(1 Thess. 3:8-13 ESV) 8 For now we live, if you are standing fast in the Lord. 9 For what thanksgiving can we return to God for you, for all the joy that we feel for your sake before our God, 10 as we pray most earnestly night and day that we may see you face to face and supply what is lacking in your faith? 11 Now may our God and Father himself, and our Lord Jesus, direct our way to you, 12 and may the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all, as we do for you, 13 so that he may establish your hearts blameless in holiness before our God and Father, at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints.
V. 8 is a little perplexing. What does he mean by “For now we live, if you are standing fast in the Lord”? It has to be something like “the news of your faith is the very breath of life to us.”
The most likely explanation is that for Paul, as for Hebrew thought in general, life is not simply the opposite of death, just as peace is not simply the absence of war. There are degrees of being alive. Isolation from the community, like illness, can makes a person less alive. In many languages, such an expression is not understood as mere figurative speech or interpreted as “spiritual truth,” but as reality. Conversely, the renewal of a relationship, like the restoration of health, increases life and makes it full. So it was with the renewal, though Timothy, of Paul’s relationship with the Thessalonians. Knox conveys this concept well: “it brings fresh life to us”; and so does Brc: “it makes life worth living for us.” Paul’s life is bound up with that of the Christian communities he has helped to found.
Paul Ellingworth and Eugene Albert Nida, A Handbook on Paul’s Letters to the Thessalonians, UBS Handbook Series, (New York: United Bible Societies, 1976), 61.
Think about it. How would the life of your congregation change if the leaders of your church saw their very lives as conditioned on the spiritual health of your church? Do they (metaphorically) live or die based on the faith of your congregation?
Paul then shifts to his prayer for the church — a common literary device in Paul’s writings. He expresses his most honest, heart-felt feelings for the church by telling them how he prays for them.
And his prayer is that he will be able to one day meet face to face with them (3:10), that he will be able to “supply what is lacking in your faith” (3:10), that “the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all, as we do for you (3:12), and “he may establish your hearts blameless in holiness (3:13). Paul sees the logic as preaching the gospel –> stronger faith –> love for one another –> love for all –> hearts blameless in holiness.
Now, we desperately want to move “blameless” to immediately follow faith, but Paul is not talking about imputed righteousness or faith being credited with righteousness. Rather, he is looking toward actual, for-real blamelessness. Some refer to this as “sanctification” rather than “justification.” The point is that grace is supposed to lead us to become what we are already credited with being.
Our salvation by faith is based on God’s covenant with Abraham (Rom 4, Gal 3), in which God credited Abraham’s faith as righteousness (Gen 15:6). But God gave Abraham grace so that Abraham would “keep the way of the LORD by doing righteousness and justice” (Gen. 18:19 ESV). In other words, he was credited with righteousness so that, eventually, he’d in fact be righteous.
(Heb. 10:14 ESV) 14 For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified [made holy].
And this brings us to —
(1 Thess. 3:13 ESV) 13 so that he may establish your hearts blameless in holiness before our God and Father, at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints.
Paul is looking ahead to the “coming” of Jesus, that is, the parousia. We might prefer to say “second coming.” The time when we need to be blameless is when Jesus returns.
“With all his saints [holy ones]” is taken from —
(Zech. 14:4-9 ESV) 4 On that day his feet shall stand on the Mount of Olives that lies before Jerusalem on the east, and the Mount of Olives shall be split in two from east to west by a very wide valley, so that one half of the Mount shall move northward, and the other half southward. 5 And you shall flee to the valley of my mountains, for the valley of the mountains shall reach to Azal. And you shall flee as you fled from the earthquake in the days of Uzziah king of Judah. Then the LORD my God will come, and all the holy ones with him. 6 On that day there shall be no light, cold, or frost. 7 And there shall be a unique day, which is known to the LORD, neither day nor night, but at evening time there shall be light. 8 On that day living waters shall flow out from Jerusalem, half of them to the eastern sea and half of them to the western sea. It shall continue in summer as in winter. 9 And the LORD will be king over all the earth. On that day the LORD will be one and his name one.
(Deut. 33:2-5 ESV) 2 He said, “The LORD came from Sinai and dawned from Seir upon us; he shone forth from Mount Paran; he came from the ten thousands of holy ones, with flaming fire at his right hand. 3 Yes, he loved his people, all his holy ones were in his hand; so they followed in your steps, receiving direction from you, 4 when Moses commanded us a law, as a possession for the assembly of Jacob. 5 Thus the LORD became king in Jeshurun [God’s pet name for Israel]va, when the heads of the people were gathered, all the tribes of Israel together.
And so, “holy ones” or “saints” likely refers to angels or other celestial beings —
While in the OT “holy ones” may refer to human beings (Lev. 21.7–8; Num. 16.5, 7), in Zechariah and other OT texts they are the celestial beings who accompany Yahweh (Deut. 33.2; Job 5.1; 15.15; Ps. 89.5, 7; Dan. 4.13; 8.13). Elsewhere in the NT the celestial beings, called either “angels” or “holy ones,” will accompany the Lord in his coming (Matt. 13.41; Mark 8.38; 13.27; 2 Thess. 1.7; Jude 14–15; and cf. 1 Enoch 1.9). 1 Thessalonians 3.13 reflects this hope. The Lord Jesus will come with power and glory, as a warrior on the day of the Lord (Zech. 14.1–9), and his holy ones will come with him.
Gene L. Green, The Letters to the Thessalonians, Pillar NTC; Accordance electronic ed. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002), 181.
As we see in Deu 33, the coming of God in real-time and real-history can be described as coming from 10,000 “holy ones.” These appear to be the heavenly host, that is, God’s angelic army. And this is plainly highly poetic, apocalyptic language describing the real events at Mt. Sinai.
This description is based on that of earlier theophanies in the OT: when God reveals himself, for deliverance or for judgment, he is regularly attended by his angels. At the giving of the law he shone forth “with myriads of holy ones” (Deut 33:2); at the battle celebrated in Ps 68 (LXX 67) he ensured his people’s victory when he appeared “with mighty chariotry, twice ten thousand, thousands upon thousands” (v 17). When, in Daniel’s vision of the Day of Judgment, the Ancient of Days takes his seat, “a thousand thousands served him, and ten thousand times ten thousand stood before him” (Dan 7:10). This language is echoed in 1 Enoch 1:6, 7 (quoted in Jude 14, 15), where the Lord is seen coming to execute judgment “with his holy myriads.”
Glasson (The Second Advent, 172–176) suggests, from a study of early Christian writers from Paul to Augustine, that there was a Testimony collection of OT texts interpreted with reference to the Parousia of Christ (he cites Pss 50:3; 68:1–7; 80:1; 82:8; 107:20; Isa 26:19; 42:13; 63:9; 64:1; 66:18; Hab 2:3; Zeph 1:15; Mal 4:1). …
“All the essential details” of NT portrayals of the Parousia “are found in the OT description of the coming theophany. Broadly speaking, the Christians took over the OT doctrine of the Advent of the Lord, making the single adjustment that the Lord was the Lord Jesus” (176).
In the Markan tradition of the sayings of Jesus, the Son of Man “comes in the glory of the Father with the holy angels” (Mark 8:38). These may be the angels whom, at his coming, he will send out to “gather his elect from the four winds” (Mark 13:27). In John’s Apocalypse the rider on the white horse whose name is “The Word of God” is attended when he comes to judge the nations by “the armies of heaven” (Rev 19:14), presumably to be recognized as angelic hosts.
F. F. Bruce, 1 & 2 Thessalonians, WBC 45; Accordance electronic ed. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1982), 73-74.
So much for the theory that the Second Coming is not described in the OT! In fact, NT teaching is plainly based on OT teaching.