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.
Paul wrote two letters to the Thessalonian Christians, and 1 Thessalonians is generally considered to be the oldest book in the New Testament, perhaps as early as 51-52 AD. Much of the content is personal in nature, and its theology is not as developed as it is in some of his later writings. The Thessalonian church was one of the first Christian communities established by Paul, so these letters give us a window into the thoughts and concerns of some of the very first converts.
Thessalonians is also interesting in that it contains a couple of passages that are often lifted from context and applied in ways that I think Paul never intended. The concept of a “Rapture” where planes, trains, and automobiles will suddenly be left unmanned as all true Christians are snatched away to heaven at the second coming of Jesus is derived almost entirely from 1 Thessalonians 4:17: “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” A great deal of speculative fiction has been written about this event, most recently the “Left Behind” books and films. But when I read this sentence in its context. I don’t think that’s at all the point Paul was trying to communicate. Paul, along with most of the rest of the first Christians, expected Jesus to return within their own lifetimes. Some of those early followers had already died, and their bereaved families and friends wondered what would happen to them. If they weren’t there to welcome Jesus back, would they have a part in the coming messianic age? Paul wants to assure them that not even death can separate believers from the love of God. Not only would see their loved ones again, but they would join them in celebrating the reign of God “on earth as it is in heaven”.
The second Thessalonian passage that I think is often taken out of context and misused is Paul’s command in 2 Thessalonians 3:10: “Anyone unwilling to work should not eat.” Currently, this phrase is often used to in order to give religious justification to political belief systems which pit makers vs. takers and do not think tax dollars should be used to fund a social safety net. I think that application of the passage not only takes Paul’s words of advice out of context, but goes directly against the repeated thrust of Biblical teaching in the law, prophets, and gospels that we are indeed our brother’s keepers. Read in context and with the understanding that the early Christians expected an imminent return of Christ, I think it’s more likely that Paul meant to tell the Thessalonians: “Don’t quit your day job”. Fairly recently, a radio preacher named Harold Camping made several failed predictions which established the date of the end of the world. Some of his followers quit their jobs and sold their possessions because they thought their time and resources would be better spent getting that message out to as many people as possible. I think some of the Thessalonians, whom Paul calls “busybodies”, may have had the same mindset. It’s not about telling the poor they need to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps; it’s about promoting industry over idle self-indulgence, and that can be applied to the rich as well as the poor, the old as well as the young. What I understand Paul to be saying is that the best way to prepare for Christ’s return is to do what you can with the resources you have. Get busy doing something good!
Times are different now, but there’s still plenty of depressing stuff going on in the world. It’s so easy to get sucked into a soul-crushing black hole of hopelessness, anxiety, and despair that spirals inward into itself until there is nothing left. Paul’s words to the Thessalonians inspire me not to give up hope, for not even death has the final answer. There is much I cannot change, but I can, and should, do something. “Now may our Lord Jesus Christ himself and God our Father, who loved us and through grace gave us eternal comfort and good hope, comfort your hearts and strengthen them in every good work and word.”
And that’s good news to me!