Most beautiful and complete is the portrait drawn by the Apostle Paul of the Thessalonian Christians. Most effectively are their peculiar features set before us. The mind at once receives the impression his words are meant to convey: “They themselves show of us,” he says, “what manner of entering in we had unto you, and how ye 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, even Jesus, which delivered us from the wrath to come.” With what bold and striking clearness are the figures of these early Christians struck out into relief upon the dark background of the surrounding idolatry by a few strokes of the divine pen.
Sunk in sin, serving divers and revolting lusts, while “carried away unto dumb idols,” the Apostle had come into their midst with the gospel of the grace of God. He had told them of Jesus the Son of God. Into their ears he had poured the wondrous tale of that life of love that had closed on the cross, as an atoning sacrifice for man’s sin. To their wondering souls be had explained the value and efficiency of that blood through which we have redemption, “the forgiveness of our sins.” He had declared to them, how having died and been buried, this Jesus had been raised from the dead by the living God, and how, after having been seen on earth after His resurrection by many witnesses, He had been carried up into Heaven, and seated at the right hand of God. He had taught them that, if they would “confess with the mouth this Lord Jesus Christ and believe in their hearts that God had raised Him from the dead,” they would be saved from the impending storm of divine judgment, which he affirmed was about to overtake the world. But he assured them that before this storm burst forth, with its terrible and destructive energy, the Son of God would come again and receive to Himself in glory all those that believed in Him. So the Apostle had preached to them, and so they had believed. “For this cause,” says he, “thank we God without ceasing, because, when ye heard of us, ye received it not as the word of Men, but, as it is in truth, the word of God which effectually worketh also in you that believe.” He had not brought them a cumbrous ritualistic system of forms and ceremonies, with law-keeping as a condition of blessing. He had not taught them a skillfully constructed plan of salvation or an elaborate scheme of theology, which little by little they were to receive, and be saved by. Much less had he gone amongst them to civilize them and instruct them in better morals, by which their present earthly condition might be improved, and in virtue of some moral change in themselves be entitled “to indulge a humble hope of salvation,” when they could stay on earth no longer.
No, without any of this kind of thing, and in contrast with much of what prevails in our day, he had brought them the truth of a Person living in heaven at God’s right hand who once on earth had died for sinners. This Person and His work, with the announcement of His speedy return to bless those that believed in Him and judge those who did not, formed the sum and substance of the Apostle’s preaching to these poor dark idolaters. With this blessed gospel of the grace of God he had not failed to declare most solemnly and faithfully the realities of eternal judgment, escape from which there was none, save by simple faith in Jesus the Son of God.
They had been left in no uncertainty as to what awaited them as sinners, and they were perfectly assured, upon the authority of God’s word, of the blessing they stood possessed of now as believers in Jesus, the full enjoyment of which they would have when He came, for whom they waited. Doubts as to their salvation they had none, for they waited for that very Jesus who, by His work for them on the cross, had already “delivered them from the wrath to come.” Once, in common with all others, they had been “appointed to death, and after that the judgment,” but now they could say, “God hath not appointed us to wrath, but to obtain salvation by our Lord Jesus Christ.” They were not looking to die at all, even though by death they might go to be with the Lord. They no more looked for death than for judgment. They waited for God’s Son from Heaven, as One who might come in their lifetime, and hence they could say, as thinking of those who had died as believers in Jesus, “we which are alive, and remain unto the coming of the Lord, shall not prevent them which are asleep. For the Lord Himself shall descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trump of God, and the dead in Christ shall rise first; then we which are alive and remain, shall be caught up together with them in the clouds, to meet the Lord in the air; and so shall we ever be with the Lord.”
It was this waiting for Jesus to come and take them up to heaven that characterized these Thessalonian Christians, and it was this, more than their having ceased to be idolaters, that made the world around talk so much about them. People then, as now, understand a change of religion and morality, but to be waiting and longing for some One to come and take them away from earth to heaven, their neighbors could not understand. Even the religion of the Jews had spoken of no such thing, though they were expecting a Messiah to come, according to certain prophecies that their books spoke of, and bless them on earth by delivering them from all their enemies, but for some One to be coming from heaven to take His followers up to heaven was indeed a strange and new doctrine. Yet, this was the doctrine taught the Thessalonians, and it is the doctrine the whole New Testament teaches, as the proper hope of believers now in the Lord Jesus.
Nothing so tells the tale of where the heart really is as this waiting for “God’s Son from Heaven.” A faith that has not this marked and characteristic element in it is not properly Christian, and the Apostle contrasts the profession of Christianity without this hope in this way: “For our conversation is in heaven from whence also we look for the Savior the Lord Jesus Christ, who shall change our vile body that it may be fashioned like unto His glorious body according to the working whereby He is able to subdue all things unto Himself.” The Lord grants that all of us may be rejoicing in this blessed hope, and assuming clearly before the world the attitude of “the waiting ones.”