What Is Distinct about the Theology of 1 Thessalonians?

This article is part of the Distinctive Theology series.

The Contributions of 1 Thessalonians

I recently encountered my first micro story. At just forty-two words long, it carried sufficient plot, character development, and intrigue to invite readers to imaginatively reconstruct the inevitable gaps. At just five chapters long, 1 Thessalonians offers a similar attraction. We glimpse a condensed summary of some of the themes amplified in Paul’s later and longer letters. It’s a pity that those later letters—by virtue of being longer—precede the two Thessalonian letters. For such reasons and others, many Christians are more familiar with Romans through Colossians, leaving 1 and 2 Thessalonians as overlooked “early drafts” of what would become the more established entries in Paul’s portfolio.

Yet the circumstances that elicited 1 Thessalonians give us a snapshot of a vibrant fledgling church. It’s like those classic examples of an insect immortalized in amber, or a village perfectly preserved when overtaken by a volcanic eruption. The church in Thessalonica was only a few months old when Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy wrote to continue the new Christians’ formation. The Thessalonians had much to learn about the Christian journey ahead. Thus, the letter happens to capture helpful statements about each stage of that Christian journey. We can use those stages to understand the key contributions of 1 Thessalonians and to adapt its teaching for modern believers.

To Walk and to Please God

Andrew Malone

To Walk and to Please God explores 1 and 2 Thessalonians and expounds on its predominant themes to provide readers with a positive example of what Christians should believe and how they should behave. 

Starting the Journey

The authors recount the Thessalonians’ recent conversions, spotlighting both the efforts of human evangelists and the divine interventions of the triune God, so we thus find a good amount of autobiographical material from Paul and his team. There are ample references to God’s “gospel” and “word” which the evangelists bring. The church planters rehearse their selfless and self-supporting ministry, especially in 1 Thessalonians 2:1–12. Indeed, as we study this passage and others, we can detect tactful rhetoric at work. God’s leaders are thoughtful in using human words when conveying God’s message.

Simultaneously, we read of the triune God’s actions in “calling” and “choosing” and “destining” people for salvation (e.g. 1 Thess. 1:4; 1 Thess. 2:12; 1 Thess. 4:7; 1 Thess. 5:9, 24). Relative to length, the Thessalonian letters have more to say about such matters of election than any other letter associated with Paul! So the Thessalonian correspondence drives us to explore the age-old enigma concerning divine and human wills. Many questions are raised, and no simple or simplistic answers are offered. The very circumstances of 1 Thessalonians foreground the challenge: even as Paul celebrates God’s work in the new believers, he worries about the durability of their faith (1 Thess. 2:17–3:5).

The Thessalonian letters even drive us to recognize that Pauline language of salvation is not solely an accomplishment of God consigned to the past. The three “tenses” of salvation are on full display in 1 Thessalonians, reminding us that believers must continue to put faith into practice—and even to develop it—until salvation is completed at our lives’ end (e.g. 1 Thess. 3:6–13; cf. Heb. 5:11–6:3; 1 Pet. 2:1–3). As C. S. Lewis phrases it, “How little they know of Christianity who think that the story ends with conversion.”

Faithfully Persisting in the Journey

As in Romans and James and other letters, God is praised when the Thessalonians’ faith bears fruit in good works. “We always thank God for all of you, [recalling] your work produced by faith, your labor motivated by love, and your endurance inspired by hope in our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Thess. 1:2–3 CSB).

The theme of obediently walking in ways that honor and please God echoes throughout Paul’s writings, right through to some of his latest letters (e.g. Eph. 4:1; Col. 1:9–12). Yet we find it equally prominent in 1 Thessalonians, which is widely accepted as the apostle’s first or second extant writing. The holy status God bestows on believers must be matched by a holy lifestyle.

Two passages starkly highlight this expectation:

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. (1 Thess. 2:12)

We ask and urge you in the Lord Jesus, that as you received from us how you ought to walk and to please God, just as you are doing, that you do so more and more. . . . For this is the will of God, your sanctification. (1 Thess. 4:1, 3)

Pleasing God is largely achieved by loving one’s neighbors, which includes maintaining the reputation of God and God’s people among outsiders.

Every time they write to a church, Paul and his team pick out specific examples of Christian living that that congregation needs to concentrate on. The Thessalonian church is reminded to walk and to please God especially in terms of sexual conduct (their society then was as permissive as ours is today) and in their various relationships (within the church, between regional churches, and with unbelievers). They should stay out of others’ beds and others’ hair. We find some of the Bible’s clearest teaching about living a quiet life and attending to one’s daily work. Detailed instructions are joined by various succinct commands, all concerned that the Christian believers persist in godly living until Jesus returns. Pleasing God is largely achieved by loving one’s neighbors, which includes maintaining the reputation of God and God’s people among outsiders.

Anticipating the Journey’s End

Of course, 1 Thessalonians is especially famous for its teaching about Jesus’s return. We find an assurance that believers who have died will participate fully in this “parousia” (1 Thess. 4:13–18). The coming of the Lord will be heralded loudly: “with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God” (1 Thess. 4:16). The core point is that the deceased will not miss out.

The passage is equally famous for its alleged mention of a rapture. Indeed, it is the early church’s translation of 1 Thessalonians 4:17, with the Latin verb rapio, that sits behind the modern term. But the language used here is consistent with other ancient practices of greeting a visiting dignitary, and it likely indicates that the visiting dignitary is ushered back into the city with those who have come out to meet him. It seems to me that this is consistent with other biblical images of God returning—loudly and triumphantly—to set up his eternal reign on earth, rather than snatching believers away in some secretive rapture.

The letter then moves on to remind readers that this pending return requires living believers to be ready at any time (1 Thess. 5:1–11). The foremost image is of the surprise arrival of a thief in the night. Believers should be awake to this promised surprise, alert and prepared. It matters how we live now.

Wide Teaching in Narrow Compass

We might lament that some churches have little stomach or stamina for lengthy biblical books. If we must cater for shorter attention spans, 1 Thessalonians offers a surprising amount of Pauline teaching in something of the “micro story” format.

Yet we can appreciate just how many elements of the Christian life—pas, present, and future—are covered in such a short space. Along with teaching about daily Christian living and ready preparedness for Jesus’s pending return, 1 Thessalonians also includes content on the Trinity and on prayer to this triune God. The letter (and its partner, 2 Thessalonians) are immersed in direct and indirect prayers. Moreover, the letter includes some of the New Testament’s most prominent examples that prayers can be addressed to God the Son as much as to God the Father. Those of us trained to pray “to the Father, through the Son, by the Spirit” find in 1 Thessalonians (and 2 Thessalonians) ample reasons to rethink our habits. Coupled with plentiful examples and teaching, congregations are invited to pray regularly and with thanksgiving. There is much here to learn about praying.

For churches and individuals wanting to review every facet of the Christian life and to aspire to further maturity as they await Jesus’s return, we find that 1 Thessalonians is an often-overlooked gem that captures key issues in compact length. The letter invites us to celebrate the work God has begun among us, urges us to be ready for God’s transforming future, and in the meantime compels us to “excel still more” (1 Thess. 4:1 NASB 1995).

Andrew S. Malone is the author of To Walk and to Please God: A Theology of 1 and 2 Thessalonians.

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