 21:20-23).
It's why we all need some humility in our interpretations, particularly of eschatological viewpoints. I have spent some time in this commentary outlining the preterist interpretation, but I recognize there are other views. I have done so because it's helpful to this conversation and has been instructive to me in understanding these eschatological problems. I also do so because I'm assuming most of us have a working knowledge and a belief IN the "future coming of Jesus." There's no need to teach what you already know and believe! I wouldn't introduce this view if it was unbiblical or, worse, heretical (it's not), but do so because it's exactly that! It's a biblical, helpful, intriguing and instructive interpretation. I encourage you to study it further, if there's interest.
WANT TO LEARN MORE? READ EDWARD STEVENS: "WHAT HAPPENED IN A.D. 70?"
I will also, in future commentary, present the other positions for various end-time interpretations.
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