Facebook has been criticized for disseminating fake and misleading stories that are indistinguishable from real news. US President Obama said that these bogus news stories were a threat to democracy. Because Facebook’s algorithm is designed to determine what its individual users want to see, people often see only that which validates their existing beliefs regardless of whether the information being shared is true. Seven projects are underway to stop the spread of misinformation among Facebook’s 1.79 billion users. But deception isn’t new because Paul faced it almost 2,000 year ago.
The letter of 2 Thessalonians was written to Christians who were deceived by false teachings which were alleged to come from Paul. This post addresses the highlights of this letter where we see the need to stand firm against false teaching that twists the plain meaning of scripture to something inconsistent with the original meaning.
Paul visited Thessalonica for a short time and in response to his preaching a church was established. After he left, he wrote them the letter of 1 Thessalonians to encourage them in the Christian faith. But some time later Paul saw a need to encourage the believers in Thessalonica once again as they were still being persecuted. Besides this, some of them thought the tribulation described in Revelation had already arrived and some had stopped working. So Paul wrote them another letter (2 Thessalonians) in about 51 AD.
Because some were deceived by false teachings, Paul urged them to “stand firm and hold fast to the teachings we have passed on to you” (2:15NIV). This letter can be divided into three sections: encouragement during trials and suffering; standing firm against false teachings; and don’t be lazy. God allows Christians to go through trials, suffering and persecution. Now Paul shows how we can cope in difficult times.
Chapter 1: Encouragement during trials and suffering
Paul thanked God for their increasing faith and love (1:3-4). Faith keeps us in contact with God and this leads to love for one another. In the first letter faith, love and hope are mentioned together, but here “hope” is left out maybe because they needed correction concerning the second coming of the Lord (1 Th. 1:3; 5:8). Their hope was not clear. So Paul writes to correct the situation.
They were doing so well that Paul boasted about their spiritual progress to other churches. Despite tough times of persecution and trial, their faith remained strong. By mentioning this in the letter, Paul is affirming their faith, love and perseverance.
Their endurance in the face of persecution was evidence that God was at work among them (1:5-7a)! They were being persecuted because of their Christian faith, but God knew that they could bear it (1 Cor. 10:13). People who are under pressure give up easily unless something is strengthening them. God provided strength so they could endure their suffering and persecution.
Paul points out three things about their suffering. First, it showed they were “worthy of the kingdom of God”. They had been made worthy by faith in Christ and this was evident in their endurance under suffering. The pattern is one of suffering followed by future glory. It is the same one that Jesus followed. The Old Testament prophets predicted; “the sufferings of the Messiah and the glories that would follow” (1 Pet. 1:11), but they didn’t understand that these events would be separated by at least 1,900 years. The Jews expected the Messiah to come in great power and glory, but instead He came in a humble way and suffered greatly. Whereas at His future appearing He will come in great power and glory. This pattern also applies to believers: Paul wrote: “… if indeed we share in His sufferings in order that we may also share in His glory. I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us” (Rom. 8:17-18).
Second, their suffering showed that their persecutors deserved to be judged. Because God is just, He will punish the persecutors—“He will pay back trouble to those who trouble you”. The Greek word translated “trouble” (1:6) means to suffer due to the pressure of circumstances or under antagonism (Vine). We know that God judges unrepentant sinners, both on earth when He “gives them over” to suffer the consequences of their sins (Rom. 1:24,26,28) and at the Great White Throne (Rev. 20:11-15).
Third, their suffering showed that they deserved relief for their undeserved persecution. Because God is just, the punishment will be balanced with relief. The Greek word translated “relief” means relief from persecution. But, when will this all happen? It will happen when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven (1:7b-10). Christ is now hidden and many people even deny His existence. But when He appears visibly, He will be seen by all, so that no one will be able to deny or avoid Him.
When will the Lord Jesus be “revealed from heaven in blazing fire with His powerful angels”? As this hasn’t happened in the last 1,900 years, it is still future. Obviously, it’s a reference to the second coming. When Jesus ascended into heaven from the Mount of Olives, two angels said, “This same Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come back in the same way you have seen Him go into heaven” (Acts 1:11). The second coming of the Lord is a series of events over a period of time. In fact there are two main comings, the rapture when Christ returns to the air to take all believers, both dead and alive, to be with Him in heaven (1 Th. 4:13-17) and the appearing when He returns to the earth in great power and glory to remove unbelievers for judgement (Rev 19:1-21).
The timing of these events is evident from the sequence of topics in the book of Revelation: at present the church is on earth (Rev. 2-3); then church in is heaven, which implies that the rapture has occurred between chapters 3 and 4 (Rev. 4-5); then there is tribulation on earth (Rev. 6-18); which is followed by the appearing (Rev. 19:11-21); and then the millennium (Rev. 20:1-7); and finally the new heaven and new earth (Rev. 21-22).
Further evidence that the rapture and the appearing are separate events is shown by their relationship to the tribulation. Christians are said to be “saved from God’s wrath” (Rom. 5:9) and kept from “the hour of trial that is going to come on the whole world to test the inhabitants of the earth” (Rev. 3:10); for “God did not appoint us to suffer wrath but to receive salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Th. 5:9). Of course, God’s “wrath” may refer to the tribulation (Rev. 6:16-17; 14:9-10, 19; 15:1, 7; 16:1, 19) or to His eternal punishment of unbelievers. According to 1 Thessalonians 5:9, the context is the tribulation. This is consistent with the rapture occurring before the tribulation—believers will be in heaven while the tribulation is occurring on the earth. This understanding is known as the pre-tribulation rapture.
On the other hand, the appearing occurs at the end of the tribulation. The tribulation is described in Matthew 24:3-28, and then the appearing in v.29-31. It is a time of awesome power and punishment of Christ’s enemies (Is. 66:15-16; Rev. 1:7).
When Paul writes about when this will happen (1:7b, 10), he means when it will be visible to all. From the story of the rich man and Lazarus we know that when a believer dies they obtain relief and all their suffering and persecution has ended—they are with the Lord (2 Cor. 5:8). So, after death, believers enjoy relief in heaven, while unbelievers suffer in hades.
Two classes are marked for punishment. First, “those who do not know God” – these have rejected the knowledge of the true God that is revealed to everyone through creation and conscience (Rom. 1:19-20; 2:12-16). Of course, they may never have heard the gospel. But God has revealed Himself clearly to everyone that He is God. He is in charge of the world. Second, those who “do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus” – these have heard the gospel of salvation through a relationship with Jesus Christ, but sadly they have rejected it.
These people are punished because God’s justice demands punishment for sin. The punishment is “everlasting destruction”, which means eternal ruin; and being “shut out from the presence of the Lord”, which means without Him forever. They will reap the consequence of their choice to ignore God.
The appearing will be a time of great glory and amazement. The Lord Jesus will be glorified and the spectators (those saved during the tribulation) will be amazed at what God has done in the salvation of believers—“glorified in His holy people”. God will reveal to the world what He has been doing with His people through all these years. So, not only is Jesus Christ revealed, but His followers will be revealed as well.
Paul prays that the believers may live lives that are worthy of their calling to participate in the appearing and to reign in the millennial kingdom (1:11-12). He asks for God’s power to enable them to obey every desire to do good and to carry out every deed prompted by faith. Here we see that God prompts such desires and deeds.
These are also difficult days and some are going through tough times. Let’s remember how Paul encouraged the Thessalonians to persevere at such times. Be encouraged that if you hold out against the pressures and temptations of this life it is evident that God is at work in your life in developing character and maturity.
Like the Thessalonians, we can be so occupied with suffering or persecution that we forget about our hope for the future. Do we have a clear view of what we are waiting for? Present suffering will be replaced by glory in future. Do we have a vision of the rapture and the appearing? There will be great power and glory when the Lord and His followers are revealed for all to see. It will be amazing and spectacular.
We can help believers who are going through tough times of trials, suffering or persecution by reminding them that in future things will be set right and the truth will be evident to all. Be encouraged that God is going to punish the persecutors and those guilty of wicked deeds. There will be retribution. Give them a reality check. Help them see the big picture; the eternal perspective. Remind them that “our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us”. This helps them to cope.
Not only were the believers in Thessalonica suffering physically, but they were being attacked by a false teaching which didn’t match what Paul had told them. A rumor was spreading about the end of the age.
Chapter 2: Standing firm against false teachings
Paul now addresses a misunderstanding that had arisen in Thessalonica (2:1-2). Because of the persecution they were enduring, some thought that they were in the tribulation—the first part of the day of the Lord (1 Th. 5:1-11). If this was so, then the rapture must have already occurred and they had been left behind. False teachings such as this are unsettling and alarming—they introduce doubt and uncertainty about the truth and can destroy the unity within a church. Paul now addresses this false teaching. Firstly, he says that it didn’t come from him and secondly, he corrects it.
There was a rumor that the idea that they were in the day of the Lord came from Paul. Paul says that these were only allegations; they were not true. He also refers to the rapture: “the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our being gathered to Him”. The Greek word before this clause is translated “concerning” in most bibles, but a better translation is “because of” or “by” (see BRG, Darby, DRA, GNV, KJV, PHILLIPS, WYC). It is clear from 1 Thessalonians 4:13 – 5:11, that the rapture and the day of the Lord are different events; in fact they have been divided into separate chapters in this instance. The word “concerning” implies that 2 Thessalonians 2 is about the rapture, but this is not the case. Instead, Paul is saying that because of the rapture they should not think they were in the day of the Lord. By the rapture they will be taken to heaven before the day of the Lord occurs on earth. The false teaching said that they were in the tribulation period, which was not the case as the church was still present on earth.
Paul then helps them not to be deceived again on this topic (2:3-5). He says that two things need to happen before the day of the Lord is present. First, there is a “rebellion”. This Greek word, which is also used in Acts 21:21, means “defection from the truth” or “apostasy”. This seems to indicate a major rejection of faith in God during the tribulation. During a time of great persecution many will turn away from the faith rather than suffer and die (Mt. 24:10-12). Instead of love there will be betrayal, hate, wickedness and false prophets.
Then the “man of lawlessness” will be revealed. He is the antichrist, because he sets himself up as God and no other form of worship will be allowed. He even has an idol of himself in the temple in Jerusalem (Rev. 13:14). This event, which marks the middle of the tribulation period, had been described earlier by Daniel and Christ (Dan. 9:27; Mt. 24:15). Furthermore, the antichrist is a “man doomed to destruction”, because he is destined to be tormented forever in the lake of fire (Rev. 20:10). Paul had previously told them about these things, but they had forgotten them.
Paul says that the antichrist will not be revealed until that which is holding him back is taken away (2:6). He will certainly be revealed when he displays miraculous power through signs and wonders (2:9).
It is evident that the antichrist and the power of evil are being held back by a person or a group of people (2:7). The Greek word for the restrainer means to “hold fast or down” and is used as a metaphor. Paul doesn’t say who the restrainer is; some have suggested it the principal of law and order as found in human government or the Holy Spirit or believers as indwelt by the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit indwelling believers seems to fit best. Jesus said, “When He comes, He will prove the world to be in the wrong about sin and righteousness and judgment” (Jn. 16:8). Also, when he wrote about testing false teachers, John said “every spirit that does not acknowledge Jesus is not from God. This is the spirit of the antichrist, which you have heard is coming and even now is already in the world. You, dear children, are from God and have overcome them, because the one who is in you is greater than the one who is in the world” (1 Jn. 4:3-4). Those who do not acknowledge that Jesus was divine are following the spirit of antichrist. But believers can overcome such false teachers because the Holy Spirit helps them detect error.
Believers are like salt and light in this world: in this sense they hold back the “power of lawlessness” (Mt. 5:13-14). Salt preserves and light removes darkness. Their influence on the world through the indwelling Holy Spirit will be removed at the rapture and the restraint on lawlessness will be gone (1 Cor. 3:16; 6:19). We see that the power of lawlessness was already at work in Paul’s time and we know that evil is present in our world today (2:7). But it will be fully revealed during the tribulation. This universal evil will be present on earth until the restrainer is removed—then it will be judged. For example, the great flood didn’t come until Noah’s family were safely in the boat and Sodom was not destroyed until Lot’s family were safely away from the city. So, God will not judge the evil in this world until He has taken His people to safety in heaven.
So we see that the antichrist will be revealed during the tribulation (2:8), and his reign of terror is described in the next section. At the end of this period, the antichrist will be destroyed when the Lord appears in great power and glory (Is. 11:4).
The antichrist will work like Satan works (2:9-12). He will be able to do miracles and people will be amazed at his signs and wonders. Many will be deceived and believe that these miracles prove that he is divine (2:10). But this is a lie; Satan and demons can also perform miracles. In that day, God will send a powerful delusion so that those who deliberately rejected the truth will believe the lie that the antichrist is the Messiah (2:11); God on earth. As most people rejected the real Messiah, most people in the tribulation will accept the false Messiah. This shows how much Satan and sin have affected humanity.
Those deceived are described as: “perishing”, “they refused to love the truth”, they “have not believed the truth but have delighted in wickedness”. Because of their unbelief, they will be condemned by God—their names will not be written in the book of life (2:12; Rev. 20:15).
So how does this evil work? In the unseen spiritual world—that’s how Satan works. It can use counterfeit miracles. Deceptively—things that seem to be good finish up being destructive. And in those who have no time for God or the Scriptures.
After describing the antichrist and his followers, Paul now contrasts them with the Christians at Thessalonica (2:13). This change from bad news to good news is indicated by the word “but”. He thanks God for saving them. This salvation involves the past, the present and the future. In the past, God chose them to be believers in the early church. In the present, the Holy Spirit convicts people of sin and the need to accept the gift of salvation. In the future, Christians will share in the glory of the Lord Jesus Christ, because they will be with Him and like Him forever (2:14). That’s a summary of God’s work throughout history and in our world today.
Both God and humanity play roles in this salvation. The three members of the trinity are involved; God chose them, the Lord loved them and the Spirit sanctified them (2:13). On the human side, the Thessalonians were called to be believers when God used Paul to preach the gospel to them (2:14). Also, the people needed to believe (2:13) and act on the truth of the gospel.
Paul says that despite the hard times they were going through, they should “stand firm and hold fast to the teachings we passed on to you” (2:15). In those days doctrine was taught verbally by apostolic and prophetic messages and written in letters. But we now have the teachings of the apostle Paul and the other inspired authors written in the Bible, which should be the foundation and anchor of our faith. So, the defense and remedy against false teachings is to follow and obey the instructions and principles in God’s Word. Paul urged them not to quit or give in to evil but to draw on the resources that God had given them to handle the pressures of life.
Then he prayed that God would encourage and strengthen them inwardly in order to produce good deeds and good speech outwardly (2:16-17). Their greatest resource was God Himself. Paul also mentions three things about God: He loved them, He gave them “eternal encouragement”, and He gave them “good hope”. Likewise, because of the gift of His Son for us, our sin has been forgiven and so believers have the eternal encouragement now and the hope of a future with the Lord. So our source of encouragement and hope should be God’s promises in the Bible. Also, note that the Christian life is not just words to know, but deeds to do. All the principles of God’s word need to be put into practice. Otherwise, we are hypocrites if we say the right words but never apply these to ourselves.
We need maturity in order to distinguish good from evil and to avoid being blown off course by false teachings (Eph. 4:13-14; Heb. 5:14). False teachers could be recognized by their false view of Jesus (1 Jn. 4:1-3), their false gospel (Gal. 1:6-9), and their bad fruit (Mt. 7:15-20). Don’t welcome false teachers or false teachings into your house or the local church (2 Jn. 7-11), instead keep away from them and have nothing to do with them (Rom. 16:17-18; 2 Tim. 2:21; 3:5-9).
Paul taught the young believers at Thessalonica about future prophetic events. This gave them an eternal perspective and helped them endure suffering and persecution. Likewise, we should include prophecy when teaching young believers.
But the Thessalonians had forgotten what Paul had told them about the future. This shows the importance of being reminded of the truths of scripture. Just because we have heard or read them in the past, doesn’t mean that we will remember them in the future. We can be reminded by personal Bible study and by listening to teaching from the Bible.
Two of our greatest resources are God and the truths of scripture. Like the Thessalonians we should also “stand firm and hold fast” to the principles of God’s Word. Let’s live by the true teachings, so we won’t be deceived by the false ones. This will lead to maturity and being able to distinguish between what is true and what is false.
When we hear new teachings, don’t ignore them. Instead check with the Bible as we may have forgotten what we have learnt from it. If you are uncertain about a particular teaching consult with someone who is “able to teach” (1 Tim. 3:2).
Chapter 3: Don’t be lazy
There are different attitudes to work. Some work long hours, while others work as little as possible. Is work a vital part of our lives or just a consequence of the fall into sin? Next we see how Paul addressed laziness at Thessalonica. The third problem in Thessalonica was that some had stopped working because they thought the Lord was returning soon. Instead of working they were being lazy and disruptive in the local church. Paul had told them in his first letter to return to work, but evidently his directions had not been obeyed.
Paul now balances God’s provision for the Thessalonians with their responsibility to keep doing the things that Paul had commanded. It’s not good enough to relax and think that because God will look after us, then we can be lazy and ignore His commands. Christians need to be active, not passive. It’s doing the things God has commanded and continuing to do these things.
Ever since the days of Adam, people must work for a living. Adam had to work and take care of the garden of Eden (Gen. 2:15). After the fall into sin this work became arduous (Gen. 3:17-19).
Paul now addresses the third major problem in the church at Thessalonica (3:6-13). It seems as though some of the Thessalonians thought the Lord was returning soon, so they stopped working and relied on others to support them. So they were idle instead of working and this lead to them interfering with other people’s affairs. What is a Paul’s solution to this problem? First, he says these people are out of line with what he had taught them (3:6).
Paul, Silas and Timothy had worked hard while they preached in Thessalonica so they would not be a burden to others (1 Th. 2:9). Paul was a tent maker by trade. Although he could have relied on the support of others for food, accommodation and money, he worked night and day to pay his expenses and not be dependent on them. When he was not preaching, teaching and shepherding the new believers, he was probably making and repairing tents. Paul was self supporting; he didn’t seek funds from those to whom he was preaching the gospel. The reason he worked was so he wouldn’t be a burden to those who were poor and persecuted and he didn’t want to hinder the gospel message in any way.
Now he urges those who had stopped working to follow his example (3:7-9). Although he had the right to financial help, Paul “did not use this right” of support in Corinth so that the gospel would not be hindered (1 Cor. 9:12, 14). Instead, he offered the gospel “free of charge” (1 Cor. 9:18). He then gives another reason for supporting himself: Paul wanted to be a model for them to imitate; an example to be followed.
Next Paul gives further instructions about these people who were minding everybody’s business but their own (3:11-12). When they could no longer find any meaning in their work, they started messing in other people’s business, criticizing, grumbling, gossiping, and trying to control others. Paul commanded and urged them to get back to work to support themselves and their families. How they behaved would have affected their witness for the Lord. How could they urge people to get their spiritual lives in order, if they couldn’t get their physical lives in order?
Now we will look at how Paul advised then to deal with those who refused to obey his instructions (3:10). Paul said don’t help them by feeding and supporting them; instead let them experience the consequences of their behavior. This is addressed to those who are “unwilling to work”, not those who cannot work. If an able-bodied Christian refused to work, neither should they eat. This rule was to stop them becoming busybodies that disrupt the local church. Does this conflict with the fact that Christians should be kind and loving? No, it is a tough love that draws a boundary against encouraging laziness. That’s why this section is titled, “Don’t be lazy”.
This was followed by further instructions on how to deal with those who refused to obey his instructions (3:6, 13-15). Finally, Paul commands them in Christ’s name not to socialise with believers who refused to work and who were disrupting the local church. The Greek words used mean to “withdraw” from or “avoid” and to not keep company with them. It was to be a more distant relationship instead of a close one. This let them know that this behavior was not acceptable. The purpose of this discipline was to awaken their conscience to make them feel ashamed of their behavior and give them a reason to change it. They can still have some of the benefits of the church family, but their part is restricted until they repent and are restored to the close relationship.
Paul warns them not to take it too far, so they feel like an enemy. Don’t make them feel like an unbeliever, as they don’t deserve to be expelled from the church. In the case of expulsion, people are to be treated as an unbeliever; as though they are not in the family (Mt. 18:17). Note that the instruction was addressed to the behavior of fellow believers, not to the behavior of unbelievers.
Paul finishes reminding them of the Lord’s peace, presence and grace (3:16-18). They could have “peace at all times and in every way”, including when they faced the problems created by those who refused to work for a living. They needed this peaceful attitude as they addressed these problems. The Lord of peace was with all of them, including those who were idle and disruptive.
Paul worked hard night and day to support himself while he preaching the gospel. He was an example to be followed. Are we? What sort of a witness is our work? Do we support our families? Work is important because it gives a sense of worth and meaning in our lives. But there were believers at Thessalonica who refused to work and were disruptive busybodies in the local church. Are we idle?
Today we don’t face the problem that people are so ardently looking forward to the Lord’s return that they abandon their daily duties. Instead we are so busy with our business and money-making that we forget that the Lord could return at any moment. Nevertheless, the same principles apply in cases of disobedience. What would Paul say to us? Would it be that we work too much instead of not enough? Are we so busy with our things that there is little time for God’s things? Are we lazy, busy or too busy supporting our families?
Paul wasn’t lazy. Are we lazy or busy for God? Let’s be like Paul by being busy for God and busy supporting our families.
Lessons for us
Like 1 Thessalonians, this letter is occupied with the second coming of Christ and the day of the Lord. The anticipation of this time when justice will prevail, alleviates our suffering. It helps to know about the future. Let’s remind ourselves of the time when the Lord is going to return to right all the wrongs and end all the suffering. An eternal perspective can help us get through our daily life.
Paul also warned them not to be deceived by false teaching that twists the plain meaning of scripture to something inconsistent with the original meaning. How do we distinguish between what is true and what is false? Let’s compare any new teachings with what the Bible says. Using reliable exegesis (interpretation) of scripture – see “Understanding the Bible”. And distinguishing between what a Bible passage meant when it was written and its application today.
What is “the lie” that Satan is spreading today? You can run your own life. You can do whatever you want to without any adverse consequences. It’s called humanism; the worship of humanity. It is opposite to the gospel, which says we should hand our life over to the Lord, who will encourage and strengthen us to live with Him.
Written, November 2016
I’m currently visiting Morocco and France. The Muslim call to prayer (five times each day) and poverty are common in Morocco. About 1% of the people are Christians and most of these are foreigners. Attempting to convert a Muslim to another religion is punishable with up to three years imprisonment and a substantial fine. So, it’s difficult being a Christian in Morocco. Although France is still culturally Catholic, most of the French are essentially secular (atheists). And less than 1% are evangelical Christians. Cultural and religious pressure makes it difficult to be Christians in these countries.
There is a temptation to give up following Jesus in difficult times. But tests and trials of our faith are inevitable (1 Th. 3:3; 2 Tim. 3:12; Jas. 1:2-3; 1 Pt. 4:12-13). The letter of 1 Thessalonians was written to Christians who were being persecuted for their faith. This post addresses the highlights of this letter where we see that the prospect of Christ’s second coming encourages those facing adversity and trials.
Thessalonica, the capital of Macedonia, with a population of over 200,000, was a busy seaport. Christianity came to Thessalonica when Paul preached the gospel and some Jews and Greeks became believers (Acts 17:1-10). After the jealous Jewish leaders started a riot, Paul and Silas escaped at night to Berea.
The believers at Thessalonica experienced trials, severe suffering, and persecution (1:6; 2:14; 3:3-4). Paul wrote to them in 50-51 AD to address the issues they faced. Jews claimed that Paul was not a real apostle; pagans persecuted them because they worshiped one God instead of many; sexual immorality was common in Greece; there were misunderstandings about the second coming of Christ; tensions arose between the congregation and the elders; and some stifled the Holy Spirit’s work, treating prophetic teachings with contempt.
Paul encouraged them “to live in order to please God, as in fact you are living. Now we ask you and urge you in the Lord Jesus to do this more and more” (4:1 NIV). This letter can be divided into six sections: model believers; Paul’s example; Paul’s joy; living to please God; the Lord’s second coming; and living as a Christian. Firstly, their joy in the middle of persecution was an example to all the Christians in Greece.
Model believers (1:1-10)
Paul regularly prayed for these believers (1:2-3). They were his children in the faith. He thanked God for their spiritual birth and growth, shown by their “work produced by faith (conversion),” their “labor prompted by love (service)” and their “endurance inspired by hope (anticipation of Christ’s return)”. Here we see that the motivation for Christian activity is faith, love and hope. The faith that God gives us results in love for God and the hope of Christ’s return, which in turn produces action such as labor and endurance.
Although persecuted for their faith, they didn’t give up. But Paul reminded them of two things (1:4-5). First, they were loved. God loves all of us, even before faith is evident in our lives (Jn. 3:16; Rom. 5:8). He loves us so much that His Son died for us. Second, they were chosen by God (Jn. 6:44). After they became Christians it was evident from their behavior that they had been chosen by God (Eph. 1:4).
The dramatic change in their lives occurred after Paul preached to them the gospel of God and Christ (2:2,8; 3:2). It came “with” four things. First, “with words” he preached about the Old Testament promises of God, who Jesus was and what He had done. Second, “with power” there was conviction of sin, repentance and conversion. The gospel has power to change lives. Third, “with the Holy Spirit” identified as the source of that power. Fourth, “with deep conviction” they knew that Paul spoke for God and they gave their lives to Him. They accepted that Paul spoke God’s Word and acted upon it and it changed their lives.
The Thessalonians imitated Paul and Christ, and were a good example to other believers (1:6-9), even though they were persecuted. Their love was shown in three ways. First, they stopped complaining and started rejoicing. They saw that God was in control and their eternal destiny was secure. Their suffering was short compared to their eternal salvation in Christ. Second, they shared the gospel with their neighbors and friends: “The Lord’s message rang out from you.” The gospel was worth telling because it gave joy and hope. Third, they trusted God to care for them daily; their “faith in God” was well known.
The Thessalonians had made a great start in their Christian life. First, they repented of selfish living and turned to God from many idols. Second, they served God out of love, which is a sacrificial concern for others (Jn. 13:34-35). Theirs was “labor prompted by love” (1:3).
They were also waiting for Christ’s return (1:10; 4:13-18; Jn. 14:3; 1 Cor. 15:51-58). God promised to take believers to be with Him at the rapture. Jesus said, “If I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am” (Jn. 14:3). The Christian should live expecting the Lord to come at any moment. Our hope is knowing that what God has begun through Christ’s work on earth, He will complete at His return. The trials of this life are temporary and bring endurance despite difficult circumstances. God is in control, and knows what He’s doing.
What does Paul mean when he refers to Jesus rescuing us from “the coming wrath”? The same thought is in 1 Thessalonians 5:9, in the context of the “day of the Lord.” This is a coming time when God’s wrath will be poured out on the world (Mt. 24:4-26) immediately before His return in power and judgment (Mt. 24:27-31). When Christ returns at the rapture to take believers to heaven, He will rescue them from the tribulation that will occur between the rapture and His appearing (5:1-11; 2 Pt. 2:9; Rev. 3:10).
The Thessalonians imitated Paul and Christ and were good examples for other believers in Greece. They are also good examples for us. But are we a good example for others? Are we a help or a hindrance to those we meet? The gospel produced a radical change in these believers: a new faith – they followed God instead of idols; a new love – they served God; a new hope – they anticipated the second coming of Jesus Christ; a new joy – they knew God was in control; and a new mission – spreading the gospel. God wants us to be like them.
Paul’s example (2: 1-12)
Paul preached in Thessalonica despite opposition from the Jewish leaders (2:2). Why did Paul persist in preaching the gospel to them despite its unpopularity? Paul says it was not for any of the three reasons given by the opposition (2:3-6). First, Paul was not a false teacher. He didn’t promote his private conviction, but instead preached God’s truth. Second, he didn’t encourage people to indulge in immoral behavior and do whatever they liked. Third, he did not deceive nor delude his hearers with fine words.
Then he told why they continued to preach even though it led to trouble: God had entrusted them with the gospel; It was God’s message, not theirs; They were not trying to please people but God; They knew that God’s opinion counted more than that of others.
Paul then countered two more reasons given by the opposition – flattery and greed. They never used flattery to influence others or to please people (2:5). They didn’t preach for money, even though they were entitled to support (1 Cor. 9:3-14; 2 Cor. 11:7-11). He said that God was his witness as only God can know our motives.
After dealing with the accusations against him, Paul gave more information about their behavior in Thessalonica (2:7-8). Paul’s team behaved like a nursing mother caring for her children. They were gentle, protective and loving. As a mother puts the interests of her baby ahead of her own interests, they put the interests of the Thessalonians ahead of their own. As a mother expends energy day and night for her baby, so they spent time and energy shepherding the Thessalonians. They cared about them individually. What a contrast to the false accusers!
Paul was a hard worker, a tentmaker by trade (2:9). He could have relied on the support of others, but he worked to pay his own expenses and not be dependent on them. When he was not preaching, teaching and shepherding new believers, he was making and repairing tents. He worked so he wouldn’t be a burden to the poor and persecuted, and he didn’t want to hinder the gospel message in any way.
Paul described their conduct in three ways (2:10). First, they were “holy” – set apart to God from sin. They had a good relationship with God. Second, they were “righteous” in character and conduct. Third, they were “blameless” towards God and people. This doesn’t mean they were sinless, but that they had confessed and knew that “God … tests our hearts” (2:4). Paul set a high standard of integrity. This is the standard of living that we should aim for; not one of wealth, but one of integrity. It is the pattern of life of those who desire to please God.
Paul also coached like a father (2:11-12). In that culture the wife did most of the nurturing and the husband was responsible for the training. Paul’s goal was that they “live lives worthy of God.” This training was one-on-one discipleship: “We dealt with each of you.” A father coaching and training his children would include three elements: “encouraging, comforting and urging.” True discipleship takes time and patience. To grow to spiritual maturity, a new Christian needs all of these elements of discipleship.
What can we learn from Paul? First, he was an apostle. While we don’t have apostles today, as they were the founders of the Christian Church (Eph. 2:20), we do have elders to provide leadership in the local church. Second, Paul was a preacher, particularly to the Gentiles. The mission to spread the gospel is a responsibility for all believers, especially those with the gift of evangelism. Third, Paul was a teacher who wrote a significant portion of the New Testament. Elders, preachers and teachers can learn from Paul who said he was a servant to the Church (Col. 1:24-26). He worked hard to bring people to the Christian faith and to help them grow in it.
Is our lifestyle drawing people to Christ? Let’s follow Paul’s example and live lives worthy of God. His key message was the gospel. His motive was to please God. His manner of living was one of courage, gentleness, hard work and holiness. He showed love to new believers. He was bold, honest, full of integrity, and a toiler. His speech and behavior brought glory to God. The Thessalonians became model believers by imitating Paul’s example. Whether we are elders, preachers, teachers or servants, we can all imitate Paul.
Paul’s joy (2:17-3:13)
Paul believed that his most important work was helping new believers grow in the Christian faith (2:19-20). As his spiritual children, they were his hope of reward and great rejoicing in heaven. The believers at Thessalonica were also Paul’s “glory and joy” on earth (2:20). His investment of time with them resulted in believers who would praise God forever. Such investments are the best we can make because the reward extends into eternity. What a great incentive for this type of work!
Paul had heard no news and wanted to find out how they were doing (3:1-2). He sent Timothy, a spiritual brother and co-worker in God’s service (1 Cor. 3:9), to accomplish three tasks: strengthen and encourage them in their faith (3:2); ensure they were not being unsettled by persecution (3:3); and check their progress in the Christian life (3:5). Paul was afraid that they may have been seduced by Satan to escape persecution by giving up their faith. The choice was loyalty to Christ or personal comfort. If they chose personal comfort, the church would wither and die and Paul’s work would have been in vain.
Paul had already reminded them to expect persecution (3:4). Timothy would have told them to expect opposition and to persist through it. He would have also reminded them of the presence of the Holy Spirit, and the fact that God was training them through their hardship.
Timothy’s good report from Thessalonica filled Paul with joy. His labor was not in vain. Their faith and love were obvious. They had pleasant memories of Paul’s visit and longed to see him again. His response was to write this letter. They were living according to his teaching and showing this by loving one another (3:6). They had the right attitude towards God, towards others and towards Paul. Although he was suffering “distress and persecution,” Paul was greatly encouraged because of their faith (3:7). He was relieved to know they were doing well (3:8). In fact, words couldn’t express His thankfulness to God (3:9).
When the Thessalonians were persecuted, Paul prayed most earnestly, frequently and specifically (3:10-13). He knew what they were going through and prayed night and day. It’s not surprising that they were “standing firm in the Lord” (3:8). Paul mentioned four things specifically in his prayer. First, he wanted to see them again. Second, he wanted to teach them further truths from God. Third, he wanted God to “clear the way” for him to come to them. God answered this prayer when he returned to Thessalonica (Acts 20:1-3). Fourth, he prayed that their love for others might increase.
In Chapter 1, Paul noted their “labor prompted by love” (1:3); they had made a great start. Their love was to include both believers and unbelievers – and even their enemies. This was the kind of love that Paul modeled. It is a love that is to be practiced continually. Our expression of love in this life leads to blamelessness in the next. If we love one another and all humanity, we will stand “blameless and holy” when Christ returns to reign on earth. The Greek word used to describe believers in the New Testament means “holy one” or “saint.” Positionally, believers are holy (set apart for God), and practically should be becoming more holy in character by the power of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor. 1:2; 1 Pet. 1:15-16).
This is a lesson in the importance of follow-up work. It is not enough to lead sinners to the Savior; they must also be discipled towards maturity. Remember that Paul revisited many of the cities where he had preached and established a church. He sought to build up the believers in their faith, especially teaching them the truth of the Church and its importance in God’s program. The aim of such missionaries is to establish self-sustaining churches.
Making disciples was Paul’s passion. Are we like Paul? Do we encourage younger believers? Do we long to know how they are doing? Do we rejoice in their progress? Do we pray for them? Do we train them like Timothy, and then release them to do God’s work?
Are we like the Thessalonians? Do we stand firm in the Lord? Is our faith strong during suffering and temptation? Do we trust God despite the difficulties of life? Is our love evident and increasing? Are we living godly lives?
Living to please God (4:1-12)
Although the Thessalonians were pleasing God, Paul urged them to do so more and more (4:1). The Christian life is one of continual progress. Each day there are new challenges and opportunities to please God. These are important instructions for those who claim to follow the Lord. (4:2). They show us the way to live for Him.
God’s will was that the Christians in Thessalonica be sanctified. Sanctification means being set apart for God. There are three phases to sanctification – positional (at salvation), progressive and perfect (in heaven). In this passage Paul addressed progressive sanctification in daily living – a process over time, not a single event. Paul then gave two examples of sanctification – avoiding sexual immorality and pursuing brotherly love (4:4-10). And he gave them three steps to avoid sexual immorality: control sexual desires (4:4); respect the rights of others (4:6); and listen to God and love one another (4:7-10).
This passage addresses the sin of sexual immorality in the Christian community. We live in a world where many don’t know God’s biblical guidelines. Sexual immorality is promoted in movies, television and magazines. But a Christian has a different standard. Because our natural functions need to be controlled, the Thessalonians were urged to control their sexual desires (4:4) instead of indulging in “passionate lust like the pagans” who don’t trust God. This should be one of the areas where a believer should differ, or be set apart from an unbeliever.
Our behavior affects others, so there is a need for boundaries if we are to continue to be friends. Paul wrote, “No one should wrong or take advantage of a brother or sister” (4:6a). Sexual sin harms others besides those who engage in it. Outside of marriage, there is no such thing as safe sex. In adultery, the spouse is wronged. Premarital sex wrongs one’s future spouse. Believers should respect others and not harm them by the consequences of sexual sin. “The Lord will punish all those who commit such sins, as we told you and warned you before” (4:6b).
We need boundaries if we are to maintain a good relationship with the Lord (4:7-10). Paul reinforced that this instruction was given by God and confirmed by the Holy Spirit. These are not Paul’s words, but God’s. He wants us to control ourselves and not fall into sin. The Holy Spirit lives within us to help us please God. Believers should follow His instruction about sexual sin.
Because our mission is to please God, we should avoid sexual immorality as it destroys the beauty of a sanctified and holy life. Sexual purity is the key to holiness. The three steps to achieve it are: controlling sexual desires, respecting the rights of others, and loving one another. Don’t follow your feelings; instead engage your mind and don’t give in to society’s sexual pressures.
Paul now changes the topic to love, and mentions two types of love. The first is the affection shared by brothers and sisters in a family – a heart love (phileo). The other is a deliberate decision to act in the interests of another – a love of the mind (agape). The relationships between believers should be driven by both loves. Our care and concern for each other is a Christian obligation, but it should be expressed with affection. It holds us together and attracts others to Christ.
Although the believers in Thessalonica loved one another and all believers in Macedonia, Paul urged them to do so “more and more.” He had already mentioned this earlier: “May the Lord make your love increase and overflow for each other and for everyone else, just as ours does for you” (3:12). Each day there are new challenges and opportunities to love one another. But how can we “love one another” daily?
Paul gave these believers three examples of loving one another (4:11-12). First, “Make it your ambition to lead a quiet life.” Some who misunderstood the promise of Christ’s return were restless and panic-stricken. Others retaliated against persecution. He told them not to seek the limelight, live a life of selfish ambition or clamor for recognition, but to lead a peaceful life.
Second, he said, “mind your own business.” Some idle Thessalonians were taking undue interest in other people’s lives (2 Th. 3:11). He told them not to be busybodies who interfere in the lives of others in unnecessary, unhelpful ways. Idleness and meddling in the lives of others is incompatible with love.
Third, he said “work with your hands” to provide for your families (1 Tim. 5:8). Paul, Silas and Timothy had worked hard while they preached in Thessalonica so they wouldn’t be a burden to others (2:9). Because of their belief in the imminent return of Christ, some in Thessalonica stopped working and relied on others for support. Two reasons were given by Paul for working: “to win the respect of outsiders” who were watching and judging Christianity and God’s Word by their behavior; and to “not be dependent on anybody”. Living quiet lives, minding our own business and earning a living are all acts of love.
The Rapture and the day of the Lord (4:13-5:11)
The Thessalonians knew of the Second Coming as part of the gospel message. In fact, some were so sure it would be soon that they gave up their jobs to prepare for it (5:14; 2 Th. 3:6-12). But further teaching was needed on this topic. The Thessalonians who were expecting the Lord to return any day (1:10) must have been worried about those who had already died. Would they miss Christ’s coming and His Millennial kingdom? Paul wrote this passage to allay their fears.
He used “asleep” three times to describe the state of the believer after death (4:13,14,15). When someone is “asleep” or resting, we can have contact with them again after they wake. This metaphor teaches us that death is not the end; as waking follows sleep, resurrection follows death. Paul said they were “asleep in Jesus” (4:14), meaning they were in His care.
When a believer dies, there is sorrow but not despair, because there is the hope of heaven and reunion (4:13). The basis of our hope is the resurrection of the Lord (4:14). Because Christ rose, so will all believers who have died. We are assured of this because God will bring them to heaven with Jesus at the rapture (4:14).
The “coming” of the Lord “down from heaven” (4:15-16) is derived from the Greek word parousia (Strongs #3952). It means both “arrival” or “coming” and “presence with.” It is the opposite of absence. In the Bible, parousia is associated with: the Rapture, when Christ returns for all true believers (4:15); the Judgment Seat of Christ, when rewards are given to believers for service (2:19; 5:23); and the appearing, when Christ returns to earth in great power and glory (3:13; 2 Th. 2:8). So the Second Coming (or “presence”) of the Lord will be a series of events that occurs over a period of time, not all at once. When we think of the Lord’s coming, we should think of a period of time, not an isolated event. For example, Christ’s first coming to earth (“presence”) was over a period of 33 years; that’s how long He was physically present on earth.
The sequence of future events can be inferred from the book of Revelation: at present the Church is on earth (Rev. 2-3); next is the Rapture, when Christ returns to take all believers (dead and alive) home to be with Him; then the Church is in heaven (Rev. 4-5); and the Tribulation is on earth (Rev. 6-18); followed by the appearing when Christ returns to earth in great power (Rev. 19); then the 1,000 year millennial kingdom (Rev. 20); and finally the new heaven and new earth, a new eternal universe (Rev. 21-22).
The Rapture (4:15-18) was a new revelation, referred to as a mystery or truth previously unknown (1 Cor. 15:51). Two categories of Christians are mentioned – those living and the dead. The bodies of the dead will not be left behind at the Rapture. The sequence of events is in four steps. First is the Lord’s return, when Jesus will come down from heaven with a loud command, the voice of the archangel and the trumpet call of God. Second is the resurrection of the dead, when the “dead in Christ” will rise first, with God recreating from the remains of dust the bodies of all who have died. Third is the transformation of the living believers who will be “caught up” (rapturo in Latin) together with the dead. Fourth is the reunion, when we will meet the Lord in the air to be with Him forever.
The truth of resurrection was not the mystery, since it appeared in the Old Testament; the change of the living believers at the Lord’s return was the mystery. Paul’s answer to their concerns was this: When the Lord returns, your loved ones who have died will not miss His appearing or the Millennium.
Likewise, the “day of the Lord” is not a 24- hour period (5:1-4). In the New Testament, it refers to God’s future time of judgment of the world (5:2; Acts 2:20; 2 Pt. 3:10). There will be judgments on God’s enemies as described by the seals, trumpets and bowls in the Revelation. The “day of the Lord” is used to describe events in the Tribulation, the appearing and the final destruction of the heavens and earth with fire.
The “day of the Lord” will be a time of judgment of unbelievers; note the words “them” and “they” (5:3). Paul gives three characteristics of that time: it will be unexpected (“like a thief in the night”), destructive (“destruction will come on them suddenly”) and inevitable (“and they will not escape”). Life will go on as usual until God removes His people, and then His judgment will come on the earth. Paul likens it to the labor preceding birth. Once it starts birth follows soon after. So the world cannot escape God’s terrible judgments. The great distress only ends when the Lord comes in great power and glory (Mt. 24:29-31).
Paul said that there is a way of escape (5:4-5). The words “you,” “we” and “us” (5:4,5,6,9,10) tell us that Christians will not go through these judgments. Paul contrasted two groups: Unbelievers are in darkness and night, while believers are in light and day. In Scripture, “light” represents what is good and true, while “darkness” represents what is evil and false (Acts 26:18; 2 Cor. 6:14; 1 Jn. 1:5-7). He said that only those in darkness will experience these judgments (5:9-10). Instead of suffering judgment, believers will receive salvation. They will be raptured, that is taken away as Noah was taken away from destruction of the flood and Lot from the destruction of Sodom.
Paul urged believers to live consistently as children of the day and of the light, alert and self-controlled (5:6-8). We should be expecting Christ’s return at any moment, living for Him and not being lazy, careless, distracted, self-indulgent, or living in sinful behavior. He then said believers should exercise faith, love and hope like armor that protects us from losing control. Faith involves depending on God. Our love for the Lord and for each other can help us live for God today. And Christ’s return is our hope. The prospect of heaven helps us live for God today.
Paul’s passages on the Rapture and the day of the Lord both conclude with: “Encourage one another” (4:18; 5:11). The Rapture will be a great reunion of believers both dead and alive. Like the first century Christians, we should expect it to occur at any moment. Are we encouraging each other as we eagerly wait for it?
Living as a Christian (5:12-28)
Paul ended his letter with practical guidelines on Christian living. He addressed godly attitudes and behavior in relationships with church elders, other believers and God. The congregation was given two responsibilities about the elders (5:12-13). It was to “respect” them and “hold them in the highest regard in love because of their work.” This means to value them because of their important work, not because of their personality, spiritual gifts, wealth or anything else. Paul also encouraged them to “live in peace with each other.” Harmony should be characteristic of all Christian relationships, as peace is a fruit of the Spirit and we follow the God of peace (5:23; Gal. 5:22).
Next Paul shows us how we are to live with three types of people. (5:14-15) We are to “warn those who are idle.” Apparently, some Thessalonians had stopped working to prepare for the second coming of the Lord (2 Th. 3:10-13). They lived off others, were disorderly and became busybodies disrupting the local church. Paul’s solution was that they get back to work to support themselves and their families. He warned that anyone “who is unwilling to work shall not eat.” Paul said don’t help them by feeding them; instead let them experience the consequences of their behavior. This admonition is followed by two examples of caring.
“Encourage the disheartened.” Those who are disappointed with life are to be encouraged by individuals coming alongside and empathizing with them. Circumstances can cause people to think they don’t belong and have nothing to contribute. But we all have God-given gifts. We need to help such people find their place in the church and encourage them in their work. “Help the weak” refers to those who may not be sure of their salvation because of their past, or who may doubt God’s power. They need our encouragement, friendship and help.
Paul then mentioned three attitudes required when warning, encouraging and helping others: First, “Be patient with everyone.” This means trying again and again even though there may be no response from those you are warning, encouraging and helping. Second, “Make sure that nobody pays back wrong for wrong.” Christians are called to forgive, not retaliate (Mt. 18:21-22; Rom. 12:17). Be patient and continue to show Christian kindness and love. Third, “Always strive to do what is good for each other and for everyone else”. The goal of warning, encouraging and helping others should be to achieve what is best for them in the Lord.
It is God’s will that believers be characterized by joy, prayer and thanksgiving (5:16-18). Paul began with “Rejoice always” to encourage us not to let things get us down. This joy is to be shown in all circumstances including suffering and persecution (Jas. 1:2-4; 1 Pet. 4:13). The Thessalonians were persecuted (1:6; 2:14; 3:3-4). Paul sang while in prison (Acts 16:22-25). How can this be? Their joy was an internal attitude that was not overtaken by external circumstances; it is a fruit of the Spirit (Gal. 5:22), with Christ as its source and subject. He controls our circumstances and through Him we have victory. We develop joy by focusing on God’s promises and spending time with joyful believers. Joy is contagious.
Then Paul urged them to “pray continually” – at regular times and as needed. When trials come we need to pray our way through them. Paul also told believers to “give thanks in all circumstances.” We don’t have to give thanks for everything that happens to us; it says “in” our circumstances, not “for” them. But we shouldn’t complain or grumble. Thanking God is not a feeling, it’s a choice. We can develop an attitude of praising God in all circumstances.
“Do not quench the Spirit” is a metaphor for hindering or extinguishing the operation of the Holy Spirit in an individual or the church (5:19-22). This may be caused by sin, disunity or suppression of the Spirit’s gifts. Instead, we are to follow Paul’s instructions to be joyful, prayerful and thankful, and follow the Spirit when He prompts us to do what is right or stop doing what is wrong.
“Do not treat prophecies with contempt, but test them all” The early Church did not have a completed Bible so the gift of prophecy was God’s way of getting His message to His people. Now that the canon of Scripture is set, this takes place as His Word is taught and preached. Instead of despising prophecies, the Thessalonians were to evaluate them. They were to test them against the apostles’ teachings. Then they could accept what was good and reject what was bad. In Acts, Luke told the Jews in Thessalonica to learn from the Bereans who “examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true” (Acts 17:11).
The Thessalonians couldn’t live like this in their own strength, so Paul prayed for them as only God could make their efforts successful (5:23-24). Paul prayed that their (progressive) sanctification (holiness) would extend to their whole being – spirit, soul and body. The spirit is our link to God, the soul is our mind, emotions and will, and the body is the physical part housing the spirit and soul. It is God who makes us holy, and Paul was confident that He would complete what He began (Phil. 1:6). He is faithful to keep His promises. The end of this progression is the coming of our Lord, at the judgment seat of Christ, when each Christian’s life will be reviewed as he/she stands before Him.
After he prayed for them, Paul asked the Thessalonians to pray for him (5:25-28). Three keys to living together as Christians alluded to here are prayer, fellowship and Bible reading. Paul ended this letter with a benediction of grace for the Thessalonians – God’s unmerited favor through the saving work of Christ.
Let’s develop godly attitudes and behaviors in our relationships with church elders, with other believers and with God. Get to know the elders of your church, and value them because of their work. Obey them and encourage them in their work. The same principle applies to ministry leaders within the church. Believers should serve one another through encouragement, practical help, patience, peaceable living, and by treating everyone as equals in Christ. Our attitude toward God should be one of joy, prayer and thanksgiving in all circumstances. We should not stifle the work of the Holy Spirit in an individual or in the church. The standard by which we should test all preaching and teaching is the Word.
Lessons for us
Let’s read the book of 1 Thessalonians when life is bleak and we are facing tough times. It reminds us: to be good examples for other believers by imitating Paul and Jesus Christ; to encourage and disciple others in the Christian faith; to please God by avoiding sexual immorality; to eagerly anticipate the second coming; and to have godly attitudes and behavior in relationships with church leaders, other believers and God. That’s how to keep following Jesus despite the difficulties of life.
The return of Christ to bring all His followers into heaven encourages those facing adversity and trials because it means an end of the sorrow, suffering and disappointment of this sinful world. This is important because it’s mentioned in each chapter of this letter (1:9-10; 2:19-20; 3:13; 4:13-18; 5:23-24). Believers are commanded to encourage each other with the fact that they “will be with the Lord forever” (4:18). The promise of Christ’s return so believers “may live together with Him” is a great encouragement (5:10-11). And it’s one of the greatest motivations for Christian service.
Let’s encourage one another to keep following Jesus. May we use the resources God has provided to live for Him until the Rapture when Christ returns to take us to be with Him forever.
Written, November 2016
Jesus said that “not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father” knows the day or the hour of His second advent (Mt. 24:36; Mk. 13:32). This says that Jesus didn’t know something. Are there any other passages in the Gospels that say or imply that Jesus didn’t know something? I can only find one other. Luke says that “Jesus grew in wisdom” when He was young (Lk. 2:52), which refers to His mental development and implies that He learned as He grew. This means that He didn’t know everything when He was young.
What about when Jesus asked “who touched my clothes” (Mk. 5:30)? Didn’t He know who touched Him and was healed? In the following verses we see that the question was asked so the woman could publicly declare her faith in Christ, not because Jesus didn’t know the answer.
What about when Jesus prayed for the cup of suffering to be taken from Him, if that was possible (Matt. 26:39)? Does this indicate that He thought there could be another alternative to the crucifixion? Is this a lack of knowledge? There was no answer to this prayer because it was rhetorical. It shows us that there was no other way for sinners to be saved than for Christ to die as our substitute on the cross.
On the other hand, we know that Jesus knew what others were thinking (Mk. 2:8; Lk. 11:17). He knew the Samaritan woman had five husbands and knew everything she had done (Jn. 4:18-19, 29). He knew the future (Mt. 16:21) and He knew everything (Jn. 16:29-30; 21:17).
The apparent inconsistency between Jesus not knowing something and knowing everything can be resolved by looking at the relationship between Christ’s divine nature and His human nature. Jesus was both fully divine and fully human. This means that He could demonstrate the attributes of either nature. For example, his mortal body was human, and not divine. While His omniscience and omnipotence was divine, and not human. As a human being, Jesus had limited knowledge of certain things, but He was still divine. As the divine God, Jesus knew everything, but He was still human. His human nature was always evident, but His divine nature was sometimes hidden (but was evident when He did miracles).
Let’s apply this to our question about Jesus not knowing the date of His second advent. Jesus said that “not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father” knows the day or the hour when He comes to establish His kingdom on earth (Mt. 24:36; Mk. 13:32). Angels are finite beings created by God with limited knowledge, so it isn’t surprising that they don’t know the date. This is the case for all of God’s creation, including humanity. At the other extreme, God the Father knows everything, so it isn’t surprising that He knows the date. As God the Son, Jesus is both human and divine. Therefore one would expect that His human nature wouldn’t know the date, but His divine nature would know the date.
So, when the Bible says that Jesus didn’t know the date of His second advent it is referring to him as a finite human being, not as the divine Son of God.
Some also note that Jesus said, “a servant does not know his master’s business” (Jn. 15:15). So, in the sense that Jesus came as a Servant who was obedient to God the Father (Mt. 20:28; Heb. 10:5-7), we could say that Jesus didn’t know the date of His second advent.
Written, February 2015
Suffering comes before glory
At Easter we remember the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, events unique to the Christian faith. In this article we will look at what happened after His resurrection, and at four contrasts between His death and heavenly reign.
After the resurrection
After Christ’s resurrection, He appeared to His followers over a period of 40 days (Acts 1:3). Then “He was taken up into heaven and He sat at the right hand of God” (Mk. 16:19 niv). Luke reported, “He was taken up before their very eyes, and a cloud hid Him from their sight. They were looking intently up into the sky as He was going, when suddenly two men dressed in white stood beside them. ‘Men of Galilee,’ they said, ‘why do you stand here looking into the sky? This same Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come back in the same way you have seen Him go into heaven’” (Acts 1:9-11). The disciples were given a promise by two angels that in the future Jesus would return to earth in an event as spectacular as His ascension.
The Bible says repeatedly that Jesus Christ is now at God’s “right hand” – a place of honor, power, dominion and authority. His exalted position was noted by Peter (Acts 2:32-33a; 5:30-31; 1 Pt. 3:21-22), seen by Stephen (Acts 7:55-56) and mentioned in Hebrews (Heb. 1:3; 8:1; 10:12; 12:2). Paul added that Christ is above all other powers (Eph. 1:20-21) and that while He is at the right hand of God, He intercedes with the Father on our behalf (Rom. 8:34). Furthermore, believers will reign with the Lord in His coming kingdom: “I will give the right to sit with Me on My throne, just as I was victorious and sat down with My Father on His throne” (Rev. 3:21).
People sometimes say this was the greatest comeback since Lazarus because Lazarus came back from the dead, but died again because he was still mortal. But the resurrected Lord had a redeemed immortal body. He was the first to be resurrected to eternal life (1 Cor. 15:23). His was a different resurrection because He ascended into heaven to live forever. That’s a much greater comeback than Lazarus. In fact, Jesus went from the lowest place on earth, where He endured the suffering and humiliation of execution as a criminal, to the highest place in heaven, where He reigns over all creation. What a contrast!
Two types of crown are mentioned in the New Testament: a garland worn by a victorious athlete, and a diadem worn by royalty that symbolized the power to reign. Both of these crowns are used in the Bible to describe Jesus. Crowns are also mentioned in respect to His cross and reign.
Crown of thorns. Humanity, by way of the Roman soldiers, gave Christ the crown of thorns (Mt. 27:27-31; Mk. 15:16-20; Jn. 19:2-5), a purple robe and a staff in a mock coronation of the “king of the Jews.” Thorns are a product of the curse, which was God’s judgment on humanity’s fall into sinful behavior (Gen. 3:17-19). In Genesis thorns are associated with sin, struggle, sweat and death. At the cross, Christ had a symbol of the curse on His head.
Crown of glory. “We … see Jesus, who was made lower than the angels for a little while, now crowned with glory and honor because He suffered death, so that by the grace of God He might taste death for everyone” (Heb. 2:9). He was lower than the angels for 33 years. At His death He was the lowest of humanity, executed as a criminal. He came down to the cross and the grave. Now He is crowned with glory and honor, His exaltation a result of His suffering. The cross led to the crown. His glory was the reward of His suffering (Heb. 2:9; Phil. 2:7-9; Rev. 5:12). Seeing Jesus in His glory will give us great joy (Jn. 17:5,24).
Jesus prayed, “I have brought You glory on earth by finishing the work You gave Me to do. And now, Father, glorify Me in Your presence with the glory I had with You before the world began” (Jn. 17:4-5). Before He came to earth, He lived with the Father in heaven and reigned over all creation as the Creator. He regained this when He ascended, but gained the additional glory of being the Redeemer of the fallen creation. So, at the cross, He was given the crown of thorns, but when He ascended to heaven, He was given the crown of glory.
Christ was crucified between two criminals (Mt. 27:38). It was a shameful death and a time of much grief and sorrow (Lk. 23:27-28,48). However, before going to the cross He prayed, “Father, I want those You have given Me to be with Me where I am, and to see My glory” (Jn. 17:24). At the cross He was in the company of criminals, but in heaven He is in the company of the redeemed and of angels (Rev. 5:11-12).
Different comings of Christ
The Lord was here once, and He’s coming again – the invisible God visibly present on earth. The purpose for His first coming was to die on the cross for sinners like us; to be a sacrifice. The purpose for His second coming will be to reveal His great power and glory (Mt. 24:30; 2 Th. 2:8; Rev. 1:7). It is the most prophesied event in the Bible. At that time, He will wear the crown of authority, dominion, government and sovereignty, judge all evil and set up His kingdom on earth. That is when all the wrongs done on earth will be made right, all crime will end, and justice will prevail.
In His first coming the Lord entered Jerusalem on a donkey. In His second coming He will be on a war horse: “I saw heaven standing open and there before me was a white horse, whose rider is called Faithful and True. With justice He judges and wages war. His eyes are like blazing fire, and on His head are many crowns” (Rev. 19:11-12). His supremacy is emphasized by His wearing “many crowns.”
Suffering before glory
Although Christ’s suffering and glory were both foretold in the Old Testament, their relationship was not obvious at that time. Psalm 22:1-21 describes the Lord’s suffering. For example, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken Me? Why are you so far from saving Me, so far from My cries of anguish?” was spoken at the cross (Ps. 22:1; Mt. 27:46). Psalm 22:22-31 describe His millennial reign over the earth. For example, “All the ends of the earth will remember and turn to the LORD, and all the families of the nations will bow down before Him, for dominion belongs to the LORD and He rules over the nations” (Ps. 22:26-27). We see in the same passage the cross and the crown; the suffering and the glory.
Likewise, “For to us a child is born, to us a son is given” (Isa. 9:6) describes Christ’s first coming which led to the cross, while the rest of this verse and the next describes the millennial kingdom established after His second coming: “And the government will be on His shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the greatness of His government and peace there will be no end. He will reign on David’s throne and over his kingdom, establishing and upholding it with justice and righteousness from that time on and forever.” Once again we see in the same passage the cross and the crown; the suffering and the glory. Other references to the Lord’s suffering and reign are Isaiah 53 and Psalm 110.
Christ’s cross and crown are keys to understanding the Bible. And aspects of His sacrifice and death for sinners, and His kingdom and future glory can be seen in many passages of Scripture. “Concerning this salvation, the prophets, who spoke of the grace that was to come to you, searched intently and with the greatest care, trying to find out the time and circumstances to which the Spirit of Christ in them was pointing when He predicted the sufferings of Christ and the glories that would follow” (1 Pet. 1:10-11). The Old Testament prophets predicted the Lord’s sufferings and the glories that would follow, but they didn’t know that there would be thousands of years between these events.
Christ’s mission was to go to the cross to die for our sin. Now, having paid the price for sin, He is highly exalted at God’s right hand and will come again as King of kings and Lord of lords. His cross had to precede His crown: “He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to death – even death on a cross! Therefore God exalted Him to the highest place and gave Him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Phil. 2:8-11).
Lessons for us
Jesus went from the lowest place on earth (the cross) to the highest place in heaven where He reigns over all creation. What a change there is between His two comings to earth – from crown of thorns to crown of glory, from criminal to the redeemed, from death to dominion, and from suffering to glory.
Because Jesus endured the cross, He now wears the crown and we can have the assurance of eternal life with Him in heaven. For Jesus, suffering had to precede glory. The New Testament pattern of suffering followed by glory applies to us as well: believers suffer now, but will be released into the glory of immortal bodies at the resurrection (Rom. 8:16-25; 2 Cor. 4:16-18). Like the Lord, believers must be willing to suffer and lose their lives for His sake (Lk. 9:23).
Paul wrote, “if we are children, then we are heirs – heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in His sufferings in order that we may also share in His glory. I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us” (Rom. 8:17-18). Meanwhile, “our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all” (2 Cor. 4:17).
The Biblical pattern is that suffering in this life will lead to an inheritance of eternal glory. We should not be focusing on our present physical situation, but be looking ahead. We are not promised a trouble-free life; in fact the opposite is the case because Jesus tells us that trouble is inevitable (Jn. 16:33). Look at His life as an example, and focus on the One who went to the cross and who now wears the crown.
Published, April 2012
See the other article in this series:
– From the Cradle to the Cross
How should we respond to Jude’s advice?
“But you, dear friends, by building yourselves up in your most holy faith and praying in the Holy Spirit, keep yourselves in God’s love as you wait for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ to bring you to eternal life. Be merciful to those who doubt; save others by snatching them from the fire; to others show mercy, mixed with fear—hating even the clothing stained by corrupted flesh” (Jude 20-23).
Build yourselves up in your most holy faith
The church. Are believers growing and maturing in the Christian faith? Is the younger generation being trained to maturity, so they can train the next generation (2 Tim. 2:2)? Are there processes to ensure this happens, whether in large or small groups? Do you know who your teachers are? Are they teaching? Are we teaching important principles and not majoring in minor ones? Are we teaching on current issues? Do we speak the truth in love (Eph. 4:15)?
Yourself. Are you ready to learn from the Bible and from others? Do you know your spiritual gifts? Are you a teacher? Should you be teaching others? Do you study the Bible? Do you have a teacher to help with questions you may have? Are you willing to respect the opinion of others on debateable matters where Christians may disagree?
Pray in the Holy Spirit
The church. Do we encourage people to get to know each other well enough to share their needs and to pray for the important issues of life? Does this include spiritual needs? Are there small groups where this can happen? Do you have people who can discern God’s will or do you function mainly according to custom and tradition?
Yourself. Do you pray for the needs of others and for God’s purposes? Do you have some friends that you can share and pray together with?
Keep yourselves in God’s love
The church. Is the Lord’s love evident in your meetings such as the Lord’s Supper and times of fellowship? Are these joyful occasions and ones where people are encouraged and will want to attend? Do you include new songs? What about fellowship with believers in other churches in your area? Remember, they are also part of the body of Christ.
Yourself. Do you attend and contribute to meetings where God’s love is expressed? Do you examine and judge yourself to stay in fellowship with God? Do you express hospitality to others?
Wait for the Lord’s return
The church. Do we give believers hope for the future by reminding them of the Lord’s return? Do we give people a reason to have an optimistic view of their future?
Yourself. Does this help you to live a pure life? Do you expect that the Lord could return at any moment of time?
Reach out to help others
The church. Do we encourage outreach by evangelists and missionaries? Do we identify and help those with this gift? Do we invite evangelists and missionaries to visit; share with them and help them practically?
Yourself. I hope you don’t isolate yourself from non-believers. Do you make friends with them so they can be introduced to the gospel? Do you pray for and support the work of evangelists and missionaries?
Written, April 2002
Jude’s advice on living for God
The letter of Jude addresses apostasy in the church. An apostate is someone who professes to be a believer but is not a true Christian—the Greek word means defection or revolt. They deny the fundamentals of the faith. Judas Iscariot is a good example—he travelled with Jesus and the apostles, but showed his true character when he betrayed the Lord.
The apostates at that time were the Gnostics who regarded matter as being inherently evil and spirit as being good. This lead to hedonism as a result of the idea that the body could do anything it wanted to. They were selfish immoral heretics, who denied that Jesus was God’s son, that He died for the sins of the world and that He rose back to life (Jude 4,18). They also divided the church and didn’t have the Holy Spirit with them (Jude 19).
How should a Christian respond to such opposition, gross sinfulness and ungodliness? In this case it was coming from within the professing church. Jude lists five things that they could do in this situation. These would apply to any believers facing opposition and ungodliness. It describes how Christians should live for God in a sinful world.
Build yourselves up in your most holy faith
The first activity is to “build yourselves up in your most holy faith” or build your lives on the foundation of your most holy faith (Jude 20NIV). The Greek word used for “build” in this verse is used elsewhere to describe:
- God and the Bible (Acts 20:32)
- teaching in the local church (1 Cor. 3:10, 12, 14).
- teaching of the writers of the New Testament (Eph. 2:20)
- Living as though Jesus is Lord: “So then, just as you received Christ Jesus as Lord, continue to live in him, rooted and built up in him, strengthened in the faith as you were taught, and overflowing with thankfulness” (Col. 2:6-7). This is similar to Jude 20 and shows that the building is linked with being “strengthened in the faith”.
These are the things we should be building on and with—they are the contents of our belief, that is Christian “faith”. As they come from God, they are called “holy” (Jude 20).
Building up conveys a sense of growth and strengthening. Jude had urged them to “contend for the faith” (v.3) they had been given. This is a command to guard and defend Biblical truth. Similarly, Paul writes that believers should contend for the faith of the gospel without being frightened in any way by those who oppose them (Phil. 1:27-28). So the Christian faith as given in the Bible is entrusted to us and we need to know it well enough to defend it.
When we accept Christ as Savior and Lord, we begin a lifetime of spiritual growth—we are to keep on building: “continue in your faith, established and firm, not moved from the hope held out in the gospel” (Col. 1:23). This is a personal responsibility: “build yourselvesup”. Some effort is required here to respond to all God has given us in the Bible by assimilating it into our lives. Paul expressed a similar thought, “Grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” (2 Pt. 3:18). There are two parts to this growth; grace and truth! This means becoming more like Christ (Jn. 1:14).
The fundamentals of the Christian faith should be taught by preachers and teachers and understood by believers. When this happens there is a response of thankfulness (Col. 2:7). Preachers, teachers and small group leaders are builders in the local church (1 Cor. 3:10-17). They may build using “gold, silver, costly stones, wood, hay or straw”. Teaching can either be of lasting worth or only of passing value or of no value at all. It can be tested against the teachings of the Bible.
Paul and Barnabas strengthened believers and encouraged them to remain true to the faith (Acts 14:21-22 ). We should help each other in this: “Therefore encourage one another and build each other up, just as in fact you are doing” (1 Th. 5:11). So, it should be a corporate activity, not just an individual one.
Pray in the Holy Spirit
Next Jude writes that we should “Pray in the Holy Spirit” (Jude 20). This means to pray as guided by the Holy Spirit. It’s a part of living each day by the power of the Holy Spirit (Gal. 5:25).
Paul writes, “And pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests. With this in mind, be alert and always keep on praying for all the saints. Pray also for me, that whenever I open my mouth, words may be given me so that I will fearlessly make known the mystery of the gospel, for which I am an ambassador in chains. Pray that I may declare it fearlessly, as I should” (Eph. 6:18-20). We need an active prayer life. Share your life with God; after all you are His ambassador. Pray for each other. Paul doesn’t ask to be released from prison, but that he may declare the gospel.
Praying in the Spirit also means praying in accordance with God’s will as the Holy Spirit reveals it to us through Scripture. “This is the confidence we have in approaching God: that if we ask anything according to His will, He hears us. And if we know that He hears us—whatever we ask—we know that we have what we asked of Him” (1 Jn. 5:14-15).
Prayer replaces anxiety with peace. “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 4:6-7).
The Bible teaches that the Holy Spirit prays for us! “In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express. And He who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints in accordance with God’s will” (Rom. 8:26-27).
Keep yourselves in God’s love
Then Jude calls Christians to “Keep yourselves in God’s love” (Jude 21). The word “keep” has been used to describe how Jesus watches us and protects us from evil (1 Jn. 5:18; Jude 1). This would have been comforting to those experiencing persecution.
To “keep” often means to guard—Paul was guarded in prison (Acts 12:5,6; 16:23). He also guarded the Christian faith (2 Tim. 4:7). He asked us to guard our lives by keeping free from sin (1 Tim. 5:22). To keep yourselves in God’s love means to live in God’s love—to guard our lives so that His love controls us (2 Cor. 5:14-15).
Of course, no-one can separate us from God’s love (Rom. 8:35-39). God always loves us, but when sin comes into our life we longer enjoy His love. Let nothing come between us and God—if it does, then confess it and turn away from it (1 Jn. 1:9). Then we can enjoy His love and let it influence us and express it to others.
Is God’s love central in your mind, will and emotions? Paul wrote, “May the Lord direct your hearts into God’s love and Christ’s perseverance” (2 Th. 3:5). When this happens it is evident in how we live, “if anyone obeys His word, God’s love is truly made complete in him (1 Jn. 2:5). Similarly, “If you obey my commands, you will remain in my love” (Jn. 15:10). Also, “Whoever has my commands and obeys them, he is the one who loves me” (Jn. 14:21).
To live in God’s love means to show it to others (1 Jn. 3:16-18). So, it includes what we do as well as what we say. God’s love for us should flow through to our love for each other, “Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another” (1 Jn. 4:11).
Another mention of “love” in Jude’s letter is the “love feast” (v.12)— a common meal eaten by early Christians before the Lord’s supper. Times of fellowship and the Lord’s supper should help us to live in God’s love.
Like learning Christian doctrine and prayer, living in God’s love has a corporate component—we can’t do it all by ourselves. “And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds. Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching” (Heb. 10:24-25). We need to encourage one another in these important aspects of the Christian life whenever we meet together.
It is interesting to note that these first three activities were practiced by the early church; “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer” (Acts 2:42).
Wait for the Lord’s return
Jude also urges Christians to “wait for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ to bring you to eternal life” (Jude 21). To “wait” means looking forward and expecting a favorable reception. Paul wrote that believers should “wait for the blessed hope—the glorious appearing of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ” (Tit. 2:13). Christ’s coming is to “bring salvation to those who are waiting for Him” (Heb. 9:28). When Christ returns He will come to take His people home to heaven. This is the next phase of God’s great work of salvation; they will be like Christ, with new bodies and free from the presence of sin (1 Jn. 3:2). Ultimately, we are looking forward to “a new heaven and a new earth, the home of righteousness” (2 Pt. 3:13).
In the New Testament, the word “wait” is closely connected with how we live our lives. For example, we should “say ‘No’ to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives” and be “eager to do what is good” while we wait (Tit. 2:12-14). Also, we “ought to live holy and godly lives” as we wait (2 Pt. 3:11-12). So waiting for the Lord’s return involves changing our behavior!
The prospect of the Lord’s second coming should encourage us; “Therefore encourage each other with these words” (1 Th. 4:18). We have hope regardless of what our situation may be. We should use it to encourage one another; we are on a journey and we haven’t reached our destination. The best is yet to come. It should help us to live godly lives—“Everyone who has this hope will keep themselves pure, just as He is pure” (1 Jn. 3:3).
Reach out to help others
Finally, Jude calls Christians to “Be merciful to those who doubt; snatch others from the fire and save them; to others show mercy, mixed with fear—hating even the clothing stained by corrupted flesh” (Jude 22-23).
In the case of apostasy in the church and those following false teachers there are three situations. Firstly, leaders and those actively promoting this behavior need to be dealt with firmly. This is the responsibility of the elders (Acts 20:28-31). For example, “If anyone comes to you and does not bring this teaching, do not take him into your house or welcome him. Anyone who welcomes him shares in his wicked work” (2 Jn. 10-11). We should not show hospitality to such people.
For the remainder there are two courses of action. Secondly, “be merciful to those who doubt”—show kindness by helping and correcting them. The word “doubt” means lack of faith. Jesus expressed mercy in healing the demon-possessed man, while lack of mercy is illustrated by the servant who should have forgiven his fellow-servant (Mt. 18:33; Mk. 5:19). We need to reach out compassionately to these people and help them replace their doubts with true Christian faith. This is how Jesus responded to people, “When He saw the crowds, He had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd” (Mt. 9:36). So He healed, fed and taught them (Mt. 14:14; 15:32, Mk. 6:34).
Thirdly, “snatch others from the fire and save them; to others show mercy, mixed with fear—hating even the clothing stained by corrupted flesh”. Remember Lot had to be snatched from the city of Sodom before it was destroyed (Gen. 19:15-17). Some need strong warning, instruction or action to stop them following false teachers or to remove them from bad situations. But be aware of the influence of sin. In Old Testament times the clothing of those with infectious skin diseases such as leprosy had to be burned (Lev. 13:47-52). This illustrates the care that must be taken when dealing with people who have been involved with serious sins. Sin is tempting and can be contagious, we must do all we can to avoid catching it. In these situations it is best not to act alone; get others to pray and help in any rescue mission.
Those living in fellowship with God will show mercy to others (Jas. 2:13). An example of “mercy mixed with fear” is “If someone is caught in a sin, you who are spiritual should restore him gently. But watch yourself, or you also may be tempted” (Gal. 6:1).
Of course, like Jesus, our compassion should reach those outside the church. We should encourage each to reach out to those who don’t know God and who are slaves of sin.
Living for God today
Today we often face apathy rather than apostasy. I think Jude’s advice applies in both situations. What world view are you building your life on? What are you keeping because of its value? What are you waiting for in anticipation? Are you praying? Are you reaching out to help others?
Whatever challenge you face, contend for the faith by following Jude’s advice. Build yourselves up in your most holy faith—learn about it from the Bible, which is how God speaks to us. Pray in the Holy Spirit—speak to God. Keep yourselves in God’s love—apply the Bible to your life. Wait for the Lord’s return and reach out to help others. These should be top priority for Christians and for local churches. We can’t control what happens around us, but we can influence our response to it and live godly lives.
If you are faithful in this, God promises to “keep you from falling” down here (like apostates and false teachers) and to “present you before His glorious presence without fault and with great joy” up there (Jude 24). Then you will respond in praise, “to the only God our Savior be glory, majesty, power and authority, through Jesus Christ our Lord, before all ages, now and forevermore!” (Jude 25).
Written, April 2002
About 4,000 years ago Abraham received some special promises when God spoke to him. The bible contains many other promises as well and in this article we look at some key promises given for Christians today. As Abraham had to listen in order to hear God’s promises to him, we should read the Bible to know God’s promises for us.
A survey of the New Testament
The Greek word for promise is “epangalia” (Strongs #1860). This article is based on a survey of every occurrence of this word and its close derivatives in the New Testament that relate to God’s promises—this was 60 verses, which are all referenced below. I am assuming that these verses indicate God’s key promises for Christians living between the day of Pentecost and the rapture. We will look at the context of these verses to help discover—what message did they convey to those of the early church and what is their message for us?
The topics that relate to the word “promise” in these verses are listed in the table below. It is interesting that half of the verses relate to promises given to Abraham and his descendants—the majority of these being in the books of Romans, Galatians and Hebrews. This is not surprising as a majority of the early Christians were Jewish and the Old Testament was the only Scripture that the early church possessed. Therefore, God often used illustrations from the Old Testament. Also, these books deal with topics of those times, such as the fact that justification by faith and not works is taught in the Old Testament, and with the trap of legalistic Judaism.
Key promises mentioned in the New Testament
|Given to Abraham and his descendants||32||53|
|Second coming or end times||6||10|
|Children of God||1||2|
|All God’s promises||2||3|
Old Testament promises mentioned in the New Testament
The greatest occurrence of the word “epangalia” in the New Testament relates to the promises given to Abraham and his descendants (Acts 7:5,17; Rom. 4:20-21; 9:4, 8, 9; Gal. 3:16; Eph. 2:12; Heb. 6:13; 7:6; 11:9,13,17,33). The three main messages in these passages are summarized below:
Firstly, God keeps His promises—Isaac was born “as the result of a promise” (Gal. 4:23NIV). “And so after waiting patiently, Abraham received what was promised” (Heb. 6:15). This happened because of Abraham’s faith and God’s power (Heb 11:11).
This was an important message for the early church, particularly in times of persecution. They knew that their sins had been forgiven and they had a home in heaven. This gave them hope and security. It is also important for us during difficult and disappointing times—if we can’t trust in God, who can we trust? No-one. In a post-modern world, characterized by change and instability, it can be difficult to trust in God. When our faith is weak we act as though God is a part of creation; but of course God is not like us—He is reliable and always keeps His promises.
Secondly, Jesus was the promised Messiah (Acts 13:23,32; 26:6; Heb. 11:39). Paul wrote, “For I tell you that Christ has become a servant of the Jews on behalf of God’s truth, to confirm the promises made to the patriarchs” (Rom 15:8). The remainder of this sentence says Christ came so that the Gentiles would also praise God. When sinners put their faith in Christ, they share in the promises given to Abraham (Gal. 3:29; 4:28).
As already mentioned a majority of the early Christians were Jewish. When they realized that Jesus was the Messiah, they converted from Judaism to Christianity and this truth about Jesus would have featured in evangelism to the Jews. For example, on the day of Pentecost Peter proclaimed, “God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Christ” and Stephen told the Jewish Council, the Sanhedrin, “you betrayed and murdered the Messiah”.
The message for us is that all God’s promises are fulfilled through Jesus (2 Cor. 1:20). Paul writes that we are blessed with every spiritual blessing because we belong to Christ. The promises in the Old Testament look ahead to Christ and those for the future rely on His great sacrifice for the sin of the world.
Finally, God’s promise of salvation (and eternal life) is a gift to be received by faith, not something to be earnt. In Romans 4 Paul shows how the gospel is in harmony with the Old Testament—God accepted Abraham because Abraham had faith in Him (Rom 4:13-14)—“The promise comes by faith, so that it may be by grace and may be guaranteed to all Abraham’s offspring–not only to those who are of the law but also to those who are of the faith of Abraham. He is the father of us all” (Rom 4:16). The Old Testament law was only a temporary measure until the coming of Christ (Gal. 3:17-19, 21-22). So, eternal life is guaranteed to those who have faith in God like Abraham did (Heb. 11:11).
The Pharisees were the religious leaders of the Jews in the times of the early church. They endeavored to live in strict accordance with the Old Testament law as interpreted and amplified by the scribes and their tradition and they believed in salvation by works. Consequently, the message of salvation by faith and not works was a vital distinction between Christianity and Judaism.
This truth is also important for us as it is fundamental to the Christian faith. Salvation is a gift that God promises to those who receive it by faith. There is no way we can earn our salvation. As a result of this salvation all believers are assured of participating in and receiving the remaining promises.
The second most prevalent topic associated with the word “epangalia” in the New Testament is that of eternal life. When we accept Christ as Savior, we receive eternal life which is valuable now and when we get to heaven. Eternal life enables us to live for Christ today and to look forward to life after death (1 Jn. 2:25; 1 Tim. 4:8). Eternal life is one of the “better promises” in the new covenant that came though Christ (Heb. 8:6). It is shared by all believers—there is no distinction based on race or any other difference between believers (Eph. 3:6).
As Paul wrote concerning “a faith and knowledge resting on the hope of eternal life, which God, who does not lie, promised before the beginning of time”, people who followed God in Old Testament times will be included in those who share eternal life (Tit. 1:2).
Heaven, the place of eternal rest is still available to all who believe in Christ (2 Tim 1:1; Heb 4:1; 6:17). It is an “eternal inheritance” for all those who have been freed from the penalty of their sins by Christ’s death (Heb 6:12; 9:15; Jas. 2:5). All believers have eternal life and are looking forward to new bodies, the marriage supper of the Lamb and living with the Lord.
Heaven also includes rewards given at the judgement seat of Christ for service done for the Lord. For example, those who persevere under trials are promised “the crown of life”, which may be a deeper appreciation of eternal life in heaven (Jas. 1:12).
As God promises eternal life as a gift to sinners who receive it by faith it is guaranteed to all believers (Rom 4:16). We can be confident of this based on God’s Word, because we can’t earn salvation by good works.
Some in the early church thought Jews were privileged and so they looked down on Gentiles. But the fact that they both had eternal life and were indwelt by the Holy Spirit illustrated that there should be no barrier between them—Christianity is multinational! The same applies today—we should accept all true Christians as Christ would—regardless of differences in race, in status, or in gender.
The Holy Spirit
The word “epangalia” in the New Testament is also often associated with the topic of the Holy Spirit. Before His ascension, Christ promised His disciples that the Holy Spirit would come as had been promised in the Old Testament (Is. 44:3; Ezek. 36:27; Lk. 24:49; Acts 1:4). The Holy Spirit is God and He gives believers a divine power. This happened initially on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2:33). This promise was for all believers, whether they were Jews (“you and your children”) or Gentiles (“all who are far off”) (Acts 2:39).
The Holy Spirit indwells a believer when they trust in the good news of God’s offer of salvation—“And you also were included in Christ when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation. Having believed, you were marked in him with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit who is a deposit guaranteeing our inheritance until the redemption of those who are God’s possession” (Eph. 1:13). This pattern—hearing the message, believing it, and then receiving the Holy Spirit—was evident when Peter spoke at Cornelius’ house. The gift of the Holy Spirit is part of the blessings that were promised to Abraham (Gal. 3:14).
These verses also teach that the Holy Spirit is a sign that we belong to God and that He will protect us and will keep His promises.
This promise is equally important to the early church and to us. The New Testament is full of the work of the Holy Spirit in the lives of believers and they are instructed to “be filled with the Spirit”. He is God with us on a continual basis—God speaks to us today through the Holy Spirit. He is a great helper and teacher and will remind us of relevant Scripture.
Second coming or end times
The second coming of Christ and other future events are also often associated with the word “epangalia” in the New Testament. The book of Hebrews was written for those struggling with leaving Judaism for Christianity, who were encouraged to preserver until they received the reward that God had promised (Heb. 10:36). This reward is explained in the next verse as being when Christ returns to take Christians to be with Himself at the rapture. It is important that our present circumstances do not cause us to forget about the wonderful future that God has promised us—“Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for He who promised is faithful” (Heb 10:23). God is reliable and will keep His promises.
Scoffers say, “Where is this ‘coming’ He promised?”—they do not believe that God is coming to judge the world (2 Pt. 3:4). So, why has there been a long delay in the coming of God’s judgement? The reason is that He is patient, “not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance” (2 Pt. 3:9). He is giving people every opportunity to be saved. He waited 120 years before He sent the flood and has waited thousands of years before destroying the world with fire.
God has promised many awesome demonstrations of His power after He takes the believers to be with Himself during the rapture (Heb. 12:26). But, believers are to look forward to “a new heaven and a new earth, the home of righteousness” (2 Pt. 3:13). This is the eternal state after God has triumphed over Satan and evil.
This expectation can help believers through life’s struggles—whether they live in the first century or today. It gives them an eternal perspective.
Children of God
The promises of 2 Corthinians 7:1, mentioned in the previous verses, include that believers are “sons and daughters” of God the Father and that God welcomes those who stand against evil. There are two relationships here: between a child and a parent and between siblings. As a result of this promise, we receive blessings from God and from one another.
A parent has special care for their child who they nurture and encourage from infancy to adolescence and then to adulthood—that’s how God cares for us. Meanwhile a child is to obey their parents—and Christians are to obey and imitate God.
Although siblings can be rivals, they share a common family and the same parents. As a consequence of this relationship, most of us help and care for others in our family. Likewise believers, who follow the same Savior and share the same destiny, should care for one another.
The illustration of being children of God applies to the early church and to today. All believers need to appreciate they serve a loving Father. However the situation regarding relationships between believers has changed in the past 1,900 years. The early church was small and all believers fellowshipped with one another, except when dictators such as Diotrephes had their way. Today there are different Christian denominations and we need to remember we are children in a global family comprising believers from all Christian denominations, not just the one we happen to support. The Bible emphasises that God has no favorites, nor should we.
All God’s promises
The remaining instances of the word “epangalia” in the New Testament are two verses that relate to all of God’s promises. We mentioned earlier that all of God’s promises have been fulfilled in Christ (2 Cor. 1:20).
God has given us everything we need to live for Him including “His very great and precious promises, so that through them you may participate in the divine nature and escape the corruption in the world caused by evil desires” (2 Pt. 1:4). It is estimated that there are at least 30,000 promises in the Bible. They are “very great” because they help us do such things as:
- “participate in the divine nature”—as we appreciate what God has promised, we become more like Him, and
- “escape the corruption in the world caused by evil desires”—God’s promises can help us resist temptation—when temptations come we should claim the promises.
Application to us
These promises can have a strong influence on our lives when we remember:
- We follow a God who keeps His promises—look back at history. Our God is reliable and trustworthy.
- All of God’s promises are fulfilled in Christ – Christ has “better promises” than any others in the world because they are given by the God who made the universe and continues to sustain it.
- Salvation is a gift to be received by faith, not something to be earnt—this is a fundamental of the Christian faith.
- The Holy Spirit is God with us on a continual basis—we should be more aware of His presence as all our power to live for Christ comes from the Holy Spirit.
- We are children of God—we have a global family and should welcome fellowship with other believers. The early church was not restricted to a small community—it witnessed in Jerusalem, then Judea the southern section of Palestine, then Samaria in central Palestine and then to the ends of the earth. Like evangelism, our fellowship should spread out across the land. Paul had to be reminded by the Lord when he was in Corinth; “I am with you, and no one is going to attack and harm you, because I have many people in this city”. We need to be aware of other believers in our community who are also a part of the body of Christ and not avoid them or isolate ourselves from them.
- We should be looking forward to Christ’s return to fulfil His promises concerning the future. This includes eternal life in heaven and seeing Jesus exalted to the highest place and seeing every knee bow before Him and hearing every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord and singing together with all creation, “To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb be praise and honor and glory and power, for ever and ever!”
- God doesn’t reveal His promises to us unless we read them in the Bible—so we need to: read them, understand them, meditate on them, and store them in our memories. If you have trouble sleeping at night, then be like the psalmist who wrote, “I lie awake at night thinking of your promises” (Ps. 119:148). Then we can say, “I have hidden your word in my heart” (Ps. 119:11). As a consequence you will realize that they are great promises and they will become precious to you, and The Holy Spirit will recall them when you need refreshment and encouragement—“Your promise revives me; it comforts me in all my troubles” (Ps. 119:50).
Written, March 2003
Also see: God’s greatest promise