Working Faith (1 Thessalonians 1:1–4:8)
In light of the problems with work that will emerge later in the epistles, it is interesting that Paul begins by remembering the Thessalonians’ “work of faith, and labor of love, and perseverance of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Thess. 1:3). Paul writes his letters carefully and, if nothing else, this opening serves to introduce the vocabulary of labor into his discussion. The verse reminds us that faith is not simply mental assent to the propositions of the gospel. It takes work. It is the total life response to the commands and promises of the God who renews us and empowers us through his Spirit. The Thessalonians are apparently responding well in their daily lives of faith, though they need encouragement to keep living lives of moral purity (1 Thess. 4:1–8).
The question of work emerges directly again in chapter 2, when Paul reminds the Thessalonians that he and his friends worked night and day so that they would not be a burden to them (1 Thess. 2:9). Paul says this so that the Thessalonians will be certain how much Paul cares for them, despite his physical absence from them. But it may also serve as a rebuke to members of the congregation who might have been sponging off of the generosity of fellow believers. If anyone had a right to receive from the Thessalonians, it was Paul, whose hard work had mediated the new life of Christ to them in the first place. But Paul took no money from the Thessalonians in compensation. Instead, he labored hard as a tradesman as an expression of his concern for them.
Finishing Up (1 Thessalonians 4:13–5:28)
Paul goes on to console the Thessalonians about those in their community who have died. They are not dead but only sleeping, because Jesus will awaken them on the last day (1 Thess. 4:13–18). They don’t need to worry about when that day will come, because that is in the Lord’s hands. Their only concern should be to keep walking in the light, remaining faithful and hopeful in the midst of a dark world (1 Thess. 5:11). Among other things, this means that they are to respect those who work (1 Thess. 5:12–13; the reference may be to the “work” of instructing people in the faith, but it could equally be workers in general, in distinction from the idlers) and to rebuke the slackers among them (1 Thess. 5:14). The promise of eternal life is more reason—not less—for working hard in this life. This is so because the good we do lasts forever, because “we belong to the day” of Christ’s redemption, rather than to the night of oblivion (1 Thess. 5:4–8). Each day gives us an opportunity to “do good to one another and to all” (1 Thess. 5:15).
Keeping the Faith (2 Thessalonians 1:1–2:17)
As 2 Thessalonians opens, we learn that Paul is still happy that the Thessalonians are maintaining their faith in a difficult environment, and he encourages them that Jesus will return to set all things right (2 Thess. 1:1–12). But some of them are worried that the Day of the Lord has already come and that they have missed it. Paul lets them know that the day has not come, and in fact it will not come until Satan makes one last grand attempt to deceive the world through “the lawless one” (presumably the figure we commonly call “the Antichrist”; 2 Thess. 2:8). They should take heart: God will judge Satan and his minions, but bring eternal blessing to his beloved children (2 Thess. 2:9–17).