Key points in this article
- Three key themes emerge in relation to the eschatology of 1 Thessalonians: hope, vigilance and holiness, and divine justice.
- Hope for Paul is not wishful thinking. (Read more in section 1 below.)
- The church is “unfinished business,” and Paul sought to shape these believers in preparation for and anticipation of the return of Christ. (Read more in section 2.)
- According to Paul, believers can look forward to the parousia because on that day of reckoning the world will be restored to a place of peace and prosperity. (Read more in section 3.)
By the account of most scholars, the most prominent theological category in the Thessalonian correspondence is final eschatology; that is, as far as 1 Thessalonians is concerned, the emphasis is on life shaped in light of the hope of the parousia.
Three key themes seem to emerge in relation to the eschatology of 1 Thessalonians: hope, vigilance and holiness, and divine justice.
1. Christ’s return leads us to hope.
“Hope” (1:3; 2:19; 4:13; 5:8) is a leitmotif of 1 Thessalonians.
Hope for Paul is not wishful thinking; nor is it stargazing, imagining future worlds and ages. Michael J. Gorman rightly explains that Pauline hope is “anticipatory participation in the future, specifically God’s eschatological promise of glory.” This parousia becomes, then, an occasion when hope is fulfilled; in expectation it increases in urgency when one experiences persecution.
Alexandra Brown nevertheless aptly points out that Paul does not represent the parousia as the salvific event. Early on in 1 Thessalonians Paul recounts the work of the Holy Spirit at the Thessalonians’ conversion (1:5–6) and the unmistakeable transformation that they underwent as a result of receiving the truth of the gospel (2:13). Paul implies that, whether dead or alive, the Thessalonian believers are identified as “in Christ” (4:16), representing a sense of security.
While Paul inspires their confidence in a guarantee of salvation, salvation is not described in 1 Thessalonians as something completed and in the past but rather as something secured yet awaiting completion (the “hope of salvation,” 5:8). Brown sums up well the perspective on salvation offered in 1 Thessalonians: “Having already won cosmic victory through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, God will, at Christ’s return, make the victory manifest to the whole creation, defeating the enemies of God and bringing their tyranny to an end.
2. Christ’s return calls us to vigilance and holiness.
No doubt the Thessalonians conveyed to Paul questions regarding what things would happen at the end and when they would happen. Paul does offer them some clues, but he places the emphasis on the proper mindset and attitude to have because Jesus will return suddenly, like a thief in the night (5:2). Much like the use of the night-thief image in Matthew 24:43 (cf. Luke 12:39), Paul’s concern is with readiness regarding character and obedience (and not necessarily being “in the know”).
There is some sense in which Paul sees his role as apostle and “father” to his converts as one of preparing these gentiles for judgment at the parousia. They are called to be “blameless and holy” (3:13), like a perfect offering. James Thompson is right to represent this objective as part of Paul’s pastoral mission and ministry. With 1 Thessalonians and Philippians specifically in view, Thompson notes how Paul “articulates a vision of the ultimate outcome of God’s work and the community’s progress toward that goal.” The church is “unfinished business,” and Paul sought to shape these believers in preparation for and anticipation of the return of Christ.
3. Christ’s return makes us consider divine justice.
While sometimes it is easy for us today to balk at the notion of final judgment (especially those like me who live relatively comfortable lives with few concerns for wrongs done to them), it can be a real relief to those who long for a world where things are fair. Let us take the word often translated as “wrath.”
This term occurs three times in 1 Thessalonians (1:10; 2:16; 5:9), all pertaining to divine judgment. We tend to have a knee-jerk negative reaction to this word, perhaps finding it embarrassing that God should seem so volatile. However, Scripture represents divine wrath not as unbridled and limitless rage but as a holy response to injustice in God’s world. Thus, in my own commentary on 1–2 Thessalonians, I chose to translate the word as “anger for justice.”
According to Paul, believers can look forward to the parousia because on that day of reckoning the world will be restored to a place of peace and prosperity. Brown writes, “Paul points to the parousia of Christ as the culmination of the cosmic struggle when ‘every rule, authority, and power’ is put under subjection to Christ and, ultimately, under subjection to God who will at last be ‘all in all’ (1 Cor 15:28).
— Adapted from 1 & 2 Thessalonians (Zondervan Critical Introductions to the New Testament) by Nijay K. Gupta. Some Greek text and footnotes have been removed for brevity.
How To Use This Book
This new commentary on 1 & 2 Thessalonians is the first release in the new Zondervan Critical Introductions to the New Testament series. The only series of its kind, ZCINT offers you volume-length works that dig into important historical-critical and contextual issues for each of the New Testament books. This book will help you dig into the text, background and situation, major themes, and history of interpretation for both of Paul’s letters to the Thessalonians. It will help you engage deeply with recent and relevant scholarship to gain fresh insights for your teaching and preaching.