Already, Jesus is “rescuing” his people from the coming “wrath” that will befall the unrighteous when he arrives – 1 Thessalonians 1:10.
From its inception, the congregation at Thessalonica had experienced hostility. Out of concern for their welfare, Paul sent Timothy to determine how the church was faring under persecution. His letter to the Thessalonians begins with his thankfulness for their perseverance, and then he reassures them that Jesus will rescue his people from a far worse fate than any present “tribulation.”
After the opening salutations, Paul reiterated how the assembly had welcomed him and turned from “idols to serve the true God.” The reference to idolatry suggests the church consisted primarily of Gentile converts:
- (1 Thessalonians 1:6-10) – “And you became imitators of us, and of the Lord, giving welcome to the word in much tribulation, with joy of Holy Spirit; so that you became an ensample to all who were coming to the faith in Macedonia and in Achaia. From you, in fact, has sounded forth the word of the Lord, not only m Macedonia and in Achaia, but in every place your faith which is toward God has 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 to you, and how you turned to 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 rescuing us out of the coming wrath.”
In this section, Paul anticipates the subjects to be discussed in the remainder of the letter, including the persecution of believers, the basis for Christian hope, the “coming” of Jesus, and the impending “wrath.”
Nowhere does he provide any chronological information or sequence of events related to the coming of Jesus. Instead, he describes how the life orientation of believers has been altered since their conversion. Rather than serve dead idols, they now serve the “true and living God.” And rather than a comfortable life in Thessalonica, they began to experience pressure from hostile neighbors.
Paul uses two infinitive clauses to express how disciples must live. First, they must turn from idols “to serve a living and true God”; and second, they are now “to await his Son from heaven.”
The Son of God will “arrive from heaven.” This subject developed further in the letter. On the final day, Jesus will “descend from heaven with a shout” to gather his followers, and he is the son of “the living and true God,” not another dead idol or false god. And he is the one whom this living “God raised from the dead” – (Compare 1 Thessalonians 4:13-17).
And Jesus is “rescuing” his disciples even now. This translates the Greek present tense participle for “rescue, deliver, save” (rhuomai – Strong’s – #G4506), and the present tense signifies an action in progress. While Paul has a future event in view, even now, Jesus is in the process of rescuing his people.
And he is rescuing his people from “wrath.” What this “wrath” consists of is not stated. It has a definite article in the Greek clause, that is, it is “the wrath,” indicating a specific and known event, and not “wrath” in general or an attribute of God. It will be an event characterized by wrath.
Even now, the “wrath” is “coming.” Just as Jesus is now “rescuing” his people, for others, “wrath” is “coming.” The two present tense participles contrast the two processes – rescue for some, wrath for others. Both will be consummated at his “arrival.” His death and resurrection set both events in motion, and both are linked to the same future “arrival” of Jesus.
In describing these impending events, Paul uses language from the book of Isaiah associated with the “Day of the Lord”:
- (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.”
In his second letter to the Thessalonians, Paul discusses the “Day of the Lord” in detail. His allusion to Isaiah is typical of how he applies passages from the Hebrew Bible to the churches of Jesus Christ. Believers must not be dismayed by persecution. That day will bring wrath upon the unrepentant, but it will also mean rescue for those who wait patiently for him.
Paul did not promise deliverance from suffering in this life. The Thessalonians received the gospel “in much tribulation.” “Wrath,” on the other hand, is something reserved for rebellious men who do not heed the gospel, and it will be consummated when Jesus arrives.