It’s not really possible to work through Paul’s letter to the Christians in Thessaloniki without talking about “end times.” Most scholars think I Thessalonians is the first letter we have from Paul. That is, it reflects his earliest teachings and theology. Paul probably wrote to the Christians in Thessaloniki shortly after he sent Timothy to check on them, and Timothy returned with the news that they were ok, probably sometimes in the early 50s AD. This was pretty early in Paul’s ministry since the visit and subsequent uproar in Thessaloniki happened on Paul’s long second missionary journey. This was a tough missionary journey. As one reads about the visits to each new town, one is struck by how frequently Paul is met with resistance to his new theology and how often Paul is run out of town, particularly in Greece. Paul was driven out of Philippi, Thessaloniki, Berea and apparently Athens before he settled down in Corinth for a while. So it shouldn’t surprise us that he would think beyond his present troubles to the ultimate victory of the Lord. Here’s some of what he writes about the coming of the Lord.
13 But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about those who have died, so that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. 14 For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have died… 16 For the Lord himself, with a cry of command, with the archangel’s call and with the sound of God’s trumpet, will descend from heaven, and the dead in Christ will rise first. 17 Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up in the clouds together with them to meet the Lord in the air; and so we will be with the Lord forever. I Thess. 4: 13-15, 16-17
If this description sounds a little confusing to your ears, that’s probably because Paul’s theology was rooted in 1st century Jewish belief about the resurrection on the great “Day of the Lord.” Some people mistakenly think Jewish people didn’t believe in resurrection in Jesus’ day. The truth is they disagreed about resurrection. The Sadducees didn’t believe in resurrection. The Pharisees did, and Paul was trained as a Pharisee. What the Pharisees believed, however, was that the resurrection of the faithful would happen at the end of time at the great Day of the Lord when God would judge all the peoples of the earth. A lot of the Old Testament scriptures about this day are pretty scary, focusing on terrible judgment against those who have embraced evil, but there are also hopeful passages. The Lord is always depicted winning the battle and is enthroned and surrounded by the faithful are with the Lord always. The New Testament authors, like Paul, have focused on the hopeful part and wrote about being swept up to be with the Lord in his victory.
I know lots of Christians who don’t particularly want to think about “end times.” They prefer to focus on living life with God in the present and leave the end stuff to God. I actually think that’s a good way to live. In fact, that’s what Jesus suggested to his disciples. He was adamant no one knew when all this might happen, and it looks to me like we really don’t have very clear details. What is consistent, however, in all of these writings is that God wins! In the end, God is victorious over evil and sets the world finally to rights. I’m good with that, particularly when there seems to be a lot wrong with our present world.
So that’s your theology lesson on “end times” for today. Focus on the end game and keep playing your part. Remember the game is fixed and the Lord wins.
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