Administrative Note: After arbitrarily choosing 1 Timothy as the beginning of the latter prophets, it dawned on me that I should have started with 1 Thessalonians. My point in starting near the mid-point of the epistles was a journey from Pennsylvania to Tennessee, all in one day, where I listened to Scripture from before the sun came up until I arrived at my destination late in the day. When I got to the letters of John and Jude, I was so moved by the hearing of the Scriptures that I felt compelled to share those books of the Bible, but to complete this study at a logical starting point (finishing point as it is), I am, therefore, going to put 1 and 2 Thessalonians in at this point and then move on to either Revelation or the Minor Prophets.
Paul, Silas and Timothy,
To the church of the Thessalonians in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ:
Grace and peace to you.
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.
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. 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. And so you became a model to all the believers in Macedonia and Achaia. The Lord’s message rang out from you not only in Macedonia and Achaia—your faith in God has become known everywhere. Therefore we do not need to say anything about it, for they themselves report what kind of reception you gave us. 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.
- 1 Thessalonians 1:1-10
Noted Biblical Scholars, Teachers, and Preachers Comments
1 Thessalonians 1:2-3 ‘reasons for leaving’: “[Paul’s] afraid that they might have misunderstood why he left Thessalonica, as though he had abandoned them to avoid persecution. So he reminds them that he has just come through a terrible time of persecution in Philippi and that he is deeply concerned for them. The key to Paul’s heart is found [in v. 1:2-3].
“Three qualities marked the Thessalonian believers: their work of faith, their labor of love, and their endurance in hope. These qualities are explained later in this chapter …”
- Ray C. Stedman, Adventuring through the Bible
1 Thessalonians 1:3 ‘faith, hope, love’: “The three divine sisters – faith, hope, love – linked hands in their lives. These were with them in their best condition – faith working, love laboring, and hope enduring. Faith performing her work with energy is healthy and alive. Their love did not consist in words or in a kind disposition. But it worked with a will. As for hope – that bright-eyed grace which looks within the veil and realizes things not yet seen yet – it was peculiarly their endowment. This enabled them to bear with patience their suffering for Christ whether it lay in false accusation or in the spoiling of their goods. It is of no use for us to attempt to sound out the word of the Lord if we do not have the spiritual power that lies in those three divine graces. These are of first importance.”
- Charles H. Spurgeon, from his sermon notes
1 Thessalonians 1:4 ‘election’: “The church is commonly called ‘the elect’ (cf. Rom. 8:33; Col. 3:12; 2 Tim. 2:10; Titus 1:1). In salvation, the initiating will is God’s, not man’s (cf. John 1:13; Acts 13:46-48; Rom. 9:15, 16; 1 Cor. 1:30; Col. 1:13; 2 Thess. 2:13; 1 Pet. 1:1, 2 … Eph. 1:4,5). Man’s will participates in response to God’s promptings as Paul makes clear when he says the Thessalonians received the Word (v. 6) and they turned to God from idols (v. 9). These two responses describe faith and repentance, which God repeatedly calls sinners to do throughout Scripture (e.g., Acts 20:21).”
- John MacArthur, John MacArthur Commentary (quoted Scripture without bold/italics)
1 Thessalonians 1:5 ‘in word or in power’: “To one who is a student merely, this verse might be interesting, but to a serious man intent upon gaining eternal life it might well prove more than a little disturbing. For it evidently teaches that the message of the gospel may be received in either of two ways: in word only, without power, or in word with power. Yet it is the same message whether it comes in word or in power. And these verses teach also that when the message is received in power it effects a change so radical as to be called a new creation. But the message may be received without power, and apparently some have so received it, for they have a name to live and are dead. …
“By observing the ways of men at I have been able to understand better the ways of men at prayer. Most men, indeed play at religion as they play at games, religion itself being of all game the one most universally played. The various sports have their rules and their balls and their players; the game excites interest, gives pleasure, and consumes time, and when it is over the competing teams laugh and leave the field. It is common to see a player leave one team and join another and a few days later play against his old mates with as great zest as he formerly displayed when playing for them. The whole thing is arbitrary. It consists in solving artificial problems and attacking difficulties which have been deliberately created for the sake of the game. It has no moral roots and is not supposed to have. No one is the better for his self-imposed toil. It is all but a pleasant activity which changes nothing and settles nothing at last.
“If the condition we describe were confined to the ballpark we might pass it over without further thought, but what are we to say when this same spirit enters the sanctuary and decides the attitude of men toward God and religion? For the Church has also its fields and its rules and its equipment for playing the game of pious words. It has its devotees, both laymen and professionals, who support the game with their money and encourage it with their presence, but who are no different in life or character from many who take in religion no interest at all.
“As an athlete uses a ball, so do many of us use words: words spoken and words sung, words written and words uttered in prayer. We throw them swiftly across the field; we learn to handle them with dexterity and grace; we build reputations upon our word skill and gain as our reward the applause of those who have enjoyed the game. But the emptiness of it is apparent from the fact that after the pleasant religious game no one is basically any different from what he had been before. The bases of life remain unchanged, the same old principles govern, the same old Adam rules.”
- A. W. Tozer, God’s Pursuit of Man (emphasis the author’s)
1 Thessalonians 1:8 ‘church evangelism’: “After receiving the gospel, the Thessalonians brought it to others. It was Paul’s mission strategy to plant churches in the population centers and let these churches take the good news to the surrounding districts. From Thessalonica the word of the Lord ‘rang out’ (the Greek word exechetai denotes a loud ringing sound – giving us our word echo). That message was still being heard when Paul wrote. In fact it had gone beyond the border of Greece. Could it be that Aquilla and Priscilla had heard about the witness of the Thessalonians in Rome and told Paul about it? ‘Everywhere’ may be a hyperbolic expression (cf. Col. 1:6), or it may refer to all the places which Paul had traveled since leaving Thessalonica. Since rumors of the Thessalonian church and its witness had reached Corinth as well, Paul does not have to tell the Corinthians about the vibrant faith of these young Christians. It appears as if part of the message of the early missionary was a recounting of how the gospel had affected the lives of those who had embraced it.”
- Walter A. Elwell, editor, Baker Commentary on the Bible
1 Thessalonians 1:9-10 ‘conversions abound’: “In Thessalonica the conversions to the faith were remarkable. Paul came there without prestige, without friends, when he was in the lowest condition, for he had just been beaten and imprisoned at Philippi and had fled from the city. Yet it mattered not in what condition the ambassador might be. God, who works mighty things by weak instruments, blessed the word of his servant Paul.”
- Charles H. Spurgeon, from his sermon notes
1 Thessalonians 1:10 ‘proof and preview’: “For … any follower of Christ, the promise is simply this: The Resurrection of Jesus is proof and preview of our own.
“But can we trust the promise? Is the Resurrection a reality? Are the claims of the empty tomb true? This is not only a good question. It is the question. For as Paul wrote. ‘If Christ has not been raised, then your faith has nothing to it; you are still guilty of your sins (1 Corinthians 15:17). In other words, if Christ has been raised, then his followers will join him, but if not, then his followers are fools. The Resurrection, then, is the keystone in the arch of the Christian faith.”
- Max Lucado, When Christ Comes
Paul is writing this letter from Corinth, according to the experts, during his second missionary journey. It is thought that Silas and Timothy are with him, since they have been mentioned. It is thought that Galatians is the first epistle written by Paul and 1 Thessalonians is the second. He writes, as Stedman says above, to explain his quick departure and encourage the believers.
From Acts 16, we see that Paul, while starting a church in Philippi, stays with Lydia in Thyatira. As he and Silas walk past a demon-possessed woman. They cure the woman, but that causes the people who handled the woman’s trade (having the demon tell fortunes) to lose money. They start trouble for Paul and Silas. The two missionaries are flogged, imprisoned, and then God releases them from their bondage, but they do not leave, saving the jailor’s life, and having Jesus save the jailor and his family when they accept Jesus. Then in Acts 17, Paul goes to Thessalonica where they stay with Jason, but a mob is formed, assumed to be fomented by folks from Philippi. They capture Jason, hoping to find Paul. Some believers realized they were after Paul and helped him escape to Berea.
Odd, in Acts 17, it states that Berea accepted the Scripture better than did Thessalonica, but in this chapter, it is Thessalonica that is spreading the Word in the face of persecution. This has been common over the decades since that time. When times are hard, the church flourishes behind the scenes. When times are easy, with no resistance, there is always tomorrow. Complacency sets in. Thessalonica was not hospitable to Paul, yet those who did believe grew strong fast, spreading the Gospel. But we never seem to hear from Berea. People readily accepting the Word, but they had no persecution to light their fire. Besides the mention of Berea in Acts 17, the only other mention is one member of Paul’s evangelism team on the third journey was from there, and the Acts 20 reference to Sopater from Berea is the only reference to the person. It is uncomfortable, but we need resistance in order to grow.
But these evangelists in Thessalonica received both the Word and the power. The Tozer quote is one that I can identify with. I was a good kid, sitting on the church pew and then singing in the church choir. In the choir I had two jobs: Lead the blind bass singer into the choir loft and sing my tenor loud and strong so that the bass singer could find his note to harmonize with me. He knew the music, but he was more confident when he could use me to find his note and know that he had the words right (having pretty much memorized the hymnal, at least the songs we usually sung). I had also read the Bible from cover to cover more than a dozen times, the New Testament more often as a few translations were out only for the New Testament at the time. Yet, with all that Word stored within me, I did not have the power until Jesus convicted me of my sins and I accepted Him. And that was a hard nut to crack, since I could pretend to be a Christian quite well and no one knew the turmoil raging inside me. Until you surrender to God’s will, you will never have the power. Instead, you will be among either the living dead or the dead living. I will let God decide whether you are saved, but you are ineffective when you do not have the power.
I love A. W. Tozer’s metaphor of the religious ballgame. I may come back to that quote and have some fun with the metaphor. His point is eloquent. When the game is over, we have not had any significant change in our lives as a result. I can remember the last time that the Pittsburgh Steelers won the Super Bowl, but what have they done lately? I can remember the last time the Pittsburgh Penguins won the Stanley Cup, but they have lost the last two years in the first round. And other than a parade, is there any meaningful difference? I was glad that they won, but my life did not change. I did not even buy a T-shirt as a reminder.
And then Paul says that these people, the believers of Thessalonica, were imitators of Paul and Silas. Could this not be what is missing in our churches and in the evangelism fields? We are not showing God’s love so that others can imitate us. As some have coined the phrase “be a contagious Christian.” These Thessalonians became so overjoyed with Jesus in their hearts that they gladly accepted the persecution. God’s Love trumps the suffering.
I recently read a devotion in Voices of the Faithful with Beth Moore. The devotion, written by an unknown worker in China, talked about four questions, three common among new converts to Christianity, maybe asked when they are baptised. “(1) Do you believe in Jesus? (2) Has He forgiven your sins? (3) Do you promise to walk with Him always?” But the author added a fourth question, “When they come into our house and take us away, when they beat us and try to get us to deny Him, will you still follow Jesus?” The last question makes it real.
From that resistance that these people suffered, they grew stronger and spread the Word “everywhere.” The Baker Commentary may be correct that the news about the Thessalonian evangelists may have only gone as far as Corinth, but Paul said Macedonia, Achaia, and beyond. Thus, beyond present day Greece, far beyond Corinth. Corinth was a bustling port town with travelers from “everywhere.” If Paul had bumped into people from that beyond who claimed to have first heard of Jesus from Thessalonians, then the statement stands on solid merit.
I would tend to believe that. I find it suspect when a Bible Commentary throws doubt into people’s minds. At what point do we stop believing altogether once we start disbelieving one small insignificant phrase. I could agree if they argued “everywhere” was hyperbole since the Thessalonians had not circumnavigated the earth, but if Paul said beyond Macedonia and Achaia, then I believe that Paul had proof.
And the message that these witnesses to the evangelism of the Thessalonians have a beautiful way of describing salvation. They turned away from idols to the true God. They await the Son who came to earth, was killed, was resurrected, and who will save them from the coming wrath of God.
First, they gave up their idols, but we do not seem to be able to do so. We make idols out of movie stars and sports heroes. We make idols out of anything that we invest in. One of my favorite lines is to follow the money. Have you noticed people in poor neighborhoods that invest more in their television sets, including cable TV with hundreds of channels, and their automobiles than they do their home? If they did the math, some could afford a much better home, but television and a sweet ride are more important. Follow the money and you will find what is more important than God.
But the biggest idol is self-love.
And the last line is setting up the discussion of the Day of the Lord, later in the letter. Take heart. Jesus will rescue the faithful.
Some Serendipitous Reflections
“1. What kind of ‘model’ are you in matters of faith: Still on board? A work in progress? Secured in a private collection? On display at the National Museum?
“2. Which of the qualities in verse 3 do you most wish to see developed in your life now? How can the group help?”
- Lyman Coleman, et al, The NIV Serendipity Bible for Study Groups
The first question selects answers from barely having faith, progressively, to someone nearly fully sanctified. The second question’s part two talks of a group, but in the absence of a small group, you could ask that about your Sunday school class or your church.
If you like these Thursday morning Bible studies, but you think you missed a few, you can use this LINK. I have set up a page off the home page for links to these Thursday morning posts. I will continue to modify the page as I add more.
Soli Deo Gloria. Only to God be the Glory.