Studies in Colossians and Thessalonians

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Date: Tuesday, September 28, 2021, 9:02 PM

1. Colossians 1:1-14 - Already in the Kingdom

Colossae was a small city in Asia Minor, not important for much of anything — it is known to us chiefly because the apostle Paul wrote a letter to the believers who lived there. The church was started by Epaphras, who had learned about Christ from Paul, so even though Paul hadn’t started the church, he felt a sense of responsibility for its health and growth.

Strange ideas were circulating in Colossae. False teachers were saying that knowing about Jesus was a good beginning, but that believers needed deeper wisdom and some new ascetic practices in order to reach their true potential. Epaphras had tried to set them straight, but Paul thought it would be helpful for him to assure the Colossians that the gospel they heard from Epaphras was indeed the complete gospel.

Address information (verses 1-2)

The letter begins by saying who wrote it: “Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, and Timothy our brother.” Greek letters didn’t normally name companions as co-authors, so it is likely that Timothy helped write this letter.

Next, the recipients are greeted: “To God’s holy people in Colossae, the faithful brothers and sisters in Christ: Grace and peace to you from God our Father.” Paul believes that they are faithful; he does not seem to think that they are in serious danger of apostasy — they just need some reassurance.

Prayer of gratitude (verses 3-12)

Greek letters often began with a prayer or blessing; Paul modifies this custom to tell the Colossians what he prays about. He praises them indirectly, giving God the credit for their faith and love: “We always thank God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, when we pray for you, because we have heard of your faith in Christ Jesus and of the love you have for all God’s people.”

Their growth comes from knowledge the gospel has given them: “The faith and love that spring from the hope stored up for you in heaven and about which you have already heard in the true message, the gospel that has come to you.” By the word “hope,” Paul is referring to the object of our hope — a heavenly reward. Christian life, including faith toward God and love toward others, is given a foundation by knowing that God gives us eternal life.

Paul reminds them that they are part of a growing movement: “The gospel is bearing fruit and growing throughout the whole world, just as it has been doing among you since the day you heard it and truly understood God’s grace.” He assures them that they have heard all the truth — they do not need any supplements or add-ons to bring them to a higher level of spirituality.

“You learned it from Epaphras, our dear fellow servant, who is a faithful minister of Christ on our behalf, and who also told us of your love in the Spirit.” Since Paul could not go everywhere, he trained people like Epaphras to be part of a missionary team that carried the gospel into outlying areas. He brought back news to Paul that the people in Colossae were responding to the gospel.

After this, Paul resumes the description of his prayers for the people: “For this reason, since the day we heard about you, we have not stopped praying for you. We continually ask God to fill you with the knowledge of his will through all the wisdom and understanding that the Spirit gives.” Paul did not wait for a crisis to pray for the people — as soon as he heard about their love, he started praying for their growth in wisdom. He did not need additional information — he wanted them to grow in their understanding of the message they had already received.

Why did he pray for this? Because he wanted to see their faith and love be evident in the way they lived: “so that you may live a life worthy of the Lord and please him in every way.” Paul then lists four ways in which believers might please God:

  1. “Bearing fruit in every good work,
  2. “growing in the knowledge of God,
  3. “being strengthened with all power according to his glorious might so that you may have great endurance and patience, and
  4. “giving joyful thanks to the Father.”

Paul wanted the believers to know God’s will so they would do good works, learn more about God, have strength to withstand difficulties, and remain thankful.

Already qualified (verses 13-14)

One reason to be thankful is that God has already “qualified you to share in the inheritance of his holy people in the kingdom of light.” We could not qualify on our own, but God did it for us. How did he do that? “He has rescued us from the dominion of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of the Son he loves, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.”

Our sins would disqualify us from the kingdom of light, but God, in Jesus, has forgiven our sins, so we are now qualified, and we are already in! Just as God redeemed the Israelites out of Egypt and gave them land as an inheritance, he redeemed or rescued us from the dominion of darkness and sin, and has given us our inheritance.

Things to think about

  • How often do I pray that others might grow in wisdom and knowledge? (v. 9)
  • Is it possible for people to live a life worthy of the Lord and do everything he wants? (v. 10)
  • Do I feel like I am in the kingdom of Christ? (v. 13)

Author: Michael Morrison, PhD, 2007, 2012

2. Colossians 1:15-28 - Christ the Creator and Redeemer

Christ is supreme (verses 15-23)

In a poetic passage, Paul then describes how great Christ is: “The Son is the image of the invisible God…” He shows us what God is like — not in physical characteristics, but in spiritual attributes such as love and righteousness. He is also “…the firstborn over all creation.” This does not refer to a birth or any other beginning in time. Rather, “firstborn” refers to a pre-eminent status.

Christ has this superiority because he is the Creator: “For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him.” Christians do not need to appease government officials or spirit beings; we are already approved by Christ, the highest of all powers.

Paul summarizes: “He is before all things, and in him all things hold together.” He sustains all that he has created.

After recounting Christ’s role with creation, Paul describes his role in redemption, the new creation: “He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead [the first to be raised from the realm of the dead], so that in everything he might have the supremacy.”

Paul again mentions that Jesus is a complete representation of the Father, and a complete Savior: “For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him [Jesus is fully divine],and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.”

Earlier, Paul used the metaphor of redemption. Here, he describes salvation as reconciliation, making peace between enemies. God achieved this peace by sending Jesus, who was not only fully divine, but also fully human — someone who could represent all creation in his atoning death on the cross. The Creator became part of creation in order to rescue us from our own sinfulness. In him we died, and in him we are raised to new life — life with God.

“Once you were alienated from God, Paul says, and were enemies in your minds because of your evil behavior.” Yes, our sins had separated us from God. “But now he has reconciled you by Christ’s physical body through death.”

Why? “To present you holy in his sight, without blemish and free from accusation.” The debt has been paid, the sin has been erased; there can be no accusation for those who trust in Christ Jesus (Rom. 8:133-34). When we appear before God, we are holy in Christ — fully qualified for his kingdom.

There is one requirement: “…if you continue in your faith, established and firm, and do not move from the hope held out in the gospel.” You are on the right boat, headed to the right destination. Don’t jump ship — this is the right ship. The ticket has been paid for, so you don’t need to work for it. Jesus has done all that needs to be done — he is the only one who could, and the only one who did.

“This is the gospel that you heard,” Paul assures the Colossians, “and that has been proclaimed to every creature under heaven, and of which I, Paul, have become a servant.” You have heard the real gospel, and you already know enough, Paul says — you do not need any secret, obscure information or any extra rituals. You are already in the kingdom of Christ. It’s good news!

Paul’s work for the church (verses 24-29)

After Paul mentions that he is a servant of the gospel, he reflects on the fact that his ministry is rewarded not with wealth, but with persecution. (Col. 4:2 indicates that he is writing from prison.) But he sees a positive role for his troubles: “Now I rejoice in what I am suffering for you, and I fill up in my flesh what is still lacking in regard to Christ’s afflictions, for the sake of his body, which is the church.”

There was nothing lacking in Christ’s afflictions — what he did was fully sufficient for our salvation. What is lacking, from Paul’s perspective, is that Paul has not experienced nearly as many afflictions as his Lord did. So in his sufferings he is filling up this deficiency, and he is glad to do it, because he is suffering for serving Christ, for helping the church grow.

He serves Christ by working for his body, the church: “I have become its servant by the commission God gave me to present to you the word of God in its fullness.” Here Paul again mentions that the Colossians have the complete gospel. He describes the message as “the mystery that has been kept hidden for ages and generations, but is now disclosed to the Lord’s people.” It’s not a mystery anymore — it is revealed.

“God has chosen to make known among the Gentiles the glorious riches of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory.” Paul, the apostle to the Gentiles, is doing his best to help everyone hear the message: Christ is in you, and he is our assurance of glory. In him we have forgiveness, redemption, and reconciliation with God. By being joined to him, we are transferred into his kingdom, and there is laid up for us in heaven a great reward.

“He [Christ] is the one we proclaim, admonishing and teaching everyone with all wisdom, so that we may present everyone fully mature in Christ.” There is no secret part of the message, or additional levels of initiation, as many Greek religions had. No, Paul is proclaiming the full gospel, enough to bring everyone to complete glory. Christ is all they need to know.

“To this end I strenuously contend with all the energy Christ so powerfully works in me” (v. 29). Just as he gave God thanks for the faith and love of the Colossians, here he gives Christ credit for all the work that he is doing. Just as creation was done by, through, and for Christ, the new creation is being done by him, through him, and for him, too.

Things to think about

  • Is Christ supreme in my life and thought? (v. 18)
  • When I was alienated from God, did I feel alienated? (v. 21)
  • What supplements do people try to put on the gospel today?
  • Have I suffered in letting people in on the secret of Jesus? (v. 24)

Author: Michael Morrison, PhD

3. Colossians 2:1-5 - All Wisdom and Knowledge

In Colossians 1, Paul prays for the readers’ wisdom, understanding, and Christian life (1:9-14). He reminds them of how great Christ is, and that they have been reconciled to God through Christ. Paul is working hard to teach everyone about Christ. At the end of Colossians 1, Paul explains that he struggles to teach believers so they can be complete in Christ (1:28). Our goal is in Christ, and is not found in any other message. Paul continues this theme in chapter 2 and explains the power behind our salvation and transformation.

Source of all truth

Paul moves from general principles to mention his readers: “I want you to know how much I am struggling for you, and for those in Laodicea, and for all who have not seen me face to face” (2:1, NRSV in this chapter). Colosse and Laodicea were 11 miles apart, and Paul wanted this letter to be read in Laodicea, too (4:16). As Paul’s missionary co-workers spread the gospel in this area, Paul wanted to help the new Christians be well grounded in their beliefs so they would not fall for some counterfeit message.

“I want their hearts to be encouraged and united in love, so that they may have all the riches of assured understanding and have the knowledge of God’s mystery, that is, Christ himself” (2:2).

Greek “mystery religions” were popular in the first century, offering special rituals and passwords to advance to different levels in the spiritual world. Apparently the Colossian Christians wanted to understand mysteries, to have wisdom and knowledge — but they were so eager to have special teachings that they were listening to false teachings.

Paul uses the terminology of “mystery” but reverses it, because the “mystery” of Christ had been fully revealed. Paul gives the complete message — there is no second or third level. When we are united with Christ, we are united with the highest possible level. We are already in the palace and do not need to buy a ticket to a train station that is only halfway there.

Paul’s sufferings and labors (2:1) were evidence that he was teaching not for his own benefit, but to benefit others. He is the one who had the true wisdom and the true understanding of the mysteries of Christ.

In Christ “are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge” (2:3). Other religions might have part of the truth, but Christ has it all. We don’t need speculations about intermediate levels of spiritual power — what we need is a better understanding of Christ. Paul wants to focus his readers on Christ.

“I am saying this so that no one may deceive you with plausible arguments” (2:4). The religious competition might sound sophisticated or well-educated, but Paul wants his readers to remain faithful to Christ — and he is confident that they will: “For though I am absent in body, yet I am with you in spirit, and I rejoice to see your morale and the firmness of your faith in Christ” (2:5).

Something to think about

  • How much do we need to know about Christ in order to be saved? (v. 3)

Author: Michael Morrison, PhD

4. Colossians 2:6-19 - Victory on the Cross

The believers in Colossae are doing quite well, but Paul wants to help them resist not only bizarre teachings, but also those that subtly deviate from the simplicity that is in Christ.

“As you therefore have received Christ Jesus the Lord, continue to live your lives in him, rooted and built up in him and established in the faith, just as you were taught, abounding in thanksgiving” (2:6-7). Epaphras had already given them the full gospel message (1:7). There are no additional secrets to learn — all they need is to better understand the message they already received, continue in it, and to be thankful for what God has given us in Christ!Christianity is not a search for the mysterious and the exotic — it is a simple faith in a Savior who died for us. It does not need to be complicated with extra ideas.

Fullness in Christ

Paul warns them again: “See to it that no one takes you captive through philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the universe, and not according to Christ” (2:8).

The Colossians probably knew what Paul was talking about, but it is difficult for us to be sure. The ancient world had a wide variety of religious ideas and philosophies. Many of them offered special mysteries for the select few. Others were taught by traveling philosophers who tried to show how sensible and practical their ideas were.

In contrast to that, Paul taught salvation through a crucified man. He taught that God was in this man who was killed, and that God had brought the body back to life. (Most other religions taught that physical bodies were inferior and not worth saving.) Paul taught that this Christ would return on some future day to bring all bodies back to life and to judge the entire world.

In other words, Paul’s gospel did not depend on human wisdom — in some ways it went against human wisdom. It had a wisdom of its own. It did not depend on principles that most people already agreed with. It did not depend on clever arguments. It depended on Christ alone, on who he was and what he had done.

Gospel wisdom is backwards. Most religions try to figure out what people’s problems are, and from that, figure out what they need to solve those problems. But the gospel has a reverse logic. It begins with what Christ did, and from that, it discerns what the human problem is, and what it is that we need to be saved from. Once we see that the answer is Christ, we are better able to ask the right questions.

From what Paul says in verses 21-23, the “philosophy” taught a variety of restrictive rules, or self-abasement. Verses 11 and 16 suggest that it included Jewish customs such as circumcision and sabbaths. In Gal. 4:3, Paul uses the phrase “elemental spirits of the world” to refer to Judaism. The Jewish historian Josephus uses the word “philosophy” to refer to different schools of Jewish thought.

In several cities, Paul struggled against people who tried to mix Jewish ideas into Christianity, and it is likely that this was also going on in Colossae. People had added human traditions to Judaism (Mark 7:8), and were trying to add them to the gospel. Paul is telling the Colossians that they shouldn’t fall for it. It might sound good on the outside, but it is empty on the inside.

Christians have something far better: “For in him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily” (2:9). Christ is fully divine, and he has (present tense) a human body. If we have Christ, we do not need any other ideas added on. Christ is superior to everything else, and all Christians have fullness in Christ, and he is fully God.

It is not only Christ, but we also “have come to fullness in him, who is the head of every ruler and authority” (2:10). Our salvation is complete in Christ.2 When we are in him, we are brought into divine life. We do not need anything else. Through belief in Jesus Christ, we are already connected to God, brought into the life of the triune God. Christ is not only supreme, but also sufficient.

Paul then begins to explain the practical significance of how thoroughly we participate in Christ:

  • “In him also you were circumcised with a spiritual circumcision, by putting off the body of the flesh in the circumcision of Christ” (2:11). On several occasions, Paul argued against people who said that Christians ought to be circumcised and obey the laws of Moses. It seems that someone suggested that the Colossian Christians ought to be circumcised. That isn’t necessary, Paul responds, since you have already been circumcised spiritually, through your faith in Christ. How were they circumcised? In Christ.” Physical circumcision could only symbolize the removal of sin, but Christ performs the reality in our lives, making the symbol unnecessary. Through Christ, we are cut free from the rule of the flesh. The reality has been achieved, so the ritual is not needed. When we have Christ, we have enough. We do not need to add physical circumcision.
  • “When you were buried with him in baptism
  • “You were also raised with him through faith in the power of God, who raised him from the dead” (2:11-12).

These are the results of faith in a Savior who is fully divine. The old person, corrupted by sin, is dead and buried. Paul is speaking spiritually and figuratively. Through faith in Christ, we are united with him, and what he has done is effective for us. He died for us, for our sins, so that our sins are no longer counted against us. He has paid for them.

In the death of Christ, our sinful self (spiritually uncircumcised) received the wages of sin. And in the resurrection of Christ, we also live with new life. What God did in Jesus Christ, he also did it for those who have faith in Christ. One practical significance of this is that our sins are fully forgiven. We do not need to do anything extra to kill them, pay for them or make up for them.3 Through Christ, we have the spiritual status of being circumcised. It is done in him and by him because of our union with him.

Enemies are defeated

Paul tells us what we were apart from Christ: “when you were dead in trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh …” God solved this twin problem: He “made you alive together with him, when he forgave us all our trespasses” (Colossians 2:13). When we followed the desires of our flesh, we were spiritually dead and cut off from God — but in Christ, the sins that separated us have been forgiven, and because they are gone, we live with Christ.

In verse 14, Paul describes this forgiveness: “erasing the record that stood against us with its legal demands. He set this aside, nailing it to the cross.” “The record” comes from the Greek word cheirographon, which often refers to a note of indebtedness; this is what was against us. We are forgiven and given life because our debts (our sins) were cancelled by Christ. They were transferred to him on the cross, and paid in full.4

Paul is using this financial illustration to again make the point that our sins are effectively and completely taken away in Christ. Those sins have no power over us; sins cannot impose regulations about what we have to do, because they were removed on the cross of Christ — gone. Christians do not need extra rules to deal with sin — we have Christ.

The forgiveness we have in Christ is a strategic victory for us: “He disarmed the rulers and authorities and made a public example of them, triumphing over them in it” (2:15).

Paul again uses the phrase “rulers and authorities,” probably referring to something the false teachers were teaching. Perhaps they were saying that Christians should do something to please or get help from some mystical powers. Paul is saying that Christ has conquered them all. When we have Christ, nothing else has power or authority over our lives.

The power called sin has no authority over us. We do not need special rituals to break that power — what we need is Christ, who has already triumphed over that power. And he has done it in public. Here Paul refers to the parades that victorious generals had — after disarming their enemies, they would take many of the conquered people as slaves, displaying them as booty from the conquest.

To most observers, it would seem that any crucified person had been conquered and publicly humiliated. Paul reverses that image, proclaiming that Jesus was the one who really won the battle. Because his death freed us from our debts, the “rulers and authorities” lost the power they had over us. We owe them nothing, and they are exposed as powerless impostors. There is no special secret involved. All we need is faith in Christ, and our old sinful self is considered dead, and our new life is with Christ.

Jewish rituals a shadow of Christ

Because of Christ’s victory, Paul writes: “Therefore do not let anyone condemn you in matters of food and drink or of observing festivals, new moons, or sabbaths” (2:16). Since we are fully forgiven and fully qualified in Christ (1:12), we should not let anyone question our salvation due to our “failure” to obey rules about diet and days.5

The false philosophy criticized the liberty that the Christians enjoyed, and Paul is saying, Pay no attention to their objections. You don’t have to obey those rules because you have been given everything you need for salvation in Christ. You are forgiven, and that philosophy has no authority over you.

The false teachers were saying that food and drink would somehow help people deal with sin in their lives. Whether they were saying a person had to avoid certain foods, or that a person had to eat certain types of foods, does not matter. Food and drink have no power to take away sin.

Paul is saying that we are fully forgiven in Christ, and we should therefore not let anyone judge us or criticize us about what we eat and drink. Of course, we cannot prevent what people think about us, no matter how careful we are. What Paul is saying is that we should not accept their judgments — we should not believe that our standing with God depends on food and drink regulations.

Similarly, because we are fully forgiven in Christ, we should not let others judge us with regard to festivals, new moons or Sabbaths. These, like circumcision, were part of the Jewish religion. Apparently the false teachers of Colossae included a mixture of Judaism in their heresy.

But how could people in Colossae observe festivals, new moons, and Sabbaths? They could not do any of the sacrificial rituals in Asia Minor. Even Jews in Jerusalem did not think of sacrifices when they thought of how they observed the weekly Sabbath. Ordinary Jews observed the weekly and annual Sabbaths by not working. The false teachers were saying that this cycle of annual, monthly and weekly observances would help the Christians deal with sin in their lives.

That’s not true, Paul said. Abstaining from work does not help anyone deal with sin. It does not forgive past sins, nor does it give power to avoid sin in the future. Sin was dealt with completely by Jesus’ crucifixion, and as a result, we should not let others judge us by what we do or don’t do on various days of the calendar.

Those rules may have had some value before Christ came, but are not needed now: “These are only a shadow of what is to come, but the substance belongs to Christ” (2:17). The dietary rules and sabbaths, like circumcision, symbolized a reality that we now have in Jesus. When we have the fullness, we don’t need the silhouette.

The Jewish worship days were a shadow, a silhouette, of things to come. Paul does not elaborate about whether these days had any predictive value. He does not say how the new moons were shadows. He does not comment on how accurate a picture these days gave. He could see, however, that most of the people who kept such days did not accept Jesus as the Christ.

No matter what Paul meant by shadow, no matter whether the things to come are past or future, the result is clear: these days had no effect on sin. We should not let others criticize us regarding any portion of these days — nor should we judge others. As far as sin is concerned, these days are irrelevant.

Paul then makes this contrast: “but the substance belongs to Christ.” The Greek literally says “but the body of Christ.” This part of the verse has no verb, so we need to add one. Translators usually add the verb “is,” because Greek often omits the verb “is.” It was also common in Greek to contrast shadow and body as terms for picture and reality. The meaning is that food, drink and days are shadows, but the reality is Jesus Christ. Christ deals with sin in reality; foods and days can do it only in picture. Paul is saying that Christ is important; the shadows no longer are.6

False humility has no value

Paul said, “Do not let anyone judge you about diet and days.” Now he gives a parallel admonition: “Do not let anyone…disqualify you” (2:18). No one can actually disqualify us, of course — Paul means that we shouldn’t let anyone make us think that we have to keep special rules in order to qualify.

These unnamed people are “insisting on self-abasement and worship of angels.” The rules may look like a demonstration of humility, but in actuality, they arrogantly claim that Jesus did not do enough for us. The false teachers, in addition to ideas about circumcision, foods and days, seem to have had some strange notions about angels. The people may not worship angels directly, but may claim that certain behaviors will help us join the angels in their worship of God.7

Paul reveals more about the false philosophy when he says that those people were “dwelling on visions, puffed up without cause by a human way of thinking” (2:18). The people (like various Jewish writers of the time) probably said they had visions of heaven, and although they offered humility, they were actually full of pride, leaving Christ out of the picture.

Their focus had taken them away from Christ: “and not holding fast to the head, from whom the whole body, nourished and held together by its ligaments and sinews, grows with a growth that is from God” (2:19). Growth comes from Christ, not from secret information and special rules. This person is not helping the body grow.

Paul now uses another argument, building on what he has already written: “If with Christ you died to the elemental spirits of the universe [and he implies that we did], why do you live as if you still belonged to the world? Why do you submit to regulations, ‘Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch’?” (2:20-21).

The Christian life is not lived by worldly wisdom. The things that sound good to religious philosophers are often wrong. We do not live by those regulations, but by Christ. When Christ died to “the elemental spirits of the universe,” we died to those regulations, too. Those petty rules have no authority over us. Our victory over sin does not come from our ability to keep rules — it comes from Christ on the cross.

“All these regulations refer to things that perish with use; they are simply human commands and teachings. These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-imposed piety, humility, and severe treatment of the body, but they are of no value in checking self-indulgence” (verses 22-23).

Rules about avoiding certain foods, or avoiding work on certain days, may sound good and wise. They might make it look like we have power over our bodies, but they cannot break the power of sin. Only Christ can do that, and he has done it fully and effectively on the cross.

Things to think about

  • What deceptive ideas endanger Christian faith today? (v. 8)
  • Does my union with Christ change the way I view myself? (vv. 11-12)
  • If God forgave all my sins (v. 13), why does the Lord’s prayer include a request for forgiveness?
  • What powers used to hold a grip on me? Does my life show that I am now freed? (v. 15)
  • Has anyone ever tried to tell me that I wasn’t qualified for salvation? (v. 18)

Endnotes

1”The first three participles are in the passive voice, ‘implying that divine action is essential in Christian growth.’ Paul’s readers have not rooted themselves, built up themselves, or strengthened themselves; God has” (David E. Garland, Colossians and Philemon, NIVAC, 140, quoting Murray Harris, 89). “The primary dynamic that should govern Christian behavior is…a living out of our relationship to Christ, an appropriating of what God has already accomplished in Christ. This also puts the emphasis where it belongs in Christian living — not on human willpower or effort but on God’s grace — and enables such living to be characterized by thankfulness” (A.T. Lincoln, New Interpreter’s Bible XI, 621).

2By using the word “fullness” for us right after using it for the Deity, Paul seems to be hinting at something we find in 2 Peter 1:4 — through Christ, we “participate in the divine nature.”

3Garland and Lincoln argue that the circumcision of Christ was his death, in which he put off the flesh. But it seems to me that the people in Colosse, who did not have Romans 6, would not have understood it in this way. Either way, he represented us in what he did.

4It is not clear what the “regulations” are; Paul uses a similar word in verse 20 for the ascetic rules of the non-Christian “philosophy.” It is likely that the philosophy taught various rules as a means of dealing with a person’s spiritual debts; Paul is saying that since Christ has cancelled the debts, we do not need to do anything further to reduce them.

5Paul’s opponents taught restrictions (2:21); it is not likely that they would object to Jewish restrictions about wine, meat, and days on which people must abstain from work. But they would object to the freedom that the gospel gives Christians to eat and drink (cf. 1 Corinthians 10:25) and to ignore restrictions about days (cf. Romans 14:1-6).

6 Some have suggested that we should add a different verb: Don’t let anyone judge you by food and days, but [let] the body of Christ [judge you]. It is true that Paul sometimes uses “the body of Christ” to refer to the church, but Paul does not say that we should let the church judge us. He has just explained that our sins are fully forgiven in Christ; he is not going to reduce that idea by saying that we should let the church judge us. This is not in his thought or in the context. His point is that Christ is the reality that foods and days could only hint at. Moreover, most people who say that we should let the church judge on this matter, have ironically rejected the judgment that the church has already given regarding foods and days.

7Paul may be using sarcasm to imply that the philosophy gives so much attention to angels that it’s like they are worshiping them. Paul would probably react more strongly if people were overtly worshiping angels.

Author: Michael Morrison, PhD, 2007, 2013

5. Colossians 2:14 and the "Handwriting of Requirements"

Christ “wiped out the handwriting of requirements that was against us…having nailed it to the cross” (Colossians 2:14, NKJ). What kind of requirements are being discussed?

The Greek word for “handwriting” is cheirographon, used in common Greek for a document written in one’s own hand as legal proof of indebtedness. Some modern translations call it a bond of indebtedness.

Christ wiped out a note of debt. What kind of debts did Christ cancel? He canceled our spiritual debts, our sins, our transgressions of God’s law, and this is what the note of debt refers to. In his crucifixion, Christ symbolically nailed our note of debt to his cross because his sacrifice paid our debts. 1 Peter 2:24 uses a similar analogy.

The Greek word for “requirements” (KJV “ordinances”) is dogmasin, a form of the word dogma, which is used only five times in the New Testament. Dogma can refer to decrees of Caesar (Luke 2:1Acts 17:7) or apostolic decrees (Acts 16:4). In other writings of that era, dogma could also refer to the commandments of God (3 Maccabees 1:3, Josephus, Against Apion 1, 42) or the commandments of Jesus (Barnabas 1:6, Ignatius to the Magnesians 13:1).

Commentators generally agree that dogma in Colossians 2:14 refers to God’s laws. That makes the most sense in the context, because our spiritual debts have come from breaking God’s laws. However, some commentators have erred in saying that God’s laws have been against us and were nailed to the cross.

The meaning becomes more clear if we notice that cheirographon is singular and dogmasin is plural. It is the cheirographon, the note of debt, that “was [singular] against us, which was [singular] contrary to us. And He has taken it [singular] out of the way, having nailed it [singular] to the cross.” The last part of verse 14 is about the handwriting, not the requirements.

God’s laws are not against us. It is the note of debt, our sin, that has been against us. The validity of the laws is not in question here; the fact that we incur a debt if we fail to keep the requirements implies that Paul is referring to laws that are valid.

Author: Michael Morrison, PhD

6. Colossians 2:20-23 - Worthless Human Rules

Paul now uses another argument, building on what he has already written: “If with Christ you died to the elemental spirits of the universe [and he implies that we did], why do you live as if you still belonged to the world? Why do you submit to regulations, ‘Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch’?” (2:20-21).

The Christian life is not lived by worldly wisdom. The things that sound good to religious philosophers are often wrong. We do not live by those regulations, but by Christ. When Christ died to “the elemental spirits of the universe,” we died to those regulations, too. Those petty rules have no authority over us. Our victory over sin does not come from our ability to keep rules — it comes from Christ on the cross.

“All these regulations refer to things that perish with use; they are simply human commands and teachings. These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-imposed piety, humility, and severe treatment of the body, but they are of no value in checking self-indulgence” (verses 22-23).

Rules about avoiding certain foods, or avoiding work on certain days, may sound good and wise. They might make it look like we have power over our bodies, but they cannot break the power of sin. Only Christ can do that, and he has done it fully and effectively on the cross.

Something to think about

  • Why do restrictive rules appeal to people? (v. 23)

Author: Michael Morrison, PhD

7. Colossians 3:1-11 - Your Life Is Hidden in Christ

Paul has explained that we were buried with Christ and raised to new life in him (Col. 2:12). We are new creations, new people, and our identity is now in Christ. In chapter 3, Paul draws some conclusions about the kind of behavior that should characterize our new identity.

Throughout Colossians, Paul stresses that Christ has done everything that is needed for our salvation. But this does not mean that we sit back and do nothing — Paul gives instructions for how we should respond to what Christ has done.

A life hidden with Christ

Paul begins with general principles: “Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things” (Col. 3:1-2). Earlier, Paul had drawn conclusions from the fact that we died with Christ (2:20). Here, he draws conclusions from the fact that we have a new life with him.

Since we are united with Christ, and Christ is with God, that is where we should set our affections. That is what we should desire, and that is what we should think about. This does not mean that we ignore earthly things (Paul has much to say about how we live in this world),1 but that we bring heavenly qualities to our earthly lives. Paul is moving from a rebuttal of the false teachings, and moving toward a positive statement of how faith works in our lives.

Don’t worry about what you used to be. “For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God” (3:3). The old “you” is gone, killed with Christ on the cross and buried with him. Our new identity is in Christ, in God. Although it may not look like it, our real self is to be found with him.

Christ has brought us into the heavenly places (Eph. 1:20), and that should transform the way we think — including the way we think about ourselves. Our new life is to be patterned on the reality that Christ has brought us into the divine life, into the fellowship of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. We belong to God, and we should think and act like it.

Our true identity is hidden. “By no means everything about Christian living is apparent, not only to outsiders, for whom much of it appears foolish, but also to Christians themselves, for whom there remains mystery and much questioning until the final revelation…. Its hiddenness necessitates that Christians live by faith and not by sight and, therefore, without all the answers to the meaning of many events in their lives” (A. T. Lincoln, New Interpreter’s Bible IX, 641).

However, it will be evident to everyone in the future: “When Christ, who is your life, appears, then you also will appear with him in glory” (3:4). Yes, we will be with him in glory in the future — but even now, Christ is our life. We should live in a way that is appropriate for those who live and move and have their being in him.

Out with the old

Paul tells us how to respond to the fact that Christ defines our new life: “Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed, which is idolatry” (3:5). We are to eliminate five vices — not just desires for illicit sex, but also for desiring too much stuff. In chapter 2, Paul criticized the people who said, “Don’t do this, don’t do that.” But here in chapter 3, Paul has also given a list of things to avoid. There is an important difference. The false philosophy was restricting things; Paul is telling us to avoid actions that hurt other people — actions that weaken a sense of community among the people of God.2

“Because of these, the wrath of God is coming” (3:6). God does not like it when some of his children hurt the other children, and punishment is appropriate. But there is no condemnation, and no punishment, for those who died with Christ and now live in him (see Rom. 8:1 and 1 Cor. 6:9-11). Our old life included wrong actions and desires: “You used to walk in these ways, in the life you once lived” (Col. 3:7). But we should stop living that way. “You must rid yourselves of all such things as these: anger, rage, malice, slander, and filthy language from your lips” (3:83). As people of Christ, our attitudes and words should conform to a new standard. We should eliminate any habits that hurt other people.

“Do not lie to each other.” Why? Because “you have taken off your old self with its practices and have put on4 the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge in the image of its Creator” (3:9-10). We are to change our approach to life because we have a new life.

God is re-creating us, but he does not force this change upon us — he tells us to do it: to put on, or to clothe ourselves, in something new. We are to make choices in the light of who we are. We are to become more and more like Christ is, because that is who we are. “No system of ‘dos and don’ts’ can create the image of God in humans…. The new life of obedience does not depend on [our] own feeble moral resolve but comes from being united with Christ” (David Garland, Colossians and Philemon, 203, 207).5

In with the new

Our identity is not in our ethnic group, our education, or our social status. “Here [in Christ] there is no Greek or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian6, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all” (3:11). Christ is the epitome, the standard, the model, of everything that humanity was ever intended to be, and everyone finds their true identity in him. Rich and poor, sophisticated and simple, young and old, we are one in Christ.

Things to think about

  • Does my behavior reflect the fact that my life is hidden in God? (v. 3)
  • Would Christianity have a different reputation if churches preached more against greed? (v. 5)
  • If God has wrath (v. 6), why should Christians eliminate anger? (v. 8, same Greek word)
  • How do social divisions affect Christian unity today? (v. 11)

Endnotes

[1] “This is not…a call to an other-worldly detachment or disinterest in life in this world, for the subsequent instructions in 3.5ff are very much concerned with practical living out of a life ‘worthy of the Lord’ (1.10) here in this world” (A.J.M. Wedderburn, The Theology of the Later Pauline Letters, 52).

[2] “The vices and virtues selected are those that will either disrupt or enhance the life of the Christian community” (Lincoln, 645).

[3] Ephesians 4:22-32 is a similar passage. Garland comments on “filthy language”: “We can see that perversion in modern slang, which uses gutter terms to describe the sexual union in terms of acts of hostility, assault, and abuse” (Garland, 228).

[4] Same verb as the one in v. 12 translated “clothe yourselves.”

[5] “When we interpret ethical passages, we face the temptation of reverting back to the approach of the Colossian errorists. We may want to issue edicts, develop strict rules, and engage in diatribe in order to rein in immorality. But…our godliness is not measured by the things we do not do. It comes from being in Christ, dying with Christ, and being raised with Christ…. We should never confuse being moral with being Christian, but we cannot claim to be Christian if we ignore morality…. Our behavior as Christians becomes an advertisement for what being in Christ does to a person’s life…. Unbelievers look at Christians and ask how are they any different from anybody else” (Garland, 219, 228).

[6] Scythians were nomadic peoples who lived north and east of the Black Sea, renowned for equestrian and military skill.

Author: Michael Morrison, PhD

8. Colossians 3:12-25 - New Clothes for New People

How should we live? “Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness7 and patience” (4:12). Since God has already chosen us, we should respond with these five virtues. These behaviors cannot make us worthy of salvation, but they are part of “a life worthy of the Lord” (1:10).

We are to be like Christ, and we should treat others the way he has treated us: “Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you” (3:13).

The chief virtue, the umbrella term that includes all good behavior, is love — which is also the one-word description of God’s nature. “And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity” (3:14).

“Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace. And be thankful” (3:15). It is hard to be angry and thankful at the same time. When we remember that we are a barbarian saved by grace, it is hard to be angry at the Scythian who is also saved by grace.

Paul concludes with more general exhortations: “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom, and as you sing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs8 with gratitude in your hearts to God” (3:16). As we speak to each other and worship together, the message of Christ should dominate our thoughts. He has changed our identity, and that should change everything else.

“Whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him” (3:17). All of life, both words and deeds, are done in Christ, because he is our life. Verses 15, 16, and 17 all end on a note of thanks. Praise God for what he has done for us in Christ!

Christian households

Paul includes brief comments for Christian marriages: “Wives, submit to your husbands, as is fitting in the Lord. Husbands, love your wives and do not be harsh9 with them” (3:18-19). Paul’s advice for women is typical for that time and culture, but his advice for husbands is unusual: It calls the men to self-sacrifice and puts limits on their authority.10

Greek philosophers sometimes gave similar comments for wives, children and slaves11—these are called “household codes.” The husband, father, and master were usually the same person; Paul gives instructions for him according to these three roles.

Paul’s next set of instructions is also brief: “Children, obey your parents in everything, for this pleases the Lord. Fathers, do not embitter your children, or they will become discouraged” (3:20-21). Paul addresses the children as morally responsible people who care about their relationship with the Lord. Fathers, who had primary responsibility for discipline, are warned to be careful in their role, and to consider the emotions of their children.

Paul’s advice for slaves is much more extensive12: “Slaves, obey your earthly masters in everything; and do it, not only when their eye is on you and to win their favor, but with sincerity of heart and reverence for the Lord” (3:22).

Paul does not really mean “in everything.” If the masters told the slaves to stop believing in Christ, Paul would not want them to obey! He is speaking in generalities here, just as he did for wives and children. Repeatedly, Paul connects his commands with the Lord. For slaves he says, “with…reverence for the Lord.” Our Master has something to say about the way we function in society.

“Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for men” (3:23). Slaves should work sincerely, not reluctantly, whether or not the master sees them. Their station in life, although far from ideal, is a way in which they can serve Christ. Paul does not publicly call for an immediate end to slavery—that would only invite persecution for something that was then politically impossible. But his teachings paved the way for eventual abolition.13

Although our society is far different, the advice Paul gives here is often relevant to modern employment. Even if we feel trapped in an unpleasant job, we should be a good worker, because we are servants of Christ. But we show him no disloyalty if we look for a better job.

Reliable workers are often rewarded in this life, but there is an even more significant reward for Christians: “since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward. It is the Lord Christ you are serving” (3:24). In the Roman Empire, slaves could not inherit anything. But in Christ’s kingdom, they do. We belong to him, work for him, and are rewarded by him.

Paul next says, “Anyone who does wrong will be repaid for his wrong, and there is no favoritism” (3:25). Paul is apparently referring to the rewards (or penalties) of the final judgment. Misconduct will be viewed negatively—and this applies to slave masters as well as slaves.14

Paul addresses the masters directly: “Masters, provide your slaves with what is right and fair, because you know that you also have a Master in heaven” (4:1). Masters should realize that they are slaves of Christ,15 and this should affect the way they treat their slaves. They should conform to what is right and fair. In time, Christians would ask whether slavery itself was fair—and when they had the freedom to campaign against it, they led the way in eliminating this immoral practice.

Things to think about

  • What happens if I don’t put on the clothing that Paul describes? (v. 12)
  • In my congregation, do we teach and admonish one another? (v. 16)

Endnotes

[7] “Lindemann defines it as the power which, in a situation of conflict, enables us to criticize another’s conduct so that they experience it as help and not as condemnation” (Garland, 211).

[8] We do not know how these three types of songs differ from one another. One plausible suggestion is that they refer to Old Testament psalms, Christian hymns, and spontaneous singing.

[9] “The verb…is in the passive voice and may be translated, ‘Do not become embittered [or resentful] toward her.’ Anyone can refrain from harsh treatment of others; Christians must do more, however. They must refrain from being flushed with rage or petulant when others treat them or respond to them in ways that irritate them. This directive addresses the eventuality that the wife might not always be properly submissive” (David Garland, Colossians and Philemon [Zondervan, 1998], 245).

[10] Ephesians 5 includes much more detailed instructions for wives and husbands (see the study of that chapter here). Some scholars have suggested, based on differences in early manuscripts of Ephesians, that Ephesians was a circular letter designed to be sent to numerous cities in Asia Minor. Some then speculate that it is the “letter from Laodicea” (Col. 4:16) that Paul wanted the Colossians to read. This would explain why the advice for families is so brief in Colossians—Paul expected them to get the longer instructions in the letter we now call Ephesians.

[11] “Comparable instructions from other literature usually address only the male, adult, and free person” (Garland, 258, citing Eduard Schweizer, 213-14).

[12] Paul may have dealt with a runaway slave from this area: Onesimus. Similarities between the people mentioned in Colossians and Philemon indicate that the letters were sent to the same area at about the same time. It is possible that the letter to Philemon was sent first, and he freed his slave, who then went back to Paul with a report about the false philosophy that was affecting the believers in Colossae.

[13] Slaves were an important part of the social and economic structure of the Roman Empire, and sudden abolition would have created social chaos. If Paul and his team of evangelists advocated the overthrow of slavery, the government would have taken quick action to silence them.

[14] This verse may “function both as a warning to slaves and as a reassurance to them. Not only if they do wrong, but also if they are treated wrongly, they can know that there will be an impartial judgment” (A.T. Lincoln, New Interpreter’s Bible, vol. XI, p. 658).

[15] Since all Christians are slaves of Christ, the exhortation to slaves “is able to represent most adequately the relation of all Christian of Christ” (M. Gielen, cited by Lincoln, p. 657).

Michael Morrison, PhD, 2007. If you’d like to learn more about the Bible, consider Grace Communion Seminary. It’s affordable, accredited, and all online. www.gcs.edu.

9. Colossians 4:1-18 - Relationships in and out of the Church

Good words for everyone

In chapter 4, Paul begins to address everyone: “Devote yourselves to prayer, being watchful and thankful. And pray for us, too, that God may open a door for our message, so that we may proclaim the mystery of Christ, for which I am in chains. Pray that I may proclaim it clearly, as I should” (4:2-4). Prayer should be a consistent part of our lives, and we should be watchful, or alert.1

Paul does not ask that his prison cell be opened, but that the door might open for the gospel, and that the message might be clear, so people know what they are being asked to accept. Paul has years of experience in preaching the gospel, but he still asks for God’s help. He may also be hoping that the Colossians apply these ideas to themselves— that opportunities might arise for them to relay the message, and that they do it clearly.

“Be wise in the way you act toward outsiders; make the most of every opportunity” (4:5). One element of wisdom is knowing that our conduct with others may affect their attitude to the gospel. If we are selfish, opinionated and judgmental, our neighbors may find our message a bit hard to believe.

“Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone” (4:6). If our words are gracious, they will make the gospel more attractive, more likely to be accepted.2

Exchange of greetings

Ancient Greek letters often closed with an exchange of greetings, and Paul follows this custom, though he mentions many more friends than most letter-writers did: “Tychicus will tell you all the news about me. He is a dear brother, a faithful minister and fellow servant in the Lord” (4:7). Tychicus is probably the one who carried the letter to Colosse.

“I am sending him to you for the express purpose that you may know about our circumstances and that he may encourage your hearts. He is coming with Onesimus, our faithful and dear brother, who is one of you. They will tell you everything that is happening here” (4:8-9). Paul says three times that these messengers will bring news of Paul’s circumstances—this hints at something important. Perhaps they will give details that Paul did not want to put in writing lest they be intercepted or censored.

“My fellow prisoner Aristarchus3 sends you his greetings, as does Mark, the cousin of Barnabas” (4:10). Paul once objected to Mark (Acts 15:37-38), but he is on good terms with him now: “(You have received instructions about him; if he comes to you, welcome him.)

“Jesus, who is called Justus, also sends greetings. These are the only Jews among my fellow workers for the kingdom of God, and they have proved a comfort to me” (4:11).

Paul saves his longest comments for Epaphras, the person who started the church in Colossae (1:7): “Epaphras, who is one of you and a servant of Christ Jesus, sends greetings. He is always wrestling in prayer for you, that you may stand firm in all the will of God, mature and fully assured. I vouch for him that he is working hard for you and for those at Laodicea and Hierapolis” (4:12-13).

Epaphras had a special fondness for these people, and Paul could hear his concerns and felt that it would be helpful to tell the Colossians what Epaphras wanted for them: steadfastness, maturity, and confidence.

“Our dear friend Luke, the doctor, and Demas send greetings” (4:14). Luke is the author of a Gospel and the book of Acts. Paul says nothing about Demas here; we learn from 2 Tim. 4:10 that he eventually deserted Paul.

Paul then greets people in and near Colossae: “Give my greetings to the brothers at Laodicea, and to Nympha and the church in her house” (4:15). Nympha’s church may have been nearby, in Hierapolis.

Paul tells them to exchange letters: “After this letter has been read to you, see that it is also read in the church of the Laodiceans and that you in turn read the letter from Laodicea” (4:16).4

“Tell Archippus: ‘See to it that you complete the work you have received in the Lord’” (4:17). Archippus was part of the church that met in the home of Philemon (Phm. 2). We do not know what “work” he was doing, but Paul encouraged him and affirmed its importance.

Letters were normally penned by scribes who had experience in writing on papyrus, but the real authors often signed the letter themselves. So Paul takes the pen and writes, “I, Paul, write this greeting in my own hand. Remember my chains. Grace be with you” (4:18). Grace is central to the Christian life, and Paul ends most of his letters on a note of grace.

Things to think about

  • How do some parents embitter their children? (3:21)
  • What options did first-century slaves have when masters commanded them to do something immoral? (3:22)
  • How might trade unions and corporations make it difficult to apply verse 22 in the modern world?
  • How can good behavior help me answer people’s questions? (4:6)
  • Am I wrestling in prayer for someone? (4:12)

Endnotes

[1] “Three elements of prayer are featured in this section: the necessity of alertness, its characterization by thanksgiving, and its participation in the mission of the proclamation of the gospel” (Lincoln, 663). Thanksgiving “functions as a test of whether a person has truly understood that the gospel is one of grace” (ibid.). Prayer “will focus on both the missionaries and their message” (ibid.).

[2] Some interpreters have suggested that “seasoned with salt” means that we should leave people thirsty for more. This may be a good evangelistic strategy, but Paul seems to be giving advice for how to answer people, not to make them ask more questions. When we use salt in foods, our goal is to improve flavor, not to make people drink more.

[3] When Paul wrote the letter to Philemon, he called Epaphras a fellow prisoner, but he did not say that for Aristarchus (Phm. 23); it seems that Epaphras and Aristarchus had traded places by the time he wrote Colossians.

[4] If the letter was from the Laodiceans, we do not know the people it was written to, and it would be odd for Paul to require them to read it. For the possibility that this might be Ephesians, see note 2. Others have suggested that it is what we now know as Hebrews, or that it is Philemon.

Author: Michael Morrison, PhD, 2007

10. 1 Thessalonians 1:1-10 - A Model for All Believers

After a short ministry in Thessalonica, Paul was forced to leave (Acts 17:1-10). Probably less than a year later, Paul heard that the believers there were being persecuted. Paul wrote to reassure them that their faith and sufferings were not in vain. This is one of his earliest letters.

Salutation (verse 1)

Verse 1 presents the authors and the audience: “Paul, Silas and Timothy, to the church of the Thessalonians in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ: Grace and peace to you.”

This letter does not follow some of the literary patterns Paul used in other letters. He says nothing about who he is, either as an apostle or servant of Christ. He names the church as being of the people (rather than “church of God”) and says that they are “in God” (rather than “in Christ”).

He begins the letter with grace, and ends it with grace (5:28), but never uses the word grace anywhere else. Apparently the Thessalonians were not worried about the way in which Christ saved them; they had other pastoral needs.

Received with joy (verses 2-6)

Greek letters often began with a brief prayer. Paul says that he has been praying about the believers in Thessalonica: “We always thank God for all of you, and continually mention you in our prayers. We remember before our God and Father your work produced by faith, your labor prompted by love, and your endurance inspired by hope in our Lord Jesus Christ.”

Paul begins with faith, love and hope, observing that each of these virtues has results in a person’s behavior. He will later say more about how hope helps us endure difficulties, and the kind of life that flows from faith.

Paul assures the readers that they did not make a mistake in accepting the message: “For we know, brothers and sisters loved by God, that he has chosen you, because our gospel came to you not simply with words, but also with power, with the Holy Spirit and deep conviction.”

Was the power in the preaching, or seen in the people who believed? What did the Holy Spirit do? Was conviction in the preachers, or in the audience? Paul does not write enough for us to be sure.

Paul notes how the people responded: “You know how we lived among you for your sake. You became imitators of us and of the Lord; for you welcomed the message in the midst of severe suffering with the joy given by the Holy Spirit.” Paul does not say what he did, other that living “for your sake.” He does not say what aspect of Jesus’ life they imitated, but his comment does imply that he told people something about the way Jesus lived.

An exemplary faith (verses 7-10)

Paul’s focus is not so much the example he set, but the example that the Thessalonians set—an example that had begun to teach other people: “And so you became a model to all the believers in Macedonia and Achaia.” Paul praises them for what they did, indirectly encouraging them to continue in it despite the troubles they faced. Unbelievers in Thessalonica may despise them, but people from other places admire them.

Their example spread like ripples in a pond: “The Lord’s message rang out from you not only in Macedonia and Achaia—your faith in God has become known everywhere.” Paul really doesn’t mean “everywhere”—this exaggeration is an example of motivational rhetoric, not an objective description of facts.

Paul follows that with another figure of speech: “Therefore we do not need to say anything about it, for they themselves report what kind of reception you gave us.” Paul could go into other cities and people would say, “I hear that people in Thessalonica believed your message. What were you preaching?”

Paul repeats major elements of the message: “They tell how you turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God, and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead—Jesus, who rescues us from the coming wrath.” This was Paul’s message for pagans: repent of idolatry, serve God, and believe in Jesus, who died and was resurrected and will return, and through him we are saved from the judgment.

Paul does not say what the “wrath” is, nor the way in which Jesus rescues us. This letter does not even mention the cross; it is designed more for motivation than for instruction.

Things to think about

  • How often do I thank God for other believers? (v. 2)
  • In my experience, what kind of power and conviction came with the gospel? (v. 5)
  • Am I a model for other believers to see and imitate? (v. 7)

Michael Morrison, PhD, 2008, 2013. Dr. Morrison teaches classes in the New Testament at Grace Communion Seminary. More information about the seminary can be found at http://www.gcs.edu.

11. 1 Thessalonians 2:1-8 - Love Like a Mother

Paul began preaching the gospel in Macedonia somewhere around the year A.D. 50. After some success, he was forced to leave Philippi. He and his group journeyed west 100 miles to Thessalonica. After a short ministry there, they were again forced to leave (Acts 17:1-10). Probably less than a year later, Paul heard that the believers in Thessalonica were being persecuted. Paul wrote a letter to reassure the believers that their faith and sufferings were not in vain. As he writes to encourage them, he reviews his ministry and relationship with that church.

Trying to please God (verses 1-6)

Paul reminds them that he preached despite persecution: “You yourselves know, brothers and sisters, that our coming to you was not in vain, but though we had already suffered and been shamefully mistreated at Philippi, as you know, we had courage in our God to declare to you the gospel of God in spite of great opposition” (NRSV). Since the gospel always comes with opposition, the readers should not be surprised if they encounter difficulties as well.

“For our appeal does not spring from deceit or impure motives or trickery, but just as we have been approved by God to be entrusted with the message of the gospel, even so we speak, not to please mortals, but to please God who tests our hearts.” The ancient world had its share of traveling snake-oil salesmen, and whether people were accusing Paul or not, Paul defends himself against possible misunderstandings.

A critic might have said: Paul gave his sales pitch in Thessalonica, but only a few gullible people fell for it, and they had no money, so Paul left to try his luck somewhere else. He didn’t really care about the people who fell for his message. So Paul responds: Our time in Thessalonica was not a failure. We are not trying to trick anyone — we are serving God, delivering his message, and that’s what we did. We get beaten up for our gospel, but we keep preaching because that’s what God sent us to do.

“As you know and as God is our witness, we never came with words of flattery or with a pretext for greed; nor did we seek praise from mortals, whether from you or from others.” There is no evidence to support any accusation. Paul does not fit the pattern of a traveling trickster — there was no flattery, no self-promotion, nothing shady going on.

Working hard, helping others (verses 6-8)

Paul could have asked for some financial support, but he did not: “Though we might have made demands as apostles of Christ. But we were gentle among you, like a nurse tenderly caring for her own children.” Although teachers were normally paid by their students, Paul did not ask for payment — he did not want people to question his motives (1 Cor. 9:12). He was as gentle as a woman taking care of a baby. He supplied their needs, but did not ask them to supply his. That is evidence of sincerity, and along with it, the truth of the gospel.

“So deeply do we care for you that we are determined to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves, because you have become very dear to us.” Paul cared for the people so much that he shared his life with them. This may have been a cliché expressing friendship.

Things to think about

  • Do I know anyone who has been tricked into following a false religious message?
  • How can I tell the difference between a deliberate fraud and an honest misunderstanding?

Author: Michael Morrison, PhD

12. 1 Thessalonians 2:9-13 - We Were Not a Burden

Paul had been accused of tricking the believers in Thessalonika, of using them just to get support for himself. He defends himself in this letter.

“You remember our labor and toil, brothers and sisters; we worked night and day, so that we might not burden any of you while we proclaimed to you the gospel of God.” This is quite an achievement: Paul, Silas and Timothy could move to a strange city and quickly find jobs that supported them. This was part of Paul’s strategy: he did not want to be confused with the traveling speakers whose main motive was money.

“You are witnesses, and God also, how pure, upright, and blameless our conduct was toward you believers.” He says this not to boast, but to forestall any accusations that would cast doubts on the gospel. This is the example he set for them to follow.

“As you know, we dealt with each one of you like a father with his children, urging and encouraging you and pleading that you lead a life worthy of God, who calls you into his own kingdom and glory.” Fathers did not always deal with their children kindly, but Paul is appealing to the ideal: a father was supposed to help his children and encourage them to be good citizens.

What is a life that is “worthy” of God? Taken literally, this is an impossibly high standard. But this is motivational rhetoric, not a formula for earning salvation. It simply means, I urge you to live the way that characterizes God and his kingdom — the way of love. Live in a way that is appropriate for a child of God.

Accepting the word of God (verses 13-16)

In chapter 1, Paul thanked God for choosing the believers in Thessalonica. Now, he gives thanks that they believed the gospel: “We also constantly give thanks to God for this, that when you received the word of God that you heard from us, you accepted it not as a human word but as what it really is, God’s word, which is also at work in you believers.” The word of God had begun to work in their lives.

What is the evidence that their faith was genuine? It was their willingness to endure persecution: “For you, brothers and sisters, became imitators of the churches of God in Christ Jesus that are in Judea, for you suffered the same things from your own compatriots as they did from the Jews…” Paul draws attention to this example because he wants them to continue in it, to be faithful despite the persecution.

In the ancient world, people wanted the gods to give them good crops, good health, and good fortune. When people were suffering, it was assumed that they had offended the gods in some way. So when the believers in Thessalonica experienced difficulties, others would say: “Trusting in Jesus isn’t doing you any good, is it?”

So Paul says that persecutions are not proof that the gospel is false — God’s truth has always encountered opposition. The pattern began where the gospel began — in Judea. (Apparently Paul had already told them a little church history.) The unbelievers didn’t like the gospel there, either.

Paul then comments on the Jewish persecutors: They “killed both the Lord Jesus and the prophets, and drove us out; they displease God and oppose everyone by hindering us from speaking to the Gentiles so that they may be saved. Thus they have constantly been filling up the measure of their sins; but God’s wrath has overtaken them at last”

These words are surprising — unlike anything Paul wrote anywhere else. They are anti-Semitic, some say, and an unfair condemnation of an entire ethnic group. But Paul is not condemning all Jews. He is referring only to the Judeans who killed Jesus and drove the early believers away (see Acts 7 for similar comments). Paul is not presenting a calm analysis of the place of Jews in God’s plan (for that, see Romans 9-11). Rather, his purpose is to strengthen the Thessalonian believers to remain true to their convictions. The context implies that a similar criticism could be said for the Macedonian persecutors.

Paul says that God’s wrath has come upon the Judeans. We do not know what is he referring to. Apparently God’s wrath can happen without making much of an impact on history. In some cases his wrath means only that he lets people continue doing the sins they want to do (Romans 1:18-32John 3:18). It is difficult to know precisely what Paul means by the term.

Paul’s desire to see the Thessalonians (verses 17-20)

Paul reviews the history of his relationship with the people: “As for us, brothers and sisters, when, for a short time, we were made orphans by being separated from you—in person, not in heart—we longed with great eagerness to see you face to face. For we wanted to come to you—certainly I, Paul, wanted to again and again—but Satan blocked our way.”

Paul does not say how he tried to return to Thessalonica, but the person who carried the letter could explain the details. It might have been risky to put them in writing, in case the letter was intercepted.

Paul explains that he takes pride in the Thessalonians: “For what is our hope or joy or crown of boasting before our Lord Jesus at his coming? Is it not you? Yes, you are our glory and joy!” When Christ returns and assesses Paul’s ministry, he will praise work that had lasting results (1 Cor. 3:10-15). If all of his converts fell away, what would it say about his ministry?

This is emotion-laden rhetoric, not a statement about the way eternal rewards are given. Paul wants to assure the Thessalonians that they are important to him. If they are skeptical that Paul is motivated by love, then Paul explains another reason: This is what the Lord wants Paul to do, and Paul wants to do it for him.

Things to think about

  • Should all religious leaders work night and day to support themselves? (verse 9)
  • How can I urge people to live a life “worthy of God” without being legalistic? (verse 12)
  • Have I suffered because of the gospel, or was it my own fault? (verse 14)
  • Is my hope and joy for the future centered on other people? (verse 19)

The Greeks had a word for it: Eκκλησία

The Greek word ekklesia comes from ek, meaning “from” or “out of,” and kaleo, meaning “to call.” So the roots of ekklesia mean “people who are called out.” Root meanings can sometimes shed light on an obscure word, but they do not determine what the word actually means (for example, consider the English word butterfly). A word’s meaning is based on the way the word is used, and that can change as the years roll by.

In ancient Greece, an ekklesia was the town council—citizens called out of their homes and into the amphitheater for a meeting (Acts 19:39 is an example). The people are not called out, as much as they are called together. “Assembly” is a good translation.

Ekklesia eventually became used for the church, the gathering of believers — but when Paul wrote his letters, that meaning was not yet common, so Paul had to specify which ekklesia he was writing to. He was not writing to the assembly of the Thessalonians — that would be the town council — he was writing to the assembly of those who were “in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ” (1:1).

Author: Michael Morrison, PhD, 2008, 2013

13. 1 Thessalonians 3:9-13 - Paul's Prayer for the Believers

Paul thanks God for their continuing faithfulness: “How can we thank God enough for you in return for all the joy we have in the presence of our God because of you?”

Paul has finished recounting his history with the readers, but the relationship is not finished. It continues by means of this letter, but Paul also hopes that it continues with personal contact.

Paul’s prayer (3:10-13)

Just as Paul turned his joy toward God in thanks, he also turns his hopes for the future toward God in prayer: “Night and day we pray most earnestly that we may see you again and supply what is lacking in your faith.”

What was lacking in their faith? Perhaps Paul means that he wants to tell them more about the content of their faith — faith in the sense of “the Christian faith.” Judging by this letter, they lack very little; Paul does not criticize what they are doing.

He prays that he will be able to visit them: “Now may our God and Father himself and our Lord Jesus clear the way for us to come to you.”

And he prays for their spiritual growth: “May the Lord make your love increase and overflow for each other and for everyone else, just as ours does for you. May he strengthen your hearts so that you will be blameless and holy in the presence of our God and Father when our Lord Jesus comes with all his holy ones.”

Does “blameless” mean that Paul expects them to be morally perfect by the time Christ returns? Paul’s prayer here means about the same thing as “I hope that you achieve everything that God wants you to achieve.” It is a sentiment, not a prophecy, and not a formula for salvation.

First Thessalonians is a letter of encouragement, not a letter of doctrinal instruction, and we should not try to squeeze doctrine out of passages in which Paul is not trying to explain a doctrine. Some parts of the Bible are doctrinal, but other parts are more like a story, and some are motivational. God inspired every type, and we need to receive it the way it is, not try to force it into something else.

Paul will have more to say about love, blameless conduct, and the coming of Christ in the next chapter.

Things to think about

  • Who can supply what is lacking in my faith? (3:10)

Author: Michael Morrison, PhD

14. 1 Thessalonians 3:1-8 - Paul's Concern for the Thessalonians

Paul, Silas and Timothy had been chased out of Macedonia, but they did not abandon the infant churches they left behind. Indeed, they were worried because the new believers in Thessalonica were being persecuted. Paul did not know how they would cope.

Sending Timothy to help (3:1-5)

“So when we could stand it no longer, we thought it best to be left by ourselves in Athens.” Paul’s stay in Athens is described by Luke in Acts 17 — Paul went there after he was forced to leave Berea. Silas and Timothy stayed in Berea for a time, but soon rejoined Paul (Acts 17:15).

“We sent Timothy, who is our brother and God’s fellow worker in spreading the gospel of Christ, to strengthen and encourage you in your faith.” Timothy has already been there, so why is Paul telling them things they already know? The details remind them that their relationship with Paul has some historical depth — it is evidence that Paul cares for them and has not abandoned them.

Why was it necessary to send Timothy? “…so that no one would be unsettled by these trials.” Paul is vague on these trials — the details do not serve his purpose. Unbelievers might say that trials show that Christianity is false, but Paul reverses the idea: these trials confirm the message, because they were predicted. “You know quite well that we were destined for them. In fact, when we were with you, we kept telling you that we would be persecuted. And it turned out that way, as you well know.”

So Paul tells them again: “For this reason, when I could stand it no longer, I sent to find out about your faith. I was afraid that in some way the tempter might have tempted you and our efforts might have been useless.” Timothy’s trip was not just to encourage them — it was also to find out if they were still faithful.

Was it really possible for Paul’s efforts to have been useless? He later wrote, “You know your labor in the Lord is not in vain” (1 Cor. 15:15). If he could say this to the Corinthians, despite their spiritual immaturity, it seems safe to say that efforts to serve Christ are never in vain, never useless. Paul is exaggerating his fears to highlight the relief he felt when he learned of the Thessalonians’ faithfulness.

Since Paul sometimes exaggerates (see 1 Thess. 1:8), we have to be cautious when interpreting some of his comments. Sometimes he writes as if believers can never fall away. Here, he implies that they can lose their faith. His expressions of confidence encourage the readers, but his actions (sending Timothy to strengthen them) suggest that Paul knew the importance of encouragement and personal contact in helping Christians endure trying times and overcome the temptation to give up.

Timothy brings good news (3:6-8)

Paul completes the history by summarizing Timothy’s report: “But Timothy has just now come to us from you and has brought good news about your faith and love. He has told us that you always have pleasant memories of us and that you long to see us, just as we also long to see you.” The desire for face-to-face meeting was frequently included in Greek letters of friendship. By putting this in the letter, Paul encourages the Thessalonians to continue what they are doing.

He reminds them that he endures persecution, too, and that their faithfulness has helped him: “Therefore, brothers, in all our distress and persecution we were encouraged about you because of your faith.” He adds, with some exaggeration, “For now we really live, since you are standing firm in the Lord.” Good news like that really lifted our spirits, we might say. It makes our work feel worthwhile again.

Things to think about

  • Have I ever felt that my work in the church was useless? (3:5)
  • When have I felt “really alive”? (3:8)

The Greeks had a word for it: Περιχωρησις

Actually, they didn’t have a word for it, so they had to make one up. It was in the 7th century, and John of Damascus wanted a word to describe relationships within the Trinity: the Father in the Son and Spirit, the Son in the Father and Spirit, and the Spirit in the Father and Son.

So John used the word perichōresis, which comes from the Greek word peri, meaning “around,” and chōreo, meaning to “contain,” “hold,” or “make space.” The idea is that the members of the Trinity contain each other, or penetrate or permeate each other.

Interestingly, a similar Greek word, choreuō, means “to dance,” and some people have therefore thought that perichōresis means literally “to dance around.” It doesn’t. The connection is more of a pun, not a literal definition. However, although the real meaning is mutual indwelling, not dancing, Christian writer Paul Fiddes points out, “The play on words does illustrate well the dynamic sense of perichoresis…” (Participating in God: A Pastoral Doctrine of the Trinity [Westminster John Knox, 2001], 72; see also the Journal of Theological Studies, 1928, pages 242-254).

It is into this dynamic, loving Trinitarian life of the Father, the Son and the Spirit that the Father’s beloved Son Jesus has brought all humanity. As one of us, and as our perfect representative, Jesus presents us to the Father fully redeemed and reconciled in his perfect humanity on our behalf. In Jesus, we dwell with him and the Father and the Spirit in perichōresis, mutual indwelling — God in us and we in God.

Author: Michael Morrison, PhD, 2008

15. 1 Thessalonians 4:1-12 - Christian Behavior

Paul has reminded the believers in Thessalonica of their faithfulness in midst of some trials. Now he reminds them of what he taught them about Christian life. Although the Thessalonians had been idolaters (1:9), Paul does not say anything about the need to avoid idolatry. He focuses on sexual purity, love, and work.

He begins with a general principle: “We instructed you how to live in order to please God, as in fact you are living. Now we ask you and urge you in the Lord Jesus to do this more and more” (4:1). Paul’s message in Thessalonica was not just about how to get eternal life on the day of judgment — it included instruction about behavior, as well. Some ways of life are more pleasing to God than others — not because God has arbitrary pet peeves, but because our behavior can help or hurt the people he loves (including ourselves).

Paul praises the Thessalonians for already doing what he had told them, and he encourages them to continue, because the instructions are not just Paul’s personal preferences — he was acting as God’s messenger: “For you know what instructions we gave you by the authority of the Lord Jesus.”

Sex and sanctification (verses 3-8)

“It is God’s will that you should be sanctified,” Paul begins. “Sanctified” means to be holy, or to be “set apart.” In one sense, all Christians have already been set apart or sanctified or made holy by Jesus Christ. But Paul also encourages believers to set themselves apart for God’s use.

We are already children of God, but Paul exhorts us to act like it, to make our behavior consistent with what God says that we are. God wants us to set our lives in a certain way.

What does sanctification include? The first thing Paul mentions, and the topic he gives the most space to, is sexual conduct: “that you should avoid sexual immorality.” Greco-Roman religions had few restrictions on male sexuality, and as a result, sexual conduct was always high on the list of moral exhortations given to Gentiles. Paul does not specify here exactly what was included in “immorality” (he and Timothy may have already covered those details) — he just reminds them to avoid what they had already been taught is wrong.

Paul explains this instruction not on the basis of Old Testament laws, but on a more general principle: “that each of you should learn to control his own body in a way that is holy and honorable.” Self-control was one of the primary virtues of Greco-Roman civilization, and Paul appeals to that cultural value to argue against a common cultural vice.

He contrasts self-restraint with people who are driven by carnal urges: “not in passionate lust like the heathen, who do not know God.” Paul uses the word ethnē, which means “nations” or “Gentiles.” His readers were Gentiles, but they are not to live in the same way as everyone else around them. If they indulge in sexual immorality, they are acting as if they are ignorant of who God is and what he wants. They are letting themselves be controlled by the flesh, not the Spirit.

Paul further says that in this matter “no one should wrong his brother or take advantage of him.” Sexual immorality hurts other people, and it should not be done to fellow believers — nor to anyone else, for that matter. People are not to be used for one’s own self-gratification.

Paul adds yet another reason for sexual purity: “The Lord will punish…for all such sins, as we have already told you and warned you.” Part of Paul’s message in Thessalonica was that God would eventually punish selfish behavior that hurts other people. (The 1984 NIV has the word “men,” but in a passage about sexual sin, this could easily be read as referring only to males, when the Greek text is not gender specific. A more literal translation is “the Lord is an avenger concerning all these things.”)

Paul brings the discussion back to God’s will: “For God did not call us to be impure, but to live a holy life.” God wants sexual purity. Anything else is impure, unholy, unspiritual, and unchristian.

Most of Paul’s exhortations are given without supporting argumentation, but when it comes to sex, it seems that Paul felt that more support was needed. Perhaps the Thessalonians had asked for some reasons for what was, in their culture, an odd restriction. So Paul gives several reasons:

    1. immorality comes from a lack of self-control,
    2. it hurts other people,
    3. God wants us to avoid it, and
    4. he will punish it.

Paul concludes by reminding the readers that this is God’s idea, not just his own: “Therefore, he who rejects this instruction does not reject man but God, who gives you his Holy Spirit.” Since God is sharing his life and nature with us, and this is the life we want for all eternity, then, as best as we can with his Spirit transforming us, our lives should be holy and conformed to the pattern that Jesus Christ gives us.

Respectable behavior (verses 9-12)

Paul then moves to two other areas of life — love and work. He does not say much about either one, apparently because the Thessalonians are already doing well, and a brief reminder will be sufficient. “Now about brotherly love we do not need to write to you, for you yourselves have been taught by God to love each other.” Paul is using two Greek words for love: He did not need to write to them about philia love (mutual love) because they already had agapē love (unilateral love) for one another.

“And in fact, you do love all the brothers throughout Macedonia.” (Apparently they had some contact with the church in Philippi, and perhaps Berea.) “Yet we urge you, brothers, to do so more and more.” In other words, good job! Keep up the good work!

Paul turns from their behavior with other believers, to their role in the larger society around them: “Make it your ambition to lead a quiet life, to mind your own business and to work with your hands, just as we told you.” If you want to be ambitious, count yourself a success when you stay out of trouble — that’s a pretty ambitious goal in itself. If you are going to be persecuted, make sure it is for the gospel and not for bad behavior. And don’t be lazy (some Greeks thought that manual labor was beneath their dignity).

He gives two reasons for this: “so that your daily life may win the respect of outsiders and so that you will not be dependent on anybody.” Let your behavior make the gospel more attractive to unbelievers (similar to Titus 2:5810), and don’t become financially beholden to someone else. Mooching doesn’t do the gospel any favors. Be an asset to society, and people might be a little more willing to listen to what you have to say.

Things to think about

  • How would I respond if someone starting giving me commands I already knew about, and I was already doing a good job in that area? (verses 1, 10)
  • How “set apart” is my life for God’s use? Are there areas of my life that are not given to him? (verse 3)
  • Why does Paul specify that we should not harm a brother (or sister) in sexual immorality? (verse 5)
  • Are all people taught by God to love each other? (verse 9)

The Greeks had a word for it: Πoρνεια

Paul told the Thessalonians to avoid it. He told the Corinthians to flee from it. He told the Galatians it was a work of the flesh. “It” was sexual immorality — referred to by the Greek word porneia. This word comes from pornē, prostitute, which comes from the word pernao, meaning “to sell.” Porneia is what prostitutes sold. The English word pornography comes from this same root word.

Although porneia originally meant to consort with prostitutes, it was also used for a variety of other sexual practices outside of marriage, including incest (1 Corinthians 5:1), adultery (Matthew 5:32), the orgy at Sinai (1 Corinthians 10:8Numbers 25:1), and the immorality in Sodom (Jude 7). “Among you,” Paul writes in Ephesians 5:3, “there must not even be a hint of porneia.

Author: Michael Morrison, PhD

16. 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 - Preparing for the Lord's Return

Paul’s next topic is the return of Christ — the only place in his letters where he gives details about what will happen. The Thessalonian believers wanted to know more about this topic. We’d like to know more, today, too, because some of the things Paul says are puzzling.

He begins by discussing the resurrection of believers who die before Jesus returns. It sounds like someone in the Thessalonian church had died — although it’s possible that the people were asking a hypothetical question.

Paul assures them that people who die will not miss out on the great event. They will have places of honor as the saints rise to meet the returning King.

The return of Christ (verses 13-18)

“Brothers and sisters, we do not want you to be uninformed about those who sleep in death, so that you do not grieve like the rest of mankind, who have no hope.” It seems that the Thessalonians had asked about what happens to believers who die before Christ returns. Paul replies that we do not grieve in the way that unbelievers do. Death is still an enemy, so we may grieve, but our sorrow is mixed with hope because we know that we will all live again in far better circumstances.

Paul begins by stating the doctrine: “We believe that Jesus died and rose again and so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him.” Because Jesus has been raised from the dead, we will be, too, if we are spiritually united with him. Those who die will come with Jesus. Just what they are doing in the meantime, Paul does not say.

He quotes a saying of Jesus — one that is not in the Gospels: “According to the Lord’s own word, we tell you that we who are still alive, who are left till the coming of the Lord, will certainly not precede those who have fallen asleep.” By using the word “we,” does Paul imply that he expects to live until Christ returns? Many scholars think so, and they suspect the Thessalonians had a similar belief, thus causing their worries about those who die in this age.

However, it is not necessarily so. If Paul had used the third-person “those,” he could have implied that he would not live until the return, and since he did not know one way or another, he used the more pastorally optimistic “we.”1 Paul knew that believers could die before Christ returned, and simple logic would tell him that he might be one of them.

Paul’s point is that people who live until Christ returns will not have any advantage over Christians who die. The living ones will not rise to greet Christ while the dead ones are still struggling to get out of their graves!

Paul sketches a simple sequence: “For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first.” There will be a loud sound, and the dead will rise. Do they come with Christ from heaven, or do they rise from graves on earth?

Paul is not dealing with that question — he is just addressing sequence. “After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air.” This is the key verse of the “rapture” theory, which says that Christians will rise into the air to meet Christ and then go with him to heaven while the Great Tribulation savages unbelievers on Earth.2 Those ideas are not in this verse; they come from other books of the Bible.

Actually, no verse teaches the rapture — it is only when verses from different sections of the Bible are combined, that anyone can construct the theory. The Bible does not promise that believers will escape the Tribulation, nor does it say that Christ will come once for the saints, and then a few years later for the Last Judgment. The believers in Thessalonica would not understand Paul to be saying anything like this.

What would they think? Paul refers to the presence or parousia of the Lord; the word parousia was also used for the arrival of a king in a city. Whenever the ruler visited, there was a lot of pomp and ceremony. Heralds announced the impending event, and city officials formed a procession to greet the king as he approached, and they would escort him into the city.

By using the word parousia, Paul is suggesting that kind of scene: Christ the king will come and his people will go to greet him and escort him as he comes to where they live. The Thessalonian believers were asking about who would be first in the welcoming procession. Those who die are not left out of the party —they’ll be raised so everyone can celebrate together.

The bottom line is simple: “And so we will be with the Lord forever.”

And then Paul writes, “Therefore encourage each other with these words.” What are the encouraging words? Is it that the dead in Christ will be in the welcoming delegation? That we will be in the clouds? Those are good, but such details pale into insignificance when compared with the eternal result: We will be with Christ forever. That is the message that puts all our trials into perspective, and gives us courage to be faithful until the end.

Author: Michael Morrison, PhD, 2008

17. 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11 - Don't Be Surprised

In almost every one of his letters, Paul refers to the return of Christ. But he rarely gives any details. His letters to the believers in Thessalonica are exceptions. Apparently they had asked for more information on this topic.

After Paul tells them that Christ will return, he discusses the timing in more detail: “About times and dates we do not need to write to you, for you know very well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night.” Jesus also referred to a thief in the night in the Olivet prophecy (Matt. 24:43). This may have been a common proverb about someone coming at an unexpected time.

“While people are saying, ‘Peace and safety,’ destruction will come on them suddenly, as labor pains on a pregnant woman, and they will not escape.” Labor pains are not totally unpredictable, but this was probably another proverb for something that could not be scheduled precisely.

What sort of “destruction” did Paul have in mind? He refers to “wrath” in verse 9, but he doesn’t give us many details about it. Paul may be referring to the turmoil or tribulation that was expected before the day of the Lord, or perhaps to the day of judgment itself, when some people will find that the world is ruled by someone they don’t like, and they will suffer the consequences of their own actions.

Paul’s purpose is not to tell us about destruction, but to encourage us that we will not experience it: “But you…are not in darkness so that this day should surprise you like a thief.” They do not know when the day will be — Paul’s point is that they won’t suffer loss, because they are always ready.

“You are all sons of the light and sons of the day. We do not belong to the night or to the darkness.” Paul is using “darkness” as a spiritual category, just as some of the Dead Sea Scrolls do. The believers are children of light, children of God, not of evil and darkness, and that should change the way they live.

“But since we belong to the day, let us be self-controlled, putting on faith and love as a breastplate, and the hope of salvation as a helmet.” Paul here uses another metaphor, perhaps adapted from Isaiah 59:17. Faith, love, and hope should cover and protect our hearts and minds.

“For God did not appoint us to suffer wrath but to receive salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ.” God does not want us to experience the unpleasant consequences of sin. He has planned something far better for us — salvation.

In this letter, written to people who were already Christians, Paul does not say much about how a person is saved. The only glimpse comes in verse 10: “He died for us so that, whether we are awake or asleep, we may live together with him.” This is where the discussion started: Whether we live until Christ returns (are awake), or if we die (are asleep), either way, the purpose and result is the same: we will live with him. That’s the salvation he obtained for us.

Paul concludes: “Therefore encourage one another and build each other up, just as in fact you are doing.” As the young church struggled to hold on to their faith in a time of persecution, they saw that everything, whether life or death, made sense only in Christ.

Things to think about

  • Am I disappointed by the idea that Christ may not return in my lifetime?
  • What will I think as I rise into the air to greet Christ?
  • Have I used these words to encourage others?
  • How does a belief in resurrection lead me to self-control?

The Greeks had a word for it: Παρουσια

The Greek word parousia comes from the preposition para, meaning “near,” and the participle ousia, which means “being.” Literally, it means “being near”; in everyday Greek it meant “presence” or “arrival.” In addition to these ordinary uses, it also “became the official term for a visit of a person of high rank, especially of kings and emperors visiting a province.”3

Paul referred to his own presence (Phil. 1:26), and the presence of the “man of sin” (2 Thess. 2:9), but when he used this word he usually meant the presence of Jesus Christ, returning visibly and in strength. As a result, Parousia has entered English as a theological term for the return of Christ.

Endnotes

1 Ben Witherington III, Jesus, Paul, and the End of the World (InterVarsity, 1992), 24.

2 For a more thorough analysis of this theory, see the chapter below.

3 F.W. Danker, ed., Greek-English Lexicon (University of Chicago, 2000), 781.

Author: Michael Morrison, PhD, 2008