We are on the cusp of the end of the Church calendar, culminating in the Sunday of the Fulfillment: Christ the King Sunday. So, it is fitting the lectionary focuses the proclamation on what happens at the end of the story, indeed, the end of each of our individual stories and that of the Church as a whole. And what happens is that it is not the end of the story. There is resurrection of the body, our ultimate and final salvation.
These verses (1 Thessalonians 5:1-11) are closely linked to 4:13-18. Both offer reassurance concerning the fate of Christians at the last coming of the Lord. 5:9-10 alludes back to 4:13-18.
At some point Timothy reported to the Apostle that generally the church community was doing well. Except, there was confusion and an element of fear which needed to be addressed by a clear understanding of the implications of the Gospel. Some members of the parish or parishes of Thessalonica had succumbed to death (whether by accident or natural causes did not matter, it was the fact that deaths were occurring after the fact of Christ’s resurrection). Because they were not fully informed about what would happen to deceased Christians at Christ’s promised return (3:10; 4:13), there was a fearful rumor or surmising circulating which espousing that those who died would miss out on the second coming. In a word, it was too late for them. They would not participate in the Resurrection and, therefore, the life to come. For the remaining believers, the implications were unbearable, and a spirit of hopelessness had overcome them concerning their lost loved ones (4:13). The preacher here has great liberty to proclaim the wages of sin, the Law, and inevitable, unescapable death to his auditors.
The preacher here has great liberty to proclaim the wages of sin, the Law, and inevitable, unescapable death to his auditors.
Then Paul preaches the Gospel. This is where gospel comfort looms large in this text. There is life after death and, more gloriously, there is life after life after death, the resurrection of the body.
Coupled with this concern in our pericope, Timothy related to Paul a Thessalonian question about the timing of the Day of the Lord (5:1-2). The Day of the Lord is a phrase arising from the Prophets (see the commentary for this Sunday on Zephaniah) and refers to the great and terrible day when Yahweh will intervene to punish the disobedient (e.g., Isaiah 13:6-16; Joel 1:13-15; 2:1-11; Obadiah 15-20; Malachi 4:5) and see the faithful to the uttermost, culminating in the resurrection transformation of the body. It is unlikely this question emerges from a disillusionment in tarrying for the Lord’s return, as so many scholars opine. Rather, from the text itself and Paul’s repeated assurances in 5:4-5, 9, along with the lack of threat or warning in 5:1-11, there is a different underlying concern. It comes out in Paul’s reassurances that the baptized Thessalonians were destined according to God’s promises in Christ for salvation, not wrath, on the Day of the Lord. They were saved, they were being saved, and they would be saved. Trust in the Lord. This is what faith does. Faith trusts that the Lord is as His Word and His Word is as His person and nature.
Again, their question about timing was not one principally or entirely concerned with preparedness (although, one could not but think this was some sort of concern, since the Holy Spirit also sanctifies us through the Word and Sacraments), but rather 4:4-8 suggests they were not concerned enough about holy living. One may surmise these young Christians were questioning their own final salvation and vindication in view of the recent unexpected deaths (4:13). The Thessalonians may have even wondered whether the deaths that occurred in their parish community were an expression of divine disproval. There is a hint of concern about potential damnation.
The baptized Thessalonians were destined according to God’s promises in Christ for salvation, not wrath, on the Day of the Lord.
However, there is no doubt the Thessalonians needed reassurance about those who had died (4:13-18; note the language here is about a specific and unwanted “death” not an ambiguous and nebulous “passing away”). But Paul does not stop there. He brings in the future of the surviving Thessalonians and sets it center stage. Salvation consists of redemption from judgment but also the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting so that, “…we might live with Him” (5:10). The result of this doctrine should be the same: “Encourage one another and build one another up, just as you are doing” (5:11).
Concordia Theology-Various helps from Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, MO to assist you in I Thessalonians 5:1-11.
Text Week-A treasury of resources from various traditions to help you preach I Thessalonians 5:1-11.