Preachers are encouraged not to tarry on Paul’s salvation in verse 1 or even the charitable remarks in verses 2-3. This is because what follows from verses 4 and 5 is nothing less than a profound commentary on the heart of God manifest in His efficacious Word to save and sanctify. Yes, yes, there are salutary things to be said about the Thessalonian zeal and singular devotion to the one and only true God in verses 6-9 as a result of having been transformed by the Gospel and the gift of the Holy Spirit. But take your auditors to verse 10 to see how not only the cross but also the empty tomb completes our justification.
“If Christ has not been raised,” Paul tells us in 1 Corinthians 15:17, “your faith is futile; you are still in your sins.” Paul makes a very distinct and surprising point: There is no forgiveness of sins without (check this out) the resurrection of Jesus. 1 Thessalonians 1:10 brings the pericope before us to this exact crescendo: It was Jesus God the Father raised from the dead, the same Jesus who delivers us from the wrath to come.
While the cross expiates sins (i.e., removes or washes them away forever), it turns out it is the empty tomb that justifies the expiated before God. In fact, Paul puts it this way in Romans 4:25, “Jesus was delivered over to death for our sins and raised to life for our justification.” The great doctrine of justification rests not only on the cross, but also in the resurrection.
The great doctrine of justification rests not only on the cross, but also in the resurrection.
But this presents a problem. The blood atonement of Jesus on the cross expiates sins and the crucifixion of the Son of God fulfills the Day of Atonement. This is how we usually think of the cross, namely as the atonement. The shed blood of Jesus atones for sins, washing them away and removing guilt forever. His atonement not only expiated but it also propitiated God’s wrath. It made God propitious toward sinners. However, here comes Paul saying Jesus was raised to life for our justification, that our deliverance is found in the resurrection of the Son of God. At first this strikes us as a problem because, according to Paul’s own teaching, like in Romans 5:9, it is the death of Christ (not the resurrection) that is the basis for God’s justifying sinners, looking to the Day of Atonement to articulate and illustrate the basis of salvation. Even Romans 3:24 says it: We are, “…justified freely by His grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.”
Yet something is missing from the picture. The sacrificial animal in Leviticus 16 does not come back to life. There is nothing in the Day of Atonement which connects with the resurrection. It turns out we would be making a critical mistake if we thought of our redemption, our justification, strictly in terms of the Cross and the Cross only, if our only understanding of what Jesus accomplished was the Day of Atonement.
So, Paul reaches elsewhere to give a fuller, more robust, and complete understanding of our justification. The Day of Atonement is good, but the story of the Passover is even better. And it is to the Exodus account of the Passover that Paul goes to set forth for us the doctrine of justification in all its substitutionary necessity and resurrection glory. The Passover is about deliverance even more so than the Day of Atonement and, unlike the Day of Atonement, the Passover is about resurrection life – about new life.
The Day of Atonement is good, but the story of the Passover is even better.
The key to the Passover text comes in Exodus 12, the death of every firstborn in Egypt, including Pharaoh’s son and every first born of the Jews, unless one provision was obtained:
“The Lord said to Moses and Aaron in the land of Egypt… ‘Tell all the congregation of Israel that on the tenth day of this month every man shall take a lamb according to their fathers’ houses, a lamb for a household… Your lamb shall be without blemish, a male a year old… and you shall keep it until the fourteenth day of this month, when the whole assembly of the congregation of Israel shall kill their lambs at twilight… Then they shall take some of the blood and put it on the two doorposts and the lintel of the houses in which they eat it… It is the Lord’s Passover. For I will pass through the land of Egypt on that night, and I will strike all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, both man and beast; and on all the gods of Egypt I will execute judgments: I am the Lord. The blood shall be a sign for you, on the houses where you are. And when I see the blood, I will pass over you, and no plague, no judgment of death will befall you to destroy you, when I strike the land of Egypt.’”
It is this narrative of the Passover that Paul reaches to when he says how if Christ is not raised, our faith is worthless. Paul was not the only apostle articulating deliverance through the Passover. John’s Gospel also presents Jesus’ death as a fulfillment of Passover by specifying His death occurred at the same time as the slaying of the Passover lambs. John wants us to see Jesus as the Passover lamb. Indeed, it is in light of the Passover connection that the apostle John records the words of John the Baptist, declaring: “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (1:29; cf. 19:36).
The early Church saw exactly what John and Paul were saying about Jesus being the Passover Lamb. The very word the Church Fathers used for Easter was Pascha – the Greek word for Passover. They are all saying the same thing: Passover is the story that lets us interpret the full meaning of Christ’s death and resurrection. All humanity is captive to sin and the Devil, who is our Pharaoh. Christ is the sacrificed Paschal lamb whose blood conquers death and by His resurrection He leads His people out of the Egypt of sin and death. Not only is there victory on the cross in the defeat of our enemies, but there is also a deliverance from death into life. The resurrection is the delivering. It is the translating from death to life. It is our entry into the new Jerusalem. It is our gateway into the Kingdom of Grace. Remember what was done with the blood of the Passover lamb, it was smeared over the door posts of the house. The Passover lamb delivered the people from death, from the plague of death. The cross does not properly do that because it is the instrument of death. Rather, being delivered from death is our new life – the resurrection life. Through the Passover lens, we see how the Cross saves by conquering sin’s power and that old pharaoh, Satan, and the resurrection saves by delivering from the plague of death into freedom in Christ’s Kingdom – the Promise Land of God.
Concordia Theology-Various helps from Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, MO to assist you in I Thessalonians 1:1-10.
Text Week-A treasury of resources from various traditions to help you preach I Thessalonians 1:1-10.