Some of us might have felt at some point in time, the feeling of not wanting tomorrow to come, for fear of what it has in store for us. Believers in the Lord Jesus Christ shouldn’t have that type of feeling when it comes to his second coming. Paul here reassures these young followers of Christ in Thessalonica, that they will be rescued, delivered from the wrath of God that is coming. This final judgement that we read about in Revelation Chapter 20, where believers and unbelievers are judged and the outcome of this judgement is of course different. The follower of Jesus is marked by their exchange in loyalty, away from idols to the living God; the unbeliever doesn’t have this kind of identity.
To put everything I have to say into a question for 1 Thessalonians to answer, it would be this: imagine on that day of judgement the question is put to God. Did you make the right decision to send your Son to suffer and die for these people? What evidence shall he point to that will vindicate him, showing why he was right to justify us? The reason the question is an important one is because when God sent his son it was for the purposes of transformation, where people become a new creation in him. In other words, the final judgement is about who has changed and because there are those who have, God’s decision to justify us was the right decision. When Paul reassures these believers that they will not face the wrath to come but be rescued from it in Jesus, we know why that is true, it’s because of what he has written about them.
The Truth about the Future
This truth about the future is reassuring in the present for the believer. What gets us through this judgement is our union with Christ. A common practice when there are forest fires and it is spreading at about forty miles an hour is for those whose job it is to try and control this fire and to eventually put it out, is for them to understand the direction in which the fire is spreading. Once they have this information they burn the land that the forest fire is approaching on before the fire gets there. The reasoning is simple because the ground has already been burnt there is now nothing left for the fire to consume and so it doesn’t go any further. Paul says the wrath of God is coming but we who are in Christ are in the place where the wrath has already come and therefore will not come again. That is what our union with Christ means when we understand it in terms of this final judgement. In the book of Revelation, it speaks about this by telling us that our names are in the lambs’ book of life.
But there are two books that are opened on that day, the other is a book is a record of what we have done in this life. This is how Jesus explains the importance of deeds in connection to judgement in Matthew: “ ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”(Matthew 25:45-46 ESV) Jesus is not saying that salvation is a reward for our works; he is saying however that works of righteousness in this life identify us as ones belonging to Jesus.
These deeds that are done I the present will be the part of the public evidence provided to show that one’s faith in Christ is genuine and therefore we will be rescued from this judgement. Our union with Jesus is seen buy what is produced in our life by him in the here and now, just like it is here in these young Christians in Thessalonica. That is why Paul tells them they will be rescued from the coming wrath, could he of said such a thing if the evidence was not there, now that we know what the final judgement will involve.
The Evidence of the Presence
Paul, Silas and Timothy are thankful to God for these Christians, fellow believers that are mentioned in the prayers of these three. But notice how their prayers for them are prompted, “We give thanks to God always for all of you, constantly mentioning you in our prayers, remembering before our God and Father your work of faith and labour of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ.” They are remembered because of their worked produced by faith, labour produced by love and endurance inspired by hope in Christ. If God had fingerprints then this is what they would look like on people. To put it another way Paul, Silas and Timothy are able to give thanks to God for God is clearly seen to be working in them.
For we know they say, that they are loved by God and that they as believers have been chosen by him, because of there response to the Gospel, that came with power and full conviction. The facts are present in their lives and speak so clearly to the three missionaries that are writing to them the conclusion is inevitable. They are chosen by God, they are elect in the Son. Election is an eternal decree of God, something he has decided and what he has decided is then witnessed in time. But this election is clearly seen in these identifying marks. There work of faith, the fact that they have turned from idols to the living God is an act of faith in response to the Gospel. Their labour of love is witnessed by their conviction and motivation to serve the living God and their endurance is produced by this hope of the Saviours return. They wait for God’s Son to return, but this waiting is not a waiting around but a waiting full of service for God in the midst of sufferings.
When Peter in his second letter writes to some brothers and sisters in the faith where their qualities are not present in their life, he has this to say to them “For whoever lacks these qualities is so short-sighted that he is blind, having forgotten that he was cleansed from his former sins. 10 Therefore, brothers, be all the more diligent to make your calling and election sure, for if you practise these qualities you will never fall. For in this way there will be richly provided for you an entrance into the eternal kingdom of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.” In other words, the person who claims to be one of God’s elect but whose life is no difference is pulling the wool over their own eyes. This says peter cannot go unchecked; Paul says the same in 2 Corinthians “Examine yourselves, to see whether you are in the faith. Test yourselves. Or do you not realize this about yourselves, that Jesus Christ is in you?—unless indeed you fail to meet the test!” In other words by virtue of our union with Christ these qualities become evident in their lives and our lives, but they are also evident as we would expect in the lives of Paul , Silas and Timothy, for they say you know how we lived among you for your sake.
In C.S.Lewis’ book the Screwtape letters which are about letters that are written from a senior demon known as Screwtape written to apprentice demon wormwood which just happens to be Screwtapes, nephew. In the second letter the subject, that is a man who Wormwood has to stop from becoming a Christian, becomes one to the displeasure of Screwtape, so in the fourth letter, Screwtape has this to say to his nephew “keep his mind on the inner life. He thinks his conversion is something inside him and his attention is therefore chiefly turned at present to the states of his own mind-or rather to that very expurgated version of them which is all you should allow him to see. Encourage this. Keep his mind off the most elementary duties by directing it to the most advanced spiritual ones.” Reminds me of something P.J. O’Rourke said, “Everybody wants to save the world but nobody wants to help mom with the dishes.”
Paul recognises the inner change in the Christian by witnessing the outward service for the living God. They have turned from idols to serve the living God as a result of this Gospel coming to them and their faith doesn’t have a low profile but a witness wider than Thessalonica. The Lord’s message has rang out from them and they have become a model for all believers, their faith has become known everywhere so much so that we need not say anything about it because you are known for turning from idols to the living God. We notice this in verses five, seven and eight – the Gospel came to them v5 they received the Gospel v7 and the Gospel rang out from them v8.
There has been a change of loyalty in these people that came with their conversion, from idols to the living God, from what is dead to he who gives life. An idol is a vain thing and those who worship idols become like them, but they have turned from idols, they have turned from that which is totally unable to render any assistance to anyone in time of need to Christ who will deliver them from this wrath that is coming.
The Necessity for an authentic messenger for an authentic message.
If there was no true message delivered by an authentic and legitimate divine spokesman, there could be no genuine faith on the part of those who hear, and there would be nothing about them for which to give thanks. This is how Paul explains it in Chapter 2:13 “And we also thank God constantly for this, that when you received the word of God, which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men but as what it really is, the word of God, which is at work in you believers.” He’s saying we spoke but you know it was God that you were hearing. These Christians have become imitators of the missionaries that proclaimed the Gospel to them in the first place despite the short amount of time that Paul and Silas were there.
How much should we follow the example of other Christians? Only as far as they follow Christ. When John Robinson, the pastor of the congregation of refugee puritans at Leiden in Holland was saying Goodbye to those exiles leaving for New England he said this “I Charge you, that you follow me no farther than you have seen me follow the Lord Jesus Christ.” The lives of those who planted this church were lives worth imitating especially since they had tasted sufferings themselves to. There is as we have seen this central theme that runs throughout this first chapter of 1 Thessalonians of serving while waiting for the Son of God to come.
The confidence then that we have is that when this happens we will be brought through this judgement because of the change in our life. This change of life and what is done in this life becomes the identifying marks for God when it comes to the separation between us and the unbelievers. What does belief look like, it looks like faith, love and hope, a turning from vain things to the living God and serving him till his Son comes. This then is an authentic assurance of salvation till he comes.