Jesus promised His disciples that He would return for His people. They never forgot His promise. Christians still look forward to this event with anticipation. The Thessalonian believers were right in their eager expectation of Christ’s return. Years later in another letter, Paul described those who live “godly” as “looking for the blessed hope and glorious appearing of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ” (Ti. 2:13). The apostle John also encouraged us to be continually mindful of this expectation:
Beloved, now we are children of God; and it has not yet been revealed what we shall be, but we know that when He is revealed, we shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is. And everyone who has this hope in Him purifies himself, just as He is pure (1 Jn. 3:2-3).
Among the Thessalonians this expectation was a passionate longing. For most believers, this hope takes a less intense form. We rejoice in the fact that Jesus is coming, but we don’t yearn for it with impatient fervor. Why not? Should we? These are two of the questions we will try to answer in this booklet.
A Passionate Longing (1 Th. 1:1–3:10). As noted earlier, the Thessalonian believers were eagerly expecting the Lord’s return. Few of us share their intensity of desire. However, we can perhaps understand why this was true of them by considering their situation. In the first place, most of them had just recently undergone a radical conversion. Second, they were being persecuted fiercely by their Jewish and pagan peers.
Their Radical Conversion. Christian conversion is always a highly significant event, but it is not always a radical, about-face experience. Children from a Christian home who have been associated with the Bible, prayer, and the church since infancy make a momentous decision when they receive Jesus as their Savior, but they are not likely to experience a radical change in either outlook or behavior. On the contrary, people converted to Christ from militant atheism or passionate devotion to another religion step into a situation never anticipated. They find themselves with a brandnew outlook on life. They may have to make new friends because most of their relatives and former companions will either oppose or abandon them. And they will have to give up practices that have long been a part of their very existence.
This is what took place when people in Thessalonica turned to Jesus. The Jews and God-fearing Greeks, who according to Acts 17:4 were among the first converts, had undoubtedly been warned about a new religion which, by honoring Jesus Christ as God, denied the monotheism they held so dear. Yet, when they heard Paul and his companions and sensed the presence of the supernatural in their ministry, they could not help but believe their message, a message that came “not . . . in word only, but also in power, and in the Holy Spirit and in much assurance” (1 Th. 1:5). Their conversion was an emotional experience because it was accompanied by immediate opposition on the one hand and supernatural joy on the other. They “received the word in much affliction, with joy of the Holy Spirit” (1 Th. 1:6).
The joy they experienced must have so outweighed their distress at being persecuted that they immediately shared the good news with all who would listen. It appears that many pagans turned to the Lord. They must have far outnumbered the converts from Judaism because Paul referred to the Thessalonians as having “turned to God from idols” (1 Th. 1:9). This involved a tremendous change in lifestyle. The mystery religions offered exciting festivals, mystic cleansing rites, ecstatic tongues-speaking, and ambiguous oracles that purportedly came from the gods. These observances and practices were a major part of their lives. Turning to Jesus Christ from this kind of religious system, which was so intricately woven into the fabric of Greek society, was such a radical step that only those ready for full commitment to Jesus Christ would take it.
It is not surprising, then, that they were so zealous in their devotion to Jesus that Paul expressed his gratitude for their “work of faith, labor of love, and patience of hope” (1 Th. 1:3). Their faith moved them to work for Jesus. Their love expressed itself in selfsacrificing toil. Their hope, which gave them patience in the face of severe opposition, also developed in them a passionate longing for Jesus.
Their Difficult Circumstances. A second factor that contributed to their intense longing for Christ’s return was their persecution. It came from both pagan Greeks (“your own countrymen”—1 Th. 2:14) and from unbelieving Jews (“who killed both the Lord Jesus and their own prophets”—1 Th. 2:15-16). The exact nature of the opposition is not stated. It may have been persecution by the local government, though undoubtedly not under official sanction from Rome. Perhaps it consisted largely of harassment by former friends, discrimination in the marketplace, and even violence that went unnoticed by the magistrates. When we read 2 Thessalonians 2:1-2, we discover that the opposition was so severe that some believers saw it as a sign they had entered the frightening endtime period of tribulation called the “day of the Lord” by the Old Testament prophets.
In addition to personal persecution, the believers in Thessalonica were bombarded by slanderous charges against Paul and his co-workers. These attacks on the evangelists were a real trial for these new believers. Since the favorable impression Paul and his companions made on them had been a factor in their conversion, their faith in Jesus was closely bound up with their confidence in the integrity of these men. Realizing this, the apostle took great pains to remind these new believers of what he and his co-workers were like when they were with them.
To refute any charge that he and his associates were religious impostors, Paul referred to the evidence of God’s presence and power that made their ministry so effective (1 Th. 1:5-7; 2:1).
To refute any charge that they were insincere, Paul pointed out that they were bold in the face of persecution and spoke honestly as before God, with no attempt to gain favor with them through flattery or to win them through trickery (1 Th. 2:2-5).
To refute any charge that he was power hungry, Paul recalled for them the fact that he worked to support himself and was as gentle among them as a mother is with her child (1 Th. 2:6-9).
To refute any charge that he was uncaring, Paul reminded them of the way he worked among them, making himself available to them night and day. He told them of his longing to see them, explained how his concern for them had led him to send Timothy to visit them, and recounted how he had rejoiced when Timothy returned with good news about their spiritual progress (1 Th. 2:10–3:10).
These reminders undoubtedly reinvigorated these believers’ confidence in Paul and his companions. But the hurt they felt at the thought of the injustice done to these servants of God probably intensified their longing for the day when Jesus would return to vindicate and reward His suffering people. And there was nothing wrong with that!
A Comforting Hope (1 Th. 3:11-13). Christians who live in pleasant circumstances do not normally have a passionate longing for Christ’s return. We may yearn for it when overwhelmed by pain, sorrow, or disappointment, but once life is back to normal we are quite happy to remain on planet earth. The deeply sensitive among us may long for the return of Jesus when distressed by all the suffering caused by injustice, war, crime, and moral perversity, knowing that these evils will end only when Jesus rules over the earth as her King.
This desire for the Lord’s return may also surface when, distressed by our continuing struggle against indwelling sin, we echo the words of Paul, “O wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? I thank God—through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (Rom. 7:24-25). Even then, t his l onging for the sinlessness of heaven is counterbalanced by a reluctance to leave loved ones and friends. Need we feel guilty about this ambivalence?
Paul’s prayer in 1 Thessalonians 3:11-13 is not a petition that we have a passionate, almost impatient desire for the immediate return of the Savior. His prayer is that we may grow in love and be strengthened inwardly so that we will be “blameless in holiness before our God and Father at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ with all His saints” (v.13).
A lively 13-year-old Christian girl once asked me if it was wrong for her to be more captivated by thoughts of romance, marriage, and motherhood than the return of Jesus. I assured her that God was not displeased with her for being a normal young person. I said that He didn’t expect her to be so focused on Christ’s return—which could occur today but may not take place in the next hundred years—that she had to deny her normal and legitimate human desires. But I reminded her of her responsibility to be aware that He is coming back and to live in such a way that she will not be ashamed to meet Him. Before she left me to join her friends, I assured her that if the Lord returned before she has a chance for adult life, she will find heaven so wonderful that she will not feel in the least that she was cheated out of some happiness.
Waiting expectantly may or may not be a passionate longing that the Lord’s return take place immediately. But the prospect of it should always be a source of joy, and the day-by-day expectation of it should always be a purifying hope.
• In Paul’s early references to God as Father (1:1,3), we are reminded of His parental concern for His children.
• In Paul’s declaration to the Thessalonians that the way they turned to the Lord was proof of their having been chosen for salvation, we see His sovereignty.
• In God’s supernatural accompaniment of Paul and his associates, we see His active involvement in the salvation of those He has chosen.
• In the Lord’s empowering of the ministry of Paul and his helpers, we see that without His enablement we could never have been saved.
• In the devotion of the persecuted Thessalonian believers, we see why suffering is often good for us.
• In Paul’s life, we see an example of what we can be by God’s grace.