The book of 1 Thessalonians is one of the earliest of the New Testament books to be written. Its importance can not be understated. The brief epistle contains practical information regarding how to live out the Christian walk, and includes the first New Testament teaching on the RAPTURE. This is part one of a multi-part study in the incredible book we know as 1 Thessalonians.
The city of Thessalonica likely began as the village of Thermal, so named after its hot springs, but was established as a major trade center by Cassander, the King of Macedon, in 315 B. C. Cassander was one of Alexander the Great’s four key generals who succeeded him and took over his Empire after his unexpected death at age 33. Cassander named the city after his wife Thessalonike, who was the half-sister of Alexander the Great.
Located approximately a hundred miles west of Philippi, by 250 B.C. it was one of the four regional capitals in Macedonia—in Paul’s day, it was a bustling city of approximately 80,000 and the capital city in the Macedonia-Archia region. City residents were primarily Greek, Roman, and, due to persecution and occupation, Jews. The resilient city has survived war, earthquakes, and the occupation of several empires. Today the city is known as Saloniki; it has a population of approximately 75,000, about half of whom are Jews.
Paul wrote the books of first and second Thessalonians during his second missionary journey (when he was based for approximately 18 months in Corinth). The books are among the first Epistles that Paul wrote (only Galatians vies for an earlier writing). His mission work during this period is profiled in Acts 16-18. Paul was joined on this mission first by Silas, and later Timothy, who joined the team in Derby. Their intent was to minister in the southeast, but the Lord blocked their efforts.
Unsure of how to proceed, the men sought the Lord in prayer, and in the night, Paul had an incredible vision (widely known now as the Macedonian vision or call). In the vision, Paul saw a “man of Macedonia” begging them to turn to the west and minister there. Faithful to follow God’s leading, the team turned and traveled west—their first major stop was the bustling city of Philippi.
I have often thought about the expectations Paul may have had when the city of Philippi first came into view. A profound vision from God Almighty directed the team to turn and minister in the west—surely great things would be in store for them. Paul was aware of the fine reception that awaited Peter when he followed the Lord’s vision and traveled to a strange area (Caesarea) to minister to people he did not know. It would be reasonable to expect a similar blessing, but that was not what happened. There was no reception for them when they arrived, and no synagogue for Paul to preach in (synagogues often had times set aside where Jews could share what the Lord had placed on their heart). Possibly discouraged, Paul meandered to the river banks and found some women there. I do not condone this, but as a statement of fact, in the first- century Roman world women had limited rights, voice, and status. That Paul first spoke to a small gathering of women in Philippi is, from a first-century cultural point of view, a very humble beginning to a ministry prompted by a mighty vision of God. But God’s ways are not our ways, and God’s working and leading, especially early on, is seldom clear to humans.
One of the women of Philippi that Paul met was Lydia. In time she would open her home as a gathering place for believers, and she would become a key supporter of Barnabas when he came to the region. Lydia would also become instrumental in supporting the development of the New Testament Church in the western realm of the Empire. It was no accident that Paul was led to speak to a few women by the river—in the moment, Paul may have not been able to see it, but God was indeed at work. Isn’t it wonderful how God delights in using the small and unlikely (people and situations) to accomplish great things for His glory?
One day Paul exorcised a demon that tormented a young girl and sought to disrupt his ministry. Demonic spirits gave the girl unusual insight (divination), which was exploited by those to whom she was accountable. Furious that Paul disrupted their income stream, a mob was incited to seize Paul. He was beaten, arrested, and thrown into prison. Again, not an event most would expect to accompany faithfully following the Lord’s leading. If that happened today, many would question whether or not the person was ministering correctly, or faithfully, or correctly following the leading of the Spirit.
But again, we see that God had a plan. Being sent to prison was a divine appointment for Paul to minister to the “Philippian Jailer,” whom Paul led to the Lord, along with his family).
Leaving Philippi, Paul traveled to Thessalonica. With wounds still fresh, he found some with open hearts and “ministered to them out of his affliction,” teaching them daily for 3-4 weeks. While many Jews believed, others (Jews) stirred up trouble. Threatened, Paul left Thessalonica, stopping first in Berea (where he was again threatened), and then in Athens. Paul then established a base for ministry in Corinth, where he, Luke, Silas, and Timothy ministered for approximately eighteen months.
While in Corinth, Paul heard rumors that the Roman government was persecuting Christians in Thessalonica (previous to this, persecution of Christians primarily came at the hands of the Jews). The alarming news prompted Paul to send Timothy back to Thessalonica to encourage them and check on their welfare. Timothy returned to Paul with a glowing report—noting that the believers had grown in numbers and taken the Gospel message to the regions of Archia and Macedonia (an area of approximately 85,000 square miles).
SECTION 2—1 THESSALONIANS 1
In the New Testament, Barnabas is referred to as the encourager. However, though Paul’s messages could be stern and weighty, he knew how to balance his words of exhortation with words of encouragement. This is evident throughout his writings, but how nice to see it here—prominent in his early writings to the Gentile world.
Several months after leaving Thessalonica, Paul heard that the enemy had come in behind him to try to discourage new believers and destroy his work. Concerned, Paul sent Timothy to check on the fledgling church—he returned from the more than 700-mile round trip with a glowing report. Pleased that they were standing strong against growing oppression, Paul begins chapter one by sharing eight encouragements. In this Paul models how brothers and sisters in Christ should communicate and interact. Note the example Paul provides for believers today:
- Paul begins with a friendly greeting, extending “grace and peace” (V.1) to his readers. This greeting complemented the universal nature of the Gospel message. The greeting was designed to resonate with all people as peace was the principal word in the customary Hebrew greeting, and grace was the principal word in the customary Gentile greeting. The greeting also points to the blessings God extends. In half a sentence, the once powerful and lofty Pharisee emphasizes the common ground believers share in Christ, communicates his intent to encourage, and with warm words, invites his audience to continue reading. In an age when men of great learning or authority were accustomed to emphasizing their elevated position and barking orders, here Paul begins by emphasizing common ground—their faith in Christ, and humbly notes his desire to encourage their walk in the faith.
- Reflection question: Note several disarming and affirming ways to initiate a spiritual conversation.
- In verse 2, Paul notes that he and his team gave “…thanks to God always…” for them (V.2a). No matter who you are, it is a good feeling to know that you are remembered and thought of in high regard. It is good to know that someone is thinking about you, praying for you, and cares for you. As an incredible leader, missionary, Apostle, evangelist, and worker of miracles, Paul could have expected the tables be turned—he could have become angry that those in Thessalonica, who owed him so much, did not write to him—encouraged him—visited him. But here Paul takes the initiative. He led by sending Timothy back to the baby church to ensure they were well, and then took the initiative to write words laden with love and care. Certainly, the great teacher had much on his mind he wanted to communicate, but the wise Paul knew it best to lead with love and expressions of affirmation.
- Reflection question: List four things you see God doing in others—thank God for this and make a plan to encourage others by sharing your observations.
- In the last part of verse 2, Paul notes that he prays for his new friends and brothers and sisters in the faith (V.2b). Here, Paul expresses that he does for them the very best that he could do—pray. Never think of prayer as your last resort or the least you can do. Be like Paul and make prayer your priority move, knowing it is the best response to every situation. Pray with others. Pray for others. Embrace Paul’s admonition later in this book to pray without ceasing.
- Reflection question: How can you use prayer to strengthen your witness and relationships inside and outside the body of Christ?
- In verse 3, Paul writes that he remembers “without ceasing your work of faith.” Note that Paul does not mention that their work was perfect, or complete, or exceptional. Paul notes their great effort more than the great quality or scope of their work. Paul had discipled them for only four weeks. Paul had only departed from Thessalonica 4-6 months ago. Paul did not expect the Thessalonians to have built grand cathedrals, evangelize the empire’s entire western realm, or walk in perfect spiritual maturity. Surely Paul could have pointed out faults and shortcomings. He could have said, “I see you have done ‘A’ but what about ‘B?’ Here Paul’s words edify—they build up the spirit and the heart. They inspire and motive as Hebrews 10:24 notes, we are to “spur one another on toward love and good deeds.” Herein Paul also gently reminds believers that visible works evidence a vibrant faith. Believers are not saved by works, but their regenerated lives must bear the good fruit of righteous.
- Reflection question: Paul did not qualify his affirmation by highlighting what the Thessalonians had not yet accomplished, or were not yet doing; how does this impact your thinking regarding interacting and encouraging newer brothers and sisters in the faith?
- In the latter part of verse 3, Paul notes that he was mindful of, and appreciated, their “labour of love and patience…” (V. 3b). The NIV notes that their “labor” was “prompted by love” and their “endurance inspired by hope…” Paul knew that compliments are often more valuable than cash—and that spiritual recognition is often better than earthly reward. Rather than arranging for the brethren in Thessalonica to receive some kind of physical gift, he affirms their good work and acknowledges their work’s spiritual value by noting it is a “labour or love.” The new believers in Thessalonica may not have felt they were well positioned to do much—to accomplish anything noteworthy for the Lord, but here Paul encourages them by sharing that they, in their “love,” “patience,” and “endurance,” were honoring God and manifesting what he would later call the fruit of the Spirit.”
- Reflection question: Offering encouragement can be considered a ‘labour of love,’ but know that one finds encouragement as they encourage others. Note three ways you can make a special effort to encourage others this next week.
- In verse 6, Paul notes that the believers in Thessalonica, though oppressed, maintained an exemplary witness for the Lord, Paul writes that they were “imitators of us and of the Lord” Note that Paul was writing to baby Christians—not yet one year old in the faith, but when persecution fell upon these young believers at the hands of the Romans (a first for the Christian Church), they remained strong, and for this they were commended.
- Reflection question: It is fairly easy to be a positive witness for the Lord when times are good and the risk level is low. That was not the case for the Thessalonian believers, and it was not the case for Paul, Silas, Timothy, and Luke. Note two things a believer should do when encountering opposition or persecution as a guard against becoming discouraged or overwhelmed.
- In verse 7, Paul notes with great admiration how the new believers in Thessalonica were a witness to many—Paul notes their witness was felt in Macedonia and Achia—an area larger than the state of Washington. Just to review, Paul, with a few helpers, arrived in Thessalonica, unannounced, and found no welcoming committee, no church buildings and no believers in Christ. Paul and his team ministered there for four weeks, teaching daily, then left for Corinth. These new believers, emboldened by the “Great Commission” calling, immediately mobilized and set out to share the Gospel message not just to their friends, or in their city, but to two regions (Macedonia and Archia—an area larger than Washington State). Their boldness in the Lord is amazing, particularly in light of the fact that for the first time, Rome began to persecute Christians in earnest. Today, many may consider the Thessalonian believers to be an anomaly—radicals who had a special, perhaps unique mandate to change their world. However, Paul did not indicate they were unique or unusual—he just called them faithful.
The primary reason the work of the believers in Thessalonica is considered unusual or exceptional today, is that most today do not fully understand their calling in the faith. All believers are called reach people for Christ. All believers are to live for the Lord courageously and sacrificially. All believers are called to be willing to die for their faith (the word martyr, by the way, is directly tied to the Greek word for witness). The believers in Thessalonica were bold witnesses for the Lord not because they were exceptional but because it was (and is) expected of all followers of Christ.
- Reflection question: Note several ways believers today can be more intentional and assertive in being a witness for Christ. How does Paul’s admonition to expect the return of the Lord (the Rapture—see chapters 4-5) instill a sense of urgency?
- In verse 10, Paul inspires believers to persevere in the face of rising oppression. He does not encourage believers to run, or hide, or to be silent—only to rejoice in the truths that God has a plan, Jesus will return, and evil will not prevail. Paul’s encouraging phrase in verse 10, which promises “Jesus, which delivered us from the wrath to come,” may sound like a broken promise, for historians tell us that the Thessalonians, and later, Christians throughout the Roman empire suffered terribly under Christian-hating Caesars such as Nero, Vespasian, Domitian, Trajan, Hadrian and more. And some may believe that Paul is referencing the Rapture in verse ten—which critics could view as a statement offering little comfort to the Thessalonians, who would not live to see the glorious event profiled in chapter 4.
How then can one interpret verse 10 in an encouraging light? Verse 10 can have several applications, including the Rapture, but the primary truth in that verse goes far beyond being saved from 7 years of tribulation—it references being saved from eternal suffering—the eternal judgment and wrath awaiting those without faith in Jesus Christ.
- Reflection question: We tend to focus on the pain of the moment rather than the promises associated with our eternal future. Note four such promises and commit to recalling them when negative thoughts flood the mind.
 Acts 16
 Acts 16:9
 Acts 10:19-48
 Acts 16:25-36
 1 Thessalonians 2:1-6
 James 5:16
 1 Timothy 2:1
 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18
 Ephesians 2:8-10
 James 2:14-26
 Galatians 5:22-23
 1 Thessalonians 1:6 (NIV)
 Matthew 28:18-20
 1 Thessalonians 1:10b
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