The word of the day is “appoint.” In our reading of 1 Thessalonians 5:9-13, 24-28, St. Paul assures the congregation at Thessalonica of God’s benevolent intentions for them. The Apostle writes, “For God did not appoint us to wrath but to obtain salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ”(vs. 9). Paul has just warned his flock against the sleep of complacency and carelessness as they wait for the return of Christ. But he quickly adds that God has no desire to catch them in the darkness of sin (vs. 9).
Paul reassures the believers in this bustling city that they are not appointed to “wrath.” The Greek word for “wrath” refers to the strongest of passions, the burning anger of extreme displeasure (Strong’s #3709, 181). At the juncture between the Old and New Testaments, the forerunner John the Baptist urged repentance before the “wrath to come” (Matthew 3:7-8). What was the reason for the Almighty’s divine fury? Paul explained in Romans: “For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against the ungodliness and unrighteousness of men…” (Romans 1:18).
Wrath at the End of Time
The prophets of the Old Testament proclaimed that divine wrath was stored up for the end of time. Thus, Isaiah wrote, “Behold the day of the Lord is coming…a day of anger and wrath to make all the inhabited world a desert and to destroy the sinners from it” (Isaiah 13:9). And the prophet Zephaniah spoke about the day of the “wrath of the Lord” because of sin. On that day, the “fire of God’s zeal” will consume the whole land and wipe out its inhabitants (OSB Zephaniah 1:17-18).
However, Paul assures his flock in Thessalonica that in Christ, God has redeemed them from this raging inferno of the destruction of the world. He reminds them that they have learned to “wait for His Son from heaven…even Jesus who delivers us from the wrath to come (1 Thess. 1:10). Likewise, Paul promises the Romans that “having now been justified by His [Christ’s] blood, we shall be saved from wrath through Him” (Romans 5:9). Thus, we find that God’s plan for the Thessalonians, as well as all believers, is that they might receive “salvation” through the Lord Jesus Christ.
On the other hand, “salvation,” like “wrath,” is a feature of the end time when Christ returns in glory. As we see in verse 9, salvation is the parallel opposite of the wrath of the day of the Lord’s appearing. Thus, salvation is a future promise. For example, the Apostle writes: “To those who eagerly wait for Him [Christ] He will appear a second time, apart from sin, for salvation (Hebrews 9:28).
Salvation as a Category of the Future
Salvation refers to the promise of both deliverance and preservation, rescue and restoration (Strong’s #4991 246). In this vein, salvation is the “end” of faith according to 1 Peter 1:8. The word for “end” is the Greek word “telos,” the endpoint (Strong’s #5056, 249). To be sure, salvation is the “object” of our faith. But that “goal” will reach its conclusion and fulfillment with the “salvation of our souls” (1 Peter 1:10). Then we will see Christ face to face and receive all the blessings of His grace.
So at the coming of Christ, will it be wrath or salvation for the believers in Thessalonica? Paul reassures the believers in the city that God has “appointed” them for the latter. Some translations say that the believers are “destined” for salvation (e.g. ISB, Weymouth, and English Standard translations). But the word means literally “to place.” From this sense, we get “to place in a position,” that is, “to appoint” (Strong’s #5087, 250). For example, the Lord said to His disciples, “You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit and that your fruit should remain” (John 15:16). And Paul writes that he gives thanks that Christ has “counted me faithful putting me [that is, “appointed me”] into the ministry” (1 Timothy 1:12).
Paul’s teaching of God’s intention for his flock does not cancel his appeal for his congregation to reject uncleanness and live in holiness (vs. 4:7). Otherwise, his counsel for them to be watchful, sober, and prepared for the coming of Christ would be meaningless. But the Apostle writes to comfort and edify them. His words are a reassurance of God’s mercy, a confirmation that Christ died for them, and a strengthening of their hope.
Those who are “appointed” are “chosen.” But that does not mean their standing before God was “predetermined” in the sense of being irrevocably guaranteed. The idea of “appointed” leaves room for the human response to that appointment. Yes, we believe in God’s omniscience and His foreknowledge. But St. John of Damascus teaches that the divine all-knowing does not necessarily entail predetermination. He writes, “We ought to understand that while God knows all things beforehand, yet He does not predetermine all things. He knows beforehand those things that are in our power, but He does not predetermine them. For it is not His will that there should be wickedness, nor does He choose to compel virtue” (NpNf2, 9).
Our reading of 1Thessalonians shows that St. Paul believed that we live on the horizon between this age and the age to come. Most people today put off the question of the destiny of creation and the fate of humankind. But this leads to short-sightedness as we struggle to survive from day to day. This Nativity Fast is an occasion to look up from the daily grind and to consider the direction and purpose of our lives. In other words, this time of Advent gives us pause to consider our destiny beyond this present life with fresh urgency.