1 Thessalonians 1:1-10
Thessalonica was (and still is) an important seaport about 185 miles (300 km) north of Athens. In Paul’s day, the region in which Thessalonica was located was known as Macedonia. Today, it is northern Greece. In return for its support of Augustus, the Romans made Thessalonica a free city in 43 B.C.
Paul, Silas, and Timothy visited Thessalonica on Paul’s Second Missionary Journey (NOTE: Silas is his name in the book of Acts, written by Luke. In Paul’s writings, he is known as Silvanus). Paul and Silas had been in Philippi, but were imprisoned there on the complaint of the owner of a slave girl from whom Paul had exorcised a demon. An earthquake freed them that night, but they remained in the jail until the following morning. Learning that they were Roman citizens, the magistrates apologized, freed them, and asked them to leave Philippi (Acts 16).
They then went to Thessalonica, where on three successive Sabbaths they attended the synagogue and presented their case for Jesus as the Messiah. They made a number of converts, primarily among devout Greeks (Acts 17:4)—Gentiles sympathetic to Judaism, but who had not yet become full-fledged Jewish proselytes.
Jewish leaders, unhappy about these conversions, complained to the authorities that Paul and Silas were claiming that there was a king named Jesus (Acts 17:7). As a result of the ensuing conflict, Paul and Silas left for Berea (Acts 17:10). Jewish leaders from Thessalonica followed them to Berea, “agitating the multitudes” (Acts 17:13). Silas and Timothy stayed temporarily in Berea, while Paul went to Athens (Acts 17:14). Paul sent word to Silas and Timothy to rejoin him, which they did (Acts 17:15).
Paul then went to Corinth, where he stayed for a considerable time (Acts 18). Silas and Timothy rejoined him there (Acts 18:5). It was there, after opposition by Jewish leaders, that Paul said, “Your blood be on your own heads! I am clean. From now on, I will go to the Gentiles!” (Acts 18:6).
Paul sent Timothy to assist the church at Thessalonica (1 Thessalonians 3:2). Timothy brought back a good report (3:6ff.), but expressed concern about their understanding of the status of “those who have fallen asleep in Jesus” (1 Thessalonians 4:14).
• Paul assures the Thessalonian Christians that “the dead in Christ will rise first” when Jesus comes again (1 Thessalonians 4:16).
• He reminds them that “the day of the Lord (will come) like a thief in the night” (5:2)—and that the unrepentant will find no escape (5:3).
• He reminds them also that they are “children of light” (5:5), which assures their salvation (5:8-9).
• He encourages them to “build each other up” (5:11)—and “to respect and honor” “those who are over you in the Lord” (5:12-13)—”to admonish the disorderly”…and to “be patient toward all” (5:14).
• He says, “Rejoice always. Pray without ceasing. In everything give thanks” (5:16-18).
• He tells them to “test all things” (5:21) and to “abstain from every form of evil” (5:22).
1 THESSALONIANS 1:1. FROM PAUL, SILVANUS, AND TIMOTHY
1 Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy, to the assembly of the Thessalonians in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
“Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy“ (v. 1a). Given this introduction and the fact that the first person plural is so often used in this letter (such as 1:2 “We always give thanks…. our prayers” etc.), scholars believe that Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy collaborated on this letter, with Paul as the lead author. They probably wrote it in 49 or 50 A.D.
• Paul, of course, is an apostle. He was Saul, a Jewish Pharisee and persecutor of the church, until his vision of the risen Christ on the road to Damascus (Acts 9). Following that experience, he took a new name—and a new identity as an apostle to the Gentiles.
• Silvanus is the Latin form for Silas. Luke consistently uses Silas in the book of Acts (Acts 15:22, 27, 32, 40; 16:19, 25, 29; 17:1, 4-5, 10, 14-15; 18:5). Paul consistently uses Silvanus (2 Corinthians 1:19; 1 Thessalonians 1:1; 2 Thessalonians 1:1). Silas/Silvanus was a key leader in the Jerusalem church whom Paul chose to accompany him on his Second Missionary Journey (Acts 15:40).
• Timothy was a young believer when Paul first encountered him in Lystra. Paul’s mother, Eunice, and his grandmother, Lois, were both believers (2 Timothy 1:5). Paul asked Timothy to accompany him on his Second Missionary Journey (Acts 16:1-3). Elsewhere, Paul refers to Timothy as “my beloved and faithful child in the Lord” (1 Corinthians 4:17 WEB) and “my true child in faith,” (1 Timothy 1:2).
“to the assembly (Greek: ekklesia) of the Thessalonians“ (v. 1b). The Greek word ekklesia(assembly or church) is comprised of two words, ek (out) and kalein (to call)—so it means “to call out.” The Septuagint (the Greek version of the Old Testament) uses the word ekklesia to translate the Hebrew word qahal, which is used to mean the congregation of Israel—the chosen people of God.
We usually use the word “church” to translate ekklesia, although the World English Bible, which I am using in this exegesis, uses the word “assembly.”
When this letter speaks of “the ekklesia (church) of the Thessalonians,” it means the Christian community in Thessalonica. That is quite different from the way we so often use the word “church” today. We talk about churches with steeples—equating the word church with a building. However, the building is not the church. The building is only the place where the church meets. The church is the assembled Christian believers.
“in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ“ (v. 1b). Paul more often says “in Christ” (1 Corinthians 15:22; 2 Corinthians 5:19) or “in Christ Jesus” (Romans 6:11; 1 Corinthians 1:2; Galatians 3:28; 1 Timothy 1:14). Being “in Christ” involves an all-encompassing relationship with Christ Jesus—a relationship that has saving power. The addition of “God the Father” broadens the vision.
“Grace (Greek: charis) to you and peace (Greek: eirene) from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ“ (v. 1d). This is a blessing that Paul often confers in his salutations (Romans 1:7; 1 Corinthians 1:3; 2 Corinthians 1:2; Galatians 1:3; Philippians 1:2; Colossians 1:2; 2 Thessalonians 1:2; 1 Timothy 1:2; 2 Timothy 1:2; Titus 1:4; Philemon 1:3)
• Grace (charis) involves the giving and receiving of something that has the potential to bless both giver and receiver. The classic definition of grace is “the free gift of salvation through Jesus Christ.” However, grace can take many forms. When used in the salutation of a letter, as it is here, I would imagine that Paul would intend charis to embrace those many forms.
• Peace (Greek: eirene) has its roots in the Hebrew word shalom—which speaks of an inner kind of peace—the kind of well-being that is derived from a deep relationship with God.
1 THESSALONIANS 1:2-3. WE GIVE THANKS FOR ALL OF YOU
2 We always give thanks to God for all of you, mentioning you in our prayers, 3remembering without ceasing your work of faith and labor of love and patience of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ, before our God and Father.
“We always give thanks to God for all of you, mentioning you in our prayers“ (v. 2). It has not been long since Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy founded the church in Thessalonica (2:17; see Acts 17), so their memories of the Thessalonian Christians are fresh. The Thessalonian church includes some who are misbehaving (Greek: ataktos—disorderly or unruly), and Paul encourages the church to admonish them (5:14)—but he includes everyone in his thanksgiving and prayers—even those unruly ones (see also 2:13; 3:9-10). Pastors today would do well to emulate that—to include everyone, even the unruly ones, in their thanksgiving and prayers.
“remembering without ceasing your work of faith and labor of love and patience of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ, before our God and Father“ (v. 3 WEB). Being in any sort of ministry brings with it a number of frustrations, but those are offset in substantial measure when the pastor sees a young person grow up to be a person of deep faith—or a person turning from a destructive course to a redemptive faith—or when the pastor just reminisces about the day-by-day acting out of faith by ordinary members of the congregation.
That’s what is happening here. Timothy has visited Thessalonica to check on the Christians there, and has brought back a good report (3:6ff). That has caused Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy to remember some of the positive things that they have seen in these Thessalonian Christians:
• “your work of faith” (Greek: ergou pisteos). This isn’t works-righteousness—works that produce salvation. It is rather the outpouring of faithful service that is the natural product of faith.
• “and labor of love” (Greek: tou kopou agapes). The word kopou (labor) suggests intensity. However, hard work doesn’t seem onerous when it is done out of agape love. Agape is love that seeks the welfare of the other person, and that’s the kind of love that serves willingly—gladly—with joy.
• “and patience of hope” (Greek: tes hupomons elpidos). The Greek word hupomons (patience) is related to the word for perseverance. It is the kind of patience that “keeps on keeping on” in the face of difficult circumstances.
The hope that has inspired persistent patience is “hope in our Lord Jesus Christ, before our God and Father.” This is the hope of salvation, made possible through the death and resurrection of “our Lord Jesus Christ” by the grace of “our God and Father.”
1 THESSALONIANS 1:4-5. GOOD NEWS CAME TO YOU IN POWER
4 We know, brothers loved by God, that you are chosen, 5 and that our Good News came to you not in word only, but also in power, and in the Holy Spirit, and with much assurance. You know what kind of men we showed ourselves to be among you for your sake.
“We know, brothers loved (Greek: agapao) by God, that you are chosen“ (Greek: ekloge) (v. 4). This verse assures the Thessalonian Christians that they are:
• Beloved (agapao) by God. The Greek word agapao indicates a joyful kind of love—the kind of love that takes delight in the beloved. It is the kind of love/joy that a mother might find in her newborn baby. It is the kind of love/joy that an artist might find in a work of art that turned out just as the artist had envisioned it. That is the kind of love/joy that God experiences when looking at those whom he has created and chosen.
• Chosen (ekloge) by God. The Greek word ekloge is closely related to eklektos. Both words indicate being chosen or elected by God for a special purpose. In the first instance of election, God chose to enter into a covenant relationship with Abram (Genesis 12:1-3)—a covenant relationship later extended to the nation of Israel. The idea of election continues in the New Testament (John 15:16; 17:6; Ephesians 1:4; 2:10; 2 Thessalonians 2:13), where God chooses certain people to be his people, to do his work, and to enjoy the blessings of salvation.
This doctrine of election might offend modern sensibilities, which resist the idea that some might be excluded from God’s kingdom. However, I like the way that Charles Spurgeon dealt with it. He prayed, “Lord, save all the elect, and then elect some more.”
“and that our Good News (Greek: euangelion) came to you not in word only, but also in power, and in the Holy Spirit, and with much assurance“ (Greek: plerophoria) (v. 5a WEB). The Greek word euangelion combines the words eu (good) and angelos (angel or messenger) and means “good news”—the Good News of a salvation made possible by the grace of God—by the gift of his Son on the cross. Euagellion is often translated “Gospel”—a word that comes from the Old English “god spel,” which means “good news.”
In the New Testament, euangelion is used for the proclamation of the Good News of Jesus Christ. Paul uses some form of that word nearly fifty times, using it to incorporate the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Good news is typically transmitted by words—spoken or written. However, it is one thing to hear good news, but another to experience it personally. Therefore the Good News to which these Christians have responded has also come to them in power and in the Holy Spirit. They originally saw this power manifested in the preaching of Paul and his colleagues—possibly accompanied by signs and wonders. They then experienced it personally as the Holy Spirit guided and empowered them.
“with much assurance“ (plerophoria). The Greek word plerophoria conveys the idea of certainty—assurance—conviction—confidence. The Holy Spirit has conveyed the Good News of salvation through Christ to these Thessalonian Christians in such a way that they could feel certain of the ground on which they stood.
“You know what kind of men we showed ourselves to be among you for your sake” (v. 5b). Paul and his colleagues had preached an authentic word in Thessalonica—a reliable word. They had been intent on pleasing God rather than the people to whom they were preaching (2:4). They used no words of flattery to manipulate their hearers (2:5). They sought no human-dispensed glory (2:6). They worked to support themselves so that they might not impose a financial burden on the people to whom they were preaching (2:9). The Thessalonian Christians had seen this. They had experienced the integrity of Paul and his colleagues—their unselfishness—their agape love. All of those things contributed to their confidence that Paul and his colleagues were telling the truth—that they were serving God rather than promoting some sort of private agenda.
1 THESSALONIANS 1:6-7. YOU BECAME AN EXAMPLE
6 You became imitators of us, and of the Lord, having received the word in much affliction, with joy of the Holy Spirit, 7 so that you became an example to all who believe in Macedonia and in Achaia.
“You became imitators of us, and of the Lord, having received the word in much affliction“ (v. 6a). Having seen the authenticity of Paul and his colleagues (see the comments above on v. 5), the new Christians in Thessalonica responded by imitating them. As they did so, they were also imitating the Lord. The Thessalonian Christians had suffered just as Christ had suffered—and just as Paul and his colleagues had suffered in the furtherance of their preaching ministry.
In the next chapter, Paul will mention how he and his colleagues suffered and were shamefully treated in Philippi (2:2). The book of Acts includes a number of accounts of Paul’s suffering in the service of Christ (Acts 9:28-29; 13:50; 14:4, 19; 16:22-24; 21:30-36; 22:22-25; 23:1-10). In his second letter to the Corinthian church, Paul gave a summary statement of his sufferings in Christ’s service. He was imprisoned, beaten, stoned, and shipwrecked. He endured perils of rivers and robbers—perils from Jews and Gentiles—perils in cities, in the wilderness, and at sea. He was frequently hungry and thirsty—cold—even naked. Above and beyond all that, he experienced daily anxiety for the fledgling churches he had founded (2 Corinthians 11:23-28).
“with joy of the Holy Spirit“ (v. 6b). These Thessalonian Christians experienced joy in spite of their troubles. Before they had known Christ, they could look forward only to an uncertain future. Now they live in the assurance that the Holy Spirit—God’s Spirit—dwells in them, guiding and strengthening them. Furthermore, they live in the conviction that Christ’s death and resurrection have guaranteed their own salvation. Those things make it possible for them to be joyful in the midst of lives that are often difficult (see also 5:16—”Rejoice always!”).
“so that you became an example (Greek: typos) to all who believe in Macedonia and in Achaia“ (v. 7 WEB). Greeks used the word typos to refer to the mark or impression made by striking something with a patterned image. As a tentmaker, Paul would have worked primarily with leather—and leather lends itself to stamped images. However, a stamped image would need to be clear and accurate to be of value.
Paul tells the Thessalonian Christians that they have provided a faithful example (typos)—a witness with far-reaching impact.
Macedonia was the northern region and Achaia the southern region of the area that we know today as Greece. Paul is telling these Thessalonian Christians that their suffering for Christ—and their joy in Christ—has made them powerful witnesses throughout that part of the world—north to south—border to border.
A life well-lived is a sermon well-preached—a truth not limited to the Judeo-Christian tradition. The Roman philosopher, Seneca—contemporaneous with Paul and his colleagues—said, “We reform others unconsciously when we walk upright.” So we do!
We usually think of witnessing as something that we do for the benefit of unbelievers. It is, indeed, a wonderful thing to see the light of faith begin to shine in the heart of someone who has heretofore lived in darkness. It is especially wonderful to know that our witness helped to make that possible. But in this verse, Paul tells these Thessalonian Christians that they have become “an example to all who believe.” In other words, the Thessalonian example has been a special blessing to those who have already embraced Christ. Why would that be important? Why would someone who already believes in Christ need to see the faithful example of another believer?
The Gospel of Mark tells a lovely story of a father who brought his demon-possessed son to Jesus. When the father asked Jesus to heal his son, Jesus said, “If you can believe, all things are possible to him who believes.” The father responded, “I believe. Help my unbelief!” (Mark 9:23-24). That father’s response is a prayer that all of us would do well to memorize—and to pray. “I believe. Help my unbelief!”
Many people believe, but none believes perfectly. Our faith-journey sometimes feels as if we are walking a tightrope—and in a sense we are. We are buffeted by forces that threaten to throw us off-balance. The stronger our faith, the more determined is the tempter to unseat us. Therefore, we always need help, and the community of believers (the church) is one of the best places to find that help. When we fellowship with other believers, their faith strengthens ours—and our faith strengthens theirs.
When my wife and I visit the big city, we worship at a large, vital church that our son discovered when going to college there. That church includes personal testimonies in their worship services, a tradition less popular today than in earlier times. They structure those testimonies pretty tightly. Shortly before the sermon, one of the ministers interviews a member of the congregation who has agreed to give his or her testimony. Sometimes the testimony involves a husband and wife with babes in arms or children standing alongside—a particularly charming touch. The questions and answers have been practiced beforehand, giving the testimony a bit of a contrived flavor. Nevertheless, those testimonies are compelling. The congregation collectively holds its breath, listening intently to every word. It would be appropriate to tell the person or persons offering their testimony, “you (have) become an example to all who believe.”
1 THESSALONIANS 1:8. FROM YOU THE WORD OF THE LORD HAS BEEN DECLARED
8 For from you the word of the Lord has been declared, not only in Macedonia and Achaia, but also in every place your faith toward God has gone out; so that we need not to say anything.
“For from you the word of the Lord (Greek: tou kuriou) has been declared, not only in Macedonia and Achaia, but also in every place your faith toward God has gone out“ (v. 8a). “The word of the Lord” could mean “the word of God the Father” or “the word of Christ” or both. In the New Testament, it most often appears to mean “the word of Christ”—but the ambiguity may be intentional.
These Thessalonians have not only received the word of the Lord, but have also declared it—preached it—disseminated it. As noted above, their faithful witness has spread widely—from Macedonia to Achaia—from north to south—and to every place where the witness of their faith has touched.
We need to hear this, because we are always tempted to think that our personal witness or that of our small congregation has little potential. However, those Thessalonian Christians were few in number. They weren’t accustomed to traveling far and wide. They could not use radio, television, the Internet, cell phones, etc. to spread the word. Nevertheless, they somehow declared the word of the Lord in such a way that it made a positive impact far and wide—on whomever their witness touched.
“so that we need not to say anything“ (v. 8b). This is hyperbole—exaggeration for effect—overstatement to make a point. Paul and his colleagues are busily preaching and writing on an ongoing basis, and they know the value of their words (Romans 10:15-17). But they also know the importance of encouraging the faithful Christians in Thessalonica to continue being faithful, so they include this bit of over-the-top praise.
1 THESSALONIANS 1:9-10. YOU TURNED FROM IDOLS TO A LIVING GOD
9 For they themselves report concerning us what kind of a reception we had from you; and how you turned to God from idols, to serve a living and true God, 10 and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead—Jesus, who delivers us from the wrath to come.
“For they themselves report concerning us what kind of a reception we had from you“ (v. 9a). Who are “they”? They would be those from Macedonia, Achaia, and elsewhere who have been positively influenced by the example of the Thessalonian Christians.
Those people have told Paul and his colleagues that they have heard good reports about the reception that the Thessalonian Christians accorded them. That was true of devout Greeks (Acts 17:4)—Gentiles sympathetic to Judaism, but who had not yet become full-fledged Jewish proselytes. It was not true of Jewish leaders who became upset when these devout Greeks became followers of Jesus (Acts 17:7-10). Those leaders even followed Paul and his colleagues to Berea, where they agitated the people (Acts 17:13).
But Timothy has visited Thessalonica again, and his report tells us that that the Christians there continued to enjoy strong faith in Christ and an abiding relationship with Paul and his colleagues.
“and how you turned to God from idols, to serve a living and true God“ (v. 9b). This is key! The Thessalonian Christians had turned from the worship of idols—inanimate, dead idols—to the worship of the living God. They had moved from the worship of that which is counterfeit to that which is real. People had noticed the difference in their lives, and were favorably impressed. The proclamation of the Gospel was enhanced by their witness.
“and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom (the true God) raised from the dead—Jesus, who delivers us from the wrath to come“ (v. 10). The early Christian community eagerly awaited Christ’s Second Coming. Paul had obviously included this emphasis in his earlier preaching in Thessalonica, and he will emphasize it again in this letter (5:2-6).
The fact that God raised Jesus from the dead authenticated his status as Son of God. Later, it also authenticated the proclamation of the apostles.
It was appropriate for these Christians to look forward to Christ’s Second Coming, because Paul had assured them that Christ would deliver them from the wrath to come. They would not suffer the judgment that the wicked would experience at the end of time.
SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible. The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensa Old Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament. The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated.
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Copyright 2014, Richard Niell Donovan