SYNOPSIS – Jesus is “rescuing” his people from the future “wrath” to be unleashed on the Day of the Lord against every man who does not repent – 1 Thessalonians 1:9-10.
Opposition to the new faith had forced Paul to leave Thessalonica before his work there was finished. Segments of the local population were pressuring the young congregation to the point he was forced to leave the region. He later attempted to return but was thwarted “by Satan” – (1 Thessalonians 1:6, 2:14-18, Acts 17:1-8).
Because of anxieties about the congregation, Paul sent Timothy to investigate matters. His first letter to the Thessalonians is his thankful response for the good news he received from Timothy – The church had remained faithful – (1 Thessalonians 3:5-7).
The passage found after the opening salutation of the letter concludes its opening section in which Paul reiterates how the assembly had welcomed him and turned from idolatry to serve the true God. The reference to idolatry suggests a largely Gentile congregation:
(1 Thessalonians 1:6-10) – “And ye became imitators of us, and of the Lord, giving welcome unto the word in much tribulation, with joy of Holy Spirit; So that ye became an ensample unto all who were coming to the faith in Macedonia and in Achaia: From you, in fact, hath sounded forth the word of the Lord — not only m Macedonia and in Achaia, but in every place your faith which is toward God hath gone forth, so that no need have we to be saying anything; For they themselves concerning us do tell — what manner of entrance we had unto you, and how ye turned unto God from the idols — to be serving a living and true God, And awaiting his Son out of the heavens —whom he raised from among the dead — Jesus: Who is to rescue us out of the anger that is coming” (The Emphasized Bible).
The Thessalonian Christians became imitators of Paul, having “welcomed the word in much tribulation,” along with joy in the Spirit. In this way, they became examples to all their fellow believers in the provinces of Macedonia and Achaia. This was evident in how they “turned to God from idols.” Ever since conversion, the members of the congregation had been waiting for “God’s Son from heaven, the one who is rescuing us from the coming wrath.”
In this opening section, Paul anticipates the subjects he will elaborate in the remainder of the letter. These include the tribulations of believers, the basis of Christian hope, the “coming” of Jesus, and the impending “wrath” – “Wrath” had already come upon some of the disobedient Jews in Judea, and would overwhelm the unprepared and disobedient when Jesus arrived “like a thief in the night.”
Neither in the letter nor in its opening section does the Apostle provide any chronology or sequence of future events that must precede the coming of Jesus. Rather, he describes how the life-orientation of believers had been altered since their conversion (“You turned away from…”). Instead of serving dead idols, they were now serving the “true and living God.”
Rather than a comfortable life in the city of Thessalonica, they had begun to experience pressure from their neighbors.
Paul uses two infinitive clauses to express how a disciple is to live in light of his or her conversion. First, turn from idols “to serve a living and true God”; second, “to await his Son from heaven.”The Son of God will “arrive from heaven.” This statement anticipates a subject taken up later in the letter (1 Thessalonians 4:16).
One day, Jesus will “descend from heaven with a shout.” The one for whom the faithful are eagerly waiting is the son of “the living and true God,” not another dead idol or false god.
The one coming “from heaven,” Jesus, is the same man “God raised from the dead.” Thus, Paul grounds his future hope and the return of Jesus in his past resurrection. Likewise, in the fourth chapter of the letter, he bases the promise of the future resurrection of dead Christians on the earlier resurrection of Jesus (“For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep” – 1 Thessalonians 4:13-17).
Jesus is the “one who is rescuing” us. This translates a Greek present tense participle that means, “rescue, deliver, save” (rhuomai – Strong’s #G4506). The present tense signifies an action in progress. While Paul has a future event in view, the present tense stresses that, already, Jesus is in the process of rescuing his people.
What he is rescuing his people from is “wrath” or orgê (Strong’s – #G3709). What this “wrath” consists of is not stated. It has a definite article in the Greek clause, that is, it is “the wrath.” This points to something known, a specific event, not to wrath in general or to an attribute of God. It is an event characterized by wrath.
This wrath is in the process of “coming.” Just as Jesus is now “rescuing” his people, so for others, even now, “wrath” is “coming.” The two present tense participles contrast the two processes – Rescue for some, and wrath for others. Both will be consummated at the “arrival” of the Son of God.
His Death and Resurrection have set two things in motion – A coming “rescue” for some, and impending “wrath” for others. He will arrive to rescue Christians who have remained faithful through persecution and other “tribulations.” Both deliverance and wrath are linked to the same final event, the “arrival” Jesus “from heaven.” In describing this, Paul uses language from four Old Testament passages associated with the “Day of the Lord“:
- (Isaiah 2:17-20) – “And the haughtiness of man shall be humbled, and the pride of men shall be brought low; and Yahweh alone will be exalted in that day. And the idols shall utterly pass away. And men shall enter the caves of the rocks and the holes of the ground, from before the terror of Yahweh, and from the glory of his majesty, when he rises to terrify the earth. In that day, men will cast forth their idols of silver and their idols of gold, which they made for themselves to worship, to the moles and to the bats.”
- (Jeremiah 10:10) – “But Yahweh is God in truth, He is a God that lives, and a King of times everlasting; at his anger the earth shakes, and the nations cannot endure his wrath.”
- (Isaiah 59:18-20) – “According to their deeds, so Yahweh will repay, wrath to his adversaries, recompense to his enemies; to the coastlands he will make recompense. So, they will fear the name of Yahweh from the west and his glory from the rising of the sun, for he will come like a rushing stream, which the wind of Yahweh drives. And a rescuer will come to Zion, and to those who turn from transgression in Jacob, declares Yahweh.”
- (Isaiah 25:9) – “So shall it be said in that day. Lo, our God is this! We waited for him that he might rescue us. This is Yahweh! We waited for him, let us exult and rejoice in his salvation.”
“Turning away from idols” alludes to Isaiah 2:17-20, a passage “concerning Judah and Jerusalem…in the after part of the days” (Isaiah 2:2). At that time, the “mountain of the house of Yahweh will be set up and exalted” and all the nations will “stream into it”; and Yahweh “will judge between the nations.” Therefore, Israel must “come and walk in the light of Yahweh,” though the “land was filled with idols.” But on that day, the “idols will utterly pass away.” Men will hide “before the terror of Yahweh” when “he rises to terrify the earth” and they will discard their idols.
The verbal allusion to Jeremiah 10:10 serves a similar purpose. Israel is not to be “dismayed at the signs of the heavens…Yahweh is God in truth…at his wrath, the earthquakes, and nations cannot endure it.” Likewise, the Thessalonians must not be dismayed by tribulations and shakings. While the “Day of the Lord” will bring wrath upon the unrepentant, it also means rescue for the righteous.
The passage from Isaiah 59:20 is linked to the words of Paul by the common theme of “rescue” (“A rescuer will come to Zion, and to those who turn from transgression in Jacob”). Yahweh will “repay wrath to his adversaries” but, also, He will deliver all who “turn away from transgression.” Finally, Isaiah 25:9 introduces the idea of God’s people “waiting” for deliverance on the “Day of the Lord” (“We waited for him that he might rescue us”).
Paul’s opening words of encouragement echo these Old Testament passages. The Thessalonian Christians have turned from idols to serve a “living and true God.” Consequently, and considering the coming wrath, they are “to await his Son from heaven.” Thus, the arrival of Jesus from heaven will mean “wrath” for some, but “rescue” for others.
The Apostle did not promise believers deliverance from tribulation and persecution. They received the gospel “in much tribulation.” “Wrath,” on the other hand, is something reserved for disobedient men and women who do not heed the Gospel. That wrath will be actualized on the “day of the Lord” when Jesus arrives from heaven, an event that will mean vindication for some, condemnation for others.