After his previous message of concern for their faith and praying for their spiritual well-being, Paul now expresses to the Thessalonians the importance of staying focused on Jesus. In between the lines of this chapter, the letter-writer Paul reveals that many believed that Jesus would come back in their lifetimes. It must have been both exciting and disappointing to watch the days and years go by with no sign of Christ’s return.
1-8: Sexual Purity
While living in the midst of a society in Thessalonica that used perverted sex practices as part of unholy worship, the Thessalonians were exposed to this thinking and could be tempted to engage in sexual activity that was forbidden by God. Temple prostitutes were common. Instead of engaging in corrupted practices, Paul exhorts the new Christians to abstain from sexual immorality and to be holy. This does not mean that they were to abstain from all sex, just that which was connected to lustful and immoral practices. Sex as practiced in marriage between a man and a woman is not corrupted: “Marriage is honorable among all, and the bed undefiled; but fornicators and adulterers God will judge.” Hebrews 13:4
Like the Thessalonians, we honor God with the purity of our bodies and if we reject the idea of holiness, we are in fact rejecting God. Paul helps us understand this as he points out that these are not the commandments of men.
9-12: Love and Work
Building on the idea of being virtuous for God, the Thessalonians are now encouraged to love one another. Evidently they were already doing a great job of this, and the reminder is evidence to us of how important it is for us to love fellow Christians.
The admonition that they work with their hands is a clue that they were waiting for Christ’s return. Some were waiting quite literally, so much so that they were no longer working. A culture in Macedonia at that tended to look down on physical labor did not help. This guidance from Paul to work with their hands was valuable because it showed the Thessalonians that they were responsible to work to provide for themselves and that they could be a good example by standing out to those around them. The same holds true for us today.
13-18: Christ’s Return
The Thessalonians were waiting for Christ to come back and they were worried about the souls of those who believed with them but had already died. Paul, as an apostle, has knowledge enough from God to placate these worries. He tells them that the Christians that have died will still be saved. In fact, when Christ returns, the dead in Christ will rise first, then alive Christians will meet Christ together in the air. The Thessalonians did not need to worry about the brethren that had died; this foreknowledge from Paul is intended to comfort.
The three main ideas of this chapter taken together teach us about doing the right things and being patient as we live. It is true that we do not know when Jesus will come back. He may return before you finish reading this or long after we all are gone. Nevertheless, a steadfast heart and strong faith built in Jesus are needed at all times if we want to pursue salvation.
This is a theme that Paul is familiar with teaching, as he did also to the Christians in Philippi: “Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who works in you both to will and to do for His good pleasure.” Philippians 2:12-13
What does this mean for us? To live out or lives as if He will be coming back any minute, but to expect to do good works of righteousness and spread the gospel until He does.