Survey of 1 Thessalonians

Book Type: The New Testament’s eighth Pauline Epistle; the thirteenth book of the New Testament; the fifty-second book of the Bible.

Author: Paul, Silvanus (Silas), and Timothy, named directly in 1 Thessalonians 1:1.

Audience: Paul wrote to the church he founded in the city of Thessalonica during his second missionary journey (Acts 17:1–9). Though he lived among these people only a short time, he shows great love for these Gentile believers in this, his first of two letters to them. The Thessalonians likely faced severe persecution, and had sent many questions to Paul, which he addresses throughout the letter.

Date: Approximately AD 51.

Overview: First Thessalonians consists of five chapters that comprise two major sections. The first section address Paul’s personal thoughts concerning the church. He expresses much thanks for the way the Thessalonians live (1 Thessalonians 1:2–10), describing them as positive examples for the churches. Chapter 2 retells some of Paul’s ministry to this young church (1 Thessalonians 2:1–16). He concludes the chapter with a longing to see them again to bring him glory and joy (1 Thessalonians 2:17–20). Though Paul is concerned regarding the status of the church (1 Thessalonians 3:1–5), Timothy had recently returned with good news of their faith and love (1 Thessalonians 3:6). Paul thanks God (1 Thessalonians 3:9) and ends the section with a prayer for the believers receiving his letter (1 Thessalonians 3:11–13).

The second major section covers the remainder of the book and addresses various practical concerns (1 Thessalonians 4—5). First, Paul urges them to live a life that pleases the Lord (1 Thessalonians 4:1). He addresses their concerns about the coming of the Lord, noting the dead in Christ will rise first at the rapture, followed by believers still living. All believers will then meet the Lord in the air and be with Him forever, which Paul calls a source of encouragement (1 Thessalonians 4:13–18).

Chapter 5 then addresses the “day of the Lord,” a day that will come suddenly upon those unprepared (1 Thessalonians 5:1–11). Paul concludes with instructions to respect their leaders (1 Thessalonians 5:12–13), correct the idle (1 Thessalonians 5:14), and various other instructions for Christian living (1 Thessalonians 5:15–22), concluding with a final blessing and instructions regarding greeting one another and reading the letter to all (1 Thessalonians 5:23–28).

Key Verses (ESV):

1 Thessalonians 3:5: “For this reason, when I could bear it no longer, I sent to learn about your faith, for fear that somehow the tempter had tempted you and our labor would be in vain.”

1 Thessalonians 3:7: “For this reason, brothers, in all our distress and affliction we have been comforted about you through your faith.”

1 Thessalonians 4:14–17: “For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep. For this we declare to you by a word from the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will not precede those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will always be with the Lord.

1 Thessalonians 5:16–18: “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.”

1 Thessalonians 5:8–9: “Be sober-minded; be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour. Resist him, firm in your faith, knowing that the same kinds of suffering are being experienced by your brotherhood throughout the world.”



1 Thessalonians

I want to look at 1 and 2 Thessalonians. I think one of the really neat things about these two letters is that the church is so young, and I find it really helpful to see what Paul says to really young churches. In other words, it shows us what he taught, and what was in that catechesis that Silas and Timothy taught, what the points that they considered basic and not secondary were. A lot of that information is in these two letters.

For 1 Thessalonians, Paul’s in Corinth and he sends Timothy back up. Timothy comes back with a report of how they are doing and questions and so the letter was written in response to those questions. There are two purposes in this letter. The first is to encourage the Thessalonians. There was a lot of persecution; the church was really paying their price. It’s interesting that this persecution started right away. This is not the persecution of people who have been around for a long time; these people became Christians, and their lives showed that they had changed right away and that’s why there was so much persecution. He wants to encourage them to persevere and to hang in there. Then there’s also the second thing, there’s this basic theology, especially Eschatology. They have a lot of questions about what happens now when you die, whether you get to go to Heaven, and what happens when Jesus comes back. Evidently, Paul taught on Eschatology to these young Christians. There was a follow-up on that, encouragement, and some basic theology.

Greeting and Thanksgiving (1 Thess. 1)

Paul starts off as he normally does by saying, I thank God for you, and he gives his thanksgiving and explains why he’s proud of them and why he’s happy for what’s going on. Down in verse 9, he’s talking about the people in Macedonia and Achaia and he says, “For they themselves report concerning us,” in other words, Paul’s been hearing what’s been going on, “the reception we had among you, and” (then here’s the important one) “how you turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God (9), and to wait for his Son from Heaven, whom he raised from the dead, Jesus who delivers us from the wrath to come (10).” That’s a very powerful couple of verses. Again, he’s saying this is what a young Christian looks like. It’s someone who was serving idols and they’ve changed—they’ve turned and they are now serving the living and true God and the context is that’s why you’re being persecuted. What if when we became Christians, all of our lives were so dramatically changed that we started being persecuted within the first month? That’s what is going on here. That’s how much their lives evidently changed.

Look at verse 10, he tells the Thessalonians they are waiting “for his Son from Heaven.” I like to think of this as a heads up. I think we tend to live our lives often with our heads down, contemplating how we’re doing. It easy to fall into that sort of thinking tat the church is about us, the Gospel is about us, what do we get out of. It’s natural—we all do it. Sometimes what I’ll admonish us to do in the sermon is to live with your head up, to stop looking at yourself because the entire orientation of the New Testament is towards the future. We are to live out our lives here on earth looking forward to Christ’s return, looking forward to going to Heaven. It’s a totally different posture, a different way of looking at life. Every once in awhile you get verses like that that make it very clear. We are to live our lives looking forward to seeing his Son return from Heaven.

The number one problem in the American church is that there is no persecution. It is so good, it is so easy, and we see verses like 2 Timothy 3:12, “Indeed, all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted,” or the verse in Romans that says that the result of growth and sanctification is glorification, that you have to grow through tribulation. It’s hard to know that in the American church. You get a few churches, because of their situation, that understand it better. We talk among our self in staff about Brooklyn Tabernacle where there is always a large group praying in that church, always. It’s always open and there are hundreds of people constantly praying in Brooklyn Tabernacle. Why? The answer is they have to, look where they live, look at the lives they have to deal with, the conflict there is if they are going to live out their lives as Christians. They have to live in prayer. That’s hard isn’t it because it’s so easy for us. I’m not a glutton for persecution, but it would cause the American church to really start living our faith out. Again my friend that just came back from India he said, “You know it’s so radically different. These Christians are intensely persecuted by the Hindus, and now they are spending their money and their time helping them, caring for the Hindu kids who parents were killed by the tsunamis.” That’s amazing. I’ll tell you what Steve has prayed for sometimes. He said he wishes that the non-profit status of churches would be removed. I wonder what would happen to our giving, just a thought. These Thessalonians had really responded, and they had turned from idols, they had turned to the true God. The change was so dramatic that they were being persecuted for it. They were living their lives with their heads up not being able to wait to get home to Heaven. Powerful, I think powerful situation.

Paul Reviews his Time with Them (1 Thess. 2)

Paul goes into 1 Thessalonians 2 and he reviews his time with them. It’s very clear that whoever is causing the problems in Thessalonica were assassinating Paul’s character. There is some defense of who he is and that he loved them and he worked for money and he wasn’t sponging off of them. Look at verse 12, where he’s talking about what he said when he was with them, “We exhorted each one of you and encouraged you and charged you to walk in a manner worthy of God, who calls you into his own kingdom and glory.” There’s a lot of motivation that Scripture gives for how we should behave. 1 Peter says do it out of fear if nothing else—be scared of the God who is going to judge you. 1 Peter 1:17: “Conduct yourselves with fear throughout the time of your exile.” Other verses like Romans 12 say, you’ve been changed so you should live a changed life. This verse 12 is another one of those major motivations for all Christians to live Godly lives, walk in manner worthy of God, and be worthy of God. Walk in a way that he would be proud, that would bring honor and respect to him. Again, Paul rarely sits there and shakes his fingers and say, “Now you can’t do that and here are the 27 rules why.” Sometimes he does, but that rarely is his motivation for Godly living. This is one of the big motivations, that you would be worthy of God, live in a way that will bring him praise and honor. This is a powerful motivation I think.

Paul Sent Timothy (1 Thess. 3)

He continues in his letter to the Thessalonians how he wanted to see them, but he had to send Timothy, but Timothy has now come back and he has information about the Thessalonian church. Let me start reading at 3:1, “Therefore when we could bear it no longer,” when they had not yet heard how the church was going, “we were willing to be left behind at Athens alone,” so evidently they were still in Athens when he sent Timothy back up to Thessalonica. After Timothy had left, Paul took off down to Corinth and then Timothy returned to Corinth. “And we sent Timothy, our brother and God’s coworker in the gospel of Christ, to establish and exhort you in your faith (2),” there is Christian education, there’s catechesis, there’s the encouragement that has to happen for young Christians. Here’s the purpose, “that no one be moved by these afflictions. For you yourselves know that we are destined for this (3).” Christians are destined for persecution. Remember Jesus said, “if they hated me they are going to hate you.” This is just a continuation of that. “For when we were with you, we kept telling you beforehand that we were to suffer affliction, just as it has come to pass, and just as you know (4). For this reason, when I could bear it no longer, I sent to learn about your faith, for fear that somehow the tempter had tempted you and our labor would be in vain (5),” in other words, as a result of being persecuted they had withdrawn from the Christian faith, “But now that Timothy has come to us from you, and has brought us the good news of your faith and love and reported that you always remember us kindly and long to see us, as we long to see you (6).” and he goes on.

The Necessity of Christian Education

There are a couple of very interesting principles that I think come out of this paragraph that I want to emphasize. First of all, notice the necessity of Christian education. Paul sent him back up, they needed to be encouraged, and they needed to be taught. They needed to be taught that you needed to hang in there and they needed to be taught that persecution was going to come.

When I was laying out that twelve-part sermon series on New Believers it was fascinating. I sat down with a group of people and said, “Okay, what twelve things does a new Christian need to know.” We laid it all out and tried to get it in the right order. The one that was the hardest was, when do you tell a new Christian he is going to be persecuted? Day 1? No. Day 2? No. When I read through other new believers’ curriculum, most didn’t even talk about it. I kept reading passages like this and it said they have to know that their lives are going to change and it’s going to cause conflict. I called my sister who has been involved with new believers and catechetical instruction for forty years. We were talking about whether you put it near the beginning or near the end. We didn’t want to put it at the end because we didn’t want to end on a down note. Terry made an interesting comment, she said, “You know if we were in China we would have to put this talk much earlier, because Christianity will come in conflict with culture so quickly.” That hit me really hard. I asked, “Why don’t we in America?” Because we generally don’t tell new Christians that their lives are going to change and that it’s going to produce conflict. What we did in this series is put that pretty early and we talked about the joy of the Christian walk and the help of the Christian walk and the fact that you’re going to want to change, but you’re going to fail and there’s going to be conflict, and there’s going to be persecution. Just a couple of weeks ago a lady who is working through the curriculum contacted me and said, “Thank you for telling me up front that there’s going to be conflict because I’m in the middle of it right now and it’s really hard.” I thought, good, I did it right. It was the thing where if we teach conversion, that it is true repentance and it is change and that God is going to change you from the inside out and it will start affecting especially these different areas of your life. Remember Jesus said, “Count the cost.” You don’t go to war until you’ve made sure you can beat the enemy. I think we should be having new Christians or even people in the process of conversion counting the cost because their life is going to change. They don’t have to change it, but God is going to change it from the inside out. That involves conflict. I just share that as an antidote because that’s one reason I like 1 Thessalonians so much because it reflects the pattern of persecution. They become a Christian, God changes them, they are in conflict right away. They need to be warned about it right away. You can imagine becoming a Christian and the conflict starts and you think, “Wait a minute, I thought Christianity meant that God met all my needs, right?” No, well, that’s not what it’s primarily about. We need Christian education we really do. New believers must be trained so they can know what is coming around the corner. That’s one reason why the bulk of this new building was given to Sunday School classes so that we could do Christian education, especially for young believers.

The Necessity of Persecution

Number two I’ve already touched on, the necessity of persecution in the life of a Christian. Paul says it pretty strongly here at the end of verse 3, “For you yourselves know that we are destined for this.” You’re going to get persecuted, that’s just the way it is. If you are living the life of Jesus, you are going to be in conflict with the world. Again in American that’s pretty hard to understand, isn’t it? You have to be pretty strongly committed to your Christian witness to come into too much conflict, but I suspect that if you work downtown, you work at an office building, like a friend of mine who nearly got fired because he put a little cross on his name sticker on his cubicle. I imagine if you have a normal job out in the real world and you start living your life as a Christian, there is going to be persecution. The verse I referred to earlier, 2 Timothy 3:12, “All who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.” The Thessalonians know that. Romans 8:17 is a scary verse where Paul’s talking about the fact that we are children, “And if children, then heirs—heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him.” There are other verses that talk about this that there is just something about the fact that Jesus is not of this world and you and I in Jesus’s language in John 17 are in the world, but not of the world. That’s going to bring us into conflict with the world. It necessarily happens. The Thessalonians knew that.

The Necessity of Perseverance

The third thing is just the necessity of perseverance, that he wants them to hang in there. I know this is a controversial topic, but I just want to mention a couple of things here, and we’ll talk about it in more detail later. Look at Paul’s comment at verse 5, “For this reason, when I could bear it no longer, I sent to learn about your faith, for fear that somehow the tempter” (Satan) “had tempted you and our labor would be in vain.” Now what does that mean? Doesn’t it mean that Paul is concerned that if in the course of the temptation, in the course of the persecution, people fall away from the faith, that his work would be in vain? I think that’s a pretty strong statement that Paul understands that we become disciples and we are to live as disciples and we are to die as disciples. You all know I refer to my theology, but Paul says if you don’t hang in there, if you don’t persevere, then my works all in vain. I don’t think that means that you get to go to Heaven and live in a smaller house. I think if Paul said my preaching was in vain I think it has to mean that you end up in Hell. You can see a real concern that it’s not just this single event Christianity where I raised my hand and I said the magic prayer and now I have my get out of Hell free card which unfortunately is how the Gospel is often shared with people, but there evidently is a necessity of persevering, like Jesus said, “He who perseveres to the end will be saved.” Otherwise Paul says it’s all in vain if you don’t hang in there.

Acts 3:8, “For now we live,” the NLT says, “It gives us new life,” some of the other translations say, “for now we really live, if you are standing fast in the Lord.” See Paul’s goal was not to have a lot of people come forward at an evangelistic rally; Paul’s goal was that they stand fast in the Lord. That’s the only way Paul looks at Christians. I will put it in context of eternal security when we get to a passage that gives me enough data to talk about it, but I just wanted to introduce it here. For those of you who don’t know me, I’m a four point Calvinist; I don’t believe in limited atonement and I think that Jesus died for the whole world, but I believe that God perseveres in the life of his children by continuing to enable them to have faith, and so a true child of God continues to respond in faith and perseveres to the end of his life and goes to Heaven. If he doesn’t then the guaranteeing work of the Holy Spirit is worthless. That’s not much of a guarantee if we don’t get it, but I’m just as equally as strong as Scripture is, that you have to persevere.

Christianity is not a single event, we talked about this in Mark 8 a lot, that Christianity is not this single event where a switch is thrown and somehow no matter how I live the rest of my life I go to Heaven. I just don’t think that’s anywhere in the Bible. I think the model is we become Christians and we live as Christians and we die as Christians. We have to take the security passages seriously like in Ephesians that says the Holy Spirit is our guarantee, and we also have to take the warning passages seriously that we are going to get glorified if we suffer for it—not if we raise our hand at camp when we’re 12, but if we suffer for it. This is not Paul’s salvation, it’s the Thessalonians. If’s Paul’s work would have been in vain, his work in Thessalonica would have been in vain if the Thessalonians didn’t persevere in their faith. I believe in perseverance for the saints, I don’t believe you can lose your salvation. I think that nobody can snatch you out of the Father’s hand, but what I have to do is reconcile those verses with the equally strong verses that it is only those who persevere to the end will be saved.

It’s an American phenomenon, this idea that if I raise my hand at camp nothing else matters. There are so many verses in Scripture that make it impossible for me to believe that’s what Paul thinks a Christian is. A Christian is someone who is changed by the power of God, by his grace and mercy through no works of my own, but a changed person by the power of God lives a changed life and he lives it to the end of his life. This is the word that Paul uses and it’s his word to say that if you don’t persevere it’s in vain. By saying that I don’t think he’s saying I never should have gone there or I made a mistake or I messed up. I think it’s a very strong statement that Paul’s conception of a Christian is someone who lives out his Christian commitment. For Paul, if a person doesn’t live it out, his work is in vain. I don’t want to attach too much theology or detail significance to it, but I just wanted to share that this is how Paul thinks. When we looked at the Gospels, how does Jesus look at us? He looks at us as disciples. That’s the word that he used, that’s the concept he discusses. He doesn’t talk about conversion experience; he talks about being a disciple: here’s what it takes to be my disciple; here’s what a disciple looks like. Paul does the same thing, but he uses different words. I just wanted to emphasize that. I don’t think Paul would think he had done anything wrong, but he’s letting them know. Student: It would be like you putting your life in front of a congregation and find that they had gone another way, you would say all the effort I put in was a wasted effort. Response: These are pretty strong words, I think.

Look also at verses 11-13, “Now may our God and Father himself, and our Lord Jesus, direct our way to you (11), and may the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all, as we do for you (12), so that he may establish your hearts blameless in holiness before our God and Father, at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints (13).” Paul wants the church to love each other and too, he wants the church to pursue holiness so that as we are presented before God, when Jesus returns, we will be blameless in our holiness. Now in one sense we are saints when we become Christians, but there’s also the growth in sanctification, movement toward holiness and Paul says that’s what I’m looking for. I’m looking forward to seeing you guys love one another and move toward holiness. That’s a pretty good essence statement for a church, isn’t it? Love one another, move toward holiness. That’s what he prayed for. He didn’t pray for an effective children’s program (though I believe in effective children’s programs). I love these statements that consolidate ideas and get to the essence of things. If nothing else, they help me know how to preach and they help me know how to help lead the church. What is this church about? It’s about loving one another, it’s about moving toward holiness.

Responding to Timothy’s Report (1 Thess. 4-5)

Core Topics for a Young Church (1 Thess. 4:1-12)

In chapter 4, Paul starts responding to Timothy’s report about what specific things are going on in Thessalonica, and it makes it very clear that one of those core things that Paul and Timothy and Silas taught in their catechism was sexual purity. It’s here as clear as it could be. Verse 3, “For this is the will of God, your sanctification.” College people have about five questions and that’s it. The second or third is always sovereignty, the will of God for my life, and I love to quote verse 3, “For this is the will of God, your sanctification.” What God wants for you, if you ever wondered what God’s will for your life is, there it is—it’s sanctification—it’s growth toward holiness. There needs to be a colon there because what follows is part of what growth in holiness looks like. It looks like “that you abstain from sexual immorality; that each one of you know how to control his own body in holiness and honor (4), not in the passion of lust like the Gentiles who do not know God (5); that no one transgress and wrong his brother in this matter, because the Lord is an avenger in all these things, as we told you beforehand and solemnly warned you (6). For God has not called us for impurity, but in holiness (7). Therefore whoever disregards this, disregards not man, but God, who gives his Holy Spirit to you (8).” Actually I taught college for ten years, and the number one question I got was, can I marry a non-Christian and can I sleep with my girlfriend (this is a Christian college) and then will of God and Sovereignty was about number five at this particular institution. That’s what they wanted to know. It’s very clear what Paul’s answers are when it comes to the issues of sexual purity. This is an issue for all generations, right?

He also talks about the need to continue in your brotherly love and to work hard. It interesting, look at verse 11, “And to aspire to live quietly, and to mind your own affairs, and to work with your hands, as we instructed you.” This was evidently a problem in Thessalonica that there were a bunch of lazy Christians. It comes up in Thess. 5:4 when he talks about admonishing the idle, and it becomes a real issue and even an issue of church discipline in 2 Thessalonians. Now it’s possible that their idleness was caused by a belief that Jesus was going to return any minute now and so why work. It’s also possible and I think more likely that they were just lazy and sponging off the church. It’s mentioned just quickly here, but it’s going to come back up.

Eschatology (1 Thess. 4:13-5:11)

Probably the single most significant theological offering of 1 Thessalonians is the passage from 4:13-5:11, which has to do with Eschatology, the discussion of what’s going to happen at the end times. Starting at verse 16, you can see the situation. This is what’s going to happen at the end of time. The question is, what happened to those who have fallen asleep? What happened to those who have died before Jesus comes back again? They evidently weren’t sure that there was a resurrection of the dead. Paul’s answer starting at verse 16, “For the Lord himself will descend from Heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first.” So evidently, when Christ comes back again at the end of time, he will be up there, you’ll see it East to the West, you’ll hear a trumpet blast, all those things from Mark 13, and evidently the Christians who have died are going to be bodily raised. “Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will always be with the Lord (17).”

Now we believe that when you die you go to Heaven; your spirit goes to Heaven. The Bible talks about us coming with God at the end of time, so it appears what’s going to happen, if we die before the Lord returns, then we get to come with him and all the angels that everybody can see, and then evidently we are reunited with our bodies, which are then glorified and they are raised because we both come with him and we are raised to him. Then as we who have died are given our glorified bodies and raised, then so also those who are still alive get to be caught up in the air with us and so we’ll be with the Lord forever. This is the passage that the word rapture comes out of. Rapture just means being caught up. We’re going to be caught up in the air, and I assuming none of us will be scared of heights. I for a long time when I was younger told people that I didn’t believe in the rapture, and then I read this passage and I realized I dreadfully want to believe in the rapture. We may argue about when it’s going to occur in relationship to other things, but we want to get there.

The other neat verse is the end of verse 17, “We will always be with the Lord.” That’s my favorite definition of Heaven. That’s what Heaven is, whatever it looks like I don’t care, it’s the presence of God. When Revelation describes Heaven it sounds odd—it’s square, it’s hard, there’s no grass, everything is all gold and pearls and we’re standing on top of each other. I understand what Revelation is doing, but Heaven is where God is, and we have a direct presence with him and we’re with him forever. That’s my favorite verse on Heaven.

He continues then to talk in chapter 5 about when this will happen. The point he makes is that it’s going to come like a thief in the night, in other words, it’s going to come suddenly—it’s going to come—there’s going to be no immediate warning. We talked about this in the Mark 13 passage that when he comes, it’s there, there’s no time to repent; that why the nations are mourning. It’s interesting then what Paul does is he repeats Jesus’s warning that what we should be worried about is whether we are ready. Don’t worry about when it’s going to happen, just make sure that you are ready and that seems to be the gist of what he’s saying there.


He concludes with a summary of admonitions, and again these are some of the greatest verses in the Bible. Verse 16, “Rejoice always,” unless you’ve had a bad morning and someone’s ticked you off then you can be critical? No. “Pray without ceasing (17), give thanks (18)” in some circumstances”—no “in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. Do not quench the Spirit (19).” Verse 22, “Abstain from every form of evil.” There’s holiness, but it’s a great collection of last minute ideas that he throws in. That’s the first letter he wrote back to the Thessalonian church. 








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