Today: [1 Thessalonians 1:] What is the Wrath to Come? In this first chapter of 1 Thessalonians, Paul offers strong consolation to the church in that city that is suffering harsh persecution from both the pagan and Jewish populations. In commending their faith under fire he makes an ambiguous reference to a “wrath to come” that brings up for us a very inconvenient implication of unavoidable eschatological eventualities that on the whole, the church of today has no interest in contemplating.
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[1Th 1:1-10 KJV] 1 Paul, and Silvanus, and Timotheus, unto the church of the Thessalonians [which is] in God the Father and [in] the Lord Jesus Christ: Grace [be] unto you, and peace, from God our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ. 2 We give thanks to God always for you all, making mention of you in our prayers; 3 Remembering without ceasing your work of faith, and labour of love, and patience of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ, in the sight of God and our Father; 4 Knowing, brethren beloved, your election of God. 5 For our gospel came not unto you in word only, but also in power, and in the Holy Ghost, and in much assurance; as ye know what manner of men we were among you for your sake. 6 And ye became followers of us, and of the Lord, having received the word in much affliction, with joy of the Holy Ghost: 7 So that ye were ensamples to all that believe in Macedonia and Achaia. 8 For from you sounded out the word of the Lord not only in Macedonia and Achaia, but also in every place your faith to God-ward is spread abroad; so that we need not to speak any thing. 9 For they themselves shew of us what manner of entering in we had unto you, and how ye turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God; 10 And to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead, [even] Jesus, which delivered us from the wrath to come.
We now come to Paul’s letter to the believers at Thessalonica, a port city on the northern banks of the Aegean sea. Located in ancient Greece, this city was founded some 400 years before Paul’s visit here and was named after its queen who was the half-sister of Alexander the Great. When Paul ministered here, there was fierce opposition from the Jewish community. The resistance among the Jews was so strong that when he left the city, a Jewish contingency followed him to two more destinations to continue their persecution against him and his traveling companions.
The Pauline authorship of this letter is undisputed for the most part although scholars point out that there are passages that appear to be in the style of writing unique to Luke the physician and author of the gospel under his name. The consensus is that Paul wrote this epistle from Corinth thus not classifying it under the prison epistles written from internment in Rome as so many other of his letters. The composition of the message is generally personal in nature although there are parts of it addressing specific doctrinal matters. The overall intent of the letter is to assure and encourage the believers in the church in the face of severe persecution both from the pagan populace of the city and specifically from the harsh resistance originating in the Jewish community there.
Paul begins in v. 1-2 making mention of his traveling companions who send their greeting and with an assurance of his commitment in prayer over the church, giving thanks for them and making frequent mention of them before God. Paul remembers their unwavering faith and labor in Christ and the patience they demonstrated in the midst of persecution and harassment from the citizenry of the city. He attributes their strong commitment to Christ as evidence (v. 4) of their election before God, a term expressing the conviction that they were a people especially chosen by God and favored under heaven.
All of these words are intended as a strong consolation as Paul continues in v. five speaking of the gospel he preached in their midst. He reminds them that he didn’t just come among them with words and doctrines but ministered with demonstrations of power in the Holy Ghost which they would have well remembered. He reminisces that even under fire at the time they readily became followers of Paul and his fellow-laborers, receiving the word of truth with joy even in the midst of much affliction brought upon them by unbelieving Jews.
The Thessalonians were so remarkable in their faith under duress that they became (v. 7) an often quoted example to the other believers in cities elsewhere. The faith of these believers and resilience against persecution caused a sounding out from the town of their belief in God that needed no exaggeration to have a profound impact on congregants of churches throughout Macedonia and Achaia. The newsworthiness of the character of these people was so remarkable that even before Paul would arrive in a new city (v. 9) the testimony and reputation of the disciples in Thessalonica preceded him so that his new acquaintances were already familiar with their passion for Jesus before Paul could even tell them.
One of the remarkable points of notice regarding the believers in Thessalonica was how they turned to God away from their pagan idols. This was remarkable to peoples of other cities because Thessalonica was particularly steeped in the worship of the gods of the Egyptians, ancient to them including Isis, Osiris, Serapis, and Anubis. There were also two different and very severe blood cults sanctioned by Rome that were particularly harsh in their condemnation of Christianity. The church had initially attempted to carry out its worship in the context of synagogue activity but were as mentioned intensely resisted and rejected by the ruling elite among the Jews.
One of the reasons for the harsh resistance against the new faith in Thessalonica had to do with the status of the city. After a battle known as the battle of Philippi just a few decades earlier – the city was given privileged status by the Roman empire. It was considered a “free city” without taxation imposed upon other cities on the Aegean. There were great freedoms and liberties given that caused numerous groups including religious groups to migrate there to set up centers of worship in the interests of the gains that could be had by the privileges accorded the citizenry. For this reason, there was fierce competition among these elements, and Christianity was seen as a disruptive influence threatening the balance of power and the very enfranchisements the population enjoyed. The fact that the Christians exclusively worshipped a new “king” would have been viewed as an insult to Rome, therefore, the instant and universal reaction was that they needed to be driven out of Thessalonica altogether lest the privileged status of the city be revoked and all suffer the consequences. For this reason, we now understand why the rejection of paganism mentioned in v. nine would have been so remarkable to those in other cities because they would have realized what the believers in Thessalonica would have been up against.
Paul mentions the preceding as a statement of commendation and praise because the faith of the people was not without cost to them personally. Though they were put at a disadvantage in the short term Paul speaks of them as those who were willing to defer their own privileges and to “wait for God’s son from heaven” (v. 10) who delivered Jesus from death and thus would likewise in their view doubtless deliver the Thessalonian disciples from the persecution and resistance they were suffering under at the time and what Paul enigmatically refers to as “the wrath to come…”
The mention of “wrath to come” is seen by modern scholarship as an eschatological reference implying for us the universal and apocalyptic judgments that are believed to be ahead for all humanity at the end of time. Thus the mention of this sets the expectation for us and the tone for what Paul addresses in chapter 4 in speaking of things regarding the ultimate catching away of the church which was controversial then and even more controversial now at a time when Christian culture does not have a keen interest in any thoughts beyond seeking improvement and enhancement of their own lives now much less looking beyond our own interests to some futuristic time of judgment.
In concluding our study of this chapter let the question be asked that arises from v. 10: are you willing to wait for what originates from the Son of God from heaven, or are you willing to take your chances with what gains can be made by compromising with the world at large. Make no mistake about it – if you give the world what it wants (your money, your deference, your vote, etc.,), they will promise you many things (which ultimately they will not deliver). The Thessalonian believers knew what jeopardy they were placing themselves in by not deferring to the pagans and religious Jews around them. Can’t we all just get along? As far as the Thessalonian disciples were concerned, no we cannot. Some matters of faith are not up for negotiation. What gains the Christians there could have made in capitulating to political expediency they were ready to give up choosing instead to wait for God to give them in sincerity – from heaven what the power brokers and influencers of the city vainly promised.
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