1 Thessalonians is like a training manual for a young church. So far, we have thought about the impact of the gospel, giving ourselves to build up the body of Christ and praying for each other to thrive spiritually. Chapter 4 is like a catalogue of Christian truth-hacks – things that will help people to thrive in a challenging world. As pastors and preachers, we need to know these truths and share them with our churches:
1. They can know God’s will. Bruce Waltke made a fascinating point in his book about guidance. He says that divine guidance is often treated as a bit of a conundrum. However, he points out that in the ancient world, pagan religions were obsessed with finding some sort of guidance from the higher realm. They would diligently study the ashes, entrails, or whatever other indication they could find in order to get a hint from beyond this world. Sometimes Christians act like we are in an ancient superstitious religion trying to make something out of nothing. In reality, we have an entire collection of books inspired by God. In some churches the Bible is subtly (or not so subtly) pushed aside in favour of some kind of speculative new revelation and guidance from God. People engage in a game of celestial hide and seek with a God who is never easy to pin down. And yet, we have the Bible. Properly read, it will not tell you which specific college to attend or person to marry. But it will tell you the kind of wisdom needed to make such decisions. It will reveal God’s values so that as you know him more and more, you can better reflect his values in the decisions you make. And in chapter 4 of 1 Thessalonians, it does underline something that should be self-evident if you have spent time in God’s Word – his will for you is your sanctification. You do not have to wrestle with whether or not God wants you to succeed in your sinful scheme. He does not. And if your goal is to please Him, then you already have the Spirit of God, so live holy.
2. They can know a human shortcut for decision-making. There is always complexity in making decisions, but sometimes the Bible gives us some simplicity too. For the Thessalonians, they were loving one another, and they simply needed urging to do so more and more (see 1Thess.4:9-12). It is a bit like Colossians 3:12-14, where Paul gives a list of instructions and then says, “above all these, put on love, which binds them together in perfect harmony.” They should live in such a way that they are not making an unnecessary show of themselves, or being an unnecessary burden on others, or giving an unhelpful testimony to outsiders. Do the loving thing. I know there is complexity in that, but let’s be thankful for the simplicity too!
3. They can know encouragement in the face of death. This young church was introduced to the hope of Christ’s return during Paul’s brief visit to their town. Bizarrely, we live in a time when secular reporters and political leaders might use the language of “disasters on a biblical scale,” “Armageddon,” “apocalyptic,” etc.. Yet, the church can be eerily quiet on our subject of eschatology. The Thessalonians were not concerned with sinister global plots. They were concerned because some of their fellow believers had died. When death hits a congregation, the focus is understandably localised. Did those who had died miss out on Christ’s return? Paul wrote to encourage them, and to encourage them to encourage one another. That’s what a biblical understanding of the end times will do for a church – it will stir hope and a heavenward, Christ-ward gaze. Death is brimming with the pain of separation. But we have a hope that answers that pain. Those who have died will be brought “together with” Jesus when he comes (v14). When Christ calls, we will be caught up “together with them” in the clouds. Together, our forever state will be “together with the Lord” (v17). Death, for believers, stirs anticipation of being together! As death becomes a more prominent feature of your congregation’s experience in the coming years, let’s encourage one another with these words (v18).