In our last study in Acts we saw Paul and the missionary team in Thessalonica:
Now when they had traveled through Amphipolis and Apollonia, they came to Thessalonica, where there was a synagogue of the Jews. (Acts 17:1 NASB)
We saw that Paul went into the synagogue, preached the Gospel, caused a riot, and was run out of the city. We really don't learn much about the Thessalonians from our text in Acts, but one thing we do learn is that many of them believed Paul's preaching and came to faith in Christ:
And some of them were persuaded and joined Paul and Silas, along with a great multitude of the God-fearing Greeks and a number of the leading women. (Acts 17:4 NASB)
What I want to do this morning is to show you the results of Paul's, Silas', and Timothy's visit to Thessalonica. We learn much about the believers in Thessalonica in the two letters written to them by Paul. So please turn with me to the first letter to the Thessalonians:
Paul and Silvanus and Timothy to the church of the Thessalonians in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ: Grace to you and peace. (1 Thessalonians 1:1 NASB)
These are the three men who, on Paul's second missionary journey, brought the Gospel to the city and citizens of Thessalonica. Paul is here writing to the church in Thessalonica. What is special about this letter of Paul's? This is the first inspired letter that Paul wrote, and this is the first inspired letter of the New Testament.
As we saw in our study last week, Paul and his companions were driven out of Thessalonica, after only a brief stay, by persecution that broke out viciously. He and his companions were forced to leave and went to Berea. As we shall see in our future studies, Paul then went down to Athens.
While Paul was in Athens, he tried to go back to Thessalonica. He says:
For we wanted to come to you-- I, Paul, more than once-- and yet Satan thwarted us. (1 Thessalonians 2:18 NASB)
At least twice, Paul tried to return to Thessalonica, but Satan hindered him. So while Paul was waiting in Athens, he sent Timothy back up to Thessalonica to see how those new converts were doing:
Therefore when we could endure it no longer, we thought it best to be left behind at Athens alone; 2 and we sent Timothy, our brother and God's fellow worker in the gospel of Christ, to strengthen and encourage you as to your faith, (1 Thessalonians 3:1-2 NASB)
Now, while Timothy was in Thessalonica, Paul went on to Corinth and began his ministry in the city of Corinth. While Paul was in Corinth, Timothy came back from Thessalonica to report to him, and he brought a glorious report. And, when Paul heard it, he sat down and wrote the first letter to the Thessalonians.
After about five months, Paul wrote a second letter to them from Corinth because of a misunderstanding in the church. And, these are the very first letters of the New Testament. Any date assigned will have to be approximate, though probably A.D. 51-52.
What is really convicting is that these two letters are written to new converts, many of whom were converts out of pagan idolatry. These Christians at Thessalonica have not even been Christians for a year. They were only several months old in the Lord when Paul writes these letters. And, yet, when you read these letters and look at the doctrinal content of these epistles, it is almost unbelievable. Almost every major doctrine of the Christian faith is mentioned. The amount of doctrine taught in this short span of time clearly demonstrates the priority the apostle placed on the doctrines of the Word. These new converts out of pagan idolatry have a solid understanding of Christian doctrine.
Most Christians today, even those who have been saved for decades, don't know enough about the Bible to even discuss it intelligibly. But here we see these new converts, many who had been worshiping idols all their lives, have a good grasp on Christian theology. Paul speaks to them about the doctrines of salvation, of assurance, of sanctification, of election, of the Trinity, of the nature of man, of the judgment day of the Lord, of the Second Coming of Christ. He writes these things to them as though they were perfectly familiar with them. Notice what Paul says to them:
Now as to the times and the epochs, brethren, you have no need of anything to be written to you. 2 For you yourselves know full well that the day of the Lord will come just like a thief in the night. (1 Thessalonians 5:1-2 NASB)
Then in the second letter, in referring to the events that would precede the Second Coming, Paul writes:
Do you not remember that while I was still with you, I was telling you these things? (2 Thessalonians 2:5 NASB)
Paul, when preaching in Thessalonica, obviously preached the judgment of God and the return of the Lord and our accountability to Him. They knew all about the Second Coming of Christ. This is a remarkable thing. How many Christians can you say this of today? These converts are less than a year old, and they didn't have the New Testament--It wasn't written yet. It was just being written. All they had was portions of the First Testament and the teaching of Paul.
Compare them with us: We have the complete Bible and every imaginable Bible study tool; we have the Bible on computer and can search through the whole thing in seconds. I even have the Bible on my phone, so that any time I want I can take out my phone and read Scripture. And yet it appears that they knew way more than we do. We should be ashamed!
Now if you remember our study from last week, we asked, "What happened to this church after Paul left?" These new converts were subject to severe persecution:
For you, brethren, became imitators of the churches of God in Christ Jesus that are in Judea, for you also endured the same sufferings at the hands of your own countrymen, even as they did from the Jews, 15 who both killed the Lord Jesus and the prophets, and drove us out. They are not pleasing to God, but hostile to all men, (1 Thessalonians 2:14-15 NASB)
Those in Thessalonica were experiencing the same suffering that the first Christians in Judea suffered. Do you remember what that was? The apostles were beaten and told to keep quiet about Jesus:
And they took his advice; and after calling the apostles in, they flogged them and ordered them to speak no more in the name of Jesus, and then released them. (Acts 5:40 NASB)
Then we see that Stephen was stoned to death. And Saul tried to destroy the church:
And Saul was in hearty agreement with putting him to death. And on that day a great persecution arose against the church in Jerusalem; and they were all scattered throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria, except the apostles. (Acts 8:1 NASB)
"That day" is emphatic in the Greek text, referring to the day of Stephen being stoned to death. "On that day a great persecution arose against the church in Jerusalem."
But Saul began ravaging the church, entering house after house; and dragging off men and women, he would put them in prison. (Acts 8:3 NASB)
"Ravaging the church" is from the Greek word lumainomai, which literally means: "he exercised brutal and sadistic cruelty."
In the midst of all this talk about suffering and persecution a major theme arises in the study and reading of 1 and 2 Thessalonians: That theme is the return of the Lord Jesus Christ. This is a subject found at the close of every chapter of the first letter. Concerning Christ's return, there is a two-fold emphasis of both a confident expectation along with the call to live in readiness in the light of His imminent coming.
As we read the Bible, we must keep in mind the hermeneuticial principle of audience relevance, which seeks to discover what the original audience understood a passage to mean. The concern of the evangelical interpreter is to understand the grammar of a passage in light of the historical circumstances and context of the original audience.
The Bible was written for us, but not to us. I have had some Christians flip out on me for making that statement. They think that the Bible is written to us. It should be quite simple to show them otherwise. I was discussing this very subject with a man who said, "All the Bible is written to us." To show him how ridiculous this position was, I took him to:
"And you shall march around the city, all the men of war circling the city once. You shall do so for six days. (Joshua 6:3 NASB)
I asked him, "Who is the 'you' in this verse?" He replied, "It's us." I said, "So we are supposed to march around Jericho?" And he said, "Yes!" At that point I ended our discussion. This is an absolutely insane view. I don't think that he actually believed that he was commanded to march around Jericho (even though he said he was), but to admit that would be to admit that the Bible is written for us and not to us.
If you ignore audience relevance and view this verse as written to you, what do you have?
However, Rahab the harlot and her father's household and all she had, Joshua spared; and she has lived in the midst of Israel to this day, for she hid the messengers whom Joshua sent to spy out Jericho. (Joshua 6:25 NASB)
Is Rahab still living in Israel today? If she is, she would be well over 3,500 years old. We know this is ridiculous. Why does the Bible say she is still living in Israel today when she isn't? When the book of Joshua was written, she was still living in Israel. This statement was true and accurate when it was written. But to us, some 3500 years later, it must be viewed in light of audience relevance.
Let me ask you a really difficult question, "Who are the letters off 1 and 2 Thessalonians written to?" The Thessalonian Epistles were written to the believers who lived in Thessalonica in the first century.
These young converts in Thessalonica were suffering greatly for their faith in Christ. So when Timothy comes back to Paul, he reports that there is much suffering for these new believers: Their property is confiscated, they are being beaten and imprisoned. Yet in the midst of it all they are still as true to Christ as the day they first trusted Him.
Timothy also reported that they also had a problem. They were looking for the Coming of the Lord and waiting for the Son of God from heaven. But in the meantime, some of their loved ones had died. Their families were breaking up, and the Lord had not come, and they wanted to know if their dead loved ones had a part in the Kingdom of Christ. So Paul wrote the first letter to the church at Thessalonica.
The most impressive topic of the Thessalonian Gospel, from what we can gather from these letters, was the Coming of the Lord Jesus in His heavenly kingdom. This letter is loaded with eschatology. It was evidently the topic of frequent conversations when Paul was in Macedonia. Eschatology is a major theological issue, not just in Thessalonia, but in all the Scripture. R.C. Sproul says that two thirds of the New Testament is either directly or indirectly eschatological. Other experts say that 25 to 30 percent of the whole Bible is eschatological. Every one of the five chapters in this first letter ends with a reference to the Second Coming of Christ. With audience relevance in mind, let's look at these letters:
For they themselves report about us what kind of a reception we had with you, and how you turned to God from idols to serve a living and true God, 10 and to wait for His Son from heaven, whom He raised from the dead, that is Jesus, who delivers us from the wrath to come. (1 Thessalonians 1:9-10 NASB)
The faith of the Thessalonian believers is summed up in these two things: serving a living and true God, and waiting for His Son from the heavens. How did they wait for His son? Were they to do this while in the grave? Did they serve the true God from the grave. No! While they were on earth, living, breathing, they were waiting for the Second Coming of Christ. They expected it in their lifetime.
Where did they get the idea that the Lord would return in their lifetime? They got if from Paul who got it from Jesus. Notice what Jesus said:
"Truly I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all these things take place. (Mark 13:30 NASB)
Jesus here, very plainly and very clearly, tells HIS DISCIPLES that ALL of the things He had mentioned would come to pass in THEIR GENERATION. This includes the Gospel being preached in all the world, the Abomination of Desolation, the Great Tribulation, and the Coming of the Son of man. This is so clear that it greatly troubles those who hold to a Futuristic eschatology. Listen to what C.S. Lewis said:
The apocalyptic beliefs of the first Christians have been proved to be false. It is clear from the New Testament that they all expected the Second Coming in their own lifetime. And, worse still, they had a reason, and one which you will find very embarrassing. Their Master had told them so. He shared, and indeed created, their delusion. He said in so many words, 'This generation shall not pass till all these things be done.' And He was wrong. He clearly knew no more about the end of the world than anyone else. This is certainly the most embarrassing verse in the Bible." (Essay "The World's Last Night" (1960), found in The Essential C.S. Lewis, p. 385)
To deny the time statements that the Bible gives of the Second Coming is to deny inspiration. Because of his physical view of the nature of the Second Coming, he couldn't believe this clear time statement. He felt that it hadn't happened yet, and therefore Jesus had to be wrong. That would be, in fact, much more than embarrassing, it would be devastating to the credibility of Jesus. If Jesus was wrong, as Lewis says He was, what else might He have been wrong about? What if He was wrong about those who believe in Him having everlasting life? Relax! Jesus wasn't wrong, Lewis was the one who was wrong. We can count on the truthfulness of what Jesus tells us. Aren't you glad of that?
"Who delivers us from the wrath to come"--what wrath is this? This is the wrath that Jesus predicated would come upon Jerusalem:
"But when you see Jerusalem surrounded by armies, then recognize that her desolation is at hand. 21 "Then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains, and let those who are in the midst of the city depart, and let not those who are in the country enter the city; (Luke 21:20-21 NASB)
This is clearly a reference to A.D. 70 and the destruction of Jerusalem. Notice what Jesus says next:
because these are days of vengeance, in order that all things which are written may be fulfilled. (Luke 21:22 NASB)
This is a very significant verse. Jesus tells us here that ALL things which are written will be fulfilled in the destruction of Jerusalem. What does He mean by that? "All things which are written" refers to all prophecy. All prophecy was to be fulfilled in the destruction of Jerusalem. This makes the destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70 a very significant event for all Christians. Everything that was ever prophesied to happen was fulfilled in Jerusalem's fall. Please consider the weight of this statement!
"Woe to those who are with child and to those who nurse babes in those days; for there will be great distress upon the land, and wrath to this people, (Luke 21:23 NASB)
The coming wrath was on Israel. The Parousia of Jesus Christ is associated with judgment.
For who is our hope or joy or crown of exultation? Is it not even you, in the presence of our Lord Jesus at His coming? (1 Thessalonians 2:19 NASB)
so that He may establish your hearts unblamable in holiness before our God and Father at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all His saints. (1 Thessalonians 3:13 NASB)
But we do not want you to be uninformed, brethren, about those who are asleep, that you may not grieve, as do the rest who have no hope. 14 For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so God will bring with Him those who have fallen asleep in Jesus. (1 Thessalonians 4:13-14 NASB)
It appears as though the Thessalonians were concerned for their departed loved ones. Paul reassures them by telling them in 1 Thessalonians 4:14-18 not to worry, for they would rise with Christ at the Parousia, and "We who remain alive will also rise!" This is directed very specifically toward the first-century Thessalonians.
For this we say to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive, and remain until the coming of the Lord, shall not precede those who have fallen asleep. (1 Thessalonians 4:15 NASB)
Notice what Paul wrote: "By the word of the Lord, that we who are alive, and remain until the coming of the Lord...." The "we who are alive, and remain" is indeed a TIME STATEMENT, for the "we" MUST be seen as the collective group of Paul and his audience. They (Paul and the Thessalonians) were expecting the return of Christ in their lifetime. This is very clear throughout the book:
For the Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trumpet of God; and the dead in Christ shall rise first. (1 Thessalonians 4:16 NASB)
As we compare Scripture with Scripture, we see that this is apocalyptic language speaking of judgement. Comparing this text to a parallel text in Matthew 24 will help us to better understand its meaning:
and then the sign of the Son of Man will appear in the sky, and then all the tribes of the earth will mourn, and they will see the SON OF MAN COMING ON THE CLOUDS OF THE SKY with power and great glory. 31 "And He will send forth His angels with A GREAT TRUMPET and THEY WILL GATHER TOGETHER His elect from the four winds, from one end of the sky to the other. (Matthew 24:30-31 NASB)
Does that sound familiar? It should, this is a parallel text to the Thessalonian passage. In Matthew 24. Jesus predicted His Coming to gather together the saints in that generation. In 1 Thessalonians 4-5 Paul spoke of the same Coming of the Lord to gather the saints. How many Comings of the Lord, with his angels, in fire, in power and glory to gather the saints, are there in the NT? Just ONE! The conclusion is inescapable: 1 Thessalonians 4-5 is dealing with exactly the same coming, judgment, and gathering that Matt. 24 is:
Then we who are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and thus we shall always be with the Lord. (1 Thessalonians 4:17 NASB)
The words "caught up" are the Greek word harpazo, it means: "to snatch away." This is where the word "rapture" comes from. But certainly being "caught up" means something different than a levitation of the physical body from earth up into the atmosphere of the sky. Remember, this being "caught up" happens some time after the Second Coming.
Now may the God of peace Himself sanctify you entirely; and may your spirit and soul and body be preserved complete, without blame at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. (1 Thessalonians 5:23 NASB)
The "you" is the first century Thessalonians. This is a prayer that they would still be in their biological bodies when the Lord returned. Physical death separates the spirit and body. To be preserved complete is to still be alive at the Second Coming.
After that first Epistle was written, there came a report to Paul about some doctrinal issues. So he wrote a second letter to correct those misconceptions. We'll look at that in a second, but first I want to show you something in the first chapter.
In the first chapter he speaks about their suffering--it was real, they were hurting, and so he comforts them with what doctrine? Let's look at the text:
therefore, we ourselves speak proudly of you among the churches of God for your perseverance and faith in the midst of all your persecutions and afflictions which you endure. 5 This is a plain indication of God's righteous judgment so that you may be considered worthy of the kingdom of God, for which indeed you are suffering. 6 For after all it is only just for God to repay with affliction those who afflict you, 7 and to give relief to you who are afflicted and to us as well when the Lord Jesus shall be revealed from heaven with His mighty angels in flaming fire, 8 dealing out retribution to those who do not know God and to those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. (2 Thessalonians 1:4-8 NASB)
He comforts them with the doctrine of the Second Coming. Notice that he says, "God
will repay with affliction those who afflict you." Who were "those who afflict you"? It was the Jews! We have already seen this. Verse 7 says that God will give them relief from their suffering--when? "When the Lord Jesus shall be revealed from heaven with His mighty angels in flaming fire." Paul says that they will have relief from their suffering at the Second Coming. Now if the Second Coming is still future, we have a problem! If Paul was giving them false hope, how can we believe anything he says? If Jesus did not come in the lifetime of those living first century Thessalonian Christians and give them relief from their persecution, as promised by Paul, then Paul lied to them. If his prediction failed, he is a false prophet! He is a cruel false prophet. That is the problem of this text, and it is unavoidable.
It seems that somebody wrote one or more fictitious letters and signed Paul's name to them, and circulated it up there in the Thessalonian Church. And that forgery obviously was saying that the Second Coming had already happened. This was causing great difficulty among the believers in Thessalonica. So, Paul writes the Second Thessalonian letter to correct this misunderstanding.
Notice that Paul closes this Second Thessalonian letter with:
I, Paul, write this greeting with my own hand, and this is a distinguishing mark in every letter; this is the way I write. (2 Thessalonians 3:17 NASB)
Paul is essentially saying:" You can easily tell a genuine letter from me, because I will always close it with my own handwriting, and I will sign it with my own hand" (his personal mark in every Epistle).
Now we request you, brethren, with regard to the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, and our gathering together to Him, 2 that you may not be quickly shaken from your composure or be disturbed either by a spirit or a message or a letter as if from us, to the effect that the day of the Lord has come. (2 Thessalonians 2:1-2 NASB)
This verse shatters the paradigm that views the Second Coming as fiery destruction of the whole earth. Do you see that? If the Thessalonians believed that the nature of the Second Coming was an earth burning, total destruction of planet earth, how could they be deceived about its arrival? If the Second Coming was, as many view it today, Paul could have written them and said, "Look out the window, the earth is still here, so the Lord has obviously not come." They thought it had already happened, so they must have viewed the nature of the Second Coming differently than most folks today view it. If we can allow a crack in this earth-ending Second Coming paradigm, maybe we can begin to understand the truth of the Second Coming.
When ever I talk about the time statements of Scripture, someone inevitable says, "Yeah, but a day with the Lord is as a thousand years." That is true, God is not bound by time. But man is, and He is writing to men. As we have seen, the Second Coming was "imminent" in the first century, but was it imminent before the first century? The fact is that what God said was near to the apostles, He said was not near to the earlier prophets:
"And the vision of the evenings and mornings Which has been told is true; But keep the vision secret, For it pertains to many days in the future." (Daniel 8:26 NASB)
This was written in the 6th century B.C., and the vision pertained to "many days in the future"--it was a long time off. It was to be kept secret or sealed up. Now notice:
And he said to me, "Do not seal up the words of the prophecy of this book, for the time is near. (Revelation 22:10 NASB)
This was written in the 1st century A.D., and the time of the vision "was near." What God said was far away in Daniel's time, He said was near in the apostles' time. The implication is inescapable: soon means: "soon"; near means: "near"; God knows how to tell time.
These events were immanent in the 1st century, the believers at Thessalonica were waiting for the Coming of Christ, they expected it in their lifetime, and it happened in their lifetime. God gave them rest from their affliction by destroying the Jewish temple, nation, and people.
Now listen carefully, I am not saying I don't believe in the Second Coming of Christ, I strongly believe in the Second Coming, but I believe it is past, not future. To deny the fact of the Second Coming is to deny the inspiration of Scripture. Do you agree? Well, I believe that the time of the Second Coming is just as clear as the fact of the Second Coming. I believe that to deny the time statements that the Bible gives of the Second Coming is also to deny inspiration.
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